July 29, 2009
Kashmiri American Council

Overview: Tenth International Kashmir Peace Conference, Washington DC, USA

by Victoria Schofield

There was no shortage of words spoken at the tenth international Kashmir peace conference held on Capitol Hill, in Washington DC on 23rd and 24th July 2009. Hosted by Dr Ghulam Nabi Fai of the Kashmir American Council and Dr Karen Parker, chairman of the Association of Humanitarian lawyers, over 350 attended the conference in order to listen to 55 delegates from India, Pakistan, and the state of Jammu and Kashmir had assembled to discuss the vexed Kashmir issue, which has been on the agenda of the United Nations for nearly 62 years.

Among the topics discussed on the first day were the regional and international dimensions of the issue; breaking the deadlock over Kashmir in terms of Indo-Pakistani relations; 'militarisation and impunity' in Jammu and Kashmir, and the centrality of Kashmiris' rights. On the second day, the delegates discussed the Kashmiris' aspirations: innovative models and fresh options; they also considered what might happen when peaceful protests fail and what impact confidence buildings measures between India and Pakistan had had on Kashmir.

The final session involved representatives looking to the future and 'the way forward'. Among the 'sons of the soil', who attended the conference and yet who have been unable to visit Kashmir for many years, was veteran Yusuf Buch, former senior adviser to the UN secretary-general, Dr Khalid J Qazi, clinical professor of medicine at the University of Buffalo, New York, Dr Ghulam N. Mir, President of the World Kashmir movement. Raja Zulqarnain, President of Azad Jammu and Kashmir was among the delegates as well as Mushahid Hussain, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Islamabad. Congressmen Jim Moran and Dan Burton and Congresswoman Yvette Clarke also addressed the meeting.

In his opening remarks, Dr Ghulam Nabi Fai said that the conference aimed at discussing how there could be a peaceful resolution of the dispute in which the aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir were paramount. The objective, he said, was to achieve the Kashmiris' aims 'in the spirit of reconciliation not confrontation, through equality not discrimination, and with hope not despair.' Although views inevitably varied among the delegates, some central themes emerged. Firstly, in the wake of the recent rape and murder of two young women in Shopian in May 2009, the issue of human rights abuses in the Kashmir valley featured high on the delegates' list of concerns. Dr Angana Chatterji, scholar-activist, circulated a detailed report, which together with other conveners of the International People's Tribunal on Human rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir (IPTK) (Advocate Parez Imroz, Gautam Navlakha - also present at the conference -, Zahir-ud-din, Advocate Mihir Desai and Khurram Parvez,) she had recently compiled entitled 'Militarization with Impunity'. The conclusion in the report - and whose sentiments were reiterated by Chatterji at the conference - placed the onus firmly on the Indian government to ensure that, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has pledged, there would be 'zero tolerance' for human rights abuses in Jammu and Kashmir. 'A will to peace in Kashmir requires an attested commitment to justice, palpably absent in the exchanges undertaken by the Government of India and its attendant institutions with Kashmir civil society. The premise and structure of impunity connected to militarization, and corresponding human rights abuses, bear witness to the absence of accountability inherent to the dominion of Kashmir by the Indian state, and a refusal to take seriously the imperative of addressing these issues as the only way forward to a just peace.'

Of significant interest, during discussions about the Kashmiris' right of self-determination, Dr Karen Parker outlined how important it was for Kashmiris themselves to recognise that 'self-determination' was a legal phrase embodying certain elements. Firstly there had to be a definable territory: 'this is what distinguishes people with the right to self-determination from minorities.' Secondly, there has to be a history of previous governance; thirdly, the people must exhibit a distinct identity, 'which can be linguistic, religious or cultural.' Fourthly, there has to be a will for self-determination: 'the international community will not acknowledge peoples' right of self-determination if they don't want it.' Finally, it was important to emphasize that those people demanding their right of self-determination were indeed capable of self-governance. In Parker's opinion, all criteria were met by the Kashmiri situation but she highlighted that it was important for Kashmiris to be aware of these elements in order to argue them forcefully with Congressional friends 'so that they in turn can convince non-friends.'

Pakistani Ambassador to the United States, His Excellency Husain Haqqani recommended that the composite dialogue between India and Pakistan must re-start and that discussions must involve the aspirations of the Kashmiris. He also reminded listeners that the unresolved conflict over Kashmir had hindered the economic prosperity of all of South Asia. 'The Kashmir dispute is eminently solvable but vested interests had been created that would prefer the continuation of conflict.'

Harinder Baweja, Editor, of Tehelka magazine in New Delhi, also emphasised the fact that Kashmir was not a piece of real estate but involved the rights of people. Citing a report prepared in India on what motivated militants, she said that its findings indicated that in general young men were more motivated by economic backwardness, political oppression and a reaction to corruption than because they had been incited to take up the gun as 'holy warriors'. In her opinion, confidence building measures had done virtually nothing for the Kashmir issue. 'The only CBM in the last 20 years which kept Kashmiris' interests in mind,' she said, was the opening of the line of control in 2005 for the bus service. 'I was in the valley at the time and saw the spontaneous outbreak of joy on peoples' faces that for the first time New Delhi is thinking of us as people.'

However, Pakistan's former High commissioner to the United Kingdom (and also a former Ambassador to the United States), Dr Maleeha Lodi, urged delegates not to 'throw the baby out with the bath water', suggesting that just because CBMs might not yet achieved anything significant for Kashmir, they should still continue to be pursued. She also pointed out that it was difficult to 'trump' India's resistance to a solution of the issue which involved an alternative scenario to recognising the line of control as the international frontier.

A founding member of the Plebiscite Front, G.M. Mir, maintained that it was easy to resolve the Kashmir issue. 'Both the forces of India and Pakistan can withdraw their armies and then the Kashmiris can govern themselves.' Quoting John F. Kennedy, Mir reminded the audience that: 'The most powerful force in the world is neither communism nor capitalism, it is not the hydrogen bomb, not the guided missile, it is man's eternal desire to be free and independent.'

Speaking in the session, 'Peoples' Aspirations, Innovative Models and Fresh Options,' the total independence of the state was endorsed by Ved Bhasin, Editor-in-chief of the Kashmir Times, Jammu. 'The only solution is an independent state in South Asia. The status quo is not a solution; the division of the state is not a solution.' His suggestion was for a two-phase withdrawal by India and Pakistan from the whole state. Recollecting that he had made a similar proposal in 1994, he said that there should be elections for the two assemblies, on the Indian and Pakistani sides of the state and the institution of a common council to discuss common issues such as tourism. The governments of India and Pakistan would only have jurisdiction over defence and foreign affairs. The line of control would be made porous and there would be free movement of people and goods. This, Bhasin suggested, could be tried for a period of five years after which there could be an election for a united Constituent Assembly for the entire state, whose members would then determine the state's status as part of India, Pakistan or whether to become independent. 'We should be,' reiterated Basin, 'like the Switzerland of South Asia: that situation will fully satisfy aspirations and will lead to peace in India and Pakistan.'

Zahid Muhammad, columnist and writer in Srinagar maintained that the aspirations of Kashmiris did not differ from people in all parts of the world: 'They want liberty. The liberty to decide their future as promised by the comity of nations, the United Nations Security council, India and Pakistan.' In view of signs already given by the new Barack Obama administration, he believed that there was renewed US interest in Kashmir 'more particularly' US recognition that Kashmir cold be 'a portal to peace' in the region.

Amongst the delegates, there was a general reaction against the Indian government's persistent insistence that the state of Jammu and Kashmir was an integral part of India. There was also a strong demand for demilitarisation, which Angana Chatterji emphasised must not just be a 'token withdrawal', the release of political prisoners and the repeal of laws which enabled the security forces in Kashmir to act with impunity.

Speaking in the session, 'When Peaceful Protests Fail, What Next?', Gautam Navlakha, editorial consultant of the Economic and Political Weekly, New Delhi and one of the conveners of the IPTK, warned that if the aspirations of Kashmiris continued to be ignored, the armed struggle could start again 'which will have repercussions for all of South Asia.' Reminding listeners of the 'tens of thousands' who took to the streets last summer in protest at the grant of land around the Amarnath Shrine to the Shrine board, he said that their reaction 'shook the Indian state' as a warning of further protests to come.

David Wolfe, South Asia international human security specialist, who had himself been placed under house arrest and accused of 'uniting separatists' during a recent visit to Kashmir, maintained that the armed struggle was not the way forward. 'The non-violent struggle has been painful, but the Kashmiris cannot give up on it. You only have to see the resolve on their faces.' He also pointed out the detrimental effect of armed fighters coming across the line of control from Pakistan. 'The only people who get hurt are the Kashmiris they are supposedly coming over to help.'

Altaf Qadri, member of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, also endorsed a non-violent struggle. 'The armed struggle is not the ethos of the Kashmiri people. If we continue to fight through violent means, the Government of India will be only too happy because it gives them the opportunity to kill Kashmiris.'

When discussing a 'way forward', Dr Idrisa Pandit, educator and consultant, who lives in Canada, but whose extended family is still living in the Kashmir valley, suggested that a 'social, psychological and economic model has to be developed for the accommodation of all people irrespective of their faith. There has to be a model for the protection of rights for all minorities of all faiths in all regions. 'Kashmiris first have to engage in a process of self examination and introspection. They will have to ask what is the struggle for Kashmir all about. Is it a religious struggle, it is a territorial struggle?'

Tapan Bose, filmmaker and human rights activist, and one of the earliest people to highlight human rights abuses in the valley in the early 1990s, believed that the way forward was for a real genuine mass movement to be instigated. But he also saw the difficulties of mobilising people given the lack of unity in the current separatist leadership. 'We have to have a road map unless you have a road map there is no way that you will be able to put pressure on the government of India. Kashmiris must develop a common strategy and plan.' In relation to Confidence Building measures, he endorsed the bus service.

Professor Ghulam Rasool Malik, former head of the English Department at the University of Kashmir and currently a member of the committee for Educational Reform set up by the government of Jammu and Kashmir, reminded the audience that addressing the Kashmir was 'addressing a human tragedy.' At the same time, over the years, the issue had 'got converted into a mind-boggling tangle.' His suggestion was for a five year period for creating 'a conducive atmosphere for a solution of the tangle to take effect. In generating such atmosphere all the stake-holders India, Pakistan and Kashmiri people shall have to sincerely and actively co-operate.'

A lone voice came from the Northern Areas of Pakistan, that of Ismail Khan, who was the only delegate from that region. An expert on media, public policy and development in Skardu, and peace activist, Khan was critical of both India and Pakistan: 'Peace processes don't fail, it is the people behind the peace process who fail,' he said. He also regretted lost opportunities: 'The biggest failure has been India's failure in understanding the stakes. Despite being a major democracy, the leadership has failed because it has not been able to capitalise on the opportunities which presented themselves during the first few years of Musharraf's leadership in Pakistan.' Pointing out the suffering of the people of the Northern Areas because they had taken the brunt of the wars fought between India and Pakistan, most recently the Kargil war in 1999, he reminded the audience that, in view of the state of Jammu and Kashmir's unresolved status, the people in Gilgit and Baltistan 'had no representation anywhere.' He also highlighted problems of climate change. 'The melting of the glaciers is going to impact the health of the entire globe.'

At the end of the conference, Dr Karen Parker, recognised that during two days' of discussion, 'we have scratched the surface but we have also dug deeply. We are at a junction right now with a new President [in the United States] and a possible new agenda. If there is any time for us to push the issue harder, it is now. We will not get a more favourable time than now. If we lose this opportunity we might have to wait a really long time.'

Although Dr Ghulam Nabi Fai recognised that 'nothing new' might have been achieved by the conference, it had been important to enhance understanding of the issue. Furthermore, he pointed out that amongst the delegates, there had been 'no disagreement that the rights of the people of Kashmir, irrespective of their religion or regions, must be respected.' This important principle, he said, 'was unanimously presented and conveyed and adopted by everybody.' He also affirmed that, much as it was a 'healthy sign' when there were peace talks between India and Pakistan, 'we really want them to talk sense.' Finally, he highlighted what he believed was an important change both in the attitude of Indian intellectuals and also that of the international community, which could be used as a tool to further the objectives of the Kashmiris.

The delegates unanimously adopted the 'Washington Declaration', which noted that the 'egregious violations of humanitarian norms' had induced a culture of crisis and urged that the inalienable right to self determination of peoples of Jammu and Kashmir, as it stood on 14 August 1947, should be recognised and instituted.

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Curfewed Night Basharat Peer, "Curfewed Night: One Kashmiri Journalist's Frontline Account of Life, Love, and War in His Homeland," Scribner (February 2, 2010)

Vijay Prashad, "Colonial Lines in the South Asian Snow,", February 9, 2010

Jason Burke, "Street riots greet Kashmir peace talks: India and Pakistan are holding their first high-level talks since the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008," Guardian, February 21, 2010

"Killings in Kashmir by Indian Forces Spark Protests,", July 21, 2010

Owen Bowcott, "Afghanistan worst place in the world for women, but India in top five," Guardian, June 15, 2011

Life Kashmiri Woman Nyla Ali Khan, "The Life of a Kashmiri Woman: Dialectic of Resistance and Accommodation," Palgrave Pivot (June 25, 2014)

Farooq is Problem Not Solution, The Wire, May 1, 2023

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