Lord Avebury's Visit to Kashmir

Hindustan Times, The Hindu and State Times
29th November 1998

Since the days Jammu and Kashmir was out of bound and India did not figure on his itinerary in South Asia. Lord Eric Reginald Avebury's views on the human rights situation in the Valley have undergone a noticeable change. Buy his own admission, he now has more balanced and perhaps a better view of the problem that has plagued Indo-Pak relations for five decades and more.

Having looked at Kashmir through the Pak prism since the early 90s. Lord Avebury, who is also the Vice Chairman of the UK Parliamentary Human Rights Group, interacted with a cross-section of politicians, peer groups, common people and officials during his four-day tour of Leh, Jammu and Srinagar. He admits that the human rights situation has improved - albeit "to a small extent" in the state.

However, of greater significance, from the Indian standpoint, is his conviction that the "big bang" idea of holding a plebiscite to secure a solution that has eluded the best minds of the subcontinent for 52 years, was nothing but a mirage. Advocating a step-by-step approach towards the resolution of vexed issue, he focused on the consolidation and expansion of the democratic process; the overall enlargement of the political space to encompass points of view that haven't yet got a hearing.

"More people (in J&K) are saying that let's get involved in the democratic process. Even the JKLF (Amanullah), the Amir of the Jamaat and political leaders such as Azam Inqlaabi have come to believe that the democratic process is the answer," remarked Lord Avebury. In the same context, he said that the "ballot box" is the only alternative available to the peace-loving people, as also the one-time militants, whose armed opposition has failed to bring about a Constitutional change.

The British MP saw no contradiction between popular participation in a democratic process within the framework of the Indian Constitution and the "unsettled" Constitutional status of J&K. "There have been many instances all over the world," he argued, "of people operating in a democratic framework under the very Constitution they want to change...."

As Chairman of Kashmir Watch as well as of Friends of Kashmir, Lord Avebury has been closely following developments in Jammu and Kashmir. He returned two days ago from his first-ever visit to Jammu and Kashmir, and his Interactions with the Hurriyat crowd, the civil right activists, political leaders, and Government officials have made him revise a few of his perceptions. He now believes that, "If democracy is to function properly in Kashmir, all violence and threats of violence irrespective of their origin or target, must come to an end. This includes the violence perpetrated by individuals from outside the State.

A few hours with the Hurriyat leaders convinced Lord Avebury that "they are living in a fantasy world". Some of these leaders came pretty close to suggesting that the British parliamentarian bad business visiting the valley just like that without first securing their clearance. This presumptuousness did not impress Lord Avebury; nor was he able to detect much evidence of any popular support for the APHC. He believes that "those who claim to have to be the authoritative representative of the people should be prepared to demonstrate their legitimacy.

However, Lord Avebury finds it disconcerting that the Hurriyat leaders were rather "contemptuous" of the democratic process and that they continue to believe in "big bang solution". This obduracy has led the British leader to believe that an alternative umbrella organization should be formed, which would attract voices and individuals and groups still willing to travel the "peaceful democratic route." Such an alternative to the APHC would be "extremely helpful", according to Lord Avebury.

During his visit to the State he heard the refrain that nine years of violence and militancy had not moved the "problem" even an inch closer to solution. "The man in the street believes that the nature of the "problem" has changed, there is a realization that the gun is no solution, elections do express peoples views, even it conducted defectively.

Lord Avebury also had an opportunity to see first hand the evidence of the ISI involvement in the violence. Yet he is baffled by the reluctance of the Indian Government to go public before the international opinion, perhaps in the mistaken notion that too much international attention would inevitably lead to "Internationalization". As the British leader sees it the challenge is "how to get around it, especially now that there is evidence of outside involvement is sectarian massacre.

Unless the International community is able to examine impartially the evidence cited by India of the ISI role, there cannot be a complete appreciation of the Indian contentions. Lord Avebury believes that various U.N. mechanisms could be involved.

"It has to be recognized that even after 27 years of the Shimla agreement LoC firing is a cause of tension between the two countries. Some kind of permanent cease-fire has to be there so that people can get along with their lives on the border."

The UN could at least report who initiates the firing and bring the truth to be weighed by the world community so that international pressure was applied on him, the former British MP told UNI.

Let us know the truth who initiates the firing," he said. He however, said he was aware of India's stand not to internationalise the issue since there is already a Shimla agreement. But the firing along the LoC has dangerous consequences.

"If democracy is to function properly in Kashmir, all violence and threats of violence irrespective of their origin or target must come to an end. This includes the violence perpetrated by individuals from outside the state".

He said an urgent aim of negotiations between the Indian and Pakistan authorities should be to end military activities which cause civilian casualties.

He welcomed the Indian government's opening up of Kashmir for people who want to come and see for themselves the situation in the state. "I hope my visit will not be the only one. Others should also gain an insight into the problems in Kashmir so that solutions can be worked out."

He admitted that the threat of foreign mercenaries in Kashmir was real. In early stages it (militancy) was indigenous but the recent killings and community massacres in Doda suggest that these could not have been done by local people. Such things could only be done by outsiders and young local people are no more getting involved in armed opposition.

About the four foreign hostages abducted by Al Faran on July 5 1995, he said he had briefly touched upon the subject during his discussions with the state authorities. The impression given was that they could not be alive. He however, said that hostage taking was not part of the culture of the local people.

He said that during his visit to Jammu he had also visited the camps of Kashmiri Pandits and discovered that the conditions they lived in were "utterly appalling." The appalling conditions were probably because the government always thought that it was going to be temporary problem.

Lord Avebury said he did not think that the Pandits could go back to their homes at the present moment because they could not feel secure. "You cannot be certain that the outsiders (foreign mercenaries) won't single them out.