After the polls in Kashmir

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

AS attention in Pakistan was focused on the elections held in the country last Thursday, it was inevitable that the results of the polls held next door in the disputed Indian-occupied Kashmir, which came in the same day, were all but ignored. This was partly because our own electoral exercise was on and left little time and even lesser interest in what was emerging on the political stage across the Line of Control.

But more than that there were the legal niceties which we in Pakistan feel must be taken care of. Since we do not recognize the legitimacy of the government in Srinagar and because India is in unlawful occupation of Kashmir, it is not considered correct to take note of the political developments that take place on the other side of the LoC. Hence, by rejecting the elections in occupied Kashmir as a farce, we tend to treat them as a non-event. It is only the violence in the valley, especially the brutalities of the Indian security forces, which receive considerable coverage in Pakistan’s media.

This is an ostrich-like approach. Taking note of a reality is different from granting it recognition. Even if the elections in Occupied Kashmir were manipulated and the turn-out was low, we should not dismiss them as being of no consequence, just as we have not turned a blind eye to our own elections in spite of the fact that many parties have alleged that they were rigged.

Politically speaking, it cannot be denied that the elections in IHK were no substitute for the right of self-determination which was promised to the Kashmiris by India in 1947. This pledge was reinforced by the UNCIP resolutions, which ended the war in the state in 1949 and also provided for a UN-supervised plebiscite to enable the people of Jammu and Kashmir to determine their political future.

But what we must remember is that this happened in 1949 and a lot of water has flowed down the Indus in the last 52 years. True, 11 elections have been held in Indian-occupied Kashmir and the state remains in turmoil. The moot question is: can Pakistan, which became a party to the dispute by virtue of the circumstances attending the Partition of 1947, hope to resolve the dispute by rigidly adhering to the stance it adopted five decades ago? If we were to shed our blinkered approach we might be able to discern the winds of change blowing across the valley.

A lot has been happening in Kashmir in the last few months. This is in addition to the acts of terrorism, which India describes as originating from the Pakistan side. We prefer to term this violence as the outcome of the freedom movement being waged by the indigenous population. There appears to be a grain of truth in both. But the more important fact is that the political scenario in the Indian-held Kashmir is changing. The Indian government has made some tentative moves to which the Kashmiris — not the groups which have been rightly branded as puppets — have responded positively so far.

Does not statesmanship and sagacity demand that Pakistan take note of the political shift that is gradually taking place in the Indian-held state. The elections that took place in four phases in September/October reflect this change. We should take a hard look at the results, which have emerged from the exercise. Turning a blind eye to them will not help, especially when Pakistanis have accepted their own elections which, too, were flawed.

The National Conference (NC), which has ruled the state since 1975 when Sheikh Abdullah entered into a deal with Indira Gandhi, has suffered a severe setback. It is expected to be out of office, even though with 28 out of 87 seats in the assembly the NC is the largest party.

Not only was the NC president Omar Abdullah, the scion of the Abdullah family, routed by his PDP rival, ten ministers also failed to get through.

The People’s Democratic Party led by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, a former Union home minister, is expected to form the government in coalition with the Congress and other smaller parties and independents. With new blood in the seat of power one can hope for innovative approaches to be tried to resolve the issue. Mufti Sayeed participated in the elections but he is on record as having said that the “elections provide no answer to the Kashmir problem”.

Therefore, not surprisingly, the recent elections have not derailed the peace process of sorts which began in August. Its staunch opposition to the polls notwithstanding, the All Party Hurriyat Conference has announced that it will resume talks with the Kashmir Committee later this week. Headed by former Union law minister, Ram Jethmalani, this non-official body of seven members started a low-profile dialogue with the APHC and Shabir Shah, the leader of the Democratic Freedom Party.

Although no substantial progress has been achieved so far, the mere fact that the two sides have managed to keep the talks going is in itself a major achievement. Given the confrontationist climate in the held-state and the armed insurgency there, even little measures amount to much and should be appreciated as such.

Ram Jethmalani has called on the new government which takes office in Srinagar to grant general amnesty to those who lay down arms. He has also suggested the repeal of all repressive and undemocratic laws. More significantly, he has asked Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to hold talks with the “militants” and “separatists” in the state. We will have to wait and see how the government in New Delhi will respond to the new post-election situation in Srinagar. Mr Vajpayee should be mindful of the slide in the BJP’s popularity in the held-state where the party has been left clinging to a lone seat in the Assembly. In fact, its arch-rival, the Congress Party, has fared much better and is expected to be a partner in the government.

The APHC has insisted that Pakistan should be included in the dialogue when it begins in real earnest. At his press conference last week, Professor Abdul Gani Bhat, the Hurriyat chairman, said that though his party stood for a plebiscite in Kashmir, there “may be problems in the way of a plebiscite and then the only way out was a purposeful and positive dialogue between India, Pakistan and the people of Kashmir”.

One hopes that the Pakistan government understands the implications of these developments and statements. There are two key aspects, which Islamabad needs to recognize in charting out its future course of action. First, the Kashmiri freedom movement is not a monolithic process. The numerous factions struggling to free themselves from Indian control do not share a common goal and their strategies are also diverse. Thus, the Hizbul Mujahideen, which is headed by Syed Salahuddin, has been critical of the Kashmir Committee and has rejected its dialogue with the APHC. The Hizb stands for an armed struggle.

Gani Bhat, on the other hand, is a politician and wants to adopt a political course. He even declared recently that “politics consists of reconciliation, balancing and interpreting various opinions”. He promised to take ten steps forward if India and Pakistan were to take one.

Meanwhile, there are indications that India is moving towards accepting an American role in the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Be it as a mediator, as Pakistan terms it, or as a facilitator, as India has now described it, some activity seems likely on the diplomatic front.

How will Pakistan respond at this critical juncture? With the process of government formation in Islamabad so fluid at the moment and the emergence of the pro-jihad religious parties in substantial strength, a rethinking of the Kashmir policy may have become difficult. Nevertheless, policy makers who are empowered to take decisions on foreign policy should opt for a low profile on Kashmir. While Islamabad should seek to disengage from the armed struggle in the disputed state, it should leave it to the APHC to set the tone for it and determine its course.

There are too many contradictions in Pakistan’s Kashmir policy to carry it to a logical and realistic end. It makes little sense to demand, parrot-like, a plebiscite the modalities of which were laid down in the 1949 UN resolutions. These resolutions are no longer implementable. Hence the need is for greater pragmatism. If Prof Abdul Gani Bhat can show it, why not Pakistan?