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September 15, 2000



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The Vajpayee visit E-Mail this report to a friend

The Rediff Interview/ Farooq Kathwari

'Kashmir is an issue that concerns the entire world'

Farooq Kathwari, chairman, CEO and president of Ethan Allan (a large home furnishings manufacturer and retailer), is also passionately involved with the Kashmir Study Group, an organisation that has dedicated itself to help bring about a solution to the crisis that has plagued the state of Jammu and Kashmir for the last decade.

The study group was established in July, 1996 by Kathwari, Congressman Gary Ackerman, Senator Robert Toricelli, Dr Joseph Swartzberg of the University Of Minnesota and Dr Robert Wirsing of the University of South Carolina.

Today, the organisation is 24 people strong and has published three reports. The first, in 1997, including the findings and recommendations of the task force on the Kashmir crisis. The second, published in 1998, was the perspective of the Kashmir Study Group on the nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan. The last and most recent report has been titled Kashmir: A Way Forward.

There have been other task forces of the KSG who have interacted with all the parties, but who have not made public their findings.

The Group has deliberately maintained a low profile, focusing instead on their stated purpose in helping resolve the Kashmir issue. Kathwari, however, agreed to an exclusive interview with rediff.com Associate Editor Savera R Someshwar. This is Kathwari's first interview in more than four years:

What are the objectives of the Kashmir Study Group?

The objective is to engage in fact-finding and the analysis of possible steps toward a solution, that is, unofficial initiatives by private citizens. The KSG members have listened to the parties to this conflict, shared ideas, looked for common ground, explored recommendations and urged actions that might bring the Kashmir conflict to a settlement.

In the last week, both the prime minister of India and the chief executive of Pakistan were in New York to attend the United Nations Millennium Summit. But there was no meeting or dialogue among the two leaders. Instead, they both issued statements that can only add to the already prevailing hostile atmosphere.

Did that disappoint you?

Yes. I was disappointed. However, this is part of the process. A lot of work needs to be done to build some level of confidence between the leadership of the two countries to start a meaningful dialogue.

What makes you sure the politicians want peace? Aren't the political leaders of both nations manipulating Kashmir in order to increase their popularity with the masses and detract attention from other pressing issues?

We have to take a positive attitude. While there are always vested interests and 'ulterior' motives, the leadership of India and Pakistan must realise that they cannot live in hostility forever. In addition, the 12 million people of Kashmir of all religious faiths, especially the six million in and around Kashmir Valley, have suffered greatly and their welfare and future have to be considered. Responsible people (especially the media) must focus the leadership of all three places -- India, Pakistan and Kashmir and on the fact that their using Kashmir for their political purposes is not good for their people.

Recent steps give cause for hope. Take, for example, the Indian government's decision to talk to the Hizbul and Pakistan Chief Executive General Musharraf publicly stating that Pakistan will accept a solution acceptable to the people of Kashmir.

Sometimes, though, it seems like we are taking one step forward and two steps backwards.

Yet, the longer it takes, the higher the toll on the common people of Kashmir.

Yes, the common people of Kashmir have been suffering for a long time. Two generations have been lost. Economy, health and educational institutions are in deplorable conditions. I have always told the leaders I have met that that they must show courage and wisdom and move forward. Issues can be resolved, a solution can be reached. We can see examples of that all over the world. Look at Indonesia and East Timor. Look at Ireland and the Middle East.

What, in your opinion, do both parties need to do in order to resolve the situation?

I would recommend the following steps:

1. It is imperative that dialogue between the parties begins. Prior to the dialogue, a lot of groundwork needs to be done to prepare for the talks. All sides have to work towards creating conditions on the ground that will facilitate the starting of the dialogue.

2. Progress has to be made towards the restoration of normal civilian life in Kashmir. All parties need to commit themselves unreservedly to this objective.

What if the people of Kashmir opt for a solution that Pakistan may not find acceptable? They may even opt for a solution that India may not be happy with. What then?

This is something that has to be tested. I don't think we should make any kind of pre-judgement. All the parties involved have difficult issues facing them. But if one does not move forward, one will not see what is waiting for one in the future.

What is the most positive sign that you have seen, one that leads you to hope there will be a resolution of this problem in the near future?

Unfortunately, the positive can come from the negatives. Today, the relationship is extremely bad between India and Pakistan. The international community is urging them to reduce the tension and find a solution. I believe the peoples of South Asia want peace and, given an opportunity, will accept a sensible solution.

Do you see a role for a third party, especially the United States and the United Nations? What about India's position that it will not allow any third party mediation?

As you have pointed out, the Government of India is very concerned about third parties being involved in what they consider is a bilateral issue. Any kind of mediation by either the UN or the US will take place only if both parties want the involvement. Even we cannot get involved unless the parties want us to do so.

But the parties within this dispute should understand that help from external sources can be positive. Kashmir is an issue that concerns the entire world. After all, when two powerful nuclear nations with one-fifth of the world's population are at each other's throats, it is a matter of concern for everyone.

Given that India and Pakistan today appear to be talking at cross purposes, is there any possibility of them coming together for talks?

Any kind of progress has to come from the leadership of the two countries. Look at the Middle East or Ireland; at one time there was no solution in sight for these conflicts. It took a lot of courage for the then president of the erstwhile Soviet Union to decide to on its dissolution.

India and Pakistan prefer to harp on the past rather than the future. What is needed to provide the breakthrough?

Today, I feel hopeful about the Kashmir issue because governments in India and Pakistan are relatively strong, both the parties involved are strong. Prime Minister Vajpayee is extremely well-liked and popular. General Musharraf, too, has the backing of the army and the people of his country, despite the international questioning about the democratic process that has been put on hold since he took over the administration of Pakistan. The people of that country, though, want him to fix whatever is wrong in Pakistan.

With two such strong leaders in place, I think this is a great opportunity to work towards resolving this issue. Who knows what will happen in the future? Who knows what will happen five years from now?

How would you describe the position of the Kashmir Study Group vis--vis India and Pakistan?

We have to do a lot of work to convey that we are not a lobbying organisation and are committed to helping the parties. I am pleased that we are generally regarded that way even though it is natural to have concerns about 'outsiders.'

Does that mean that the KSG is now being taken seriously by all the concerned parties?

The KSG is now being accepted as a serious body trying to help all the parties by putting forth constructive ideas. In this aspect, we have made a great deal of progress.

And how far have you progressed in terms of achieving your goals?

Unfortunately, we have achieved very little. We are concentrating on giving ideas to all the parties involved, so that they can use these ideas to further their discussions. We hope that these fresh and innovative ideas will give people something new to think about. We hope that they will no longer be stuck in the same rut.

What role can be played by the Kashmiris themselves in this dispute?

Unfortunately, it is the ordinary citizen of Kashmir who has been caught in this conflict. They have been the greatest sufferers for the last 10 years, yet they have exhibited an amazing resilience and will to survive. The Kashmiris should demand an end to the warfare on their land. Their leaders should show the courage and wisdom to listen to their demands.

What about the Kashmiris who are overseas?

The Kashmiris who are overseas should strongly convey their feelings that bloodshed should end in Kashmir. They should urge the leadership to move towards finding a solution. In addition, when peace comes, Kashmir will need a lot of reconstruction and help in industry, in education, in health, etc. Overseas Kashmiris can help in these efforts.

What do you have to say to the governments of India and Pakistan?

Let's resolve this issue and move forward so that the people of South Asia can live in peace and spend their energies in education and development instead of conflict and destruction. There is a great opportunity to find a peaceful, honorable and feasible solution.

rediff.com has assigned Associate Editors Amberish K Diwanji and Savera R Someshwar to cover Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to the United States. Don't forget to log into rediff.com for news of this historic visit as it happens!

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