The people of Jammu and Kashmir are living through extraordinary times. The latest Kashmir crisis began in the days leading up to 5 August, when an announcement was made by the Indian government of a constitutional amendment which removes the special autonomous status of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, and replaces it with two union territories. This change in status formally came into play yesterday, 31st October.
This declaration triggered a security and communications lockdown but also caused widespread trepidation, fear and uncertainty for many Kashmiris. There is no doubt that many Kashmiris are currently suffering, and this new situation poses significant challenges for a peaceful future, increasing tensions in an already volatile region. India and Pakistan have been in conflict over the disputed region of Kashmir since partition in 1947, with part now being administered by Pakistan and part by India. But we are not without hope – as with past crises, it is the courage and resilience of the Kashmiri people that can see this through.
Since the declaration was made severe restrictions have been imposed. The people of Jammu and Kashmir have been facing daily difficulties including a lack of telephone and internet communications, and reduced access to goods and medical care. An overwhelming feeling of anger and despair hangs in the air. Perhaps even more worrying than the humanitarian challenges, is the prospect of the conflict over the disputed territory of Kashmir never being resolved.
While acknowledging the suffering, we need to find a way out of this situation, and that is to deal with the roots of the problem and involve rather than exclude Kashmiri voices. Responsibility for this conflict is shared between all relevant parties, but a way out fundamentally starts with the people who are at the centre of it all.
We have been working for the past decade, with a network of brave, committed Kashmiris who are striving for a more peaceful future. These Kashmiri ‘peacebuilders’ come from a variety of professional backgrounds – teachers, journalists, academics, civil society leaders and business people – but they all have a shared aim. They work with different sections of Jammu and Kashmir society, including women and youth, on both sides of the dividing ‘Line of Control’, to develop an understanding of different perspectives, hear people’s views on what is needed for a peaceful Kashmir, and slowly transform society to lay the foundations for peace.
The patient and persistent efforts made by these courageous individuals have brought people together across regional, religious and ethnic divides. Their work to connect people and build confidence between different sides, celebrates the rich cultural diversity of the Jammu and Kashmir region, but also respects and protects the interests of India and Pakistan. Without forcing people to submit to a singular political aspiration, this work has enabled people to visualise realistic and interdependent possibilities of a shared future.
In doing so, they have created relationships that have weathered the ups and downs of Indo-Pak relations, and have developed initiatives such as trade across the Line of Control, and collaboration between journalists, business people and academics from both sides of the divide, that have built confidence and hope, even at moments of the most heightened tensions.
Bridges have been built over many years, amongst people on either side as well as across the divide. They are a way of meeting the challenges that arise and can provide a way out of the current crisis. These relationships must be sustained. These networks of people within the region can form the basis for rebuilding the future. But first, we must reinvigorate hope by restoring local structures that can engage with the current political realities through peaceful means, and dialogue efforts to create new possibilities capable of addressing the core issues of all those concerned.
Despite the enormity of the problem, people working on conflict – both within the region and internationally – must convey the message with conviction that a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir issue is possible. We saw this happening in Northern Ireland in 1998, Nepal in 2006, and Colombia in 2016 – protracted conflicts that eventually saw the signing of agreements and the slow and painstaking process to implement these, notwithstanding setbacks. New Delhi and Islamabad stand to benefit from re-engaging in a meaningful and pragmatic problem-solving negotiation process. However, it is also vital to allow Kashmiris themselves to partner in this pursuit of peace.