Quake Highlights Kashmir Dispute
21 December 2005
Chakothi: Mehmood Ahmed Dar is sitting in a passenger terminal on Pakistan's side of the Line of Control that divides Kashmir. He is waiting to cross over to the Indian side, where his mother lives. He has not seen her for 20 years. 'This earthquake is a wakeup call for us,' he says. 'We Kashmiris from both sides should be able to meet more easily.' The Chakothi crossing was closed by the earthquake, now it is being repaired. Last month four others were opened to help the victims. Restrictions are tight, only a few people get permission for the trip. But it is a step. 'Opportunity of a lifetime' The earthquake has turned a spotlight on a land bloodied by conflict. Recently Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf publicly appealed to India to help solve the Kashmir dispute once and for all. 'I sincerely and genuinely believe that the challenge of this earthquake can be converted into an opportunity of a lifetime,' he told a donors conference in Islamabad. Kashmir was included in India after independence from Britain. It is a Muslim majority area adjacent to Pakistan, so Pakistanis believed it should have acceded to the Muslim state. In 1948 Pakistan fought its first war with India, capturing a part of the territory. The UN says the status of Kashmir should be decided by plebiscite, so does Pakistan. But Delhi insists Kashmir is now an integral part of India, refusing any solution based on territorial change or confessional divide. Many Kashmiris want neither India nor Pakistan. An insurgency erupted in the Indian- administered Kashmir in the late 1980s. It has been brutally suppressed by the Indian army. Tens of thousands have died. Relief For Kashmiri nationalists, independence is the only solution. 'We are bigger in number than as many as 131 independent nations, why should we remain deprived of independence?' says Amanullah Khan. He is the head of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), one of the leaders of the uprising. But not just the nationalists are fighting for Kashmir. It has also become a cause for Pakistan's Islamist groups. And they have been at the forefront of relief efforts. Jamat- ud Dawa claims to have opened the first field hospital in Muzaffarabad after the earthquake. Volunteer doctors here have carried out more than 1,000 major surgeries since then - they now see 500 patients a day. The group used to have links with jihadists fighting in the Indian-administered Kashmir. No more, it says. But the government is keeping an eye on it, and so are the Americans. Cross-border militancy The earthquake has provided an opportunity for Islamists to convey relief in Kashmir, but also their message. 'Naturally, politically, religiously, and even morally, Kashmir is a part of Pakistan,' says Haji Javed-ul Hassan, who heads Jamat-ud Dawa's relief programme. 'Its rivers flow into Pakistan, and its roads go into Pakistan, naturally Kashmir is a part of Pakistan.' Pakistan has long been accused of sending militants across the border to support the insurgency. India says it still does, even after the two countries began a peace process in 2004 vowing to resolve the dispute by negotiation. Islamabad denies the charge, and so do the jihadists. 'There is a hundred per cent change in strategy from the government side,' says Youssef Burki. He is a spokesman for Jaish-i- Mohammed, an Islamist group banned by the Pakistani government. 'They are not helping us even one percent, and they are hindering each and every activity that we carry out, in regard to the operations in occupied Kashmir, and we are getting no help from them at all.' But, he says, members of Jaish-i-Mohammed are still going to India to fight there. He admits that Indian charges of continued cross border infiltration are true, although it has reduced. Scepticism Still, many Pakistanis and Indians do want the conflict to end. The earthquake brought donations from the Indian government and sympathy from the Indian people. There has also been a flurry of proposals to resolve the dispute. Some speak of autonomy rather than independence - like the one presented by a former Indian jounralist, Kuldeep Nayyar. 'I think President General Musharraf has changed,' he says. 'Where he was earlier talking about jihad to liberate Kashmir, now he says he is against Jihad and he is offering some settlement. So since he has changed, and he counts in Pakistan, I think this is the best chance to see if we can have a settlement.' After nearly 60 years of conflict, scepticism remains high. The Pakistanis say India is not serious. India says Pakistan is using the Jihadists to stir up trouble on its side. But President Musharraf does seem to be looking for some kind of a solution. 'I think he is convinced that confrontation with India will not really pay,' says military analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi. 'What he has realised, that is my feeling, and also the top brass at the military, that if military has to rule the country and stay in power, then Pakistan's economy has to improve, and Pakistan's economy cannot improve unless you improve relations with India.' The third round of peace talks starts in January. It is not clear yet whether substantive change is on the cards. Only one thing is certain - if there is to be change - it will have to satisfy not only India and Pakistan but also the Kashmiris.