Is there a way forward for Kashmiris or are we doomed to remain in a state of anxiety, uncertainty, fear and hopelessness?
I write today not as a politician but as a concerned Kashmiri. It is time for us to speak freely about how the current crisis in Kashmir may evolve and what the future holds for our next generation. Only by accepting the tight embrace of our harsh reality will we begin to find ways to end our suffocation. It is in this spirit that I share my views with you.
There will be no azadi in Kashmir on September 29 when the current separatist protest calendar ends and perhaps a new one begins. In the short-term, it is unlikely that autonomy or self-rule will come up for serious discussions. India and Pakistan will not be friendly neighbours for the foreseeable future. While no one can doubt the misery the common Kashmiri has faced in the last three months or in the last three decades, change in the status quo is not on the horizon. In fact, the most likely scenario is for more of the same. The current crisis will likely end in a stalemate of sorts. People will begin picking up the pieces of their shattered lives. Families who have lost loved ones will be left grieving. Those injured will live on to fight another day. Those blinded will dream dark dreams. A fragile peace will take hold until, of course, a new spark reignites Kashmir. As in the past, the cycle will be repeated. I do not mean to be provocative or pessimistic. I simply want to help move the conversation to the inevitable question: What next? Is there a way forward for Kashmiris or are we doomed to remain in a state of anxiety, uncertainty, fear and hopelessness?
I feel strongly that we need to have an adult conversation in Kashmir. We need to have a conversation that is based on realism because lives are at stake. The future of our next generation is at stake. Since the current conflict began in 1989, we Kashmiris have lost blood and treasure not only in the form of those who died but also in the form of a surviving population that has suffered immensely from loss of peace of mind, of dignity, of hope. A survivalist mentality has taken hold and forced on us many social ills that are typical of conflict zones. Let me share what I wrote recently about the scale of violence in Kashmir since 1989.
According to official estimates, since 1989, about 44,000 people have been killed in Kashmir. Thirty-five percent are civilians, according to these figures. Unofficial estimates of killings are much higher. For context, the death toll in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the 1987 intifada is about 10,000. Since 2001, the Afghanistan war has cost about 100,000 lives. When you take into account that Afghanistan is four times as populous as Kashmir and that the world’s only superpower was engaged in a war there, you begin to understand that our children have grown up in a war zone that is comparable to some of the deadliest parts of the world. Thousands more must have been injured. In only the last 75 days, about 12000 Kashmiris were injured. Thousands of Kashmiris have disappeared and thousands of unmarked graves were discovered. A recent mental health survey by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) revealed that 40 percent of Kashmiri adults are living with symptoms of depression and 20 percent suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We must face up to this harsh reality. Those Kashmiri children who grew up in the valley in the 1990s and 2000s face a very uphill battle in life. If the Kashmir issue is resolved to the satisfaction of all stakeholders today, it will still take at least a generation to unwind the losses suffered by Kashmiri society in the last thirty years. That is what young Kashmiris face.
Given this sad reality, it would seem that Kashmiris are the main stakeholders in this conflict. Unfortunately, the picture is far more complicated than that. The geo-political reality is that Kashmir is surrounded by three nuclear powers, two of which claim that Kashmir is either their integral part or jugular vein. Imagine a situation in which all Kashmiris get together and agreed to a political resolution with New Delhi, Would that end the conflict? I don’t believe it would. For Pakistan, that would be an unacceptable scenario. Any resolution of the Kashmir issue requires India and Pakistan to be on the same page. Of course, an agreement between India and Pakistan that does not gain Kashmiri acceptance would be a non-starter. Multiple stakeholders with different interests and aspirations make the Kashmir issue very complicated and intractable.
The status quo is hugely damaging to Kashmiris. However, the current political environment is such that India and Pakistan have no real interest or incentive to resolve this issue. Many people feel that Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an effort to reach out to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who initially appeared to reciprocate these overtures. It is a different matter that Pakistan has multiple power centers and our initial hopes were dashed. Otherwise, most Kashmiris were of the opinion that a “strong” BJP leader could do what the Congress always seemed “scared” to do – resolve the Kashmir issue with Pakistan. Much water has flown down the Jhelum since then. Ultra-nationalism is on the rise in India and upcoming elections indicate there will be little flexibility from New Delhi on the crisis in Kashmir. To add to this, a vicious narrative is being promoted through national TV channels and newspaper articles that paint Kashmiris as terrorist sympathizing, Islamist radicals who are trying to create their “own Islamic state”. From New Delhi’s perspective, this plays very well internationally. For its own domestic political considerations, Pakistan has contributed to this false narrative. Had that not been the case, would Pakistan have promoted those faces as representatives of Kashmiri aspirations who are linked to internationally designated terrorist organizations? Pakistan’s policies are governed by its own compulsions. Interests of Kashmiris can never be placed above those of the Pakistani establishment. This is not a complaint but as real a picture as I have been able to form after much research and countless discussions with experts in India-Pakistan relations.
In this depressing scenario, what can Kashmiris do? We Kashmiris are in a perpetual crisis that we seem to have no means of controlling. Yet, I believe there is one way in which we may be able to move forward and create hope out of despair, peace out of war, and tractable out of the intractable. What I am about to propose may be idealistic. But, nothing short of idealism will get Kashmiris out of our collective misfortune. I think instead of calling for dialogue between India and Pakistan, we should first have a dialogue between Kashmiris. There is a lot of mistrust in Kashmir and, let’s be honest, different types of divisions have opened up in society. We must come together to bridge these divides and chart a new course.
I propose that Kashmir’s mainstream and separatist leadership talk to each other and come under a joint platform whose only objective will be to advocate the resolution of the Kashmir issue. Separatists would not have to give up their aspirations. Mainstream politicians can continue their mainstream politics. Kashmiris can stick to any political ideology they want – independence, India or Pakistan. Nobody has to give up anything. But, everybody has to come under a joint action program of putting moral pressure on India and Pakistan to help resolve the Kashmir issue to the satisfaction of all stakeholders. If Kashmiris show unity of purpose on this one issue, I believe it would represent the best course of action for our future generations. Seeking a resolution through peaceful advocacy, would be unobjectionable to all but the most unreasonable people. Kashmiri Pandits could join their Muslim brothers and sisters in this endeavour because they would not have to give up their own political preferences. In fact, all the people of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir could become part of this movement because this issue affects all of us. Over time, ordinary Indians and Pakistanis can be more receptive to such a broad-based expression of a desire to seek positive and peaceful change in our circumstances. A joint leadership could give our youth not just an opportunity to live peacefully, educate themselves and become better citizens but would also give them avenues to become a major part of this movement by harnessing their energy, new ideas and innovative methods for bringing domestic and international support to our just cause. Instead of throwing stones and getting shot, our young people could be launching modern outreach initiatives to put moral pressure on the governments in New Delhi and Islamabad.
I think it is dangerous to hope that India and Pakistan will somehow initiate a peace process without any pressure. But, we Kashmiris often believe that the pressure will come from the United States, Europe, the United Nations or some other institution. Given today’s international political climate, that is wishful thinking. Kashmiris must take matters into their own hands and prepare for a long-term struggle that is principled, peaceful, and persuasive. We must understand that resolution of the Kashmir issue is achievable but that it will take time. Our methods must reflect this reality. Our methods should be fresh and smart and a new generation of Kashmiris should be at the forefront with guidance of their seniors. From despair, we must seek out hope. From indignity, we must seek honour. From the depths of our collective sorrow, we can be a force for positive change in our region. Can we do it? I believe so.
*The author, formerly with the World Bank, is a National Media Panelist of the Indian National Congress. Views expressed are personal.