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Re-thinking Kashmir

By Beena Sarwar

30 June, 2004

For the last few months, we have been shown tantalising glimpses of the possibility of peacebetween Pakistan and India - with Kashmir, the'core issue' lurking contentiously in the background, bogging down both countries in their own narrow notions of nationalism and threatening whatever progress is made towards peace. To emerge from this quagmire, it is necessary to put aside prejudices, fears and positions, and engage in a genuine dialogue that breaks through these national versions of the Kashmir story that have been developed on all sides of the conflict.

This is what the documentary 'Crossing The Lines: Kashmir, Pakistan, India' (Eqbal Ahmad Foundation, 2004; 45 minutes) by the well known academics and peace activists Pervez Hoodbhoy and Zia Mian courageously attempts to do. Screened at private venues in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad over the last couple of months, the film is a straightforward narrative presented by Hoodbhoy - far more effectively than in his previous documentary, 'Pakistan and India Under the Nuclear Shadow' (2001), scripted by Mian.

"Nations and nationalism, borders and boundaries- these are ways of separating people and land. These are all old ideas, ideas that have failed us again and again," says Mian, with reference to the Kashmir film. He points out that there is a new government in India, but no one expects Indian position on Kashmir to change very much. Similarly in Pakistan, civilian or military, there is no change on Kashmir. Following up on Gen. Musharraf's admission that Pakistan cannot realistically hope for a plebiscite to end the Kashmir dispute and, therefore, is willing to explore other ways, Hoodbhoy in an article last December had argued that for Pakistan to insist on plebiscite "is the surest way of guaranteeing that a bloody stand-off continues."

The film presents the urgent need for a dialogue to discuss other options, challenging the people, and civil and military establishments on both sides to break out of their own national versions of the Kashmir story. There are many who will remain trapped in these notions, and refuse to see the film in this spirit. They will attack Hoodbhoy and Mian because they present both sides of the story in a way that the public in either country never sees.

Particularly moving and difficult to watch are the scenes of a recent bombing, that Hoodbhoy's cameraman in Kashmir caught by chance, although one would have liked to see more on struggle of Kashmiri women. Conservative Indian thought will also resent the film's presentation of the disillusionment of the Kashmirs with Indian rule, as encapsulated through a candid interview with the wild-bearded Hizb commander Syed Salahuddin.

The film traces the background of the conflict, using interviews of key figures and ordinary people from all sides, rare archival footage and excellent computer animation. Neither Hoodbhoy nor Mian have ever been afraid of controversy, or of tackling contentious issues head on, whether
it is to demand equal rights for religious minorities or contest distorted facts in our history textbooks. Their respective stands on peace with India and the nuclear issue are well known. In taking on Kashmir, they continue this tradition, of asking awkward questions that force people to think about issues that it is more comfortable to ignore.

These issues include the building of national identity through cultivating prejudice and hatred towards the other - by both India and Pakistan. The result is views from both sides that mirror each other. This in fact, is one of the strong points of the film - its inclusion of footage and interviews from India and Kashmir. Since the end of the Afghan war, Pakistan's continued patronage of religious militants has strengthened local and foreign militants who not only threaten the social fabric in Pakistan but have also upped the ante in Kashmir. Their conviction that Kashmir is part of a greater struggle, is reflected by radical Hindu leaders in India - a side that we in Pakistan don't hear about very often.

Also clear is Hoodbhoy and Mian's stand on the nuclear issue, as the film shows how the nuclear tests only served to intensify tensions between both countries. In the end, one is left with more questions than answers - but perhaps that is the intention of the filmmakers.

"The past almost sixty years have brought war and hate, big armies, nuclear weapons and mass poverty. The past can be no guide to show us the way to the future," says Mian. "It's time to make a break with the old ways and the old dreams. We need to search for new ideas, and find the courage to take a step forward."

This can happen if a genuine, open-minded dialogue is initiated, possibly catalysed by this film through screenings at joint meetings of parliamentarians, foreign offices and military establishments. Most importantly it needs to be brought out of private halls, and onto television in both countries as well as in Kashmir.