March 1999 News

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Will Kashmiris Board The Bus?

8th March 1999
The Hindu

Though there was no euphoria in Kashmir over the bus diplomacy, the common man's yearning for peace after witnessing death and destruction for long could not go unnoticed, says Shujaat Bukhari.

The fresh initiative for friendship between India and Pakistan, through what is known as the "bus diplomacy" did not evoke euphoric reactions in the Kashmir Valley, though it brought to the surface the changing approach in certain separatist sections, notwithstanding the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) registering its protest by calling for a general strike which did have a tremendous response.

The Sadai-e-Sarhad (voice of the border), as the bus was named, was watched keenly only at the moment it crossed the barriers rather freely at the check post. But the "voice" did not prove very powerful in easing the discontent among the masses in the valley, insofar as finding a lasting solution to their problem, thought the common man was seen in Srinagar streets, discussing the Initiative taken by the Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, and his Pakistani counterpart, Mr. Nawaz Sharif, to break the ice.

Will the "bus-diplomacy" help bring the two countries closer to resolve the outstanding issues including Kashmir? Will it have any impact on the security situation thus securing the lives and honour of the people in the Valley? These questions were hotly debated and discussed at various levels. Many people talked about the currents and under-currents of the issue, recalling the "futile exercise" at many rounds of Secretary-level talks between the two countries held in the past or, for that matter, agreements like Tashkent and Shimla.

"It is akin to what the late General Zia-ul Haq did by landing in Jaipur to watch the cricked match" said a senior university teacher, commenting on Mr. Vajpayee's decision to have a bus rid to Lahore.

For a businessman in Srinagar, if such a kind of exercise helps bring peace back to the bruised Valley, it should be welcome. "we have been suffering for the last five decades and militancy is its offshoot. Let all parties come together to iron out differences", says Mr. Mohammed Lateef, a trader.

People in Kashmir responded favourably to the general strike call given by the separatist conglomerate APHC, which is against such type of diplomatic efforts. The APHC, after a marathon executive meeting, held the view that the outcome of the talks between Indian and Pakistan was not something different from what it had predicted. "The countries stuck to their respective positions," said a Hurriyat spokes man adding that "no final and durable breakthrough can be achieved when negotiations are limited to two parties and the representatives of the people of Kashmir are not involved in the process." Feeling comfortable at what they call the "tremendous support" to their point of view form the people, the APHC maintained "whenever there is international pressure on India, it quickly resorts to the negotiations."

However, what is significant this time round is the line adopted by the former APHC chairman and Mirwaiz-e-Kashmir (Kashmir head priest), Moulvi Mohammed Umar Farooq, whose party, Awami Action Committee, is a Hurriyat constituent and wields influence among a strong section of people in Srinagar. Surprisingly, he welcomed the initiative and did not endorse the Hurriyat viewpoint. He was also not present at the APHC executive committee meeting when the Lahore declaration was discussed there. Later at a news conference, he admitted that there was difference but it is in approach towards the problem, not on basic issues," he said adding, "let India and Pakistan come closer to talk on these issues, Kashmiris can be included in talks at a later stage."

This development is seen as a turnaround in Kashmir's separatist politics. In fact, the prominent separatist leader, Mr. Shabir Shah, who was also part of the Hurriyat, adopted a soft line from the beginning and was ousted from the party on the charge that he met the then United States Ambassador to India, Mr. Frank Wisner, which action the Hurriyat did not approve of , "I have always held the opinion that both India and Pakistan would have to have good relations which would ultimately help in solving all the outstanding issues including Kashmir," said Mr. Shah. We (Kashmiris) are neither against the people of India or Pakistan and want to see peace taking root in South Asia, asserts Mr. Shah.

For the Jamat-e-Islami, which is one of the important political groups advocating the "right of self-determination" to the people of Kashmir, the Lahore Declaration has not come up to the expectations. "Kashmir is a vexing problem and to resolve it both countries need to convey that they care for the welfare of the people," said an Jamat leader.

And the mainstream political from views in the talks between the two neighbours in the backdrop of the continuing bloodshed in the State in the past one decade. It is of the unanimous view that "If the people are relieved of the trauma they are facing, such initiatives are always welcome." The Congress(I) Legislature Party (CLP) leader, Ms. Mehbooha Mufti, says that it is a welcome step to talk but "it has an inherent double-standard... When you go to talk to Nawaz Sharif and, at the same time accuse the Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan of abetting terrorism, how can things move in a positive direction?" The "people of Kashmir, around whom the tension resolves, should be taken into confidence," she feels.

The senior NC leader and Finance Minister in the Cabinet of Dr. Abdullah, Mr. Mohammed Shafi, said that his party had always been for friendly relations between Indian and Pakistan. For the first time, they have agreed not to interfere in each other's internal matters and denounced terrorism jointly," he said. The Tashkent and Shimla Agreements were different from the Lahore Declaration, he said and added that "this has both the countries are nuclear-capable states CPI(M) State secretary, Mr. Muhammad Yosuf Tarigami, said both the countries had suffered a lot due to the Kashmir issue but the people of Jammu and Kashmir had paid a much higher price. "I see a ray of hope now but I was never under the illusion that something concrete will come out of it," he adds.

A change has been seen on the armed militants front too. The front-ranking militant organisation, Hizbul Mujahideen, in a statement, discussed the bilateral talks between India and Pakistan threadbare with reference to the previous chapters of negotiations. It argued the need for creating an atmosphere in which the Kashmir issue could be addressed with a sincerity of purpose. If that happened, it would change its strategy which, observers say, was a hint at "cease fire." But, there was a condition: the Hurriyat Conference should be a party to such talks and Kashmir should be accepted as disputed issue. However, the pan-Islamic groups such as the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and the Lashkar-e-Toiba remained silent on what was happening around.

Whatever the reservations, peace exercises such as the bus diplomacy can never go unnoticed in Kashmir as the people are yearning for a solution of all issues through a process of dialogue, after witnessing death and destruction for so long.

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