This February 5, I crossed over to Pakistan via Wagah. As we left the high-fenced security corridor that was built after a suicide bombing in early November 2014 that killed 50 people, I was surprised to see a large number of banners.
In the guise of beckoning people to support the ‘Kashmir cause’ on Kashmir Solidarity Day, the PPP had organised a public rally at Mochi Gate in Lahore. The banners, which were placed on both sides of the road, were filled with the imposing but airbrushed images of the senior PPP leadership, with little or no space dedicated to messages in support of Kashmir.
One of the banners carried a message written in white on a red background: “February 5, come out for Kashmir’s freedom”. Although it was a political rally, the arrow – the PPP’s election symbol of the party – was drawn on the banner with pointedly sharp edges. Flanked on either side of the message, it afforded a certain martial feel. Regardless of what it yields, Kashmir Solidarity Day affords some relief to millions of Pakistanis from the daily grind of life as it is officially designated as a holiday.
In the 1990s, at the peak of the pro-freedom insurgency in Kashmir, the day was a ritual with much fanfare. There were mass public demonstrations with huge banners calling for a plebiscite and an end to the human rights violations. Rallies were held where endless speakers yelled angry rhetoric, often frothing at the mouth, without much appreciation of the ground realities. Everyone called for Kashmir’s azadi, but no one had any plausible plan per se.
I remember participating in some rallies for Kashmir’s cause in the UK in Trafalgar Square, Hyde Park, Birmingham, Slough etc. Also, I must have attended over a dozen conferences, seminars and side events – from the UK to Brussels, Geneva to France, and, of course, Pakistan. All the events shared a certain drabness, with unending but soulless speeches. Even at the ‘international conferences’ at Geneva or Brussels, the audience mostly comprised Kashmiri or Pakistani diaspora. They were all well-meaning individuals who were driven by their enthusiasm for Kashmir and concern for its sufferings, but were clueless about the ongoing proceedings or the nuances of the conflict that they so staunchly followed.
By the time Pervez Musharraf took over in 2001, the public rallies had ebbed away and Kashmir had been conveniently relegated to the sidelines. Under the rubric of a ‘peace process’ with India – perhaps with well-meaning intensions – Kashmir Solidarity Day became such a low-key event that it sounded more of a liability. Kashmir was to be all but forgotten with or without the consent of Kashmiris, the principal party. If it were not for the octogenarian pro-freedom Kashmiri leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the Kashmir issue would have been buried like nuclear waste, a Musharraf-era minister told me a few years later in Islamabad.
In its enthusiasm to please the Western powers, the Musharraf government tried its best to first discredit and then dislodge Geelani. But given Geelani’s towering presence in Kashmir’s pro-freedom camp and his popularity among the youth, the plan failed miserably.
During Asif Zardari’s government, the Musharraf-era Kashmir policy continued with vigour and it seemed that both India and Pakistan were working in tandem to control Kashmiri voices and frustrate any organic movement that called for their right to self-determination. Prior to that, Mehbooba Mufti visited Pakistan. She had open meetings with senior politicians in addition to covert talks with other officials. She even held a joint press conference with Asif Zardari – a first for a pro-India Kashmiri leader – where both leaders talked about new ideas for peace and effectively suggested the need to move beyond the resolution of the problem and towards conflict management.
At the time, I asked a senior official of the foreign ministry in Islamabad about the developments. “Kashmir is now officially buried and beyond any redemption,” he said without any remorse. There was hardly any public reaction and, to be fair, Pakistanis were too busy dealing with terrorism on a daily basis along with frequent power outages and the spike in commodity prices. They couldn’t afford to pay attention to what was happening to their once-designated and oft-repeated ‘jugular vein’.
Nothing changed when Nawaz Sharif assumed public office. His commitment to the status quo could be gauged from the fact that he continued with Maulana Fazlur Rehman as the chair of the Kashmir Committee – a post that benefits from ministerial perks. Rehman, who had enjoyed the position in the previous government, had never shown any commitment whatsoever towards Kashmir and had no understanding about the issue, let alone its nuances.
It is interesting to note that, while Sharif started his tenure with his congenital tussle with the military establishment, both sides showed agreement in maintaining the existing covenant on Kashmir that called for its slow but sure excision from the official narrative and public memory. But Burhan Wani’s death in July 2016 rattled the status quo as Pakistan was forced to respond to the new ground realities – though it waited for several days to form a reaction. The unprecedented public reaction to Wani’s death forced Pakistan to change its rhetoric on Kashmir. There has not been much material change in its approach to seek a solution as it continues to employ the cliched approaches to gain global attention while tightly controlling Kashmir’s pro-freedom narrative.
Zardari’s Mochi Gate rally turned out to be more about his domestic politics and attacks on the Sharifs. This is in line with his publicly articulated ambition to form the next government in 2018.
For his part, Nawaz Sharif held an impressive public rally in Muzaffarabad. He talked more about his struggle after having been removed from office, and his innocence. There was little mention of Kashmir or any credible policy prescription for a solution to the longstanding dispute. Maryam Nawaz did shout some ‘Kashmir Banega Pakistan’ (Kashmir will become Pakistan’) slogans. But they were induced to be the momentary stuffing that filled the sudden yet unexplained awkward silences at the rally.
This piece first appeared in The News, Pakistan. Reproducing here with permission from the author