NEW DELHI – When it comes to Kashmir there can be no pleasing of anyone, as
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must surely have discovered during a two-day
visit, this week, to the state troubled by 15 years of separatist insurgency
and half-a-century-old territorial claims by neighboring Pakistan.
During his whirlwind tour on Wednesday and Thursday, Singh tried hard (harder
than any of his predecessors) to please Kashmiris by distributing funds and
job opportunities. He also promised to rein in troops accused of gross human
rights abuses when dealing with internal and external security threats.
Singh offered something to benefit every group.
A reduction of troops in the Muslim-dominated Srinagar valley, better public
housing for Hindu refugees who fled to Jammu, and a $5 billion development package
to be spread across the Indian state – which includes the largely Buddhist
Ladakh region, over the next four years.
The Indian premier said his aim was to bring "peace with honor" to
all in Kashmir, a composite state with distinct geographical regions and ethnic
groups including Dogras, Pandits, Gujjars, Ladakhis, Shias, Sunnis, and on the
Pakistan side, the Mirpuris and others.
As he landed in the Kashmiri capital Srinagar on Wednesday morning, Singh was
greeted by volleys of gunfire from militant groups. But being an adroit politician,
he skillfully tried to co-opt various divergent groups – from moderates to hardliners
– to come to the roundtable for talks.
But there was a letdown. Singh was unable to get the All-Party Hurriyat Committee
(APHC) to sit across him for talks while militant groups in safe sanctuaries
across the border in Pakistan such as Hizbul Mujahedin demanded a complete withdrawal
of all Indian troops.
The APHC consists of "moderate" groups that favor an independent
Kashmir, while the "hardline" constituents want to see the state merged
with Muslim-majority Pakistan. Its chairman Mirwaiz Omer Farooq said it was
pointless meeting the prime minister until they could first meet up with militant
wings located in the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir.
Singh also was also criticized by Yasin Malik, chief of the pro-independence
Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). He pooh-poohed the premier's economic
package and said what worried him was that Pakistan and India were in fact moving
toward a settlement of the Kashmir issue without taking Kashmiris into their
"They want us around for the photo opportunities," Malik, the best-known
face among the moderates in the 15-year-old separatist movement, told the large
entourage of news channels that accompanied Singh on the two-day tour.
Singh, though, was firm that there could be no redrawing of Kashmir's present
boundary, which is divided into the Pakistan and Indian administered parts by
the Line of Control (LoC).
The LoC is a ceasefire line that has remained largely unchanged through more
than half-a-century of alternating peace and warfare to gain full control of
The prime minister also ruled out any further division of the Indian sub-continent
on the basis of religion as what happened in 1947 when Pakistan was carved out
as a homeland for Muslims when Indian gained independence from the British.
That partition was traumatic, involving as it did the uprooting and transfers
of millions of people to new homes resulting in mass murders and mayhem. Till
today, the wounds have not healed and there is still animosity between the two
South Asian giants.
Also religion did not prove to be enough of a glue to keep East Pakistan from
breaking away in 1971 and becoming Bangladesh, following a bloody civil war
in which India intervened decisively on behalf of the new country.
Singh, a Sikh who was born in what became Pakistan, reminded his audiences
in Kashmir that he was himself a victim of the partition with his family having
arrived as refugees in the country that he now heads.
But Pervez Hoodbhoy, the well-known peace activist and nuclear physicist at
Pakistan's Quaid-e-Azam University who is currently in the Indian capital, told
IPS there is much more at stake than just borders.
"We need to understand that both Pakistan and India are to blame with the
Kashmiris caught between them," he pointed out.
Hoodbhoy who is in the Indian capital for the screenings of his documentary
film Crossing the Lines: Kashmir, Pakistan, India said the Kashmir issue
was complex and one which could only be resolved by " first creating a
Hoodbhoy endorsed the Indian plan of restoring cultural, trade, and travel
links first before tackling the Kashmir issue. "There is little doubt that
rationality needs to be restored before we liberate ourselves from being prisoners
of the past," he said..
In Jammu city, the Hindu-dominated winter capital of Kashmir, Singh visited
one-room homes set up for the bulk of some 250,000 members of the Hindu Pandit
community which fled the Srinagar valley after 1989 when they became targets
of the pro-Pakistan Mujahedin, who took over from moderate groups like the JKLF.
Singh announced that the one-room tenements they now live in will be converted,
at government cost, to two-room dwellings and also promised them more jobs.
However, Shakti Bhan the Delhi-based leader of Panun Kashmir an organization
of Hindu Pandits exiled from Kashmir had a poignant message.
She said what her group wanted was to return safely, with peace and dignity,
to the homes they were forced to abandon in Srinagar.
Bhan pointed out that if Singh himself was fired at during his visit to Kashmir
and had to speak at rallies from behind bulletproof enclosures, there was little
chance that ordinary Hindus could return to the homeland they left just 15 years
That in itself speaks volumes. It indicates that the long road to peace still
needs to be traveled before a solution can be found to the disputed territory.