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Kashmir - A Step Forward

By Beena Sarwar

30 November, 2004
Personal Political

We've been fighting over Kashmir for over half a century. The issue has been complicated by religiously-motivated outsiders being injected into an indigenous struggle for independence, and by a high concentration of Indian armed forces. It is unrealistic to expect any overnight solution or success in the ongoing dialogue process - which is a process and not an end in itself. But if we keep our sights fixed firmly on a solution as the ultimate goal, and include Kashmiris in the process, we will move towards it. It may be peppered with setbacks, failures and disappointments, but the dialogue must continue, no matter how much it is criticized for being slow or for being more about 'form than substance'.

A year ago, India and Pakistan had their backs to each other. Like petulant children who have fought, snatching back gifts given over the years. armies at the ready, embassy staffs scaled down; road, rail and air connections severed and over-flights banned, causing tremendous human suffering and economic losses. "It's hurting them more than it's hurting us," was the puerile logic.

In this grim situation, Pakistan's gesture of a unilateral ceasefire along the Line of Control at Eid-ul-Fitr in November 2003 resounded like a thunderbolt. It had an immediate and positive impact on those living along the LoC, who lived with the uncertainty of mortar shells damaging and destroying homes, killing or maiming people and cattle. On either side, villagers began heading for the River Neelum where the village of Chiliana on the Pakistan side (Tithwal on the Indian side) is bifurcated by the LoC. As word got out that the security forces would not prevent them, villagers congregated at one of the few spots where they used to be able to 'meet' before the road was closed fourteen years ago. In the cold and rain, they waved and threw letters and gifts weighted with rocks across the 20-metre wide river, unable to hear each other because of the roar of the raging current.

One young woman held up her baby for her mother on the other side to see. "I haven't seen her in 14 years," she said, sobbing. "She's standing right over there." Across the river, her mother had to be held back from jumping into the icy current. One woman from the Indian side tried to cross, but was pulled out before the current carried her off. Mohammad Karim, 50, threw a coconut across to his brother Mujid. "This was only a coconut, but it's more than the whole world to me, because I have seen my brother after 14 years," said Karim. Mujid nearly fell into the water, but caught the gift. "Now, he has kids, and I am growing old. A day will come when we will speak with each other, close-up" (AP, Jan 21, 2004).

Such a dream was partially realized by six families by a media initiative inspired by the Neelum River 'reunions', when in June, the BBC Urdu Service established an hour-long video and satellite-phone link between Srinagar and Muzzafarabad. The families thus connected wept with joy and pain at the BBC studios in Muzaffarabad and Srinagar, as they saw and talked to their loved ones via webcam. There are no direct telephone links across the LoC, and even satellite phones cease to work when the line is crossed, as the first Pakistani journalists to visit Srinagar recently found out.

Another dramatic reunion in December 2003 highlighted the pathos of families divided not just by man-made borders but man-made tensions, when a 77-year old Kashmiri Sikh woman, Harbans Kaur met her Muslim son and daughter in Muzaffarabad after over 40 years. She had lived there with her Sikh husband but got left behind when he fled to India in 1947. Thinking she would never see him again, Harbans converted to Islam and married again. She had a son and a daughter from her Muslim husband, but in 1950 after India and Pakistan agreed to 'return' women to their original families and she had to leave her babies and return to her Sikh husband, with whom she had two daughters and a son. Eight years ago her first daughter, Zeenat, now 54, and son Manzoor Hussain, 49, learnt that their mother was still alive; their father had died two years after she left. It took five years to find her contact details - and another two before they actually met, following the resumption of the Lahore-Delhi bus service.

Pakistan-India relations have followed what the Strategic Foresight Group terms as the 'swing' model "whereby the pendulum of the relationship swings from one end to the other - conflict in May 1998 to peace in February 1999 to conflict in May 1999 to peace in November 2001 to conflict in December 2001 to peace in April 2003 to further peace in January 2004".

With vision, statesmanship and political will, there is no reason why this pattern should continue, and why the move towards peace should not spiral upwards and onwards. The leaders of South Asia's two nuclear-armed neighbours must continue with the people-centric approach - particularly for the divided people of Kashmir -- that is now being emphasized. All kinds of breakthroughs are possible if the necessary political will is laced with imagination and flexibility.











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