Two Conferences On Kashmir In UK
12 July 2004
The Daily Excelsior
Jammu: Being a former colonial power and host of a large South Asian diaspora, Britain has been a congenial home for the activities of many dissenting and rebel groups of the region. The militancy movement in Kashmir, which started in late eighties, too, received its major financial, political and diplomatic support from the expatriates of the state in Britain, mostly belonging to the Pak part of the state and settled there. The changes through which the movement underwent and the splits and disillusionment of the overground separatist groups affected their British support base also. Two parallel international conferences on Kashmir issue organised in London and Birmingham recently by the organisations based in that country provided an opportunity to know their latest thinking on the subject as also of those who attended them from both sides of the LoC. London Conference was organised by the International Kashmir Alliance and attended by the Pakistan People Party leader Benazir Bhutto and the Muslim League leader and former minister Shafqat Mehmood from Pakistan, Justice Abdul Majid Malik, former chief justice of Azad Kashmir High Court from Pak held part of the state, Mirza Wajahat Hasan from Gilgit and Baltistan, a large contingent from Kashmir Valley which included National Conference delegation led by Farooq Abdullah and representatives of the PDP, a group from Jammu which included official spokesperson of the BJP, four members of the Panthers Party and one each from Leh and Kargil districts of Ladakh region, apart from expatriates from the state settled in the UK, including a few Kashmiri Pandits and larger number of Mirpuris from Pak part of the state. The Birmingham conference held, barely a week later on 6-7 June had a nominal representation from the Indian part of the state but a larger representation from the other side and from Kashmiris settled abroad. Whosoever sponsored these conferences and whatever be their motives, one could discern realisation of new realities in the state amidst usual rhetoric. Firstly, the fact that it is a plural, multi- ethnic, multi-regional and multi-religious state. At least five regions were clearly identified by most of the speakers namely Kashmir valley, Jammu, Ladakh, 'Azad Kashmir' and Gilgit Baltistan. The demand of each region for recognition of its identity received sympathetic attention. In particular the plight of Gilgit - Baltistan, which had lost its identity and was renamed as Northern Area was highlighted by Wajahat Hasan. The region where the state subject law has been repealed and which has no representation in the National Assembly of Pakistan; nor any democratic institution at local level was, according to Hassan, worse off than it was during Maharaja's time. The conference stressed the need for internal dialogue between people on either side of the LoC and belonging to various regional and ethnic identities to evolve a consensus on the future of the state. The idea was also mooted that before a discussion on the future of the state, future of each region within the state should also be discussed. A plea was made for a democratic federal and decentralised set up to reconcile divergent aspirations of different regions and communities and help in evolving a harmonious personality of the state which alone could aspire for a stable and satisfactory status. Otherwise a decision of the majority of various groups with conflicting urges and interests could not be called valid. For majoritianism is a negation of democracy. The final declaration at the Birmingham Conference, too, assured protection to all ethnic, regional and religious communities of the state. Secondly, the impact of 9-11 was widely recognised. The British MP, from a constituency of predominantly Pakistani expatriates in the UK, Khalid Mehmood urged the audience at Birmingham to realise that the world opinion no longer sympathises with the use of violence by the freedom movements. He therefore advised the supporters of Kashmir movement to highlight human rights violations by the Indian security forces to regain world sympathy. Many participants in that conference quoted figures from eighty thousand to one lakh Kashmiris who were allegedly massacred by the Indian forces. As a person who had been monitoring human rights violations from either side, I could also cite series of incidents of mass killings by the militants of Hindus or Sikhs. Thereupon a participant who was protagonist of the Pakistan's case on Kashmir offered his apologies for the killing of Kashmiri Pandits in Wandhama. There was obviously not much awareness about of other incidents of mass killings by the militants. But none contradicted my suggestion to isolate the incidents of killing of unarmed and uninvolved innocent civilians whatever be their religious or political beliefs and raise a voice of protest jointly against that. In London conference where there were more persons who had first hand experience of the on going violence, its rejection was categoric. Even those who believed in independent state had come to the conclusion that the role of the gun - and that too a borrowed one - to achieve their objective was over. It had not only caused immense miseries to the people but also damaged Kashmir's cause and its great culture. Even Benazir Bhutto, who otherwise was very cautious in her statements and refrained from criticising Kashmir policy of government of her country, acknowledged that after 9-11 there was zero degree of tolerance for violence. Her emphasis was on starting cultural and trade links and people to people contacts between the two sides of the LoC as confidence building measures leading to eventual solution, satisfactory to the people of the state and the two countries. The proposed opening of the Srinagar- Rawalpindi road was welcomed in this context. But the Mirpuri audience, in both the conferences, was more enthusiastic about my proposal to also open a road between Nowshera (on Indian side) and Mirpur (on Pakistan side), a distance of 25 miles, to enable people of the same ethnic stock on both sides of the LoC to meet each other. A similar proposal was made to connect Ladakh region, on the Indian side, with Gilgit-Baltistan region, on Pakistan sides with the similar justification. Both the conferences opposed division of the state on religious or ethnic grounds. In fact religious factor was down played in the discussion on Kashmir problem; except for the issue of Kashmiri Pandits, whose right to return to their homes with full security was conceded. However those who pleaded for a unified state did not spell out what would be its status vis a vis India and Pakistan. On the whole, there was a greater emphasis on starting a process than on final goals. In fact there was not much discussion between different view points. What was more important was that participants became aware of the view point other than that of their own and of the aspirations of the communities other than those of their own. The atmosphere of cordiality that prevailed, not only during formal sessions but also in between the sessions added to the usefulness of the conferences. Held soon after the Lok Sabha election, strength of Indian democracy and secularism was handsomely acknowledged by most Pakistanis; even by those who held strong views against India's Kashmir policy. Lack of democracy on both sides of the LoC was pointed out by many participants. Those who claim to be better representatives of the people and suspect bonafides of thesponsors of British conferences owe it to themselves and to the people of the state to initiate internal dialogue, at least on its Indian side, between different regions, communities and view points. For nobody can claim to represent all the diversities of the state. But there is hardly any dialogue not only among these diversities but also among the same ethnic and religious community. Unless a culture for dialogue and respect for dissent and diversity are restored, there is little scope for any headway towards a solution of the Kashmir problem.