Established with support from Conciliation Resources, the Kashmir Initiative Group brings together thought leaders from both sides of the Line of Control such as journalists, civil society organisations, academics and filmmakers, to develop opportunities for building peace and trust between divided communities. Since 2016, the group has been exploring the potential for disaster management to be used as a tool for confidence building and peacebuilding - the region is prone to natural disasters and an earthquake in 2005 killed 80,000 people and left four million homeless.
A shared response in preparing for and reacting to disasters can help build confidence between different groups and support long-term peacebuilding efforts in Kashmir. Disasters are equalisers - they create new common challenges which people cannot solve alone. In shaping a shared conflict-sensitive response, the potential for community cooperation is huge.
Across the Kashmir region, our partners are seeing a rise in stigmatisation and divisive language, and relations between different communities are even more strained than normal. There has been a worrying increase in hostilities between India and Pakistan – a trend often left out of a news-cycle dominated by the pandemic. COVID-19 is likely to have a dramatic impact on geo-politics, shifting power balances between different countries, re-shaping domestic politics and policies, re-making the global economy and potentially affecting the order of alliances which have maintained the intractability of the conflict in Kashmir. If these factors may re-align, it is more important than ever that initiatives that promote peaceful outcomes are sustained. Developing a joint response to the pandemic in the Kashmir region, is a practical way of both helping to prevent the spread of the disease and building trust and confidence between communities.
Since the start of the pandemic, members of the Kashmir Initiative Group, Conciliation Resources’ partners in the region, tech developers and health experts have been working together to develop an online platform for sharing information about COVID-19. Originally planned as a platform for responding to natural disasters, this virtual space allows our partners on both sides of the Line of Control to access and share updated and contextualised information about the pandemic in the region, resources and guidance on how to slow the spread of the virus and information on how to respond to an infection. The virtual space is still in the early stages of development, but the aim is for more people to be able to access the platform, helping to develop an online community where both sides of the LoC can collaborate to deal with disasters more effectively in the region.
In many ways, the pandemic has triggered a new sense of urgency for this collaborative peacebuilding work – and prompted the Kashmir Initiative Group itself to consider new and innovative ways of working together. The group previously met face to face a few times a year, but have now moved to online meetings, meaning they are able to meet more regularly, and allowing the participation of more members. As well as assisting in the creation of the disaster management platform, the group also discuss scenario planning, the potential geo-political changes in the region, and the impact the pandemic may have on India-Pakistan relations.
But the group’s important online dialogues are not without their challenges. Without being physically present, there is a sense of detachment from the process and there is an increased danger of miscommunication. There is also less space for informal or bilateral discussions which often help move debates forward. From our experience we’ve found that forward planning is essential – ensuring everyone is able to easily access an online discussion space where they feel safe and free to talk, and that facilitators and timekeepers are appointed to continuously push the discussions forward.
The work of the Kashmir Initiative Group, and all of our partners across South Asia, is rapidly adapting and evolving to ensure that even during this global pandemic, their vital connection across the Line of Control - one of the few avenues for peaceful progress in this region - is maintained and strengthened.