Peacebuilding in Kashmir transcends the religious divide

The conflict in Kashmir has largely been seen through the prism of religious antagonism. New research on cross-border peacebuilding calls the classic conflict analysis into question.

Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra
5 March 2012

The dividing line – or Line of Control – in Kashmir, which was once impregnable and marked by high security towers, fencing and mines, has emerged as a line of contact and cooperation, notwithstanding repeated setbacks and challenges. This is the result of gradual peacebuilding over the last decade, made possible not merely by the dawn of peace in the minds of leaders of India and Pakistan, but due to the momentum built up from the bottom by members of civil society groups through many ‘heart to heart talks’ and ‘round tables’ in the region. The Kashmiri experience shows that people must be provided with the opportunity to take the initiative for building peace.

The opening of two intra-Kashmir crossing points on the Line of Control (LoC) at Uri and Poonch has brought immense humanitarian and trade prospects for the people of Kashmir, as well as for India and Pakistan. While researching the humanitarian implications of the border opening, I came across many novel peacebuilding techniques, which challenged the state-oriented and state-constructed mechanisms for crafting peace. At the state level, diplomats visit the capitals of the rival countries, in this case New Delhi and Islamabad, and make policies which are then imposed on the people without factoring their voices.  In an interview given to me while visiting the Indian side of the LoC through the Poonch-Rawalakote bus route which opened up in 2006, the former Chief Justice of ‘Azad’Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) termed the two states the ‘vested interests’, because they think in terms of territorial integrity and sovereignty, not in terms of people. As a result, the concerns and aspirations of the conflict affected are overshadowed by national interest, national pride and prestige.

My field studies brought me to the realization that it is better to let the local people decide their destiny. However, I do not claim there is no role for the state in conflict resolution, rather that this should be more that of a facilitator, providing avenues and opportunities in the field. The India-Pakistan peace process of the last decade, despite the setbacks caused by the Mumbai attack of 2008, has been instructive in many ways. What a people-centric peace process could achieve in a decade could not be achieved by the states in five decades, since the onset of the conflict in late 1940s. Hence, I believe the peace process in Kashmir is highly instructive, and can be a model for other contexts in several ways.

Pakistan Administered Kashmir seen from Indian Administered Kashmir, the river is the Line of Control. (cc) Rajesh Fisher

Pakistan Administered Kashmir seen from Indian Administered Kashmir, the river is the Line of Control. (cc) Rajesh Fisher

First, the ‘peace capital’ built up by the people proved not to be one-dimensional in nature but multidimensional. It not only reduced the constituency of hardliners seeking resolution of the conflict by violent means, but also led the common people to believe that a peace process with their active participation can accrue benefits to them. The flexible border allowed people who had been separated for decades to meet each other. This brought a revival of the earlier existent harmonious culture of Kashmir, and the spirit of Kashmiriyat, which is secular, progressive and dynamic in its outlook. Second, and related, families which had been divided for decades have not forsaken their blood ties, despite changes in their religious affiliation (whether Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs). They are eager to nurture these relationships, to let them thrive and flourish, presenting starkly that in any analysis of Kashmir religion cannot be seen as an obstacle in peace building. The following case studies trace the implications of such narratives for conflict transformation in Kashmir, drawn from the co-authored publications Kashmir Across LOC and Contested Borders and Division of Families in Kashmir.

In February 2007, a Maulvi (Islamic cleric) from the Pakistani side of Kashmir travelled through the recently opened Poonch-Rawalakote bus route to reach the Indian side for a reunion with his separated family. In the town of Poonch, about 200 Sikhs gathered to greet the Maulvi with the slogan ‘Jo Bole So Nihal Sat Sri Akaal’, a Sikh religious saying, which can be translated as “Blessed is the person who says ‘God is Truth’”. The Maulvi did not feel uncomfortable or deterred by the slogan because the receiving Sikhs were his brethren, who had retained their religion while he had converted to Islam while living on the other side of the line of division. Here, the slogan was not construed as a call to religious hatred and disharmony or a precursor to communal riots; rather it invoked the intimacy which Kashmiris enjoyed across religious divides for centuries. There are hundreds of Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistani Kashmir who have converted to Islam but their families in India Kashmir continue to be Hindu and Sikhs. This has however not been an obstruction in their longing for reunion.

Religion could not obfuscate the relations of blood. Basant Sharma (name changed) of Surankote in J&K, about 30 kilometers from the dividing line, narrated his heart rending experience during his visit to Pakistani Kashmir to meet his  separated family members in Bhimber. Born into a rich Hindu family in Bhimber the family of Basant could not escape communal riots which took in its flames Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs all alike. He recounted how he, then a young boy, was protected by a Muslim family, who also facilitated his escape to the Indian side of Kashmir. Basant met his deceased elder brother’s family during his much cherished journey to Bhimber. His nephew Farooq, who was not born until after partition, was so happy to meet this uncle for the first time that he expressed an interest in establishing marital relationship of his son Maqbool with the granddaughter of Basant. There are hundreds of such narratives in the landscape of Kashmir. It is hence no surprise that people like Basant and Farooq, or the Maulvi and his Sikh family, are votaries of peace and protest any measures by the states to slow down the momentum of this grassroots process in the labyrinthine diplomatic process.

Despite the tumultuous relations between India and Pakistan, reflected in four wars and the imposition of a rigid border (called the LoC since 1972), the divided people of undivided Kashmir never lost sight of their integrated socio-cultural life, which was ruptured by the line of separation. They search for all kinds of avenues to remain in contact. Some innovative ways include meeting in a third country, or during religious pilgrimages such as Hajj, and exchanging physical mail which takes long, circuitous routes and about two to six months to reach the targeted recipient, who in some cases resides only a few kilometers away. Contact has become easier with the use of mobile phones, email and other internet facilities, but these facilities are strictly monitored by government agencies.

Although peacebuilding in Kashmir across the religious divide is in its nascent stage and is a novel phenomenon, it is crucial to emphasize that it provides ample guidance how peace in the trouble torn region must be preserved as well as fostered. Kashmir is known as one of the most violent conflicts in the world and a case in which the religion factor is the dominant one. The developments of the last decade provide sufficient ground for reassessment of the traditional conflict analysis in Kashmir, which is mostly viewed through the prism of religious antagonism.   Religious differences as an obstacle to peacebuilding have been surpassed. It is the relations beyond religious affiliation that can play a pivotal role in peace building and conflict transformation.

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