Residents of Kashmir are emerging from an extremely severe winter. The weather was cold enough in the Valley; their misery was magnified many times by having to do without essential supplies, including fuel, due to snow and avalanches blocking the only surface route through the Banihal pass. Moving out of the Valley was no less difficult. The extent of traffic needed to service the Valley was evident from the hundreds of vehicles piled up on either side.
An ill-considered attempt to ease the pressure and let them through led to disaster. Some were crushed by avalanches; others marooned in high banks of snow on the way up to the Jawahar Tunnel. Nearly 100 passengers died and many others suffered frostbite as they scrambled to safety. Though the weather was unusually harsh this year, tenuous links with the rest of the country isolate the Valley periodically every winter.
Before India and Pakistan went to war over Kashmir in October 1947, the Banihal route was seldom used. Traffic flowed throughout the year through the low-level route from Rawalpindi. The road entered the Valley at the Domel bridge over the Ramganga river and meandered on to Srinagar beside the Jhelum river. No high ranges were in the way; it was never blocked. But it has not been used since the cease-fire line was drawn near Chakothi. Since then, Indian and Pakistani troops face each other there; no civilian traffic is permitted. The closure of the road underlined once more the suffering that nearly 50 years of Indo-Pakistan confrontation has brought Kashmiris.
Over the years, New Delhi and Islamabad have seen the dispute entirely in terms of their national interest. Kashmir was the primary arena in which their animus for each other was fought out; the future of its people was a secondary consideration and then too only if it fit in with their antagonistic strategies. But after nearly five years of insurgency, which exploits the popular desire for "azaadi", the people's wishes can no longer be ignored. "Azaadi" means distancing the Valley from both India and Pakistan. And though Pakistan has tried hard to win over Kashmirs by supporting the Kashmiris and India to demonsrate its authority by pouring in armed forces, the demand for "azaadi" persists.
This has been noted by journalists who have toured the Valley as well as by diplomats and other international observers. The Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists has now provided formal support. Its findings merit serious consideration by both India and Pakistan. The key to it is that: "The State of Jammu and Kashmir comprises a number of different units which should be allowed to exercise the right to self- determination separately. Full or limited independence for Kashmir is a possible option."
The problem is. . .
In other words, that the right of the Kashmiri people to determine their future has not been extinguished by the passage of time; and that the choice should not be limited to joining India or Pakistan, but should include the third option of full or limited independence. Since it is evident that there is no support for "azaadi" in Jammu nor Ladakh, the International Commission suggests that the different units exercised their right to self-determination separately.
This does not accord with New Delhi's stand which is that the accession of the State of Jammu and Kashmir to the Indian Union is final and indissoluble. There is, therefore, no question of self-determination for all or part of the State. As further elaborated by an Indian representative at the Copenhagen summit, the principle of self-determination should not be permitted to contribute to the break-up of a nation state. While relaxing the tough position taken earlier inside Kashmir by releasing prominent Kashmiri nationalists and allowing diplomats and other foreign representatives entry, it is evident that New Delhi has not modified its stand abroad.
The problem is that many governments, including that of the United States, do not accept the finality of Jammu and Kashmir's accession to India, as reiterated repeatedly on behalf of the State Department by Ms. Robin Raphel. This is not a new stand; it is the same as was taken at the United Nations. The fact is that the circumstances in which the Maharaja Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession to India are subject to diverse interpretations.
While the accession is unconditional, as New Delhi maintains, the document contains several clauses aimed at protecting the State's autonomy. Also relevant is the response of the then Governor General, Lord Louis Mountbatten, to the Maharaja, which stated that the question [of accession] "should be settled by a reference to the people", after law and order had been restored. This referred to the situation caused by the incursion of Pathan tribal jirgas through Pakistan, which ended in 1948.
A window of hope
It was this obscurity that made it possible for the United Nations Security Council to spend years in trying unsuccessfully to evolve a formula acceptable to Pakistan and India. The issue is still on its agenda. But the choice proposed for the people of the State was between India and Pakistan: the ICJ has taken newer developments into account by adding limited or full independence.
Without the full text of the ICJ report, entitled Human Rights in Kashmir, it is difficult to decide whether it deserves the harsh official response it has received from an Indian spokesman. New Delhi continues to be highly sensitive about allegations of violations of human rights, though this has been substantiated by Indian human rights organisations as well as Indian journalists. Instead, New Delhi should face the ICJ's proposal of allowing the people of Kashmir to opt for limited or complete independence. The Pakistan Prime Minister, Ms. Benazir Bhutto, has made it plain earlier that Islamabad does not favour any such proposal.
But it is the negative responses of the governments of both India and Pakistan that provide a window of hope. Such a solution would not be viewed as a victory for one and, therefore, need not have a negative fall-out in the other. Since it could be interpreted in terms of deeply rooted ethnic and historical forces, rather than religious, it need not have communal repercussions. Nor would a plebiscite or referendum, which would raise passions, be necessary. It shoudl not be difficult to involve the established leaders of the Valley in negotiations in which the ICJ formula is part of the agenda.
That the people of India and Pakistan do not necessarily endorse the rigid positions taken by their governments was evident from the proceedings of the People's Convention on Peace and Democracy in New Delhi last month. It was attended by nearly 100 non-official Pakistanis. They insisted that Kashmir was the core issue between the two countries, and emphasised the human rights violations there more than the Pakistani involvement in terrorism. But both sides agreed that it should be left to the people of Kashmir to determing their future.