ISLAMABAD — Pakistan observed a state-sponsored annual “Kashmir Solidarity Day” on Tuesday to denounce Indian control of the disputed Himalayan region. Two of the three wars between the nuclear-armed rivals were triggered by the dispute over Kashmir. This year’s February 5 celebration comes just weeks after the worst military clashes between India and Pakistan in Kashmir since a ceasefire went into effect in 2003.
Pakistani leaders are reiterating support for the disputed region’s right to self-determination -- in line with U.N. resolutions that call for a plebiscite in Kashmir on whether it should be part of India or Pakistan.
The government observed one-minute of silence to officially begin the celebration and pay tribute to the thousands of people killed since a Muslim insurgency broke out in Indian-ruled Kashmir in 1989.
State-sponsored protest rallies, seminars and other special gatherings are held across the country and in the Pakistan-ruled portion of the disputed territory calling for Kashmir’s “freedom from Indian rule.”
Officials in India reject the celebration as Pakistani propaganda and accuse Islamabad of fueling the Muslim separatist insurgency in the Indian Kashmir, a charge Pakistan denies.
Last month’s Kashmir fighting was the worst outbreak of violence since 2003, when the two countries agreed to a ceasefire along the disputed border known as the Line of Control. The border clashes left three Pakistani soldiers dead, while New Delhi accused Pakistani troops of beheading an Indian soldier. Islamabad called the allegations propaganda and blamed New Delhi for ceasefire violations.
Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar says Pakistan was not responsible for the current tensions and it was committed to the dialogue process to normalize relations with India.
“Pakistan has remained consistent on this track," noted Khar. "Pakistan has never resorted to war-mongering or ratcheting up tensions. We have always remained steady on the course of our commitment to the dialogue process to normalization of relations to India. We have walked the talk on that.”
Although military tensions in Kashmir have subsided, critics such as independent Indian political analyst and journalist Amit Baruah urge both of the nuclear-armed countries to take further steps to strengthen the ceasefire deal in the disputed region.
“No further confidence building measures like contacts between sector commanders, contacts between the two armies, nothing of the kind has been put in place and I feel that the time has come to put a robust infrastructure of confidence building measures on the ground so that incidents of the kind that have happened [recently] in the LOC [Line of Control] are not repeated,” Baruah said.
The ceasefire India and Pakistan agreed to nine years ago has led to a significant improvement in business, travel and cultural ties.
It is estimated that trade between the two countries has increased nine-fold to nearly $3 billion. It is expected to increase further after the signing of several important agreements last year, including an unprecedented deal to ease visa restrictions.
But the recent clashes in Kashmir may have slowed that process. Pakistan had promised it would grant India “most favored nation” status by the end of 2012 to strengthen bilateral trade ties. But authorities withheld the announcement in the wake of the military tensions and resulting pressure from conservative and Islamic parties.
Amit Baruah believes that as long as the Kashmir border remains quiet, there is hope that the bilateral peace process will pick up again.
“There are hardliners on both sides and those hardliners don’t want this process to go ahead. But I feel that there is certain inevitability in the process, and sooner or later in this ideological battle between hardliners and soft-liners or pragmatists, I think the pragmatists are bound to win out,” Baruah said.
India and Pakistan claim Kashmir in its entirety. But some Kashmiri groups, and even Pakistani critics like peace activist Tahira Abdullah, favor total independence for the disputed region.
“If they want to be free let them be free," Abdullah said. "Kashmir is not about control over territory or a fight about water for the two water scarce countries of India and Pakistan. I think it is between human beings on both sides of the border. It is between divided families on both sides of the border, it is about restricted visa regimes on both sides of the border.”
India and Pakistan have in recent years launched bus services and allowed trading activity across the disputed Kashmir border to facilitate divided families and commercial activity on both sides. But travelers complain tough visa regulations imposed by both the governments discourage them from undertaking the journey.