Shabir Shah sees a ray of hope in Kashmir’s killing fields
SRINAGAR: Facing visitors as they enter Kashmiri separatist leader Shabir Shah’s drawing room is a black and white poster of a child’s face, with a single teardrop in red and an old Urdu couplet: “for a mistake committed in moments centuries were punished.”
To the man dubbed Kashmir’s Nelson Mandela after spending 23 years in Indian jails from the age of 14, Kashmir has paid a bloody price for the decision by modern Kashmir’s founding father, Sheikh Abdullah, to seal its accession to India in 1975.
“Our former leadership committed this blunder which destroyed this nation,” said the quietly spoken moderate, Shabir Shah, who leads Kashmir’s anti-violence Democratic Freedom Party. “Otherwise, the people with guns would have pens. People trusted Sheikh Abdullah,” he said as he sat draped in a brown shawl, one leg tucked under him on a couch in his Srinagar home.
Mostly Muslim Kashmir, where separatist rebels have been battling Indian rule since 1989, is bracing for an annual summer jump in violence as winter snow blocking mountain passes melts, freeing up the movement of the guerrillas. But Mr Shah still sees fresh, if slight, hope from fragile signs of an easing in tension between India and Pakistan.
“It’s a beginning. It’s a good sign,” he told Reuters, even though more than 120 people have been killed in a surge of violence in the two weeks since India’s Premier Atal Behari Vajpayee offered talks with Pakistan in a marked change of tone, but not substance.
“It’s only because of Kashmir that these two countries have fought three wars. South Asia will be peaceful only when there is a meaningful, result-oriented dialogue on Kashmir.” Mr Vajpayee’s offer prompted a telephone call from his Pakistani counterpart, Zafarullah Khan Jamali - the first formal high-level contact in 18 months - who invited Mr Vajpayee to Islamabad.
But Mr Shah warned that “vested interests” on both sides would seek to derail any progress towards a lasting solution to the bitter dispute at the heart of more than half a century of tension and conflict between South Asia’s nuclear-armed powers. “Such kinds of interests are in India and Pakistan and Kashmir who want the status quo to continue,” he said, but added that India and Pakistan could stop these groups if they were sincere.
Analysts say rogue hardliners want to block any compromise. “There are very powerful forces who don’t want this detente in Indo-Pak relations,” said a political scientist, Noor Ahmed Baba, at the Kashmir University in the main city of Srinagar.
Pakistan pledged last year to stop the Muslim rebels slipping across the frontier as a military standoff brought the two nations close to war. Pakistan denies Indian charges it sponsors militants, saying it gives moral support to a “freedom struggle”.
The number of infiltrations this month would be a key sign of the trend in militant movements, said K Srinivasan, the Border Security Force (BSF) intelligence chief for the Kashmir Valley, the heart of the revolt that has killed up to 80,000 since 1989.
India wants infiltrations stopped before it will talk. The threat of nuclear war in South Asia has alarmed foreign governments and sparked a flurry of diplomatic visits last year. The American Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, is to visit India and Pakistan soon to press for talks and a crackdown on militants.
Analysts say the recent progress was influenced by his planned trip and a realisation by India and Pakistan that if they do not act, the United States could force them to. “Post-September 11 and Iraq, there’s pressure on both countries to get together and solve their differences,” said Mr Shah.
Mr Shah, who says prayer and his commitment to independence kept him alive in jail, said Kashmiris were tired of war. “We are peaceful people, we want peace with dignity and honour,” he said. But like many Kashmiris who want peace with dignity, he had trouble defining it, beyond saying it must be a solution accepted by India, Pakistan and the Kashmiris. “In Kashmir, we have always seen this autumn. It’s my wish to see spring, summer. Hope keeps us alive.” —Reuters