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Salaam Gilgit, namaste Baltistan

The forthcoming talks between Indian and Pakistani premiers are not intended to yield any dramatic breakthroughs, but they do have a special...

The forthcoming talks between Indian and Pakistani premiers are not intended to yield any dramatic breakthroughs, but they do have a special significance. This is the first time in recent history that our leaders will be meeting against the backdrop of a new peace process in Jammu and Kashmir. The hype that accompanied the Srinagar-Muzaffarabd bus, poses a challenge. The bus is a hard act to follow. What can we expect from the talks that will match it? Well, first of all, we can hope that the Jammu-Azad Kashmir and Kargil-Skardu routes will be reopened. Alongside this, we can hope that the Indian and Pakistani leaders will broaden the criteria for travel, by encouraging both political and people-to-people interaction across the Line of Control.

In the run-up to these talks, I had thought that we might see another next step unfold—that of the Hurriyat’s participation in the peace process. But the Hurriyat appears to have muffed the opportunity. They have created a situation in which the Pakistani government will press for the Hurriyat to be the first political representatives to board the bus, while the Indian government will press for the elected political representatives to be the first. This is a great pity. Indian and Pakistani officials have squabbled for far too long over who the ‘‘genuine representatives’’ of Jammu and Kashmir are. My own impression is that the Indian government was prepared to ‘‘do the needful’’ this time round, even though it was a great risk for them given how little consensus there is on the peace process within their own ranks as well as amongst their political foes such as the BJP. Well, the Hurriyat has let our government off the hook once again, as they did in 2000, when they helped bring cease-fire negotiations to an end. From the point of view of this set of talks, the best we can now hope for is that the Indian and Pakistani governments agree to encourage both the elected Kashmiri representatives and the Hurriyat to lead political interaction across the Line of Control—not together, but in parallel. In other words, the elected Kashmiri leaders and the Hurriyat have different constituencies to address in Pakistan. For the former, it is the Pakistani elite who will heed only their elite counterparts, however much lip service they might pay the Hurriyat. For the latter, it is the Islamists who will heed only the Hurriyat. Both constituencies will have to be on board if the peace process is to be entrenched.

It is the enormous success of people-to-people initiatives between India and Pakistan that opened the way for people-to-people interaction in divided Punjab—beginning with a bus across Wagah way back in 1999—and this in turn gave the two governments the confidence to reopen the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road. When it comes to encouraging people-to-people exchanges, it is the Pakistani government that is more hesitant than the Indian government. While Pakistanis now have a much better understanding of sentiments in Jammu and Kashmir because so many of them have visited or interacted with a wide cross-section of Kashmiris, Indians have little or no understanding of sentiments in Azad Kashmir, Gilgit and Baltistan, because far fewer of us have been permitted to visit or interact with people from Azad Kashmir, Gilgit and Baltistan. Yet, this kind of knowledge is essential in building a public constituency for peace—particularly in New Delhi and Islamabad.

General Musharraf has said he will respect the aspirations of the Kashmiris. The only way we can find out what those aspirations are, is by letting Kashmiris of all hues and from every part of the former princely state meet. That is the logical next step for this peace process to progress towards a resolution of the Kashmir conflict, and if the shining example of Ladakh is anything to go by, we can rest assured that Kashmiris will show a maturity and sensitivity towards Indian and Pakistani concerns that we have sadly failed to show them. In the midst of communal polarisation and domination, the Ladakhis restored peace and won self-rule. The people of Jammu, too, preserved the peace despite communal onslaughts. Given a chance, the people of the Kashmir valley too will rebuild trust and tolerance.

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But the people of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh cannot develop a constituency for peace in New Delhi by themselves. For that they need the support of colleagues from the other side of the Line of Control. I do hope our government will press this point with General Musharraf. We in India are hearing from people in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. We now need to hear from people in Azad Kashmir, Gilgit and Baltistan.

The writer’s new book, ‘Making Peace With Partition’, has just been published by Penguin India

First published on: 16-04-2005 at 00:00 IST
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