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After Lahore, what can Kashmir expect?

By Athar Parvaiz
December 29, 2015 11:47 IST
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Kashmiris hope that India and Pakistan can find a lasting solution to what many call the Kashmir 'problem', says Athar Parvaiz..

Protesters clash with the police in Srinagar in July 2015. Photograph: Umar Ganie

There can be no comforting a sight for a Kashmiri than watching the top leadership of India and Pakistan sitting together, ostensibly with the intention of creating a political atmosphere to resolve mutual disputes.

Notwithstanding some voices within India and Pakistan seeking the end of hostile relations for the revival of economic and cultural ties between the two countries, Kashmir is the only place in the sub-continent where cries for peace form an integral part of supplications during congregational prayers on Fridays before the youth in major towns move out in hordes to clash with security forces who they perceive as symbols of injustice.

People in Kashmir know they will be the biggest beneficiaries of any exercise which helps India and Pakistan resolve their disputes provided the two countries treat them with sincerity.

It is not for nothing that we had all the leaders across Kashmir's political spectrum hailing the out-of-the-blue meeting of the two prime ministers in Lahore, which was nothing less than a soothing breeze in a desert in the imagination of a Kashmiri.

While leaders of the National Conference's alliance partner, the Congress, were busy picking holes in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's so-called 'spur-of-the-moment' Pakistan visit, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah hailed the meeting, knowing fully well what it meant politically in Kashmir, more so for his party.

On the other hand, senior separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who has always highlighted what he calls the 'futility' of any bilateral engagement between India and Pakistan, also welcomed the meeting as long as it helped resolving the Kashmir issue.

Though their respective political approaches to the Kashmir issue and its resolution are different, all leaders in Kashmir, regardless of their political ideologies or affiliations, believe that a political solution has to be located for the Kashmir issue for peace to prevail in the region.

What is noteworthy is the fact that a remarkable shift in recent years has occurred in the form of the thinning line between political ideologies of different political parties in Kashmir and Kashmiri leaders.

Except Geelani, who believes that the solution of the Kashmir issue lies in the implementation of United Nations resolutions on the Kashmir dispute, almost all the other separatist leaders are open to a negotiable solution, which can even mean a win-win situation for all the three parties -- the Kashmiris, India and Pakistan.

The two major mainstream political parties in Kashmir, the National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party, have gone to the extent of embracing soft separatism in recent years, which is not much different from what the moderate separatist voices demand, more so when we consider their amenability to creative solutions.

Many believe that if India and Pakistan start a serious resolution process before a sincere engagement with Kashmiri leaders, even Geelani can feel compelled to support it and might even consider slightly softening his stand in the spirit of seeking an end to the decades-long agony of Kashmiris.

More than the traders, artists and peace-lovers in Delhi, Islamabad, Mumbai and Lahore who aspire for peaceful and lasting relations between India and Pakistan, it is the people on the streets of Kashmir who know the value of peace as they long for a violence-free life.

Apart from killing thousands of people and the widowhood, orphaning, maiming and psychiatric disorders of several thousand other Kashmiris, the armed conflict has badly damaged the quality of life.

It is because of the persistent political uncertainty amid violence and the lackadaisical approach of incumbent governments that has led to the collapse of all the basic amenities of life -- access to proper healthcare and education apart from the deprivation of the very basic right of free movement for citizens of this land.

Today, no one but the poor, who can't be selective, opt for the hospitals in Kashmir to treat illnesses. Those who can afford it prefer getting basic health check-ups in the hospitals of Delhi, Chandigarh and Mumbai. Access to safe drinking water and electricity is still a dream for people in various villages and towns across Kashmir.

On a daily basis, newspapers report demonstrations from villages and towns including Srinagar with people blocking roads in support of their demands for drinking water or electricity.

School education is in miserable shape with thousands of students dropping out of school before they reach the 10th standard, mostly because of the lack of capacity. Those who teach in government schools trash the free education of government schools and admit their children to private schools where the admission fee and monthly charges are sky-rocketing given the domination they enjoy thanks to the absence of proper school education in the government sector.

All this has resulted in a sordid scenario where the Right to Education has been restricted to people outside the poverty bracket. Colleges and universities produce unemployable graduates and post graduates as the standard of education in these institutions is not in sync with the present-day demands of the job market of employment generating cities like Delhi, Mumbai etc.

The result is massive unemployment. The lack of industrial development in the state compels job aspirants from Kashmir to compete with those from metros like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore or have to compete for coveted government jobs in Kashmir where employment generation is quite scanty with most government departments overflowing with employees.

Law enforcement has suffered a huge setback. Commercial structures and residential houses come up as encroachments on road spaces and sensitive areas like wetlands.

Every day, the newspapers report deaths and injuries in road accidents because of the lack of law enforcement and road safety.

Corruption has struck roots everywhere with government employees paying bribes to get their salaries released.

Notwithstanding the collective distress of Kashmiris amid an off-putting political uncertainty, the Kashmir issue has come across as a great avenue for the creation of political capital and political experimentation.

Political parties have come to power or lost power and people have shot into prominence, catapulted to political heights or suffered a downfall thanks to this issue.

Listing all of them is beyond the scope of this article, just some recent examples will suffice. Who can forget the Congress experiment of hanging Afzal Guru in early 2013 in the belief that it had the potential of stopping a Narendra Modi wave before the general election?

While the Congress experiment failed, the Bharatiya Janata Party felt its experiment of spicing up its election campaign with repeated Pakistan-bashing (Kashmir-centred) brought about a massive election victory.

Across the border, Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League thought its slogan of making peace with India (again related to Kashmir) during its 2013 election campaign had a positive impact on its electoral performance. It is a different story that it had a lot to do with the weakening economic situation and internal security situation in Pakistan.

Today, despite some improvement in Pakistan's security and economic situation, India with its growing political and economic clout is in a better position to call the shots. And we often see it at display.

Prime Minister Modi befriends or berates Pakistan at will. And when he befriends Pakistan, it almost sounds like he is doing them a favour given India's grandstanding owing to its terrorism charges on Pakistan.

What helps Pakistan add to its bargaining power while negotiating disputes is India's aspiration for a larger role in the global polity and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. India can find those objectives a lot easier to achieve if it has the Kashmir burden off its shoulders and peaceful -- if not friendly -- relations with its nuclear neighbour.

India's economic interests in Central Asia are also dependent on stable relations with Pakistan. The constant demand for a resolution of the Kashmir issue helps Pakistan put pressure on India.

Whatever gets India and Pakistan talking, Kashmiris hope the two countries find a lasting solution to what many call the Kashmir 'problem.'

IMAGE: Protesters clash with the police in Srinagar in July 2015. Photograph: Umar Ganie

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