July 2007 News

One Man's Vision For Peace In Long-Troubled Kashmir

27 July 2007
The Washington Post

Srinagar: Sajad Lone perused the tattered, yellowed pages of a book he salvaged from his father's library. Written nearly 60 years ago during Kashmir's prosperous but brief heyday of self-rule, the book detailed some of the region's successes and failures, and his father referred to it often. 'When I look at this book, I remember my father's thoughts and hopes,' Lone, 41, said on a rainy afternoon as he glanced at shelves in his library filled with tomes outlining peaceful solutions to the world's endless conflicts. 'It was a time when Kashmir flourished.'His father, Abdul Gani Lone, a popular, moderate separatist leader, was gunned down in May 2002 by unidentified attackers. Like his father, Sajad Lone has pushed for an end to the conflict in Kashmir, a stunningly beautiful mountainous region that once was a tourist wonderland where Bollywood movies were filmed but is now a heavily militarized war zone claimed by both India and Pakistan. The decades-old conflict in Kashmir, whose population is mostly Muslim, has divided families, friends and land between Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. The two nuclear-armed countries have fought wars over the region, and tens of thousands of people have died. The conflict has forced thousands of people, including about 6,000 Hindu Kashmiris, to leave their homes. Last January, India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, asked Lone to help develop a plan for Kashmir with Indian negotiators during talks in New Delhi, the capital. Lone said that the opportunity pleased him but that he told Singh he needed time to respond with a well-thought out proposal. Lone returned to Kashmir, rented a hotel room in the Gulmarg ski area and wrote his own book, a kind of hopeful sequel to the one from his father's library, that offered a fresh road map back to peace in Kashmir. The 266-page book, titled 'Achievable Nationhood,' is the first of its kind to be presented by a separatist leader since the latest round of hostilities began in Indian-administered Kashmir in 1989. In the book, released several months ago, Lone proposes a unified Kashmir that would be administered by autonomous leaders. Under Lone's plan, which he calls a 'vision document,' the Indian- and Pakistani-held parts of Kashmir would share a wide range of institutions. The creation of an Economic Union would allow tax-free trade between the two sides of Kashmir and allow a free flow of people and goods. Kashmir's defense could be the joint responsibility of Kashmiri, Indian and Pakistani authorities, Lone said. 'There was always confusion over what we want in Kashmir,' said Lone, a hulking man who speaks slowly and often appears to be deep in thought. 'This is just my idea put down on paper. And I hope it will spark more interest in Kashmir.' Though Singh recently visited the region and promised an end to the conflict, Indian officials have declined to discuss the specifics of Lone's idea of autonomous rule. But the book has sparked debate among researchers and analysts as peace talks crawl along. Some fear that with Pakistan distracted by internal unrest, any real chance for peace in Kashmir could be long in coming. But Lone's book, they say, could serve as a way to keep the spotlight on the region. 'It's a very impressive piece of work. Lone understands the different aspirations and expectations in India, Pakistan, and Jammu and Kashmir,' said Radha Kumar, head of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Jamia Milia Islamia University in New Delhi, using the name for the Indian side of the region. 'That is what makes it so good. It has all the constituent elements taken into consideration.' Since a peace process began three years ago, violence has decreased in the scenic Kashmir Valley. But Indian army security forces and Pakistan-backed insurgents along with homegrown Kashmiri fighters still clash, sometimes resulting in deaths. Lone said Kashmiris need a greater role in peace talks between Pakistan and India. He writes extensively in his book about how Kashmiris are losing faith in India and need more confidence-building measures. He also writes that the much publicized reopening in 2005 of a bus route from Srinagar, the capital of India-administered Kashmir, to Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, has turned out to be little more than a public relations move. The bus was important to many Kashmiri families who wanted to attend weddings or funerals only a few miles away without obtaining a Pakistani visa and traveling for days through New Delhi. But the process for getting on the bus is so tedious, with endless paperwork that never seems to get approved, that few people have been able to travel. 'Now people feel their psychology has been hijacked by this dream of a bus that turned out to be just a stunt,' Lone said. 'The bus line had tremendous scope to herald change and strengthen dialogue between the two sides. But it has failed to have any impact on the ground.' The Indian army and other security forces, whose members number nearly half a million in Kashmir, have said that a recent hearts-and-minds campaign aims to improve relations with Kashmiris, who see the forces as 'colonizers.' Military bunkers have 'Help us help you' stenciled on them with phone numbers. Army soldiers, stressed over years spent in Kashmir, have started practicing yoga and painting their bunkers with swirls of pastel-colored paint after several suicides by soldiers who had said they were under extreme pressure and had been traumatized. Lone said all sides have been fighting for too long and expressed hope that his book could at least spark fresh discussions. 'My father always set high standards for me and I hope this book pleases him,' said Lone, the father of twin 2-year-old sons. 'What I worry about is the next generation. If this doesn't get solved, it's so easy for youth to pick up the gun. We don't want Kashmir to keep suffering.'

 

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