By FARHANA QAZI

WASHINGTON: Defined by tourist clichés and brilliantly crafted one-liners, the disputed territory of Kashmir is a backpacker’s haven and “paradise on earth.” And while charmingly seductive, the idyllic landscape is beset by a sense-of-siege and is home to millions eager for change and consistency. Nearly two-decades of conflict and on-and-off talks between nuclear arch-rivals India and Pakistan have had few meaningful results.

Deeply disappointed by Indian and Pakistani political ploys, people on both sides of the mountain passionately push for peace, either through active participation in much-talked-about-protests or political party meetings that are all-inclusive. Outside of government, residents of the conflict, many of whom are bewitched by deaths and disappearances of friends and foes, undertake risks to release information and record present grievances. Without the people of Kashmir, high-level talks will fail to alter the status-quo of aggressive policies, artificial politics, and animated street protests.

The latest issue to haunt the valley is the discovery of mass graves and cyclical human rights abuses-neither issue is new to the residents of Kashmir, but a common narrative they have become achingly accustomed to. In Buried Evidence, a multiauthored publication by The International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir, the death toll between 1989 and 2009 is listed as well over 8,000-these include enforced or involuntary disappearances and an additional 70,000 or more were found dead. The authors contend that a history of “violence and violation” of human rights abuses result in anguish and anxiety among the population. In the summer of 2008, the international community offered a limited response to the mass graves discovery.  For example, the European Parliament passed a resolution to denounce disappearances, detentions and deaths since the outbreak of conflict, calling for an impartial and independent investigation-similar to requests being made by international human rights organizations this year.

Three years later, the same story repeats itself. This summer, Amnesty International and India’s Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission released reports with terrifying statistics of the dead and disappeared-a report that Indian authorities have repelled, despite outside pressure for transparency. The imbroglio over unmarked and unknown mass graves in Kashmir raises doubt and deepens distrust with the ruling elite. Amnesty’s report highlights a fundamental question of whether the Indian state is legitimate or lawful in its “occupation” of Kashmir-an instrumental issue that is debated.

Discussion of the ongoing dispute has had a chilling effect and on the local population. The impact of unsettled policies has taken its toll on the youth. In a recent interview, a Srinagar-based doctor, who wished to be unnamed, expressed his concern that the youth of Kashmir are unable to cope in an unending and unresolved conflict. As a physician, he points to the youth’s increasing use of over-the-counter or inexpensive drugs. The doctor noted, “The trauma of war contributes to an ailing society. Most people suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. To live, Kashmiris are on drugs. We are all sick. Even children take cheap medicine to fall asleep. What will happen to our youth? They have no coping mechanism.”

A temporary respite from rage, drugs masquerade the desperation and depression that local residents share. Countless stories of women as told by journalists, including my own collection of mourning, discredit India and Pakistan’s attempt at negotiation. Without taking into account the narrative of violence and a vicious cycle of neglect, the South Asian leaders’ initiative to engage one another is just that-a media blunder that masks the agony and affliction local Kashmiris have harbored for nearly six decades.

The Kashmiri people are determined to seek a political solution. Aware of India and Pakistan’s recent overtures to resume dialogue, local communities on both sides of the border watch for signs of prosperity. High-level meetings between the two arch-rivals may be a significant step, though historical record of previous attempts at dialogue proves that neither India nor Pakistan is willing to make critical concessions. Interviews of local residents sport a business-as-usual attitude. A young lawyer in Srinagar admitted, “All the leaders are playing with the blood of martyrs. That is injustice.” A similar distrust expressed by other Kashmiris with their party leaders highlights the failure and fiasco of local officials to take seriously a collapsing society. A Kashmiri law student in exile indicated, “Every political party is vested in itself, with no regard for the people. Until they learn to serve the people, there is nothing India and Pakistan can do to settle the dispute.”

A divided Kashmir may present opportunities for India and Pakistan in the short-term, but long-term inadequate policies will encourage strategic encirclement. To move forward on Kashmir, India and Pakistan may need an Arab ally to help South Asian rivals redesign their ambitions for Kashmir to ensure a longer time-table for progress. An outside negotiator has the potential to allow New Delhi and Islamabad to stitch together a political model that involves the people of the valley. Absent an outside collaborator, India and Pakistan risk reducing Kashmir to symbolic gestures, sensationalized by the international press as disingenuous and dishonest.

— Farhana Qazi is a senior lecturer on Pakistan and Islam for the US government. She can be reached at farhana331@gmail.com or her website, www.farhanaqazi.com .

Source: Arab News – 24/10/2011