By Mahendra Ved*
An opinion poll among its readers conducted by the influential Dawn newspaper on February 5, observed in Pakistan as “Kashmir Day”, asking “Do you believe in observing Kashmir Day?” brought forth over 86 percent “No” and 14.38 percent “Yes”.
The participation was modest, around 600, by the end of the working day, but could reflect the growing disenchantment among the readers who, of course, constitute a very small city-based English-reading minority. The mood may well be different among readers of Urdu and Punjabi media.
Whether or not India and Pakistan hold a formal bilateral dialogue, the current phase of uneasy relationship where both sides are ready to talk – but unable/unwilling to fix dates and the agenda for several reasons – worked to take the steam off Pakistan’s “Kashmir Day” observance.
Leaving out ‘official’ hotheads like LET and JUD chief Hafiz Saeed, the observance seemed a relatively tame affair. This may have to do with the widely perceived stance of the Pakistan Army that controls the India and Kashmir policy.
Whether or not it endorses Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s approach to India, it would like to avoid a confrontation in the aftermath of peace move triggered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Lahore being scuttled by terror attack on India’s Pathankot air base. Nawaz Sharif himself struck a conciliatory note by emphasizing on the need for a dialogue as the solution to the vexed issue.
Addressing a joint session of the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Assembly on Kashmir Day he said that the solution of all issues, including that of disputed Kashmir, lay in dialogue.
“Difference of opinion between two countries is not unheard of,” Sharif said, referring to Pakistan’s differences with India over Kashmir. “What is unusual is that for 6-7 decades, we have not been able to get rid of these differences,” Radio Pakistan quoted him as saying in Muzaffarabad.
This was unlike the fiery speeches most of his predecessors have made each year on this occasion. From Ayub Khan to Z A Bhutto and Zia ul Haq to Benazir Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf (“Kashmir is in my blood”), rulers have used the occasion to dare India and to complain to the world community and to the United Nations against India’s ‘occupation’ of Jammu and Kashmir.
Indeed, Nawaz Sharif referred to India in a totally different tone.
“I brought this up with the Indian leadership and would like to reiterate that the solution to our problems lies in dialogue. Unless we sit together and talk about these issues, they won’t be resolved,” Sharif told the assembly. He expressed hope that the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue between Pakistan and India would see progress in days to come.
He said Pakistan has assured Indian leadership of cooperation on every issue, including terrorism. “Pakistan is most affected by terrorism. Who wants eradication of terrorism more than Pakistan?”
There has been a broad consensus in the world community, even among those who do not necessarily support the Indian standpoint on the Kashmir issue, that despite the disputed status, simmering tensions and violence, Jammu and Kashmir state that India rules has seen greater democracy and development compared to the part across the Line of Control.
Neglect of development is a long-standing issue in what India calls Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK). The “President of AJK”, Sharif said, “gave me a long list of delayed power projects”. He said he would “ask why there has been a delay and has progress been made on these projects.” Blaming earlier governments, he said: “If there is a power shortage somewhere, it is a not a problem that we have created, but rather one that we have inherited.”
Making no immediate commitment, he assured of future development and prosperity for the vast region that has seen lack of development and growing militancy.
“The benefits of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will reach AJK, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit Baltistan, which are a big part of the CPEC. Development of roads and power projects has been planned to help end the power shortage and bring progress to these areas.”
The readers’ views on the report ranged from supporting the “Kashmiri Cause” to blaming India for its intransigence and condemning successive governments at home for not doing enough to ‘force’ India to yield to the ‘desire’ of the Kashmiri people.
“We are ‘celebrating’ Kashmir Day, while shutting down all economic activities, despite already having fragile & oblivious economy…shutting down all businesses on this particular day means hefty financial loss…damaging our own economy rather benefiting Kashmiris…what a ‘Nation’ we are….” said one reader.
“It’s not our core issue at all,” said another and a third said: “Dear PM please take care of Pakistan’s issues.” Ranged against this were many who blamed India for unleashing repression.
A blog with Srinagar dateline written by Gowhar Geelani for Dawn carried the views of many on the Indian side who were asked: “Is pro-Pakistan sentiment in Kashmir still alive?”
Geelani asked: “In the past, Kashmiris in their wills have requested their children and grandchildren to hoist the Pakistani flag on their graves once the region merges with Pakistan, but is the pro-Pakistan sentiment so deep in today’s Kashmir?
“Some observers say that in a suppressed environment like the one that prevails in Kashmir, wherein democratic spaces for expression and dissent stand choked, it is a difficult question to answer.
He quotes Ajazul Haq, a leading columnist on the Indian side, responding via email: “… the worsening situation in Pakistan is creating a bad feeling among Kashmiris and that is perhaps one of the reasons people don’t display their pro-Pakistan emotions as openly and plainly as they used to.”
However, many in Kashmir continue to express their love for Pakistan overtly through various symbolic gestures like cheering for the Pakistani cricket team, waving or hoisting the Pakistan’s national flag, setting Pakistan’s national anthem as the ring tone on their mobile phones, and attending funerals of militants of Pakistani descent in colossal numbers,” says Geelani.
Bashir Manzar, Editor-in-chief of Srinagar based English daily Kashmir Images, feels Kashmir Solidarity Day is “ritualistic” and meant only to address Pakistan’s domestic constituency.
Anuradha Bhasin, Executive Editor of Jammu based Kashmir Times, says that Pakistan’s stand on Kashmir is necessitated by the country’s internal political demands.
Zafar Choudhary, commentator and political analyst based in Jammu, says that over the last many years “jihadi elements like ‘Lashkar-i-Taiba’ (LeT) have hijacked the Kashmir Solidarity Day” in Pakistan.
The blogger quotes Shabnum, a lecturer by profession, who says that “pro-Pakistan sentiment among the new generation is on the decline and some of them have even started cheering for the Indian cricket team. She says several among the young generation also seem to see their economic future with India without surrendering their aspiration for Kashmir’s independence.”
The blogger concluded: “There is a mixed response from Jammu and Kashmir on February 5. Some say that Kashmir Day is of “great significance” whereas others believe that the observance has been reduced to mere ritual and that Pakistan’s official stance over Kashmir appears to be “wavering”.
*Mahendra Ved is a strategic analyst and commentator. He can be contacted at [email protected]