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Reality bites for Pakistani scribes
Amberish K Diwanji and Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi | October 11, 2004 21:07 IST
Last Updated: October 12, 2004 00:27 IST
It was two days of mixing business with pleasure, discussion and debate with drinks and dinner. At the South Asian Free Media Association conference over October 9 and 10 in New Delhi, journalists from across the subcontinent sat together and talked about various subjects, including contentious issues such as Jammu and Kashmir.
Present among the many South Asian journalists were some from Pakistan who had recently visited Jammu and Kashmir, a first of sorts. The visit was made possible after the Indian government decided to allow the journalists to travel to the troubled state.
At present, foreign journalists are given visas for a single city and cannot travel beyond the visa specification; for a Pakistani journalist to visit Kashmir was a rarity.
The visit proved an eye-opener for the journalists. It also told them, and India in turn, how difficult the path of reconcilation in Jammu and Kashmir is. Political parties and some students in the Kashmir valley strongly objected to the visit by the Pakistani journalists on Indian visas, seeing it as betrayal of the struggle against India.
"They accused us of becoming Indian agents and said that after this visit we would stop supporting their cause," said Nasir Baig, foreign affairs and news editor at Geo TV. "They also said that if we were being accompanied by Indian security forces for our protection, the forces would only let us visit certain places and thus we would not see the real picture."
Baig said he and other journalists assured the Kashmiris that they were not hampered by the presence of the security forces, nor was the visit a sellout on Kashmir.
Describing the state, he said its beauty was beyond compare. "At one point, from Jammu to Srinagar, we just stopped our car and gazed at the valley and mountains, taking in the sight. We stood there for almost half an hour."
But if the SAFMA conference – where journalists pledged to work for South Asian peace and harmony and declared that all nations must respect the freedom of the press and the rights of the minorities in each and every nation – is anything to go by, Kashmir is not the obsession it used to be.
The Pakistanis admitted as much. "A few years ago," recalled Kashif Abbasi, a senior correspondent with ARY TV, "if I took a microphone and asked a person on the street about Kashmir, almost invariably he would say it belongs to Pakistan and we must fight for it. But today, the same person on the street will say the issue must be resolved peacefully, and soon."
So, what has brought about this change?
A series of factors, said the Pakistani journalists. One speaker was blunt: "The fact is that for all of Pakistan's efforts to capture Kashmir from India, it has failed. And this has forced it to realise that it has a better chance through measures of peace and negotiation."
Baig said that among many factors, the media too has played a role. "Earlier, it was easy for our leaders to demonise India. But now we all watch Indian television and Indian programmes, and this makes us aware of our similarities rather than our differences," he said.
Baig said that many Pakistanis want their government to focus on the country's economic development, a demand that was earlier muted. "Before, people would say we'll starve and get Kashmir; now people are saying let us first prosper and be economically strong, or else how can we be successful?"
Baig added, "This visit made us realise that now we should not play with words, but should translate words into actions. And for that India will have to take the lead. We believe that India wants to solve the problem and is ready to change its stated position on Kashmir. I wish my assessment is true."
This willingness to discuss has taken the Kashmir issue out of the hands of the radicals and put it in the hands of moderates on both sides, who understand that in the final stage they will have to give some to take some, and both will have to emerge winners to make the resolution saleable to the people.
Mariana Baabar, a prominent journalist, said she learnt of the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits for the first time. "In Pakistan, nobody knows about the Pandit problem," she said. "I'll take their stories to Pakistan."
Baabar said, "I found that there are many more voices beyond what the India and Pakistan governments want us to hear. Kashmir was like: 10 raped, 10 killed, 20 injured, 60 missing... Government and non-government organisations gave you cold statistics. But when you are face to face with violence, it's a moving experience. So many women told us that rape is used as a weapon of war."
The Pakistani journalists warned that there remain hawks on both sides who will seek to exploit any solution, but added that this time round the Pervez Musharraf government seems committed to a resolution.
An Indian journalist pointed out that President Musharraf had recently declared at a public rally that unless the Kashmir issue was resolved, Pakistan would not allow a gas pipeline from Iran to India through Pakistan. To this, veteran columnist Ayaz Amir said pointedly, "That was a good thing to say at a public rally. What else can you expect the president to say at a public rally where one really can't discuss the nuances of diplomacy?"
Amir said Indian journalists must not take every Pakistani politician's public statement literally, because then one would always find fault.
"Public posturing can't be abandoned overnight, nor reversed," another journalist said. "But the fact is that slowly but surely Pakistan is publicly softening its stand on Kashmir and thus letting the people know that at some future date this issue will be resolved and the resolution means that the entire state will not be a part of Pakistan, as was claimed in the past."
If from the Pakistani side there is a clear understanding, after September 11 and December 13, 2001, (when terrorists attacked Parliament, nearly causing India to attack Pakistan in retaliation), that Kashmir must be resolved on the table, Indian speakers, both journalists and the politicians who graced the occasion, insisted that Kashmir must be resolved and cannot be brushed aside on the plea that ties must first be normalised.
External Affairs Minister K Natwar Singh said India would discuss Jammu and Kashmir as part of its dialogue with Pakistan; his predecessors, Yashwant Sinha and Jaswant Singh, pointed out that on foreign policy political parties have little differences and every party understands that it is imperative to resolve the Kashmir dispute alongside improving India-Pakistan relations.
At the two-day conference, various ideas were thrown up on the shape that a final resolution could take. But whatever the final resolution, one Pakistani journalist was sure that this time, unlike past attempts that failed after promising starts, a final resolution would be found.
"By the time we both celebrate our 60th Independence Day anniversaries [in August 2007], Kashmir will be resolved," he predicted.
More reports from Jammu and Kashmir
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