By Rehana Hakim
18 November 2004
or how does one begin? Three weeks of reflection after a five-day journey
into "forbidden land" yield only one absolute truth: in Kashmir
- Jammu, the valley and 'Azad' - there is no absolute truth.
And in the myriad
faces of the conflict that has spanned 57 years and claimed tens of
thousands of lives, there are no winners.
So where does one
At the very beginning
of the first-ever trip in 57 years to Indian-administered Kashmir by
a group of Pakistani journalists? That would be the meeting in Anantnag
with Mehbooba Mufti - Kashmir's answer to Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto
- the supremely confident and articulate daughter of Jammu and Kashmirs'
chief minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. Or does one start with the scion
of the 'Lion' of Kashmir's family, the suave Omar Abdullah, who holds
Pakistan responsible for most of J&K's travails. Does one focus
on JKLF's angry young man, Yasin Malik, who accuses the "imperialist
Punjabis" from both sides of the divide of deciding the fate of
Kashmir without taking the Kashmiris' aspirations into account. Or should
the curtain open to the APHC's Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who staunchlyopposes
reopening the bus route between Muzaffarabad and Srinagar because he
believes it will dilute the Kashmir problem.
Perhaps one should
start at the other end of the ideological divide - at the camps of the
Pandits in Jammu, who fled the valley after the latest insurgency erupted
and who accuse the Pakistani media of never failing to report on the
"excesses" on Kashmiris by the security personnel but ignoring
the "genocide" of Pandits by the militants. Or should one
just plunge into the heart of the issue: the homes of hundreds of those
Kashmiris who have lost fathers, husbands and sons to security forces,
to the freedom struggle or to militancy, and been left at the mercy
of the state apparatus?
Kashmir is tricky
terrain. It's like walking a minefield. Passions and tempers run high.
There is a high degree of skepticism, cynicism, and of suspicion - borne
understandably of 57 years of a closed-door policy - when a delegation
of 16 journalists sponsored by the South Asia Free Media Association
(SAFMA) arrives in Jammu and Kashmir as guests of The Kashmir Times.
The opening salvo
is fired by Asiya Andrabi, leader of the Dukhtaran-e-Millat, a right-wing
women's group that hit the headlines in 1992 for reportedly trying to
implement their version of the Islamic code of dress and throwing acid
on some women who refused to cover their faces.
Speaking at an
impromptu press conference at one of her many hideouts, Andrabi, who
is currently a fugitive from the law, alleges that the visit is sponsored
by the Indian government, and that the delegates are guests of pro-India
political parties and the army. She demands to know why Pakistani journalists
have been allowed to enter J&K, when Amnesty International and other
human rights groups have been denied permission. Andrabi describes the
visit as part of a "diabolical plan" for Musharraf's sellout
on Kashmir. Andrabi is not the only one who has reservations about the
JKLF's Yasin Malik
feels the delegation has compromised the legal status of Kashmir by
travelling on Indian visas. The APHC's Syed Ali Shah Geelani is not
pleased that Doda, Baramulla, Rajouri - the areas that have borne the
brunt of the army's excesses - have not been included in the itinerary.
And the Kashmir Bar Council takes the journalists to task for partaking
of wazwan (Kashmir's gourmet cuisine) with state functionaries. In short,
we are put on the defensive from the word go.
No, we are not
representing Musharraf, Manmohan Singh, or the US; no, we have no agenda;
no, we do not represent any government; no, we have no roadmap on Kashmir;
no, we offer no solutions; no, we are not the UN Secretary-General.
We are lambasted
time and again for travelling on Indian visas, till an irritated Imtiaz
Alam, SAFMA's head honcho, responds with: "How come you don't question
Hurriyat leaders who travel on Indian passports?" That clinches
aside, no one, with any shade of political opinion, would miss an opportunity
to meet a corps of Pakistani journalists.
Syed Ali Shah Geelani, often branded an ISI agent by the Indian media,
meets us at the Tehreek-i-Hurriyat headquarters in Hyderpore. He remains
firm on his stand: J&K's accession to Pakistan. He sees no other
option. "An independent Kashmir will become a playing field for
vested interests," he states in categorical terms. "There
has to be a plebiscite in accordance with UN resolutions." He warns
against an Afghanistan-like U-turn on Kashmir and even opposes the proposal
of soft borders and free travel between the two Kashmirs. He fears it
would dilute the Kashmir problem. "Even if India were to pave the
streets of Kashmir with gold, it would not atone for the blood of its
martyrs," says Geelani.
the differences within the APHC's ranks, he says there are none. "Only
those people who violated the party's constitution by contesting in
the 2002 polls were suspended." Told to prove his electoral strength
by contesting an election, he says, "I will do so only under UN
observers. The Indians would rig elections to embarrass me."
Unlike APHC's hardliners,
the moderate faction of the APHC, led by Maulana Abbas Ansari, accuses
Islamabad of scuttling any peace moves by funding a plethora of agencies
to foment trouble in Kashmir. "We never thought a symbol of political
unity would be broken up by its mentor," fumes Abdul Ghani Bhat,
the former Hurriyat Chairman. He says he tore up an earlier will in
which he had expressed a desire to be buried in Pakistan. The Ansari
group, however, claims to have a blueprint for a settlement of the Kashmir
dispute which would be acceptable to all three sides and which would
take into account the "sensitivities, security concerns, economic
interests and national honour of all three as well as the functional
togetherness of different regions of J&K."
son-in-law, G.M. Shah, a former chief minister of J&K who heads
the JK Awami National Conference, proposes what he calls "the mother
of all confidence-building measures" - an intra-Kashmir conference
to hammer out a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
The walls of the
entrance to the house where we meet the J&K Democratic Front Party's
Chief, Shabbir Ahmed Shah, are a testimony to the violence in Kashmir:
pasted all over are snapshots of hundreds of bullet-riddled, tortured
bodies of those killed in the valley.
stop custodial killings, release detained political activists, withdraw
the Public Safety Act under which people can be detained for two years
without any trial, set up a Kashmir Committee headed by a man like Vajpayee
to carry the peace process forward, and it should include Kashmiris."
that the militants have hijacked Kashmir's freedom movement are cast
aside. "We are grateful to the militants for taking the Kashmir
issue out of cold storage and pushing it centrestage," he says.
"In any case, they are mostly locals and, those who are not, will
go back home once the peace initiatives begin to show results. Before
1989, no one carried even a penknife. The Kashmir issue is a political
issue and it has to be resolved politically," he says categorically.
The most passionate,
and the most volatile of the separatists, is the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation
Front (JKLF) Chairman, Yasin Malik. Unlike Shabbir Shah who breaks into
a smile every now and then, the lean, wiry Yasin appears grim, pensive,
angst-ridden. There is an impenetrable barrier of reserve. But as the
38-year-old freedom fighter, who has spent 15 years in jail, off and
on, in Srinagar, Jodhpur and Tihar, begins to speak to the Pakistani
media at the party headquarters in Maisuma, the reserve boils over into
There is overwhelming
anger at the Kashmiris being left out of the dialogue process. "Are
we a pack of animals?" he asks angrily. "This is not a border
dispute between India and Pakistan that has to be resolved by its rulers.
The solution has to be in consonance with Kashmir's aspirations."
In the last 16
months, Malik has gone from village to village collecting signatures
of the people of J&K demanding that they be allowed to determine
their own future - 16 lakh signatures at last count. He accuses the
Indian government of wanting to change the demographic character of
Yasin is dismissive
of the 2002 state assembly polls. "According to the Election Commission,
the Chief Minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, secured only 2,81,000 votes
in the entire state. Besides only 20 per cent of the population participated
in the polls, which means 80 per cent boycotted the polls on our call.
So who was defeated?"
He reads extracts
from the works of the well known Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali's collection,
A Country Without a Post Office (Shahid died of cancer at age 55 in
the US), copies of which he gifts to all the delegates:
When the muezzin
died,the city was robbed of every call.
The houses were swept about like leaves for burning.
Now every night we buryour houses - and theirs, the ones left empty.
We are faithful. On their doors we hang wreaths.
More faithful each night fire again is a walland
we look for the dark as it caves in.
Agha Shahid's father,
the erudite Agha Ashraf Ali, a former professor of political history,
is scathing in his comments, but his contempt is not reserved for India
alone. He refers to India and Pakistan as the "pipsqueaks with
their little bombs," and ends on a telling note: "Leave us
to our own devices, we will manage. The Kashmiris will have the last
In Srinagar, both
expectations and passions run highS Every Kashmiri you run into at Srinagar's
Broadway Hotel wants five minutes of your time; wants you to understand
his trauma, his suffering, his pain; wants you to hear his story - and
there are many, many stories. Stories of missing sons, abused daughters;
stories of women whose husbands have gone missing and widows; abandoned
orphans, destitute families and charred properties.
Each more poignant
than the other.
Ahangar, whose son has been missing for the past 17 years. A college
student, he was picked up by security forces from his house at three
o'clock in the morning. Since then Parveena has been running from army
cantonments to prison cells to government offices
demanding to know the whereabouts of her son. She believes he's been
killed. "At least, give me his body to bury," the mother cries
Ahangar now heads
an organisation called Parents of Disappeared Persons (PADP). She takes
Ary Televison's Syed Talat Hussain in a rickshaw to meet other parents
of missing children. In her neighbourhood alone, there are apparently
60 such cases.
At Syed Ali Shah
Geelani's press briefing, a dozen or so women approach the female journalists.
One of them holds The News' foreigncorrespondent, Mariana Baabar's hand
and cries out aloud as she talks of how life has become a veritable
hell ever since her husband decided to join the militants. She lifts
her pheran (long Kashmiri outer garment) to reveal a big gash in
her stomach. She accuses the security forces of torturing and tormenting
her. "My young daughters are summoned to the army camp every now
and then," she says. We are told to visit Doda, Baramulla, Budgam
and Rajouri that are teeming with stories like hers.
We hear the sorry
tale of Pattan, an entire village which was burnt down as "retribution"
when some army personnel were killed. Another village, we are told,
was torched when the security forces found a militant holed up in one
of the houses in the area.
"Is it fair
to punish an entire village because a militant has sought refuge in
one home?" says an angry Kashmiri shopkeeper. "In many cases
the militants don't enter our homes with our permission. They just barge
in." He recalls the time when a group of eight militants forced
their way into his house, when he was away at work. His sisters were
forced to vacate their room. "The visitors, from Jaish I suspect,
didn't harass anyone, but they mounted their guns, and stayed and prayed
through the night. Before they left early the next morning, my family
made breakfast for them and they insisted on paying for a pack of butter
they had asked my brother to get from a corner shop. But till the time
they were there, my family was on tenterhooks."
Suddenly, our hitherto
forthcoming shopkeeper is struck by the realisation that talking to
us might cost him dearly. "Please don't reveal my identity,"
he pleads. "If the security forces find out, they will lock me
up on charges of harbouring terrorists." His fear is palpable.
As is the fear of a hotel employee who looks around to see if anyone
is listening as he informs me about his son, a college student, who
was constantly being approached by militants to join the freedom movement.
He pulled his son out of college and found him employment elsewhere.
"Please don't disclose my name," he beseeches "or else
I'll be in deep trouble."
In Kashmir, the
battle lines are drawn: 'Either you are with us - the militants or the
security forces - or you are against us. And whichever side you are
on, prove it.' There is no sitting on the fence, no such entity as neutral
observer. One is constantly looking over one's shoulder to see who's
eavesdropping. "But some Kashmiris have learnt the art of survival,"
says a Delhi-based reporter. "They'll give the ISI or a Pakistani
one story, they'll gave RAW or an Indian another."
However, at Srinagar's
Kashmir University with 4,000 students on the roll, there is just one
Alam throws a simple question at the 20 students who have been chosen
for an interface with SAFMA delegates: If they had to choose between
India, Pakistan and independence, what would they opt for?
is the overwhelming response. They don't wish to merge with either India
or Pakistan. "Firstly we'd like a reunification of the Indian and
Pakistan-administered parts of Kashmir, plus the part that is with China,
and then we want independence." But even as they speak, around
50 to 60 students carrying placards raise slogans of "Azadi ka
matlab kiya? La illaha illalah," "Pakistan Zindabad,"
and "Jeevay, jeevay Pakistan." Some say they want 'Nizam-e-Mustafa.'
Asked whether they know what it implies in practical terms, they are
The students complain
to Pakistani TV anchors, Talat Hussain of Ary, Munizae Jahangir of Geo
and Mujahid Barelvi of Indus TV, on camera, that they were not informed
about the Pakistani media team's visit and that their university's principal
unilaterally decided on the list of students and faculty members who
would be allowed to meet the journalists. The number of protesting students
swells to roughly 300, all wanting to be heard. The media team has to
be moved to the main auditorium of Gandhi Bhavan next door to hear them
The anger here
pulsates through the hall. They want azadi, azadi, azadi. "Politics
is not allowed on the campus," Kashmir University's vice chancellor
had said earlier in response to my query. But obviously you can't drown
the cry of freedom.
Asked if the faculty
has done any definitive study on the Kashmir question or examined possible
resolutions of the dispute, Professor Noor Mohammed Baba, head of the
political science department, acknowledges that no such study has been
possible because of the "pressures from both sides - the government
and the militants. Everyone has gone through a traumatic experience
and free expression is not possible."
has had its share of problems. The early '90s saw the departure of a
major chunk of the faculty, primarily comprising the Pandits, who were
highly educated. They couldn't withstand the pressures of the volatile
political situation. They were among the three lakh Pandits who left
the valley in the wake of what they say was a "calculated genocide"
to drive the Pandits out of the valley. Only 18,000 Pandits chose to
stay behind. "The community's unity has been lost," says a
Muslim teacher. "We never thought in terms of Muslims and Pandits,
but the violence has pulled us apart. A cultural erosion has taken place."
As we drive into
Muthi, a 10 km drive from Jammu, crowds carrying placards denouncing
the violence against Kashmiri pandits dot the landscape. This is one
of the 500 camps spread all over Jammu, where displaced Kashmiri Pandits
have taken sanctuary.
They live in tiny,
10x10 one-room tenements, each with a small kitchenette, but communal
bathrooms. The affluent among them have moved to Delhi, Mumbai and other
men converge on us from all sides as we settle down, amidst much jostling
and pushing. They are livid at having had to leave the comfort of their
homes and live in squalor. They blame the Pakistan government for continuing
to sponsor cross-border terrorism
and militancy in Kashmir. The Pakistani media is also ticked off for
highlighting human rights violations by security forces in Kashmir,
but failing to mention "the barbarism perpetrated by militants."
to ethnic cleansing," says Ashwini Kumar Chrangoo, chief of the
Panun Kashmiri Movement, an organisation for displaced Kashmiri Pandits.
however, allege that it was the J&K Governor, Jagmohan, who manoeuvered
the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits from Srinagar and communalised the
issue. Says the Democratic Freedom Party's Shabbir Shah, "We have
asked the Pandits to return to the valley.
We will protect them with our lives."
But the mood in
the camp is one of fury. "We are not ready for another migration.
We want a separate homeland within the valley, carved from the north
and east side of the Jhelum valley." And they say that they too
want to be included in the talks on the Kashmir issue.
They have a parting
request to make: they want the Pakistan government to take steps to
renovate the Sharda temple, an ancient shrine of Kashmiri Pandits in
Azad Kashmir, and make it possible for them to visit it. The queue of
people wanting to visit family, friends and religious sites on the other
side of the divide is long... and growing.
Ram Lal, 88, grabs
hold of Tahir Naqqash, Dawn's correspondent in Muzaffarabad, and enquires
about friends he left behind at the time of Partition: Lassu Ju, Wali
Ju, Usman Bhoriwalla. Ram Lal lived in a refugee camp in Muzaffarabad
for five months. A Pathan saved his 10-month-old daughter from a fire.
The girl is now a professor - and 57-years down the road, Lal's heart
is still full of gratitude. He anxiously awaits the start of the bus
service between Muzaffarabad and Srinagar.
As does Daljeet
Singh, an employee of the Food Corporation of India, who hails from
Chakothi Village in Muzaffarabad. He has named his house in Nanak Nagar,
'Chakothi,' after his 82-year-old father's village. His father refers
to the house as "Chakothi, sone di kothi" (Chakothi, house
of gold), as he regales his grandchildren with stories of his village
where he was a numberdar.
is meeting his family, including his maternal uncle, for the first time.
How was the reunion?
he chokes, "we barely talked. We simply held hands and cried."
Naqqash's father, who died three years ago, lived in Srinagar till 1956,
and in his last days would often ask his son; "Bus chal rahi hai?
Main ghar jaana chahta hoon." (Is the bus service operating? I
want to go home).
The channels of
communication between the two Kashmirs have been abysmal. In fact, the
minute one landed in Srinagar, telecommunication links with Pakistan
died. Even the satellite phones of Ary and Geo correspondents wouldn't
One learnt that
Jammu and Kashmir's residents could make International Subscriber Dialling
(ISD) calls to anywhere in the world - except Pakistan. The Indian Defence
Ministry withdrew the facility after the border buildup in June 2001
and people wishing to make calls to Pakistan had to drive down to Lakhanpur
or outside the state. The status quo remains.
Mobile phones have
been allowed in the valley only recently, but the service is hampered
by the usual glitches. Newspapers are full of letters complaining about
dead mobiles. In the area of Boulevard and Dalgate, for instance, mobiles
had been dead for three weeks, with the "network busy" signal
coming on each time anyone dialled.
Finally, the governments
of the two countries are beginning to consider the proposal of allowing
travel between the two Kashmirs. But differences remain over the documents
to be used: while the Pakistan government proposes travel on UN documents,
so as not to compromise Pakistan's position on the LoC status, the Indian
government insists that visitors travel on the passports of their respective
Not everyone views
the concept of soft borders and free travel between the two Kashmirs
favourably. APHC's Syed Ali Shah Geelani maintains that the move is
designed to dilute the Kashmir problem. He fears that once people-to-people
contacts begin, the dispute will be consigned to the backwaters. "We
have not sacrificed a hundred thousand lives, just for opening up the
borders," says Geelani angrily. The PDP chairperson, Mehbooba Mufti,
disagrees vehemently. "It's not just about an international border,
it's about a people. If I had my way, I would say no documents at all.
There is a human dimension to this tragedy that needs to be dealt with
urgently. Moreover, the bus travel would boost our respective economies
too. Our crates of Sopore apples should be able to fetch cash instead
J&K Chief Minister
Mufti Sayeed's daughter, Mehbooba, an MP and President of the Peoples
Democratic Party (PDP) is among the more articulate young voices emerging
from Kashmir. Clad in an abaya, with a scarf covering her head, she
seems perfectly at ease and fully in charge in an all-male domain. A
colleague refers to her as 'mahi munda.'
maintains that the valley is becoming safe for its residents and that
they can actually step out after sundown, never mind that the dak bungalow
in Anantnag, where she meets us, is teeming with hundreds of security
personnel, and an APC with a jamming device is parked nearby. "My
father's 'healing touch' policy is actually working," she says.
"He has ordered the release of all those people who are languishing
in jail despite completing their terms. Additionally, security personnel
who were guilty of excesses against innocents are being taken to task."
The PDP President
impresses with her candour and steals a march over her father. As does
Omar Abdullah, who leads the main opposition, the National Conference.
Unlike his father, Farooq Abdullah, often referred to as the "disco
chief minister who spent more time hobnobbing with Delhi socialites
and Bollywood queens than he did with his constituents," Omar ("drop-dead
gorgeous" by at least one young colleague's account) appears extremely
focused. And he does not mince his words when he says that in his view
the Kashmir problem is largely of Pakistan's making.
"We grew apples,
we grew peaches, we grew pears. We didn't grow guns," he says angrily.
"A neighbour took advantage of our sense of alienation, disillusionment,
disenchantment and a people who were peace-loving have turned violent."
He laments the loss of his party workers at the hands of people "who
came from across the border." Ask if state terrorism is justified,
and he retorts, "What came first - the terrorists or the state
perpetrators?" But Kashmiris want independence, you say. Does his
party too? "I do not want to promise anything that we cannot deliver,
we don't sell dreams we cannot fulfill. Our vision has to be grounded
NC stands for maximum
autonomy within the Indian constitution. "We will strive for the
kind of autonomy the state enjoyed originally under Article 370 in 1952,"
says Omar. However, if the composite dialogue throws up anything else,
we will not stand in the way." He sounds a note of caution: "You
have to include all factions of the APHC. You can't split the party
and talk to just one group."
The battle over
India's 'atoot ang' (integral part) and Pakistan's 'shahrag' (lifeline)
has extracted a heavy toll: 100,000 dead, among them 18,251 militants,
4,471 security personnel and 15,121 civilians according to unofficial
estimates. Sand-bagged bunkers, olive green trucks, APCs, barbed wires
and cocked rifles have become a part of the landscape. As have the Border
Security Force (BSF), the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the
Jammu and Kashmir Police. Among them is the young,
attractive Zohra, mother of two, who we run into at the Jammu Women's
police station. She joined the police force after her husband, a driver
in the police force, was killed by militants.
Life couldn't be
easy for the forces either: the 'enemy,' whatever his colour, is unrelenting.
There have been suicides, nervous breakdowns, desertions, and reports
of service-men pulling the trigger on fellow officers.
But the brunt of
this never-ending tragedy has been borne by the ordinary Kashmiri. Human
rights groups produce list upon list of persons who have been picked
up either by the security forces or the militants and disappeared in
the black holes of Jammu and Kashmir. Here there is an all-pervasive
rage, and alongside a sense of hopelessness, a sense of a helplessness,
a feeling of having been betrayed by those who perforce control their
destiny: India, Pakistan, and the Kashmiri leadership. Says Muslim Jan,
an educationist, "My soul has been destroyed. I feel a void within.
Each time a euphoria is created, but the reality is different - it's
not a step towards the grand narrative. A low intensity conflict can
upset the apple cart any time."
Azadi, it seems,
is still a long way from Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali's dream for his
country without a post office...
meet again, in Srinagar,
by the gates of the Villa of Peace,
our hands blossoming into fists
till the soldiers return the keys
and disappear. "
- Agha Shahid
Without A Post Office'