Accessibility links

Kashmiris Frustrated by Lack of Voice in Peace Process - 2004-09-29

In Indian Kashmir, separatist leaders are skeptical that an ongoing peace dialogue between India and Pakistan will make substantial progress unless the Kashmiris are involved. There is disappointment that the peace process has brought virtually no improvements to the divided region, the scene of a violent separatist insurgency.

Taxi driver Raj Mohammad points to the public ground in Indian Kashmir's summer capital Srinagar, where nearly 18 months ago, India's former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee offered a hand of friendship to Pakistan.

Optimism flared in India's only Muslim-majority region.

Raj Mohammad hoped the difficulties he has faced for years in making ends meet would end if peace returns to the region.

But as autumn creeps in this year, cynicism has replaced hope.

The first phase of talks between the South Asian rivals ended in September with pledges to continue negotiations, but no breakthrough on Kashmir. Both countries claim the region, which is divided between them, and they have fought two wars over Kashmir.

Sajjad Lone, who heads a separatist group, the People's Conference, says Kashmiris feel alienated by New Delhi's refusal to involve them in the peace dialogue.

"It's strange and, more than strange, unethical to talk about a place where so many people have died and not care or take into account the aspirations of the people there or involve them somehow in the dialogue, so I would be surprised if they make any headway," said Mr. Lone.

Islamic militants have fought an insurgency in Indian Kashmir for 15 years. Some want the region to be unified under Pakistan's rule. Others want it to be unified as an independent nation. Whatever their goal, the fighting has cost 60,000 lives, both civilian and military.

New Delhi did initiate a separate dialogue with several Kashmiri leaders earlier this year. But no talks have been held since a new Indian government came to power four months ago, despite promises to continue the process.

Analysts partly blame the separatist leadership in Kashmir for the stalled talks. In the past year, moderate and hard-line leaders have parted ways, and there are deep differences on whether to join talks with New Delhi.

Hard-line Kashmiri leaders say a dialogue with New Delhi is futile and insist that the region must be allowed to decide its own future through a vote - an option ruled out by India.

But moderate leaders such as Abdul Ghani Bhat are willing to explore new avenues to untangle the dispute. Mr. Bhat, a leader of the All Parties Huriyat Conference, Kashmir's main separatist alliance says the region must not be treated as a simple territorial dispute.

"If they involve the people of Jammu and Kashmir in the process, I trust that the people will produce an outline of a possible solution which will be acceptable to the Indians, the Pakistanis and the Kashmiris to a large extent," said Abdul Ghani Bhat.

Kashmiri leaders recognize that a solution to the dispute may be years away. But there is disappointment that the thaw between India and Pakistan has yet to benefit the people in Kashmir.

In the past year, the two countries have restored transportation links, played cricket matches and increased cross-border contact for their citizens. A cease-fire along the Line of Control that divides Kashmir has defused tensions in border areas.

But Tahir Mohiuddin, the editor of the Urdu-language weekly paper, Chattan, says the confidence-building measures have not improved conditions in Kashmir. He says there has been no move to facilitate a truce in the rest of Kashmir or initiate talks with rebel groups leading the insurgency.

"If they were sincere these both countries, they should have discussed there was a need for a cease-fire from both sides," said Tahir Mohiuddin. "Security forces are from Indian side, the militant leaders they are under the influence of Pakistan, so why are they not able to persuade them to go for a cease-fire for six months, for three months."

For the time being, Kashmir watches for progress on New Delhi's proposal to link the capitals of Indian and Pakistani Kashmir with a bus service. The link is seen as a touchstone of sincerity in the two countries toward the people of the divided territory.

Muzaffar Baig, finance minister in the pro-India party that rules Indian Kashmir, says such steps can start the reconciliation process.

"Today, it is not possible despite the best of efforts of all the parties involved to come to a one single-formula solution," said Muzaffar Baig. "What is required is that people in the two parts move forward toward a better understanding of each other, finding the common ground of humanity and economics and development, like Europe is doing and other regional alliances."

Other analysts agree. They say as India and Pakistan forge ahead with a peace process, they must work harder to reduce tensions on the ground in Kashmir.