There is only one moral to the story of the runaway grandmother who brought the armies of India and Pakistan to blows on the Line of Control (LoC) last week, so eloquently brought out by India’s The Hindu newspaper: the LoC must be made much more porous between the two Kashmirs in deference to the needs and emotions of both peoples who live on both sides of a ridiculous, electrified fence.
When she decided to abandon home on the Indian side of the LoC and decided to make a dash for the other side, because her son lived there and she wanted to be with him — and he, by the way, had moved to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir many years ago — the old Kashmiri woman was really thumbing her nose and all her fingers at the abysmal state of affairs in which the call of a mother’s heart is subordinated to the diktat of the state.
Let’s look at the situation. After putting Kashmir in deep freeze for decades, during which India and Pakistan fought over this piece of territory as if it were prime real estate devoid of the presence of mothers and fathers and daughters and sons, both countries finally agreed in April 2005 to open the LoC in a limited way. A bus from Srinagar to Muzaffarabad was flagged off by Congress party president Sonia Gandhi at the Bakshi stadium in Srinagar, after which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a speech from behind a bulletproof glass.
What a day that was! It had rained all night and I remember TV broadcasting vans getting stuck in the slush. Once the bus had been flagged off, all the national and international press clambered into other buses and were driven through the heart of militant-infested areas of western Kashmir to Salamabad, just short of the LoC, and finally to Aman Setu, the bridge that joins the truncated halves of what was once known as the most beautiful place on earth.
The return journey to Srinagar was memorable. The day before the flag-off ceremony, militants had tried to put the tourism centre in the heart of Srinagar on fire, in an effort to postpone the event. Driving back to Srinagar that fateful April evening, as the sun set behind the ‘chinar’ trees and an unknown wind whipped through its branches, people began to come out of their houses to welcome and cheer the first bus from Muzaffarabad. It was an amazingly spontaneous gesture and it defied the diktat of the militants. It spoke of the incredible warmth that Kashmiris of both sides still retained for each other despite the intervening decades of hostility.
Many months later on a visit to Islamabad, a former Kashmiri ‘militant’ came to see me in my hotel. All he wanted to do was talk about the apple orchards and the smell of the earth in the valley the world acknowledged was akin to paradise. Once the LoC is properly thrown open, he told me, and people start meeting each other, nobody is going to give these state actors in Delhi or Rawalpindi any importance. Everything is going to change.
The story of the runaway grandmother who wanted to meet her son on the other side and who threw to the winds the stifling rules that states bring to bear on their citizens, is testimony to the total lack of imagination that both our leaderships have shown in dealing with the complex issue of Kashmir.
Both India and Pakistan want to own Kashmir for reasons that have nothing to do with winning the hearts and minds of its people — Pakistan wants Kashmir because it completes and vindicates the two-nation theory from which the Indian subcontinent was carved in 1947; India will do everything in its arsenal of options to keep Kashmir because it underlines the idea of the Indian secular state.
But what of the Kashmiris themselves? They are deeply upset that Pakistan has shut the Chakan-da Bagh crossing in the Rawalakot-Poonch sector to prevent border trade from taking place in light of last week’s tension. They are anguished that India will not create ‘safe passages’ that will allow their errant sons to return — sons who had fled the Indian army and paramilitary crackdown in the early 90s, but who now want to return to the bosoms of their mothers in Kashmir.
The world has moved on. India and Pakistan, both of whom are besieged by wars within, must realise that there is no alternative to autonomy for both parts of Kashmir. Throw open the LoC, or if you don’t want to throw it open completely, get rid of the ridiculously bureaucratic rules and regulations that keep Kashmiris apart. They have been at the receiving end of games that both countries have played for too long.
The Kashmiris want to be together — in this life, not in the next one. They want to visit each other’s homes and families this year, not after another decade. Let the leaderships of India and Pakistan sit down and transform the LoC into a much more porous line on the map so that people are able to travel back and forth, even as they remain citizens of their respective countries.
This is the only way to cool down the LoC on a permanent basis. It is the only way to truly respect Kashmiris from both sides.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 18th, 2013.