On May 23, Muzaffarabad became a metaphor for imagining a reunited Jammu and Kashmir, as Kashmiris from both sides of the Line of Control (LoC) met at an international conference on ‘Kashmir in Emerging Global Perspectives’, hosted by the University of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK). Was Islamabad restoring agency to the Pakistan-controlled institutions of its Kashmir, or was it translating into substance its rhetoric of shaping a just solution in accordance with peoples’ aspirations?
With ‘state subjects’ from the two Kashmirs, Jammu, Ladakh, Mirpur, Kotli, the Kashmiri diaspora and us, from Delhi and Islamabad, jostling ideas and memories, it didn’t seem incredible when former chief justice of Mirpur High Court, Majeed Mallick asserted that now was the opportunity to reassert the voices of the marginalised in Kashmir as key parties to the so-called bilateral dispute between India and Pakistan. The prime minister of the AJK, Sardar Attique Khan, visualised joint development of the hydro-electric resources of the two Kashmirs and LoC becoming the Line of Commerce. President of AJK, Raja Zulqarnain Khan, spoke about a smart identity card valid for all crossings in J&K.
The Pakistan government’s support for the conference initiative was clear from the outset. Indeed, the ante was upped when Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani flew in to inaugurate the conference even while the terror attack at the Mehran naval base in Karachi was underway. He was expected to make some positive policy demarche from Muzaffarabad. Instead, the references made were a hawkish throwback on the ‘unfinished business of Partition’ and an emphatic reiteration of the UN resolutions and plebiscite as the framework.
The timing was influenced by local considerations of the impending June elections in Kashmir. Both prime ministers, Gilani and Sardar Attique emphasised on free and fair elections. Attique’s voicing the slogan ‘Kashmir banega Pakistan’ came as a jolt, especially because Pakistan’s ‘AJK’ was integrated.
Ghulam Nabi Fai of the Kashmiri-America Council, appealing for Kashmiri’s right to self-determination, emphasised on ‘flexibility’. It could mean integration with India or with Pakistan, but no top-down deals like the Musharraf formula. Prime ministers of India and Pakistan can sign a deal but it can’t be implemented unless Kashmiris are part of the process. Echoing through the corridors of the conference was the message that Kashmiris had made too many ‘sacrifices in the name of India and Pakistan’.
Appeals to the international community prompted Britain-based Murtaza Shibley to propose China’s name as the mediator, especially since it has a stake in the Kashmir dispute. When the demand for a plebiscite was reiterated as per rote, journalist Shujaat Bukhari was impelled to introduce a reality check — a referendum, today, could lead to a further ‘partition’ of the state in view of the fault lines between the Valley and Jammu or Ladakh.
The focus on human rights violations, as expected, was at the core of discussions. The outpouring of grievance, anger and frustration that made the youth pelt stones at the security forces, which, in turn, fired back at the youngsters, was located in the context of continuing human rights atrocities and the culture of impunity symbolised by Machil encounters and the Shopian alleged rape and murders.
At the conference, no conversation on human rights or the quality of democracy and freedom in POK was encouraged. What did the university students and faculty who heard us speak, think? “Oh, they are even more radical than us.” Justice Mallick said. “No question of accepting the status quo.” This left us wondering if it was another of Muzaffarabad’s puzzling contradictions.
Rita Manchanda is a Delhi-based commentator on strategic affairs. The views expressed by the author are personal.