The dispute over the state of Jammu and Kashmir, a legacy bequeathed by the British before their departure from the subcontinent, has bedevilled relations between India and Pakistan since August 1947. After three wars, many UN resolutions and an uprising (resulting in the deaths of some 85,000 civilians since December 1989), the parties are no closer to a settlement. Recent parleys between rulers of India and Pakistan (January 4 – 6) and talks between mid-level officials from their respective foreign ministries (February 16 – 18) have led to soft words, but no substantive progress.
After a meeting in Islamabad on February 18 between Pakistani foreign secretary Riaz Khokhar and his Indian counterpart Shashank, it was announced that the two foreign secretaries will meet in May and June for talks on peace and security, including confidence-building measures and Jammu and Kashmir. Talks on Siachen, Wullar Barrage/Tulbus navigation project, Sir Creek, terrorism and drug-trafficking, economic and commercial cooperation and promotion in various fields will be held at the already-agreed levels in July. The foreign ministers of Pakistan and India, Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri and Yashwant Sinha respectively, will meet in August to review the overall progress of the talks, preceded a day earlier by a meeting of their respective foreign secretaries. Technical-level meetings will also be held before the foreign ministers meet.
Can one hope for any breakthrough, given that Pakistani president general Musharraf and Indian prime minister A. B. Vajpayee have publicly stated their desire to resolve all outstanding differences (including the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir) between them? This has led to artificially induced optimism, but the Kashmiris are apprehensive that Musharraf has been forced to abandon them and their just struggle under external, mainly US, pressure. Similarly, there is scepticism about India’s sincerity. Sceptics think that Vajpayee and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party are using the "peace process" as a ploy to win the general elections in India in April. Whatever the implications of the forthcoming Pakistan-India talks, one thing is certain: that, given good will, even the thorniest issues can be resolved amicably. Pakistani foreign secretary Riaz Khokhar has said that a "road-map" for Kashmir has been agreed upon, but it is interesting to note that the Kashmiris have not been invited to travel the same road.
While officially the Kashmiris may have been kept out of the talks, they were not forgotten by the Friends of Kashmir Committee (Canada), which recently organised a conference expressing solidarity with the people of Kashmir. February 5 has historically been observed as Kashmir Solidarity Day in many parts of the world, and this year was no exception. The Canadian conference brought together not only Muslims from Kashmir, India and Pakistan who are sympathetic to Kashmir’s cause, but also Muslims from other backgrounds. For some years the Friends of Kashmir Committee has taken significant strides in bringing the Kashmir dispute to the attention of the larger Muslim as well as Canadian community.
It was for this reason that two non-Muslim speakers were invited, in addition to Shaikh Tajammul ul-Islam, director of the Kashmir Media Service, to address the conference. William Baker, an American professor who is a well-known supporter of the Kashmiris’ and Palestinians’ causes, was one of them. The other speaker was Joe Comartin, a Canadian MP who is the New Democratic Party critic for energy and multiculturalism in the House of Commons. Then there were a number of speakers from other communities, including a young activist, Ritch Wyman from the Coalition to Stop the War. He mobilized the Canadian public against the US war on Iraq last year virtually singlehanded. Tens of thousands of Canadians crowded the streets of Toronto despite the bitter cold to express their opposition to the war. This year thousands of people are again expected to march in Toronto on March 20 to oppose the ongoing US war on Iraq and Afghanistan, and demand an immediate end to foreign occupation.
Professor Baker, who has written books on Kashmir and Palestine, narrated harrowing tales of oppression, including the rape of thousands of women by the Indian occupation forces. He said that he had personally visited Kashmir despite warnings from the Indian government not to do so. His presentation had a visible impact on the audience. Shaikh Tajammul, perhaps the best-informed person about Kashmir today because of his work in the media, analysed the recent talks between Musharraf and Vajpayee. He said that it is important to keep in mind what the Kashmir dispute is about: it is the unfinished business of partition. The choice for the Kashmiris was to join either Pakistan or India; any other option would open a pandora’s box, with every kind of demand flying around, muddying the waters and submerging the rights of the Kashmiri people. His reminder is important because in recent years attempts have been made, especially by Kashmiri nationalists, to raise the issue of Kashmir’s independence from both India and Pakistan. An independent Kashmir would not be viable: the Indians would continue to dominate it, frustrating the Kashmiris’ aspirations.
Joe Comartin pointed out that the Kashmiris’ case had not been well presented in Canada. He compared their case with that of the Sri Lankans: because the latter are very active, they have pushed their agenda to the top of issues to be addressed by Canada’s department of external affairs. He urged the conference participants not to allow the Kashmiris’ struggle to be lost by default: their genuine case must be highlighted much more vigorously. Other speakers included representatives from the Lebanese community, human-rights organizations and charitable groups, all expressing solidarity with the Kashmiris.
As a result of such conferences and efforts the Kashmir dispute is now regularly mentioned alongside that of Palestine, Afghanistan and Chechnya. This may not bring the Kashmiris any closer to freedom, but it will certainly reassure them that Muslims and freedom-loving peoples in other parts of the world have not completely forgotten them.