The Brits are back in the town. It is the first visit by the British High Commissioner in India to Srinagar this year. This mission comes as a sequel to a similar situation assessment trip by Britain’s other friends from the European Union (EU) to Srinagar two weeks ago.
Such visits always seem to evoke excitement in Srinagar’s political and social circles. There is no dearth of people who always see these trips as indicative of something-being-in-the-offing. To them a final settlement to Kashmir could not be a distant reality if these good white guys ‘use their good offices to prevail over India and Pakistan.’
Then there are some quarters that are highly sceptical too. They see the history of these visits delivering almost nothing for the status quo to change for the better. Their level of expectations from Britain and the EU are higher.
The question that arises is this: does Kashmir really interest Europe? If so, for what reason?
The first thing to realise is that such visits are part of the normal public diplomacy initiatives influential countries take overseas. Both publicly and privately, members of these delegations make it amply clear that the basic aim of these missions is to learn about the current situation in Kashmir. But should we actually stop there?
In this debate, there are two extreme perceptions and positions. The perception that EU will be able to facilitate a final political settlement of Kashmir dispute looks little farfetched under the present circumstances. A position of total inaction may not be entirely warranted either. A pragmatic path lies in the middle, and there are compelling reasons for that.
There are four key reasons why Europe and Kashmir would be important to each other. Kashmir’s geographical location is highly important. It is at the intersection of the world’s four major powers. As a progressive Muslim society, which is dynamic and innovative, Kashmir’s leadership role in the Muslim world is likely to enhance in the decades to come. Not just that. Within South Asia, Kashmir is likely to contribute significantly to intellectual leadership in the areas of religion, politics, economics, philosophy, literature and so on in the days to come.
The reason this could be visualised is that the last two decades have seen a great degree of Kashmiri mobility across international boundaries, as was the case before the 1947 political borders landlocked it. That mobility has revived its rich tradition of intellectual inquiry and innovation. And the effects of that will be felt strongly within the coming decade.
Then is the issue of Kashmiri Diaspora in Europe, especially in Britain, which will continue to be important to British politics and society.
For Kashmir, Europe will be important because the prospects of economic, political and intellectual interface are immense. Kashmir has a rich history of interaction with that world – courtesy tourism and not-so-unpleasant colonial era. That interface and linkage has deep roots.
In addition to these factors, what is important is the current political situation in Kashmir. This place has a strong bearing on the situation in the south Asian region both as a cause and effect. And that has vital implications for Europe as a whole. So public relations here are important, and also the way they are conducted.
In that sense, the recent mission of the EU members to the valley made quite a bit of front page news both for right and wrong reasons. The visit seemed to have ruffled some feathers, made some grin and given birth to a host of conspiracy theories. Why did the European team skip Hyderpora and the Kashmir Bar Association, for instance? Although the mission head sought to clear some air on that, some damage was already done.
The Europeans have generally been conducting their public diplomacy in Kashmir with a great degree of balance. While they would normally listen to every side, they take pains not to take a public position on the core issue of Kashmir.
Same is not the case with the Americans, you can bet. They are known to have their own way of doing things – often quite different than how the Europeans conduct public diplomacy. To any objective observer, the American ambassador to India’s recent Srinagar trip was a plain public relations disaster. It looked too one sided, offended sensitivities and reinforced the general public perception of Americans being generally apathetic to the popular public mood.
Kashmir is a place which doesn’t have the baggage of an unpleasant or cruel experience with the British colonial era. Yes the Amritsar Treaty and the region’s sale to the Dogra Maharajas don’t make that pleasant history, but don’t we need to look beyond?
Viceroy Mountbatten and Sir Radcliffe’s boundary demarcation issue involving Gurdaspur is still debated with the same emotion as it was before both in Kashmir and Pakistan. The subsequent British inaction to engage with India and Pakistan to make sure that the unresolved Kashmir question is resolved cannot be absolved of being a historical wrong. Prime Minister Cameroon’s famous apology for Britain’s role in the mess Kashmir is today is reflective more of a moral guilt than political action. But many people in Kashmir have moved on that debate.
The middle path for a Kashmir-Europe engagement lies in helping to improve the quality of the lives of common Kashmiris. Helping an India-Pakistan engagement for reducing military presence in Kashmir and to ensure appropriate political and economic empowerment would be a great thing.
Further, the quality, scope and extent of Europe’s development assistance to Kashmir need to enhance drastically. Its scope is too small now. A better focus on business ties, like in areas of tourism, would be vital too. Kashmir would greatly benefit from opportunities in areas of education and research in Europe’s universities. An international university through a special India-EU arrangement would not be a bad idea. It would open floodgates of opportunities for diverse set of educational aspirants, particularly from the Muslim world.
And let us don’t forget that Britain and Kashmir proudly share one thing in common which no one on this planet could boast of – willow and cricket bats.
Willow could open the vistas for other opportunities too.
(The columnist can be contacted at Arjimand@greaterkashmir.com)