The debate on Kashmir

GHULAM Nabi Fai, the director of the Kashmiri American Council, last week pleaded guilty to secretly receiving $4m from the ISI to lobby for Kashmiri independence in Washington.

He explained to a Washington court that his actions were not sinister, and that he was simply trying to work towards a peaceful solution of the Kashmir dispute. While New Delhi has welcomed the prosecution, the Pakistani public has been largely sympathetic, hailing Fai’s dedication to a noble cause and championing the work of the KAC.

The contrasting reactions to Fai’s transgressions are a good reminder of how divisive the Kashmir issue remains, even among liberal Pakistanis and Indians who otherwise favour normalisation of the bilateral relationship. I had an opportunity to see this divisiveness in action a few weeks ago at the Frontline Club in London. A panel discussion titled ‘Kashmir: South Asia’s Palestine?’ brought together journalists, writers and an academic to reflect on the dispute and prospects for future resolution.

Rarely have I attended such an impassioned event. Mirza Waheed, author of The Collaborator and former BBC journalist, represented the Kashmiri point of view and talked eloquently about the appalling human rights situation in the valley and the Indian government’s brutal, and therefore counterproductive, response to peaceful demonstrations in Kashmir last year. He warned that the situation in the valley had reached a turning point: if steps towards resolving the dispute keeping Kashmiri desires in account were not taken, a return to militancy was possible, or even likely.

Ashis Ray, a Times of India journalist, challenged Waheed’s depiction of Indian excesses and took issue with the use of the word ‘occupation’ to describe Indian presence in Kashmir. Ray also pointed to numerous elections in the valley as a sign that Kashmiris had elected to participate in a democratic India and thus enjoyed a political voice via the ballot box.

In a gasp-inducing moment, he dismissed the deaths of peaceful Kashmiri protesters as ‘collateral damage’. Between these diametrically opposed views lay the perspectives of other panelists, Al Jazeera correspondent Imran Khan, former Times reporter Subhash Chopra and SOAS lecturer Lawrence Sáez.

It was evident through the discussion that one person’s truth was another person’s myth; one’s experience, another’s propaganda. Participants were unable to agree on historical timelines, the voter turnout at particular elections, the frequency of rape of Kashmiri women, and almost everything else. Disputations over the most basic facts — for example, the number of Indian troops present in the valley — seemed surreal among a panel of journalists and writers affiliated with reputed international publications.

The he-said, she-said tenor of the discussion re-emphasised just how well-entrenched state-created narratives about the Kashmir issue are on both sides. Honed over the decades, these narratives have replaced history and fact with emotive symbolism that serves the interests of the concerned state. On the Pakistani side, the story of grave injustices being committed against Muslims by a non-Muslim colonial state is an echo of Pakistan’s own creation story that helps validate the past and bolster the country’s Muslim identity. Across the border, the integration of a Muslim-majority state into a post-Partition India helps reaffirm the success of pluralistic democracy.

More importantly, on both sides of the border, the Kashmir issue helps rally publics around armies, justifies excessive defence expenditure and allows governments to portray themselves as the good guys as opposed to the rival militants/oppressors, depending which side of the Line of Control you’re on.

In this context, the panel’s response to one question from the audience surprised me. When a young woman asked what role Pakistani and Indian civil society can play to help facilitate a resolution to the Kashmir dispute, all the discussants mumbled responses about the first responsibility lying with armies, governments, international arbitrators, Kashmiri political parties and, of course, Kashmiris themselves.

On this point, I disagree. Civil society in both Pakistan and India can play an integral role by helping debunk, refine and update ingrained state narratives. As the Frontline Club panel demonstrated, a coherent, productive conversation about Kashmir is almost impossible because each side’s talking points are in direct opposition to the other’s. Ironically, these talking points have been formulated with little regard for history or the actual experience of the Kashmiri people.

Civil society actors can address this rhetorical anomaly by raising simple questions in order to re-articulate old narratives in light of present Kashmiri desires. In an age of online social networking, wiki-media and other interactive platforms, there’s no excuse for publics not to communicate and develop nuanced and multifaceted — rather than contradictory — interpretations. By circulating in cyberspace and independent media, these fresher narratives can start to re-centre foreign policy. A grass-roots approach to changing the thinking on Kashmir could be more effective in the long-term than Fai’s high-level politicking.

More importantly, civil society actors can add the most important missing element to the equation: the Kashmiri voice. As Waheed stressed in his comments, Kashmiris are starting to document their own version of events — in novels, memoirs, verse, blog posts, tweets, radio shows and more. It is incumbent on Pakistani and Indian publics to consume, translate and debate output from the valley so as to better align national narratives with the actual experience and desires of Kashmiris.

By acknowledging and amplifying the Kashmiri perspective in the South Asian public sphere, civil society can help reconfigure the dispute as a trilateral, rather than bilateral affair. After all, any successful resolution to the Kashmir dispute requires three parties to negotiate together: Pakistan, India and Kashmir as the principal party. To get to that point, all stakeholders will have to learn how to talk to — rather than at — each other.

The writer is a freelance journalist.