Last Friday, protests broke out on the streets of Srinagar. People marched to the UN office, this time to submit a memorandum against Israeli action in the Gaza Strip. The political landscape of Kashmir would be devoid of a key ‘listening post’ if the Union government would close down the United Nation’s office in the Valley.
The recent decision of the Union government asking United Nations Military Observer Group on Kashmir to vacate a government-provided bungalow in New Delhi, is garnering mixed reactions in Kashmir. While many feel there would be no real impact if the UNMOGIP was to close its main offices in Srinagar, there are others who believe that the UN would continue to have a critical role till the Kashmir issue is resolved.
UNMOGIP has been asked to hand over the Delhi premises from where it was running a liaison office for over four decades for free as part of efforts to rationalise the mission's presence in India. There is clearly seen as a toughening of stance by the National Democratic Alliance government against a mission that Indians have long opposed and consider has outlived its utility.
India argues that the mandate of UNMOGIP has lapsed after Simla Pact in 1972 under which the two countries agreed to resolve all disputes including Kashmir bilaterally. Pakistan, however, has frequently called for third-party involvement to settle the dispute in Kashmir.
“We are not judgemental about the issue of whether the UN mission should remain in the Valley or not, this is a political problem which needs to be resolved for the people of J&K. The UN mission’s presence is a symbolic validation of the existence of dispute in the state. This is not simply an internal affairs issue of India,” says Naem Akhtar, spokesperson of Jammu & Kashmir main opposition party, People’s Democratic Party.
Naem adds that UN’s role is of an “observer to ensure peace in the state and ensure there are no ceasefire violations by both India and Pakistan across the LoC and it should not be denied by the Modi government.”
Yaseen Malik, leader of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front believes that UN presence is necessary and asking the UN to leave would be a ‘unilateral’ decision.
“The government of India went to UN in the first place and we invited them to play an observer role in the state. If the Indian government decides to ask UN group to shut down in the state, it would be a unilateral decision which is not acceptable. The government needs to show the will to put to rest this long pending dispute and till such time that doesn’t happen, the UN group will continue to have relevance for the people of the state,” he said.
While Malik’s reaction to the issue is expectedly strong, local media persons believe that the UN continues to be relevant.
Shujaat Bukhari, editor of Rising Kashmir, says “people of Kashmir feel that this is an unresolved issue and there is relevance of the UN in this context as a neutral and international observation entity. It has presence in Srinagar, Delhi, and Pakistan for a reason, which is important for the people here.”
“It (NDA government) is taking a bureaucratic approach to the Kashmir issue. The government needs to move away from treating this only as a law and order problem. So people are not very enthused by government’s stand on the UN mission here.”
The state BJP, however, has taken a strong stance on the issue. They believe that shutting down the UN mission would settle the Kashmir issue, once and for all.
Lalit Moza, J&K BJP spokesperson says, “the presence of UN allows Pakistan and its international supporters to exert psychological pressure on Indian government. If we shut it down in Kashmir, we will draw curtains on the constant efforts to give unwarranted international attention to this issue.” He adds that Modi government should be able to move decisively in this direction as it has electoral mandate on this.
The local sentiment, however, indicates that the Union government needs to build its credibility before they can do something this ‘radical’.
“The Modi government needs to engage with all stakeholders in the state, and ensure there is dialogue instead of looking at non-issues such as asking UN to move out of Srinagar. For instance, on the issue of rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley, the people of Kashmir would be welcoming to this. But they should not be settled in ghetto like colonies rather assimilated in the mainstream. So the government needs to work in this direction.” says Bukhari.
The ruling National Conference, however, feels that the UN ‘outpost,’ had a limited role to begin with.
Tanvir Sadiq, political advisor to Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, says “Since 1949 UN has been given the mandate to observe ceasefire violations but it does not have the mandate to resolve the issue of Kashmir. There have been numerous violations of ceasefire and the UN has played little role and not exerted itself at all in stalling these so there is no reason for them to continue in the state.”
“The UN mission in Kashmir is used as a platform for giving memorandums by various stakeholders who want to be seen and heard in the state, and that’s where the role ends,” said Sadiq.
While shades of dissonance vary, people like Syed Ali Shah Geelani, former chairperson of All Parties Hurriyat Conference, continue to feel that the people of Kashmir have been denied the space to shape their destiny. He feels that the presence or absence of the UN Mission would make little difference.
“The UN resolution and Simla Agreement have been bilateral accords between India and Pakistan while the people of Kashmir, who are affected by the dispute, have not been party to it so we are not bound by any resolutions really,” He adds that any plans to move out or close the UN mission in Kashmir “will have no bearing and not influence the sentiment, aspiration and the ground reality for the people in the Valley.”
Peace has returned to the Valley after decades of violence. While peace might still be fragile, the people of Kashmir feel that though the UN mission might only be of symbolic value, changing the status-quo now will not help anyone. Tomorrow might be another day.