As Pakistan heads for general elections to elect National Assembly this May, the absence of the “K-word” from the election campaign is being interpreted in a myriad of ways in Indian-administered Kashmir. Some quarters sound disappointed over this ‘change’ in Pakistan’s Kashmir policy while others perceive it as part of the changing dynamics in the post-Musharraf era, which, in their opinion, the Kashmiris “must understand”.
Political pundits in the Kashmir Valley always keep a close eye on Pakistani politics. People — both young and old — have been listening to political speeches by prominent politicians from Pakistan with keen interest. Not many are pleased over the absence of the Kashmir issue from the election campaign. But some are hopeful that this Pakistani ‘indifference’ could be fruitful for Kashmir in the long run.
Young Kashmiri researchers like Abir Bashir Bazaz believe that Pakistani politics is “either avoiding or delaying difficult decisions about its long and historic support for the question of Kashmiri self-determination”. This support for Kashmir, Bazaz explains, has traditionally been more vocal in the provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). “Punjab and Sarhad (KP) have been more involved with the Kashmir question from as early as the 1930s. Yet the Kashmir question has never really been tied to the question of democracy in Pakistan,” he adds.
Interestingly, it is for the first time that any democratically-elected government has completed its full tenure in Pakistan’s chequered history. The country, unfortunately, has seen military dictatorships for the most part since it gained independence in 1947.
During the past six decades, Kashmiris have been hearing the oft-repeated official statement from Pakistan that this country will “continue to support Kashmir’s just struggle on moral, diplomatic and political fronts.” However, the crowds on Kashmir Solidarity Day in Pakistan have been dwindling over the years. Also, during the latest election campaign there has hardly been any mention of Kashmir, not even symbolically. This is a reason for disenchantment in some sensitive circles within Kashmir.
“Despite the huge public support in Pakistan for a Kashmir solution, the absence of Kashmir from the election campaign signals more clearly that the question of Kashmir has become a privilege of the few in Pakistan, most notably the Pakistan Army,” says Bazaz.
Media experts like Professor Nasir Mirza say that Pakistan has realised the fact that the country first needs to “set its own house in order” before worrying about the Kashmir problem. “Pakistan’s intelligentsia is aware of its internal problems. They have realised they need to take care of Pakistan first,” adds Professor Mirza, who teaches Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kashmir. This changing dynamic, Mirza thinks, needs to be appreciated and understood by the Kashmiris.
“In changing political dynamics, the self-reliance of the Kashmiris becomes paramount. They need to look within and not outside their borders for support. Also, some media reports suggest that Kashmir is becoming a negative issue in Pakistan, as some leaders who raise their pitch on Kashmir issue are being criticised,” says Mirza.
But experts like Dr Sheikh Showkat Hussain have a different take. “It would be an exaggeration to suggest that Kashmir doesn’t exist in the manifesto of Pakistani political parties. It (Kashmir) does exist though not in the same way as it used to in the 60s, 70s and 90s. The reason probably remains that political parties in Pakistan are keen to assert that the Kashmiri freedom struggle is indigenous and the Pakistani state is simply a supporter of this struggle.”
Dr Hussain, an expert in law and international relations, further says that the main political parties of Pakistan adopted this policy of not remaining vocal on Kashmir during the Musharraf era. But, he says, same can’t be said about the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) headed by Maulana Fazlur Rehman.
“These two parties continue to remain vocal and outspoken on the Kashmir dispute. Also, the Pakistan Muslim League, led by Nawaz Sharif, keeps talking about Kashmir. Because they represent those parts of Pakistan where there is a sizeable concentration of Kashmiri migrants. Pakistani society, too, is sensitive to the happenings in Kashmir,” Dr Hussain adds.
The Kashmiri public seem to be aware of Pakistan’s internal troubles, which in their view, are becoming an impediment in the prolongation of Pakistan’s traditional Kashmir policy. “Pakistan is in real trouble. Problems like suicide bombings inside mosques and financial crunch have kept this country so busy that it has no time to bother about Kashmir,” says Manzoor Mirza, a Srinagar resident. “I am concerned about Pakistan’s stability and future,” he says with a sigh.
Some Kashmiris had pinned their hopes on the legendary cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan— who heads Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf — but even his “six poll promises” did not include the ‘K-word’.
Presently, Pakistani leaders seem to be more concerned about domestic matters like the economy, internal security, law and order, unemployment, power shortages and energy crisis. Addressing their potential voters during public rallies, the main political leaders have spoken about suicide attacks, US drones, the fragile economy and other internal issues, but not many have explained their policy on Kashmir.
In the view of some political commentators, the visible ‘indifference’ of the Pakistani political leadership towards Kashmir could actually be a ‘blessing in disguise’. Even some segments within the Kashmiri leadership have been advocating the idea that the Kashmir struggle be transformed into an exclusively Kashmir-centric mobilisation with Pakistan remaining only a passive supporter. Ex-president of Azad Kashmir, K. H. Khurshid vehemently favours this idea.
“Though Kashmiris may feel indifference of Pakistanis but the freedom struggle over here in Kashmir has become too deep-rooted to be diluted by such posturing. Pakistani support too has at times become a liability for Kashmiris because Pakistan on so many occasions changed its stance. Once in recent times was when General (retd) Musharraf raised the slogan ‘Sab Se Pehle Pakistan’,” opines Dr Hussain.
“A total absence of the K-word in this historic election in Pakistan could result in a widening of the gap between Kashmiri and Pakistani politics. If this is a good thing or not and how much control it leaves in the hands of the Kashmiri people as they struggle for self-determination without much visible support from Pakistan remains to be seen,” concludes Bazaz.
In all fairness, Pakistan has its troubles and compulsions. The fact is that the number of people favouring Kashmir’s merger with Pakistan is fast dwindling in Kashmir. But that has neither diluted the strong sentiment for Kashmir’s “freedom struggle” nor the “sympathy” for Pakistan and good wishes for its future.
Gowhar Geelani is a writer/journalist with international experience. He has served as Editor at Deutsche Welle (Voice of Germany) in Bonn, Germany. Previously, he has contributed features to the BBC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org