Peace season in Kashmir

Jammu and Kashmir's activists dare to prefer a 'just' peace to peace without justice.

Why didn't you Indians come before?" demanded the young Kashmiri lawyer. He was addressing a room packed with civil society activists from various parts of India who had come to Srinagar to enter into the first-ever dialogue with their counterparts in Jammu and Kashmir. After 11 years of silence and deepening distrust, educationists, doctors, psychologists, journalists, film-makers, human rights workers, social and political activists, lawyers and retired civil and armed forces personnel, had come as concerned citizens to link up with the activists of Jammu and Kashmir fighting for justice, peace and human rights.

Such an angry outburst was to be expected, for many of the activists who were in the forefront of struggles for substantive democracy and human rights in India, had incongruously chosen to remain silent on injustices suffered by Kashmir's civilians. "Why have you come now, to rub balm on the wounds made by your security forces," asked a Kashmir University teacher. What the Kashmiri activists wanted was not relief but partnership against the all-engulfing violence.

The tone for this meeting of Kashmiri activists and professionals from various parts of India was set by an elegiac poem by G N Gauhar contrasting the fabled beauty of the Valley with a land now become barren, houses burnt, children killed, and a place where women no longer laugh. The Kashmiri participants did most of the talking, for it was their voice, silenced for so long, which had to be transported. Their problem was the systematic denial of justice by the Indian State and the total collapse of all social delivery systems. New Delhi may insistently claim that the UN Security Council Resolution on plebiscite was no longer valid, but as the J & K Bar Association Chairman, Zafar A Shah passionately avowed, most Kashmiris still believe that the political status of Jammu and Kashmir was not a settled issue. Even now, he said, the hearts of the Kashmiris could be touched "if India would fly its national flag at half mast for a fortnight in recognition of the suffering of the Kashmiri people".

Victim's perspective
The "victim's perspective" was necessarily different from that of the "non-victim", as was clear from the two days of remarkably candid exchanges in Srinagar, on 10 and 11 June.

Parveena Ahangar, sometimes stoical and at other times passionately emotional, spoke of the trauma of families who lost their members to the void. An uneducated housewife, Parveena is the founder of the Association of the Parents of the Disappeared. After her young son Javed had disappeared, she mobilised other similarly bereaved women to make a collective demand for justice from the Indian state.

For most of the participants from various parts of India, this was their first exposure to the human face of the Kashmir story. The killing of Rafiq Bakal, a local shopkeeper of Lal Chowk, by the Border Security Force under very questionable circumstances, brought home the nature of arbitrary terror which stalks ordinary civilians in the very heart of Srinagar. As they commiserated with the dead man's young wife and elderly mother, educationist Lalita Ramdas and Admiral Ramdas, former chief of the Indian Navy, tasted the rage, frustration and the overwhelming sense of insecurity of civilians. "Sister, in how many houses will you weep," said an elderly relative to a weeping Lalita Ramdas.

The meeting in Srinagar was organised in the belief that there could be no significant political movement forward unless the struggle for human rights and justice in Jammu and Kashmir was linked with the struggle for human rights and justice in the various parts of India.

Among other things, the Srinagar meeting of 90 civil society members, deliberated on how to help community level activists in Jammu and Kashmir to cope with the traumatic impact of violence on their society. A Jammu and Kashmir Federation of Civil Society Organisations (JKFSCO) was established, in an effort to rebuild the social capital which has been destroyed by militant extremism and state terror. The Federation represents about 20 civil society groups representing business and commercial interests, lawyers, doctors, teachers, environmentalists, human rights activists, women and child rights activists, writers, poets, and trade unions of Jammu and Kashmir.

In a place where the government agencies ruthlessly suppress any popular expression of dissent and where militant organisations are suspicious of every civil society initiative, forming an independent organisation such as this was of course fraught with risk. Reciting the list of human rights activists killed in Kashmir, senior advocate G N Hagroo candidly admitted that they would never have dared to speak up, let alone organise a civil society meeting, without the demonstrated solidarity of civil society groups from the various parts of India.

Since 1990, when the upsurge in popular protest morphed into militancy, the 'Kashmir issue' has been appropriated by militarised nationalism on both sides of the border. In Pakistan, the religious right appropriated the arena, claiming that "protecting the honour of Muslim brothers and sisters and recovering their homeland from foreign oppressors" was the "sacred" duty of every Muslim, and therefore, that of the Pakistani State. In India, both the religious right and the secular nationalists projected the struggle of the Kashmiri people as an assault on the integrity of the nation and/ or its secularism. These external considerations so forcefully impacted Kashmiri polity that the struggle got militarised, and popular opinion was left out in the cold. Elsewhere in India and Pakistan, the activists struggling for substantive democracy and genuine reforms shied away from engaging with the Kashmiri struggle, anxious to avoid entrapment in the manipulative politics of militarised nationalism. This was how the Kashmiris were left to suffer for themselves.

Clearly, there is a peace season brewing in Srinagar. Just a week before the Federation was formed, there was a 'track two' conclave in Srinagar attended by political leaders, retired foreign secretaries, and journalists associated with influential Indian publications. At the same time, the demands for autonomy from India were being pressed forcefully by Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, even though this was seen by Kashmiri activists as a cynical attempt to divert attention from his government's incapacities.

The Srinagar civil society initiative was significant also because it emphasises the importance of democratic process in realising a 'just' peace at a time when there is a growing number of interventions to impose a peace without justice. For example, there was common cause among the participants against a partition-based settlement for Jammu and Kashmir. Veteran editor Ved Bhasin and the ideologue of Kashmir's multiple identity, Balraj Puri, both vehemently opposed any division along "religious, sectarian or regional lines". Indeed, the bloody partition of the Subcontinent was never far from the thoughts of those present, since no region of Jammu and Kashmir is without a minority.

The decision by the Kashmiri activists to set up a federation to speak in unison for justice and human rights is, both bold and ambitious. The Srinagar meeting recognised that reconciliation requires the victims and survivors to be heard, and that their stories, their emotions, and the facts on the ground be acknowledged. There has to be the space created in our minds to hear and be moved by Naseem Shafiq's poem of the lament of a Mother and Seven Daughters whose only son/brother was taken away by the security forces, in the midst of a wedding revelry. Why? Because there was too much gaiety, too much noise.

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