November issue 2004

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

Where 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 begin?

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 staunchly opposes 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 trip. 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 the argument.

Andrabi’s tirade aside, no one, with any shade of political opinion, would miss an opportunity to meet a corps of Pakistani journalists.

The 76-year-old 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.

Questioned about 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.”

Sheikh Abdullah’s 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.

“India should 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.”

Any implication 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 seething rage.

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 J&K.

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 bury

our houses — and theirs, the ones left empty.

We are faithful. On their doors we hang wreaths.

More faithful each night fire again is a wall

and 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 laugh.”

kashmir-4-nov04In Srinagar, both expectations and passions run high… 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.

There’s Parveena 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 in anguish.

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’ foreign correspondent, 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 story…

SAFMA’s Imtiaz 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?

“Total independence” 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 vague.

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 all.

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.”

The university 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.

kashmir-5-nov04They live in tiny, 10×10 one-room tenements, each with a small kitchenette, but communal bathrooms. The affluent among them have moved to Delhi, Mumbai and other cities.

Shouting, screaming 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.”

“This amounts to ethnic cleansing,” says Ashwini Kumar Chrangoo, chief of the Panun Kashmiri Movement, an organisation for displaced Kashmiri Pandits.

Separatist leaders, 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.

Naqqash himself is meeting his family, including his maternal uncle, for the first time. How was the reunion?

“Very emotional,” 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 work.

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 countries.

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 of guns.”

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.’

Mehbooba Mufti 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 in reality.”

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…

Rehana Hakim is one of the core team of journalists that helped start Newsline. She has been the editor-in-chief since 1996.