Posts Tagged ‘Pakistan-administered Kashmir’

POLITICS-INDIA: Polls Uncertain With Jammu Divided From Kashmir

September 22, 2008

By Athar Parvaiz Bhat | Inter-Press Service News

SRINAGAR, Sep 21 (IPS) – Plans by the central government to conduct elections in Jammu and Kashmir, due originally in November, remain uncertain because of the serious regional and religious differences that have cropped up between the two main regions that make up the composite territory.

Relations between Hindu-majority Jammu and the Muslim-dominated Kashmir valley have been souring since May over a move to transfer forest land to a board that manages a popular, annual pilgrimage to the Hindu cave shrine of Amarnath, deep in the Kashmir Himalayas.

Agitations over the controversial move resulted in the regional People’s Democratic Party (PDP) withdrawing support to the coalition government led by chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad of the Congress party and the state being placed under direct central rule on Jul. 7.

And now, the federal government, the election commission, political parties and civil society leaders are unable to agree on when to schedule elections for a new state assembly.

“I don’t think holding elections would be a good thing to do at a time when the state is passing through a difficult situation. The entire state is on edge due to the communal and regional tension. I reckon that it will cause the situation to deteriorate further,” Balraj Puri, a noted expert on the Kashmir conflict who is based in Jammu, told IPS.

“Let the situation calm down. I think an internal dialogue between the two regions should be started on a priority basis to bring about a rapprochement,” said Puri who favours autonomy for the different regions of the state.

Prof. Rekha Choudhary, who teaches political science at Jammu University, believes that by planning to hold elections the central government appeared to be insensitive to the serious regional polarisation that has occurred. ”I think holding elections in the state in the current circumstances would be a huge risk. We have never seen the kind of hostilities between the regions of the state like what exists today,” she said.

Choudhary said the central government seems to be driven by the belief that holding elections would help bridge the gap between the Jammu and Kashmir regions. “In Kashmir pro-freedom groups that have appealed for a total boycott of the elections are going to gain in popularity by capitalising on the popular mood of hostility against India. And in Jammu, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which favoured the land transfer to the Hindu shrine board, is going to benefit,’’ she said.

India’s Kashmir state is a classic example of linguistic and ethno-religious diversity and comprises the three distinct regions of Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh. Together, these regions are known to the world as Indian Administered Kashmir.

About 55 percent of the state’s total population of 10 million is settled in the alpine Kashmir region, traditionally the seat of power. While 98 percent of the people who live in Kashmir are Muslim, Jammu’s population is 60 percent Hindu. Ladakh accounts for two percent of the total population.

About a third of the area of the former princely state Jammu and Kashmir is under the administration of Pakistan.

In 1989, people in Muslim-dominated Kashmir began an armed struggle in favour of freedom from India and this spilled over into the Muslim areas of Jammu.

Political analysts say the mistrust between the Jammu and Kashmir regions has been brewing for a long time. The people and leaders of these regions have been competing for central developmental funds and prized positions in administration.

“The government of India never tried to evolve a mechanism to hold all the regions together in order to give them a feeling of belongingness. It never had a focused policy regarding Kashmir and was keen on installing puppet regimes in the state which would serve its own interests,” observes Gul Mohammad Wani who teaches political science at Kashmir University.

“Jammu region is demanding a greater share in power which, according to them, has always remained centred in Kashmir. On the contrary, people in the Kashmir region are demanding complete freedom from India,” Wani said.

Observers say that if the elections are not held by November, they will have to be postponed till April given the harsh winter in Kashmir and Ladakh. Out of a total of 87 assembly constituencies, a majority of them, 50, fall in Kashmir.

Most political parties prefer to delay polls till next year. The exception remains the pro-Hindu BJP which may benefit from the communal divisions, especially in Jammu.

“We suggest that congenial conditions be created for holding elections before announcing election dates,” says Omar Abdullah, president of the pro-India National Conference party. His viewpoint is shared by Mehbooba Mufti, leader of the PDP which also favours Kashmir remaining a part of India.

At least 42 people died during the agitations against the land transfer with the movement quickly morphing into revival of calls for freedom from Indian rule — not heard for the last five years.

Suspicions between the two regions worsened after traders in the Kashmir region announced snapping of relations with their Jammu counterparts in reaction to what they called “economic blockade” of their region by the people of Jammu during the agitation.

Kashmir receives essential supplies and exports its produce to markets in India solely through the 300 km-long Jammu-Srinagar highway.

“How can we think of maintaining trade ties with the traders from Jammu when they were party to the recent economic blockade of Kashmir by the people of Jammu,” says president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI) Mubeen Shah. “The wounds, inflicted by the economic blockade of Kashmir, will take a lot of time to heal up’’

According to economists, boycotting trade with Jammu would mean immense loss to traders on both sides.

“Kashmir’s total trade is estimated at Rs 520 billion (11.3 billion US dollars) per annum out of which the yearly trade exchange between the Kashmir and Jammu regions is Rs 270 billion (six billion dollars),” says Prof. Nissar Ali who teaches economics at Kashmir University.

Traders in Kashmir have now intensified their demand for reopening the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road, which connects Indian Kashmir with the Pakistan administered part.

Before Pakistan and India grabbed control of parts of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947, the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road served as the main link between Kashmir and the markets of Rawalpindi in Pakistan and beyond.

On Aug. 11, thousands of Kashmiri traders and common people took out a symbolic march towards Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan administered Kashmir, to assert this demand. At least five people were killed and many others injured when police, stopped the march by opening fire some 20 km ahead of the Line of Control, the de-facto border between the Indian and Pakistani parts of Kashmir.

What freedom means in Kashmir

September 16, 2008

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Srinagar

A pro-freedom procession in Kashmir

People have raised Pakistani flags in recent demonstrations

The newspaper headlines in the mainly Muslim valley in India-administered Kashmir say it all.

‘Freedom is sweet, no matter how it comes’, says one. ‘People pray for freedom,’ chimes another, reporting on Friday prayers in the valley.

A row over transferring land for a Hindu pilgrimage escalated into a nationalist upsurge in the valley in recent months. Some 30 people have died after security forces fired on protests here. Many say the relative calm at present is just the lull before another storm.

In the eye of the storm is the demand for azadi (freedom) for people living in the valley; the latest bout of unrest has brought the contentious issue back into the limelight again.

For many Indians the demand strikes at the heart of the ‘idea of India’, of a nation that is capable of handling diversity and staying united.

State of mind

But for many of the majority Muslims living in the valley, freedom is the only way to get their pride back. It is the only way, they say, India can redeem itself in the hearts and minds of the Kashmiri.

No wonder, the streets in the valley were agog with cries for freedom during the huge protest processions that the recent crisis triggered off.

People have waved Pakistani flags and belted out pro-Pakistani slogans although, as Booker-prize winning writer Arundhati Roy says, it “would be a mistake to assume that the public expression of affection for Pakistan automatically translates into a desire to accede to Pakistan”.

This time, the call for Kashmiri freedom is coming from a generation of young and restless men and women who grew up during the troubled 1990’s when the valley was wracked by separatist insurgency.

On Kashmir streets, the yearning for freedom is a state of mind.

In a middle-class neighbourhood in Budgam where two young men were killed by security forces during recent protests, Sheikh Suhail, a 24-year-old mass communications student, makes no bones about it.

“We want azadi,” he says, days after he buried a friend who was shot down in the protest.

A Srinagar resident being frisked by Indian troops

People say they want ‘freedom’ from Indian forces

“Nobody quite knows what it will mean for us. We don’t know whether we will survive it. I only know that we want freedom from both India and Pakistan,” he says.

Across town, in the bustling Dalgate area, Sayed Zubair, a government school teacher, is seething after the security forces shot down his elderly neighbour during a recent curfew.

“We live in fear. A free Kashmir is the only solution to make us feel safe,” he says.

His neighbour, Hilal Ahmed, a bank manager, says freedom can help Kashmiris get rid of a twin “stigma”.

“India says it is the biggest democracy in the world. Living in Kashmir, we do not get any sense of that. Being a Kashmiri is a curse, being a Muslim is a crime. So we are doubly disadvantaged in these troubled times.

“The only way to set things right is to India get out of our lives and leave us free.”

So what does freedom mean for most Kashmiris?

Does it mean a sovereign state? Or does it mean greater autonomy? Many people here say that they prefer a form of self-rule. Does freedom from India mean accession with Pakistan? Or does freedom mean India pulling out its half a million or so troops in the state?

Eroded autonomy

For people like Suhail freedom is an intense sentiment. It is, they say, a breaking off from the “oppressive shackles” of the Indian state. For others like political scientist Dr Noor Ahmad Baba and women’s activist Dr Hameeda Nayeem, it is something more substantial.

Many analysts say that the autonomy that Kashmir enjoys under the Indian constitution has been eroded considerably and it is time that the Indian government worked out a new deal for its people.

Dal Lake in Srinagar

Tourism is a big draw in Kashmir

Dr Noor Ahmed Baba says that when most Kashmiris say they want freedom, they do not necessarily mean seceding from India.

“The overwhelming people here want independence. But it does not mean a sovereign state. It could be a higher degree of autonomy rooted in a larger understanding with India and Pakistan, both of whom who would pledge not to interfere.

“For us freedom also means more choices about reviving our old trade, cultural and economic roots. We want to come out of seclusion,” he says.

Dr Hameeda Nayeem says Kashmiris want self-governance and great internal sovereignty – that is what freedom could essentially mean.

“Let us define self-governance. Whether it will be more autonomy or self-rule. Our borders could be jointly managed by India and Pakistan. We want soft borders and free flow of goods.”

She points to the example of the tiny kingdom of Bhutan and wonders why Kashmir cannot have the status of a “protected state” of India like Bhutan.

How could a beautiful valley – with an approximate area 15,520 sq km, only a sixth of the size of Bhutan – cope as an independent country?

‘Not realistic’

Omar Abdullah, head of the mainstream National Conference party, admits that that “freedom sentiment” is serious, but has grave doubts about its feasibility.

“How realistic is it? Will Kashmir ever be really free even if it becomes independent, surrounded as it is by India, China and Pakistan?” he wonders.

A pro-Kashmir protest in Kashmir

Pakistan and India have fought two wars over Kashmir

“How free can it be? What happens to Pakistan-administered Kashmir?

“Freedom is not an option. I have yet to see a model of freedom which convinces me that Jammu and Kashmir as a viable independent entity”.

The irony is that nothing that is being debated in the valley is new.

The builder of modern India and its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, spoke about a plebiscite in Kashmir and independence for the state with its defence guaranteed by both India and Pakistan.

And Mr Nehru’s letter to the maharajah of Kashmir four months after India’s independence in 1947 was also chillingly prescient.

“It is of the most vital importance that Kashmir should remain with the Indian Union,” he wrote.

“But, however much we may want this, it cannot be done except through the goodwill of the mass of the population.

“Even if military forces held Kashmir for a while a later consequence may be a strong reaction against this.

“Essentially, therefore, this is a problem of psychological approach to the mass of the people and of making them feel they will be benefited by being in the Indian Union.

“If the average Muslim feels that he has no safe and secure place in the Union, then obviously he will look elsewhere. Our basic policy must keep this in view, or else we fail.”

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