Will Congress apologize to the Kashmiri Pandits?

Hope for peace in the Himalayas

On the old road between Srinagar in India and Muzzafarabad in Pakistan, which has not been used since 1948, a bus connection is soon to be opened if the parties agree on the travel documents: India wants the control line to be recognized as an international border, for which visas would then be required Pakistan, on the other hand, wants to incorporate the Kashmir Valley as much as possible into its territory and prefers a simple certificate issued by the local authorities.

Indeed, it would be a miracle if the current negotiation process between the two conflicting parties resulted in the people of the divided country being able to visit each other and trade being revived. This could defuse one of the most dangerous conflicts in the world between two nuclear powers that have already waged three wars against each other. The prospects for this have never been as promising as it is today.

As encouraging as the situation at the external borders appears, little has changed in the civil war-like situation within the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir itself. Everyday violence has decreased only marginally since the uprising of young Kashmiris against the Indian security forces that began 15 years ago.

Like the Israelis in Palestine, the Indian army is perceived by the population as a foreign occupying power; conversely, the soldiers, who usually speak a different language, see every male Kashmiri between the ages of 15 and 40 as a potential assassin. News from any day this summer:

One civilian was killed and 30 others, including a border police officer, were injured in a grenade explosion in Baramulla. Elsewhere, four civilians, three special police officers and three guerrillas were killed in various violent clashes in the country.

The Kashmiris are trapped between the guns of the two sides. The solution is not just on one side, I mean the police and security forces on the one hand and the insurgents on the other. It's the civilians who stand in the crossfire in between. We need to see that most of the young people in the neighborhood who have rifles actually want to go home if given an honorable way back.

That is why the dialogue process is taking place that gives us Kashmiris the feeling that we do not have to surrender for peace. There has been a full truce on the borders and the people are so happy about it. There is less atrocity by the security forces and special police. The people as a whole want peace.

Anything that facilitates this peace process is advocated. Who is supporting the armed insurrection? It's the local people. They should therefore get the message that politics is helping them. Everyone is tired of the violence of arms, they are fed up with it. They want to see tourists, they want prosperity and economic development.

For example, the leader of the ruling Jammu & Kashmir party, Mehbooba Mufti, a courageous young lawyer, mother of two daughters, who went into politics when Islamic fundamentalists threatened women if they did not disguise themselves in a burqa that wraps their entire body. Like many other women, she opposed dress codes that were previously unusual in Kashmir and introduced a new style of "healing" politics. Mehbooba Mufti condemned the human rights violations of the security forces and took care of the families of the victims: the widows with their children and the orphans.

During the election campaign for the Indian parliament in the spring, she narrowly escaped bomb attacks on herself and her companions three times, but shortly afterwards she appeared again in public. Anyone doing politics in this country is used to it, she comments coolly. The government has now made an offer to the fighters, if they surrender their weapons, to pay them money for their reintegration for three years and then to help them build a new existence.

The struggle for independence in Kashmir has already cost around 90,000 deaths, say humanitarian organizations. In addition, at least as many injured people, thousands of raped women, missing men and orphans, and 270,000 displaced Hindus.

The reason for this lies in the decision of the former Maharaja of Kashmir, who was a Hindu, to join his predominantly Muslim country in 1947/48 with the religious division of British India into Muslim Pakistan and secular, predominantly Hindu India to the Indian Union .

This decision and the incursion of Muslim tribes into the Kashmir Valley sparked the first war between India and Pakistan. Contrary to a UN resolution calling for the population to vote on where they want to live, the Indians did not respect the relative autonomy they once granted in Kashmir. Pakistan also tried twice in vain to forcibly annex the province. The last of these wars took place in 1999 on the snow-covered Himalayas at an altitude of 5000 meters.

The less the Kashmiris were able to make use of their democratic rights, the more the people alienated themselves from the Indian central government. The respected Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah, for example, disappeared behind bars for insubordination for 20 years. When the national elections were obviously falsified in 1989, young Kashmiris tried to use armed force to fight for their right to self-determination.

Syed Shabbir Shah was one of them. "Freedom is our birthright" is written above the entrance to the office of his party, which he founded in Indian prisons after his release from 22 years' imprisonment, including 20 years without trial. Today he has renounced violence and tried to unite the different wings of the separatists. He apologizes for not speaking enough English because of the long detention. When asked about his political identity, he replies:

Because this country is my home, I am a Kashmiri first. India is not accepted by the Kashmiris. That is a controversial question. We live in Kashmir, which is occupied by the Indians. Just as India was once ruled by the British, the Indians now rule over us Kashmiris. But we are not against dialogue.

First, however, the situation in our country must be changed, it is not suitable for dialogue. People are tortured and killed in custody and the worst atrocities perpetrated by the Indian army and police. First of all, the atmosphere must be improved so that people can freely participate in politics. We are democrats, how can we refuse a democratic process?

However, his party and the other separatist organizations did not take part in the elections to the Indian parliament, they are either for affiliation with Pakistan or for an independent state of Kashmir, which should also include the Pakistani-administered part. Switzerland in the Himalayas is how this nationalist dream is often described. But everyone knows that neither India nor Pakistan will ever meet it, because the part of Kashmir under them has been declared a national core.

The third and most likely possibility for greater self-determination would be extensive autonomy while maintaining the areas of defense, foreign policy and means of communication in the Indian Union as it existed until 1953. Formally it is still contained in the Indian constitution as Article 370, but in fact it is repealed by a large number of regulations and laws. With the exception of welfare measures, social security, culture and Muslim private law, Kashmir is fully integrated into the Indian Union.

In addition to far-reaching autonomy, a large part of the 500,000 Indian security forces would have to be withdrawn and the infiltration of fighters trained and armed in Pakistan stopped. If, at the same time, the ceasefire line were demilitarized on both sides and a small border traffic of people and goods opened, the divided families could visit each other, markets could arise and deep-seated mutual prejudices between the hostile fraternal peoples could be broken down.

There is still a long way to go before then. Today in Kashmir there is a heated argument about who really represents the people if they should actually get a voice in the negotiations between India and Pakistan. Professor Abdul Ghani Bhat, participated in the first round of negotiations with the Indian government earlier this year:

The people who represent the Kashmiris are members of the political forum "All Parties Hurriyat Conference", in which all parties have come together in a kind of umbrella organization. The forum rightly claims to give expression to the feeling that is deeply rooted in the souls of the people of Kashmir. We represent the shed blood of our youth, the ashes of our homes, the lost honor of our mothers and sisters.

We represent national sentiment, the prime minister, and the other parties represent power interests. An extremely important process is currently taking place on the subcontinent: India and Pakistan are talking to each other. That in itself is a miracle. We cannot stay away from this process, which will ultimately not only lead to the solution of the conflict between India and Pakistan, but also to the restoration of a lasting peace between the nuclear powers in South Asia.

Abdul Ghani Bhat speaks here only for the moderate part of the umbrella organization of the separatists, the more radical faction has refused to negotiate with the Indian government, is talking to the Pakistani government and advocating affiliation with Pakistan. The elected ruling party of Mehbooba Mufti claims to speak for the Kashmiris with the same justification in alliance with the Congress Party, which has been ruling New Delhi again since the spring.

Another important voice is the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, which initiated the uprising against India and has since distanced itself from the armed struggle. And not to forget the units of several thousand men of independence fighters from the Kashmir valley and Islamist mujahideen from Pakistan, who practice their terror on behalf of the salvation of the Muslims. In the beginning these young men could count on broad support from the population, today they are also feared because they not only attack the Indian security forces, but also break into houses at night and demand food, accommodation and often girls or recruit young people.

Pakistan has scaled back the training, armament and financing of these groups, some of which also work with Al Qaeda, but has not yet completely stopped because of their potential for pressure on India. There is currently no conclusive answer to the question of who could represent the 10 million Kashmiris in the ongoing negotiations.

The armed struggle for freedom and the suppression of the uprising by the security forces comes at a high price: the huge cemeteries of the so-called martyrs and the destroyed society of Kashmir speak a clear language. A whole generation grew up with this everyday violence. The family of a carpet maker with six daughters and a son who works as a tourist guide reports of their suffering. His sisters sit on the floor in a room and make embroidery for tablecloths and dresses. Sixteen-year-old Foxiza is attending high school and will later be the first in the family to go to college. She tells what happened to her uncle, her brother translates:

He's our uncle, he was killed by the Indian army. They thought he was a rebel, but he wasn't a fighter, he was a bricklayer, he was building a house. He was killed right before our eyes. They threw grenades into the house from the outside, but first they let us out, then they threw the grenades into the house and three people were killed, right in front of us. I was still very young, it was a big shock back then.

Her brother Gulzar had to drop out of school at the age of twelve in order to earn money by doing small jobs for tourists. If there is peace, he is dying to go to college. Srinagar, once a flourishing town at the foot of the picturesque Dal Lake, which is an attraction with its carved wooden houseboats, was once considered a paradise in the Himalayas.

Today the place with numerous army bases and armored vehicles looks more like a besieged city, although it has got better, as the residents report. Syed Gowhar Hussain's office has deliberately kept its entrance a bit hidden, no sign indicates the well-known Islamic aid organization. The social worker finally wants peace:

We want a long lasting peace, not two years, but ten years of peace. Parents who send their children to school want them to get home safely. Education has suffered a lot, as has the economy. The young people who were born in the last 15 years have experienced violence since childhood, they cannot go to school camps or go trekking in the mountains. They want to go to the sports field, have entertainment. All Kashmiri parents are concerned about their children's futures.
In almost every family, in 90 percent of families, there is a victim, someone is injured, someone has been killed, someone has disappeared. Every family has experienced such tragedies in these 15 years.

Nevertheless, Syed Gowhar Hussain defends the struggle for self-determination and wants a Swiss solution. Germans are often asked that they too had overcome the Berlin Wall. Why couldn't the borders in this part of the world become more porous? The European Union, as an economically successful alliance of culturally diverse states that have fought bitterly for a long time, is seen by many as a role model.

But in addition to the internal violence, another problem has to be solved: The return of the almost 300,000 Hindu Kashmiri Pandits displaced in the early 1990s:

We have lived outside of Kashmir for a decade and a half. We are refugees in our own country. We published the Samachar Post, the only English daily newspaper at the time. We were pro-Indian and criticized Pakistan's role in fueling violence in the valley. We were threatened by the fighters. They came into our office with a rifle under their coat and forced us to announce in the newspaper if a strike was planned for the following day in the valley.

If we said no, they threatened to shoot us, so we had to publish the story. Finally, when people were being killed, we had to leave the valley. Around 2,000 people were killed in 1989/90. The next day we took our hand luggage and flew to Delhi, the cars, all of our belongings were left in the valley.

One night the mosques played tapes telling the Hindus to go away and leave their wives and daughters here. 'Leave Cashmere! This is our last call! ' Everyone was terribly frightened, most of them left the place. Then the Hindu exodus began. My family went to Jammu. They had to leave everything behind and came empty-handed. They had to run for their lives and then live with relatives for a year.

So Sushil Kaul Vakil and his wife Sunita, who are publishing their newspaper again today in Delhi. Others who were once wealthy in the Kashmir Valley still live in slums in the capital or in the predominantly Hindu city of Jammu south of the Himalayas. Others have sought their fortune in Indian cities or abroad. In the meantime, all politicians in Kashmir are officially in favor of the return of their compatriots, but still cannot guarantee their safety, so that only a few dare to return.

The negotiations between the delegations of India and Pakistan on the fate of Kashmir have suffered a setback after the change of government in India. When the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers met recently, disappointment spread in Kashmir in the face of the lack of concrete results: "This is just diplomatic sleight of hand, as they always do, under pressure from outside," a prominent clergyman is quoted as saying.

India's newly elected Prime Minister Manmohan Singh insists on implementing Pakistan's pledge to stop supporting the infiltration of fighters across the ceasefire line, while Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf contradicts India's claims that Kashmir is an integral part of the Indian Union. In a week's time, the two heads of government will meet in person for the first time on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. Perhaps they will succeed in at least agreeing on a cross-border bus connection in Kashmir, which has been divided for 57 years.