Amid Hope and Despair, Kashmiris Learn Art of Survival

Srinagar, Dec 31 (IANS) For Kashmiris, 2006 was a mixed bag, the India-Pakistan peace process bringing hope into their beleaguered lives while unabated violence and a shattered economy were gloomy affairs.

"Peace has become Utopia for us - always to be sought but never to be actually found. It has been 18 long years of death and destruction. I lost the best years of my life hoping that the next year would be better than the last. It has been an unending circle," said Gulam Ahmad Naqash, 41, a businessman.

Not all Kashmiris sound as desolate as Naqash about the prospects of peace. Many are hopeful that peace is possible in Kashmir, thanks to the efforts of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

"I sincerely believe both Singh and Musharraf are honest in their pursuit of peace. But powerful vested interests in both countries appear to have invested heavily in violence. It is these unseen forces which thwart peace prospects," said Muzaffar Ahmad, a college teacher.

In 2006, 181 security personnel, including 13 officers, were killed in Jammu and Kashmir while fighting separatist guerrillas.

Indian officials reported over two dozen attempts by terrorists to sneak into India from Pakistan, over the Line of Control (LoC) that divides Kashmir between the two countries.

"Despite fencing of borders, infiltration bids continued in 2006. Yes, we admit the levels of violence as compared to the previous years have come down," said an intelligence officer.

This is also borne out by the revival of political activity. Almost all mainstream political parties hold public meetings and rallies across the state. This was not possible a few years back.

"The number of people attending public meetings is quite encouraging. People come to listen to us and they also listen to separatist politicians. This is an encouraging sign," said a leader of the ruling Congress party.

Irrespective of ideologies, all politicians have started talking in terms of possible solutions to the Kashmir problem.

Former chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed's People's Democratic Party (PDP), a junior partner in the government, is advocating self-rule for Kashmiris on both sides of LoC. The National Conference is talking about autonomy as a solution.

A war of attrition is on between PDP and National Conference over self-rule and autonomy.

"The self-rule formula not only includes all that is envisaged in the National Conference's autonomy proposals but also addresses the external dimensions of the problem," said PDP president Mehbooba Mufti.

Remarked National Conference president Omar Abdullah: "Their (PDP) self-rule is nothing but a plagiarized version of our autonomy proposals."

At the administrative level, Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad has been focusing on good governance and accountability in public life.

"It is easier to talk of lofty solutions and international dimensions. The most difficult thing is to bring back accountability in public life, to address corruption and bring back a semblance of normalcy into the lives of the people," said Azad.

"Let us address ourselves to rebuilding of the devastated infrastructure, revival of tourism and economy, jobs for the unemployed, educated youth. I think that is more important than speaking of formulas. Let us leave that for New Delhi and Islamabad."

Having completed a year in office, Azad has had a tough time balancing the political equations within his coalition government.

The leaders of PDP and Congress have often quarreled even at cabinet meetings, embarrassing the chief minister.

At one such meeting, Azad had to intervene to end a heated exchange between a PDP minister and his Congress colleague. Annoyed, Azad told his ministers to behave or else threatened to call for early elections.

Said a Kashmir observer: "Azad is a well-meaning politician who wants to do something tangible. Others in the government are more concerned about playing to the galleries. It is not easy to govern Kashmir, much less with a coalition that fights for one-upmanship."

Tourism saw some revival in 2006, but a string of guerrilla attacks against domestic tourists stalled the prospects of an expected tourist boom.

Over a dozen tourists were killed in grenade attacks this year. But the annual pilgrimage to the holy cave shrine of Amarnath, visited by over 100,000 pilgrims this year, passed without a hiccup.

In a nutshell, despite violence and uncertainty in 2006, Kashmiris have learnt to lead near normal lives.

"It is the great art of self-preservation and survival. Violence has made us great survivalists," said Abdul Samad Shah, 46, a resident of downtown Srinagar, the bastion of separatist sentiments. 


More by :  F. Ahmed

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