Across the divide

Written by Sushobha Barve | Published on: November 1, 2009

 
Towards dialogue on Kashmir


The three-day intra-Kashmir conference, ‘Kashmir: Opportunities and Challenges Ahead’, organised recently by the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation (CDR), concluded with the call for resumption of dialogue between India and Pakistan and an end to restrictions on travel and trade across the Line of Control (LoC). The fact that the conference could be held in Srinagar, despite the many difficulties this posed, was in itself a cause for celebration. The 11th intra-Kashmir conference organised by CDR and the first major initiative on Kashmir taken by civil society since the Mumbai terror attack last year, it served to endorse the organisers’ conviction that open communication channels would help build public opinion that would eventually nudge the governments to resume dialogue.

Background

CDR has been organising intra-region conferences on Kashmir since 2003. In the state of Jammu and Kashmir, every region and ethnic community has a grievance and suffers from a victimhood syndrome. Many of these grievances are based on not just political but also social, economic and administrative neglect over several decades. The CDR conferences attempted to bridge the gulf between the regions, communities, diverse political opinions and aspirations of people of the state. This was the first initiative that brought the diverse groups from all of the state’s regions into the dialogue process in order to discuss the resolution of the Kashmir issue. Participants in the intra-region dialogue were convinced that a common understanding had to evolve if they hoped to resolve the Kashmir problem.

These dialogues not only provided insight into the depth of people’s feelings across the three regions and different communities, and their grievances and political differences, but also provided clues to remedial steps that could be taken to bridge the gulf and reduce anger. As people came together, shared their stories and listened to each other, it became clear that these dialogues would play an important role in developing deeper understanding and trust between diverse communities and regions of the state. Any search for a sustainable solution for Jammu and Kashmir would necessarily have to incorporate the hopes and aspirations of all its peoples. While the gatherings encouraged people to express their feelings and ideas, the final emphasis was on identifying factors that would make a difference on the ground to improve the quality of life. Participants also emphasised the need to reduce violence. Part of the difficulty in tackling the violence in Jammu and Kashmir was that different regions experienced the violence differently.

As participants began to have confidence in the group sitting around the table, they began to come up with constructive, practical suggestions and recommendations. These included the reopening of all the old traditional internal routes, for instance, the Mughal road connecting Poonch to Shopian and bus routes across the LoC between Poonch-Rawalakot, Jhangar-Mirpur, Mendhar-Kotli, Jammu-Sialkot and Skardu-Kargil, for travel and trade. The demand for reopening the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road is, of course, several decades old. Ladakhis wanted the Kailash-Mansarovar route between Ladakh and China to be reopened. The reopening of these old routes would satisfy the aspirations of divided families across an entire region who longed to meet their kin. It would assuage their fears and anxieties and allow this trans-Himalayan region to resume its cultural contiguity even as it improved economic conditions through local trade.

Throughout 2004, participants in the intra-region dialogue conferences expressed their desire to meet and discuss issues with their counterparts across the LoC, in Azad Jammu and Kashmir. In January 2004 the leaders of Pakistan and India had launched the peace process at a meeting held on the sidelines of the SAARC summit in Islamabad. This move signalled that the two former adversaries were ready to become partners in building peace between the two nations. The CDR’s dialogue conference series ran parallel with this development.

In 2005 CDR launched its intra-Kashmir dialogue series from Srinagar, which has enabled people from both sides of the LoC to meet and discuss their political future. In the intervening years CDR has held 11 across-LoC dialogue conferences in different places, of which six were held in Jammu and Kashmir and one in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. This Track II civil society dialogue process was well ahead of the governments. As an outcome of these intra-Kashmir dialogue conferences, a clear consensus, cutting across the political spectrum, began to emerge on certain issues. These are:
  • Violence is no more a tool for resolving the conflict.
  • Fragmentation/division of the state should not be allowed.
  • The dialogue process must include people of all regions and communities of the divided state. (This is already reflected in the official peace process now.)
  • The solution that evolves should be applicable to all regions of the former state of Jammu and Kashmir.
  • The solution should be acceptable to all three parties – people of the former state of Jammu and Kashmir, Indians and Pakistanis.
  • Kashmiris must be involved in the final decision-making process and in deciding their own future. No solution should be thrust upon them.
  • There must be a ceasefire with the militants and the honourable return of those stranded across the LoC.
  • There must be an end to human rights violations and calibrated reduction of security forces from civilian areas.

As the number of such gatherings and dialogues increased, so did the participation of people from all regions and ethnic groups. Participants carried the ideas that emerged during the conferences throughout the divided state. They also held follow-up meetings and discussions in their respective areas. Articles about issues discussed during the intra-region dialogues and across-LoC intra-Kashmir dialogue conferences have appeared in newspapers published from Jammu and Kashmir, Azad Jammu and Kashmir, India and Pakistan. These have helped in building support for the peace process and widening the peace constituency.

CDR has continuously brought to the notice of policymakers in the government, issues that concern the stakeholders in all regions of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. In some instances, it has succeeded in getting government policies shaped to meet people’s specific needs and aspirations. Such policy change was reflected in the Government of India’s fresh proposals to Pakistan for the opening of travel and trade routes in all three regions of the state. Some ideas have translated into confidence building measures that are already in place: the opening of the Poonch-Rawalakot route is a direct result of suggestions that arose during CDR dialogues. Last year CDR also played a small part in expediting the opening of trade routes between Srinagar-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawalakot. This went some way towards defusing tensions over the Amarnath issue.

However, the Amarnath crisis in the summer of 2008 threatened the consensus built on several issues and strained regional and intercommunity relations that had been painstakingly built over a period of time. Throughout the crisis and since then, during this past year, CDR has worked to ensure that lines of communication were kept open with all the participants in the CDR dialogues. Many of them played a constructive role during this period.

Since the Amarnath crisis, and despite the massive turnout in the assembly elections, it has been clear for some time that the unresolved political issue of Jammu and Kashmir cannot be left unaddressed. The pause in the Indo-Pak peace process, first due to the political crisis in Pakistan and then following the Mumbai terror attack last year, made Kashmiris very pessimistic about their future and unhappy that they were being held hostage to Indo-Pak relations. New regional developments also emphasised the need to engage the Kashmiris rather than ignore them.

Srinagar conference

The recently held intra-Kashmir conference in Srinagar was an attempt to bring people of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir from both sides of the LoC together and to facilitate dialogue among them to see how they wanted the dialogue process to go forward. The response was indeed overwhelming.

Over 60 participants representing all communities and regions of Jammu and Kashmir and Azad Jammu and Kashmir as well as India and Pakistan participated in the conference held from October 9-11. Representatives of different political parties and separatist groups, members of trade bodies, the media, the legal profession, academics and peace activists from Jammu and Kashmir and Azad Jammu and Kashmir had rigorous discussions on various aspects concerning the resolution of the Kashmir issue. The conference sessions were organised according to three broad themes: a) What can help the dialogue process to move forward? b) What confidence building measures can help in addressing the trust deficit? c) How can economic cooperation across the LoC be expanded?

Not long after the Amarnath crisis had rocked the state last year, trade across the LoC began in October 2008. One year later, the value of goods traded so far is nearly 40 crore rupees. But despite this expansion, trade is still conducted on a barter basis, without banking facilities, proper infrastructure or telecommunication. As a result, traders on both sides of the LoC are extremely unhappy. Last year CDR played a small role in helping to expedite the opening of cross-LoC trade. Since then it has worked very closely with members of the Jammu, Kashmir and Azad Jammu and Kashmir Chambers of Commerce and Industry. Furthering this involvement, the cross-LoC trade issue was given special focus during the conference.

At the conference the Working Group on Cross-LoC Trade included members from the joint Federation of Jammu and Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, set up last year during a visit by members of the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry to Jammu and Kashmir. The group held that trade across the LoC has tremendous potential not only to build up business prospects but also to contribute to a vast constituency for peace and cooperation. Faced with constant obstacles, cross-LoC trade has carried on against all odds and continues at a pace that reflects the traders’ deep commitment to enhanced cross-LoC cooperation. Thus the recommendations made by the working group are both very practical and urgent in nature. Though traders and businessmen are also working on a vision document aimed at generating a shared understanding of the future prospects of trade and cooperation, at the conference the group’s recommendations were limited to improving ongoing cross-LoC trade.

The confidence building measures to promote travel and trade across the LoC had a common goal, "making the LoC irrelevant" (as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh formulated). Yet the shabby implementation of these measures had devalued their importance and undermined the very thing they were meant to achieve. Urgent steps were needed to strengthen them. The conference urged both governments to ease travel restrictions across the LoC and maintained that this should not be confined to divided families alone as is the case today. The opening of telecommunication links and all traditional routes for trade and travel on a priority basis, development of tourism and sports potential, exchanges between the media, educational institutions, artists and artisans, were recommended as mechanisms for improving cooperation across the LoC.

The difficulties arising from the lack of telecommunication links between Jammu and Kashmir and areas across the LoC and in Pakistan were brought starkly home on the first day of the conference when news of a suicide attack in his city reached a Pakistani delegate from Peshawar. He was desperate for news of his wife and could only get in touch with her via a relative in Dubai. Most Kashmiris shared his anxieties, as they had known and suffered such moments themselves.

The Working Group on the Dialogue Process made two different sets of recommendations on India-Pakistan and intra-Kashmir dialogue. On the Delhi-Islamabad dialogue process, the group recommended:

1. There is a need for a focused, sustained and uninterrupted dialogue process between India and Pakistan.

2. The peace process should not only be result-oriented but time-oriented as well.

3. The dialogue should be multilayered.

4. In order to promote trust and confidence, different civil society groups must work at different levels to reduce the trust deficit.

5. The group strongly recommended that terrorism should be delinked from the dialogue process and should not come in the way of its immediate resumption. Further, the group also supported the Sharm el-Sheikh statement in this regard.

6. The group condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, whether by state or non-state actors.

7. The back channel must be put on track.

8. Islamabad and New Delhi must constantly assess the progress made in the peace process and take meaningful steps to move it forward.

The group’s recommendations on the intra-Kashmir dialogue process include:

1. A purposeful and focused dialogue process across and within regions and subregions of Jammu and Kashmir must be carried forward, considering conflicting opinions and positions on issues related to the state.

2. The credibility of the dialogue process must be ensured.

3. Different civil society groups i.e. lawyers, academics, media persons, legislators and leaders of different political groups must be involved in exchange programmes between and across regions.

4. Communications infrastructure must be set up, which is important for deepening the peace process.

5. Soft institutions like universities and cultural associations must open up branches for joint collaboration.

6. New Delhi should take immediate steps to resume the dialogue process with all shades of political opinion in Jammu and Kashmir.

The discussions in the plenary and smaller groups led to a jointly accepted consensus statement that was released to the media. This too was a significant achievement at this juncture, given the regional and political diversity represented at the conference.

Support for the Sharm el-Sheikh statement reflected the participants’ resolve to delink terrorism from the dialogue process between India and Pakistan. Condemning terrorism in all its manifestations and forms, whether by state or non-state actors, the participants urged New Delhi to resume dialogue with all shades of political opinion in Jammu and Kashmir.

Following the conference, some members of the trade organisations held meetings amongst themselves in Srinagar and Jammu. Similarly, discussions were also held with political leaders regarding the continuation of the dialogue process. The conference received extensive media coverage and succeeded in creating a positive environment conducive to peace and dialogue.

Archived from Communalism Combat, November 2009 Year 16    No.145/ Breaking Barriers 1