Vested interests no excuse for inaction in Kashmir dispute

It's been a quiet summer in Kashmir, but won't stay quiet forever. Part of the problem is that too many influential people are prospering from the armed and unhappy status quo.

After three tumultuous and violent summers, this year in Kashmir has been relatively quite, defying prognostications of unrest. But this deceptive calm may be a mirage, and could easily be broken by the anger that is simmering beneath.

As we saw last week in the northern city of Srinagar, protests can flare up quickly. Though small compared to last year, the gathering of hundreds of youths on Friday makes plain that this region's problems are not gone.

Kashmir is among the most militarised parts of the world with anywhere between half a million to 800,000 Indian army soldiers spread across its meadows and towns, valleys and mountain tops. The interface between the civilians who consider themselves subjugated and the army often results in grave atrocities and injustices.

This year is no exception. Since mid-July, Kashmir has witnessed a series of grave human rights violations. On 21 July, Rukaya Bano, a woman from South Kashmir, was allegedly kidnapped by two army men and assaulted for two consecutive days. Ten days later a 26-year old man, Nazim Rashid, was killed in police custody in his hometown of Sopore in North Kashmir.

Then on 7 August, Indian forces claimed to have killed a Pakistani militant and divisional commander of Lashkar-i-Taiba after a 12-hour gun battle in the Jammu region. Days later, it was revealed that the deceased was actually a civilian.

These recent incidents have provoked anger and protests, but so far the demonstrations have been local and not widespread. One of the reasons for a muted reaction now is said to be some quick response from the authorities. In a marked departure from the past, both the civilian and the military authorities have either acknowledged the atrocities or moved fast to initiate probes to fix the blame.

But as a recent editorial in the leading English daily Kashmir Times notes, the latest cycle of human rights violations is a "manifestation of the continuum of a repressive regime". The sentiment is echoed by the main pro-India Kashmiri party, the People's Democratic Party (PDP), that sits in opposition in the provincial assembly.

Reacting to the string of rights abuses, Mehbooba Mufti, the president of the PDP and a member of the Indian parliament said: "There is so much arrogance in this government that they have converted (Jammu and Kashmir) into a police state".

A better approach would be for leaders to learn from past mistakes.

The last three summers of bloody agitation saw hundreds of civilians killed at the hands of the paramilitary forces. In 2009, valley-wide protests erupted after reports that two women were allegedly kidnapped, raped and then murdered by Indian forces.

Then last year more than 110 people were killed when police and security forces fired at pro-freedom demonstrations, triggered by the death of a 17-year-old youth by a police tear gas shell.

The Kashmir Times editorial rebukes the governments for refusing to "learn lessons from the past", adding that "last year's five-month-long period of extreme turbulence is not so far away to have allowed the powers-that-be to slip into some kind of a complacent mode over human rights abuse".

The recent resumption of talks between India and Pakistan and their renewed willingness to address all their problems - including Kashmir - does raise the prospects of peace.

Peace is indeed possible. But renewed engagement fails to evoke much hope in the region, with good reason.

The Kashmiri scepticism is not baseless, as the history of India-Pakistan engagement weighs heavy on Kashmiri memory. There have been more than 100 rounds of talks between India and Pakistan, but these engagements have hardly borne any fruit.

Still, bilateral engagement remains the only hope for a breakthrough.

But a bigger problem for all sides is doing something about the greed and the wealth that is generated by the status quo.

Kashmiri resistance leaders and activists, and several militant commanders, have all acquired huge wealth, some of which is displayed through changed life-styles, plush new residences, cars and endless other amenities. The Indian and Pakistani politicians and armies that deal with Kashmir also have access to funds and unbridled power.

Needless to say, this flood of money makes the chances of a breakthrough difficult. But not impossible.

The Indian Home Secretary GK Pillai, closely associated with Kashmir because of his office, was candid recently in admitting that "vested interests" in India were hampering a final solution to the vexed problem.

This is a symptom of a problem, not an excuse. Just like the need to tackle government corruption inspired ongoing protests in New Delhi, leaders on all sides of the Kashmir issue should seek to break free from the stalled tactics of the past to identify and isolate the vested interests. Kashmir's relative calm will not last forever.


Murtaza Shibli is a trainer, writer and consultant on Muslim issues in Europe and South Asia. He currently lives in London, Lahore and Srinagar.

Published: August 18, 2011 04:00 AM


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