There is no sight more comforting for a Kashmiri than the top leadership of India and Pakistan sitting together with the intention of creating an amicable political environment.
Notwithstanding some voices within the two countries that seek an end to hostile relations and call for the revival of economic and cultural ties between the two neighbours,
Kashmir is the only place in the subcontinent where sobbing cries for peace form an integral part of the supplications during congregational prayers on Fridays. The youth in major towns across the valley then moves out in hordes to clash with security forces who they perceive as symbols of the prevailing injustice.
What the Nawaz-Modi meeting means for Kashmir
Kashmiris know that they would be the biggest beneficiaries of any steps taken in the right direction that will put India and Pakistan on the path to resolving longstanding disputes — provided the two countries treat them with sincerity.
It is not for nothing that all leaders across Kashmir’s political spectrum were pleasantly surprised and welcomed the unplanned meeting between the two prime ministers in Lahore. For Kashmiris, it was like a cool breeze in the scorching desert heat.
While leaders of the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference’s (JKNC) alliance partner, Congress, were busy picking holes in Prime Minister Modi’s so-called ‘spur-of-the-moment’ Pakistan visit, JKNC’s working president and former chief minister Omar Abdullah hailed the meeting, knowing full well its political ramifications for Kashmir.
On the other hand, senior separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who has always highlighted what he calls the 'futility' of any bilateral engagement between India and Pakistan, also welcomed the meeting between the two leaders.
Although their respective political approaches to the Kashmir issue and its resolution are different, all Kashmiri leaders, regardless of their political history or affiliations, are united in their belief that a political solution has to be reached for peace to prevail in the region.
It is also noteworthy that in recent years, a remarkable shift has occurred in the ideologies of the various political parties and their leaders in Kashmir.
Except Geelani, who believes that the solution for Kashmir lies in the implementation of UN resolutions, almost all other separatist leaders are open to any negotiable solution that is a win-win for all the three parties involved — Kashmir, India and Pakistan.
Two major mainstream political parties in Kashmir, JKNC and the Peoples Democratic Party have also gone to the extent of embarrassing soft separatism in recent years which is not much different from what the moderate separatist voices are demanding.
Many believe that if India and Pakistan start a serious resolution process before a sincere engagement with Kashmiri leaders, even Geelani will feel compelled to support it and might even consider softening his stance in the spirit to seek an end to the decades-long anguish faced by Kashmiris.
More than the traders, artists and peace-lovers in Delhi, Islamabad, Mumbai and Lahore who aspire for peaceful and lasting relations between India and Pakistan, it is the people on the streets of Kashmir who know the value of peace as they have yearned for it for so long.
What we've lost
Apart from the killing of thousands of people that has widowed countless women and orphaned several children, along with the psychological disorders that have ruined the lives of several thousand others, the armed conflict in Kashmir — a land that is often described as paradise on earth — has badly damaged the quality of life for the Kashmiri people
The persistent political uncertainty amid repeated episodes of violence and the half-hearted efforts of the incumbent governments to reach a solution over the last few decades has led to the complete collapse of all basic amenities of life, including access to proper healthcare and education. Kashmiris are even deprived of their very basic right of free movement.
Today, no one but the poor — who can’t afford to be selective — go for treatments to Kashmiri hospitals. Those who have money prefer getting their most basic health check-ups done in hospitals of Delhi, Chandigarh and Mumbai.
Access to electricity and safe-drinking water is a dream for many people across the valley. On a daily basis, newspapers report protest demonstrations where people from villages, towns and even the capital, Srinagar, block the roads and demand clean drinking water and electricity.
The education system in Kashmir is deplorable, with thousands of students dropping out of school before they reach the 10th standard, mostly because of lack of capacity in these educational institutions.
Those who teach in government schools prefer to send their kids to private schools where admission fee and miscellaneous monthly charges are sky-rocketing, thanks to the status these schools enjoy due to the miserable state of government sector education.
All of this has resulted in a sordid scenario where the right to education has become exclusive to the rich. Colleges and universities are producing unemployable graduates as students are not trained to handle present-day demands of the job market in Indian cities like Delhi and Mumbai.
All of this has led to massive unemployment. Lack of industrial development in Kashmir means a young job aspirant has to compete with people from the top schools of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore for a job or compete for the coveted government sector jobs in Kashmir which are hard to come by as most government departments are over employed.
Law enforcement has suffered a huge setback. Commercial and residential structures have come up as encroachments on roads and as unsafe development on areas like the wetlands. Everyday, newspapers report scores of deaths and injuries in road accidents because of a dearth of law enforcement or road safety.
Corruption has deep roots in all aspects of life, with employees of certain departments in the government even paying bribes to get their salaries released. Thousands of vehicles carry security forces from one place to another on a daily basis; and the barricades created around security pickets hamper free movement of the common people.
Politics over peace?
Notwithstanding the collective distress of Kashmiris amid a perpetual, off-putting state of uncertainty, the impasse has nonetheless provided a great avenue for political gains and experimentation. Political parties have come to power or lost it, while people have gained prominence overnight, catapulted either to the height of their political careers or suffered heartbreaking downfalls, all thanks to the throbbing Kashmir issue.
Who can forget Congress’s hanging of Afzal Guru in early 2013 with the firm belief that it was needed to stop a pro-Modi wave before the general elections?
While Congress’s experiment failed, the BJP thought that spicing up its election campaign with repeated (Kashmir-centred) Pakistan-bashing had brought about immediate dividends in the form of a massive electoral victory.
On the contrary, Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League thinks that its slogan of making peace with India (again related to Kashmir) during its election campaign in 2013 had a positive impact on its performance in the elections. It is a different story altogether that the win had a lot to do with the weakening economic and destabilised internal security situation of Pakistan.
Today, despite some improvement in Pakistan’s security and economic situation, India with its growing political and economic clout is in a better position to call the shots. And we often see this on display.
For example, Prime Minister Modi befriends or berates Pakistan at will. And when he befriends Pakistan, it almost sounds like he is doing Pakistan a favour.
What’s adding to Pakistan’s bargaining power in its negotiations over disputes with India are the latter's aspirations for a larger role in the global polity, and a permanent Security Council seat.
India can find it a lot easier to achieve these objectives if it takes the Kashmir burden off its shoulders and creates peaceful, if not friendly, relations with its nuclear-armed neighbour.
India’s economic interests in central Asia are also dependent on stable relations with Pakistan. Moreover, the constant demand rising from within Kashmir for the resolution of this longstanding issue is enabling Pakistan to exert pressure on India.
But for the sake of the valley’s future, whatever might bring India and Pakistan on the table, Kashmiris can only hope that the two countries are able to find a lasting solution to the Kashmir issue.