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Misperceptions on Kashmir

Many in Pakistan tend to see Kashmir as a homogeneous Muslim region that has been deprived of its right to an Islamic identity in a Hindu dominated India.

india Updated: Dec 25, 2006 15:23 IST
Ashok Jaitly (IANS)
Ashok Jaitly (IANS)

Although Kashmir is the 'core issue' for Pakistanis in a political sense, at another level it is clouded by ambiguities.

I cannot speak about 'Azad Kashmir' or the Pakistan-administered Kashmir but people do seem to harbour a number of misconceptions about the Indian Kashmir.

I was truly surprised to learn that there is still a belief among many that Kashmiris do not really have the stomach for armed struggle, that they are a 'soft' community and it is primarily because of this that 'the struggle' has not succeeded - and this, even after almost 20 years of insurgency and all the thousands of young Kashmiris who have sacrificed their lives.

Is this a Punjabi macho perception? And, I ask myself, how long will this stereotype of an entire society persist?

There is yet another fallacy. Many people in Pakistan tend to see Kashmir as a homogeneous Muslim region that has been deprived of its right to an Islamic identity in a Hindu dominated India.

When you try and tell them that this is a romantic notion and that the reality is far more complex, there is a general disbelief as if you are pushing some sort of Hindu obfuscation.

Perhaps because Pakistan itself has virtually become a uni-religious society, it is difficult for people to perceive a situation where the 60 per cent Muslim majority in Jammu and Kashmir has to share political and social space with 40 per cent Hindus and Buddhists who have an equally strong claim on their homeland.

And when you explain that even the Muslim population has to be distinguished between Kashmiri, Muzaffarabadi, Dogri, Gujar, Bakerwal, Balti and Shin and that all of these communities have their own cultural identities, different aspirations and conflicting compulsions, there is even more surprise.

Awareness about the social realities of Jammu and Kashmir in Pakistan is as vague as it is in much of India.

What struck me as a third cardinal error in perception was the widespread impression that there is tremendous economic deprivation in Kashmir and that the population lives in abject poverty, supposedly having been denied the same opportunities as the rest of India and that years of conflict have exacerbated this.

Ironically, there is a similar opinion in India because of the widespread misconception, including among circles that should know better, that Kashmir's economy is wholly dependent on tourism.

The reality is completely contrary. Living standards in the Kashmir valley have been far better than most other parts of the country ever since the land reforms of the 50s and the Green Revolution that followed -- and continue to be so for a variety of reasons like booming horticulture and a growing service sector.

Bizarre though it may sound, insurgency has brought with it unimagined monetary benefits by way of hawala funds to militants and unlimited resources to the security forces both of which fuel the local consumption market.

A final persisting source of confusion in Pakistan is the thought that the Kashmiris look towards them to for deliverance.

This may have been true when the bubble burst in 1989. But the Jhelum continues to flow on its implacable course.

What is not at all appreciated is that there has been a great change in the understanding of the political scenario and the Pakistani comedown.

Even while accepting that prolonged violence and armed conflict has not resulted in opening up any positive directions for a solution, it seems to be equally difficult for public opinion in Pakistan to accept that this has actually led to a sense of disenchantment and even bitterness in the Valley.

One explanation for this failure to understand that the dynamics of any continuing conflict inevitably leads to fatigue and frustration is the failure of the media, both in Pakistan and India, to actually capture the underlying public sentiment.

On one side there seems to be an exaggerated emphasis on the pronouncements of the Hurriyat as being representative of the 'voice of Kashmir'; on the other, a lazy reliance on claims made by security forces and intelligence agencies.

A closer and deeper study of people's genuine feelings would, I am sure, reveal the different layers of the truth, which the general public on both sides is entitled to know.

Once again, official blinkers in India have contributed in no small measure to propagating these erroneous perceptions about Kashmir.

While media persons from Pakistan do come to New Delhi, there are still so many hurdles in their going to Srinagar.

Surely, this is not necessary. It is perhaps accepted that in diplomatic legerdemain, quid pro quo is considered par for the course, but does this doctrine not need to be followed intelligently rather than mechanically?

Often such restrictions are counterproductive and actually serve to conceal truths that would be in one's own self interest.

Much more frequent and easier exchanges between the media would undoubtedly promote greater understanding about the ground realities and what people feel. After all, that is the ultimate arbiter.

(Ashok Jaitly, a former chief secretary of Jammu and Kashmir, is currently a Distinguished Fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute.)

First Published: Dec 25, 2006 15:23 IST