Kashmir's tragic opportunity

Muzamil Jaleel
4 November 2005

Pakistan’s aid efforts are in chaos. The jihadi bombs in New Delhi are venomous. But a limited border opening across Kashmiri lines offers hope for real peace between India and Pakistan, says Muzamil Jaleel.

When the earth shook and the mountains shuddered for a few minutes on the morning of 8 October, the hostile line of control (LoC) – that has split the Himalayan region of Kashmir between India and Pakistan since 1947 – suddenly disappeared. For a brief moment, Kashmir’s dream of unification came true in the most tragic manner. The mayhem brought by the quake that killed more than 80,000 people across the line of control and rendered around 500,000 homeless didn’t recognise the dividing-line.

The scenes across the LoC were heartrending. Entire villages had been turned into neighbourhoods of rubble. The highly fortified bunkers of the rival armies, facing each other for close to six decades, had been destroyed. Large stretches of the road network were consumed by hundreds of landslides triggered by the quake. Nature’s fury had turned this border region from a warzone into a massive graveyard of debris.

But this tragedy has also given birth to a new opportunity for India and Pakistan to bury their decades-long suspicion and hatred and work together to help the victims of the quake. The neighbouring states had already put themselves on a peace track, moving cautiously to push forward a process of engagement in Kashmir: the confidence-building measures included the reopening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road in April 2005 and permitting cross-LoC movement for hundreds of divided Kashmiri families. The quake’s catastrophic destruction has now provided a terrible but golden chance to accelerate and deepen this process.

Pakistan-controlled Kashmir suffered much more damage in the quake, whose epicentre was on the outskirts of its capital city, Muzaffarabad. After the initial shock and chaos, the logical response should have been to open the LoC for relief and rescue, allow people free access across the line and let the two rival armies join hands to bring succour to hundreds of now isolated villages.

Also by Muzamil Jaleel in openDemocracy:

“Kashmir’s bus ride to peace” (April 2005)

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The damage was most severe in the villages along the line of control, especially in the remote Neelam valley. These utterly devastated areas could easily have been reached from Indian-controlled Kashmir. While Pakistan was mounting a relief operation with international support, the opening of the LoC would have helped to reach the survivors from the other side as well.

In the event, India did not allow international aid agencies to enter the areas of Kashmir it controlled, and Pakistan initially hesitated before accepting tents and other vital supplies from India. Pakistan also, in the end, refused an offer of Indian military helicopters, despite a desperate need. The reason: Pakistan didn’t want Indian pilots to fly over its part of Kashmir and India didn’t want to lend helicopters without pilots.

But if “disaster diplomacy” could not automatically break the vicious mutual mistrust between India and Pakistan – where even genuine attempts to reach across the divide are always analysed in terms of propaganda value and diplomatic one-upmanship – the disaster has shifted the political landscape. The most important signal has been the agreement to reopen the line of control at five points on 7 November.

This agreement, a month almost to the day after the quake, is proof that the neighbours have the potential to break free from the sibling rivalry that has dominated their politics and worldview since they were born from the imperial womb of British India. The pace of negotiations to reach this agreement was very slow, but the sequence of events showed cautious progress. President Musharraf suggested opening the line of control for relief operations; India welcomed this but reacted with its own strategy to open the LoC at three points and set up relief camps for the quake victims; Pakistan responded by adding two more points; after days of negotiation, the two countries finally agreed to open the LoC at five different points.

The jihadi ambition

Perhaps even more important than the agreement to open the line of control is the timing and circumstances of the final, decisive stage of the negotiations. Hours before the two sides concluded the negotiation in Islamabad and signed the agreement, three powerful bombs ripped through bustling marketplaces in New Delhi on 29 October, killing sixty-two people and injuring more than 200 shopping and preparing for the Hindu festival of Diwali and the Muslim festival of Eid. This incident posed to the peace process a vital, difficult test; it was possible that the terror attacks would once again harden opinion and provoke a cycle of blame and counter-blame, thus eclipsing any move towards reconciliation.

Also in openDemocracy on the Kashmir quake and the New Delhi bombs:

Maruf Khwaja, “Pakistan’s mountain tsunami” (October 2005)

Jan McGirk, “Kashmir: the politics of an earthquake” (October 2005)

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr, “The end of ideology in India?” (June 2004)

The attacks did indeed send a wave of anger across India. But the Indian government handled the situation in a very mature manner. New Delhi avoided accusing Pakistan directly, even as India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hinted that militant groups were operating across the border in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. President Musharraf, meanwhile, immediately condemned the attacks and offered assistance to bring the perpetrators to justice.

This calm response to the terror attack defeated the perpetrators’ purpose to sow discord and derail the Indian-Pakistani peace process at a crucial juncture. When militants killed a senior minister in Srinagar, the winter capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, immediately after the quake, it was further confirmation that the jihadis’ strategy is to destroy any moves towards peace – for they will be the casualties of any agreement.

The Delhi blasts are not the first such attempt to push the two countries back into their traditional mode of mutual hostility. In December 2001, the jihadi militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad – which later attempted to assassinate Pervez Musharraf – launched a massive suicide attack on the Indian parliament that brought the two countries to the brink of all-out war. Both sides mobilised troops at their borders, downsized their embassies, and broke all transport links. Only pressure from the international community, especially the United States, prevented a serious escalation.

The aftermath of the New Delhi assault highlights the need to halt the jihadi operations entirely and immediately, though there is no way to guarantee that every fringe group can be disabled. The possibility of further attacks makes it even more vital that the partners in the peace process do not fall into the trap of elements seeking to make reconciliation a hostage to their violent ambitions.

Meanwhile, on the ground in Kashmir the quake has generated a social movement; thousands of volunteers are waiting to cross the line of control and help the victims when the five points are opened on 7 November – the first time since 1947 that the divided parts of Kashmir are able to witness substantial people-to-people contact.

Thus, the calamity of 8 October 2005 and its equally dreadful aftermath have – with all their attendant human suffering and frustrations – helped bring India and Pakistan closer. There is a long way to go, but the potential to make a shared relief effort the foundation of bilateral cooperation and ultimately real peace is evident. This opportunity must not be wasted.

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