United States Of Kashmir?
The two contrasting images illustrate vividly the gap between popular expectations and the result. On June 2, the jubilation in the Valley as nine separatist Kashmiri leaders crossed the LoC on their way to Muzaffarabad and a fortnight later, the lack of excitement as the leaders wended their way back home. Just about nobody expected the leaders to conjure a solution overnight for the festering Kashmir problem. But, there was the hope that the Kashmiri leaders' visit to Pakistan may at the least be followed by a ceasefire declaration in the Valley, providing its beleaguered people respite from violence and security operations.
The response of Bashid Ahmad, a student in Kashmir University, is typical: "I thought they would convince the mujahideen leaders to silence their guns so that the ongoing peace process gets strengthened." The hope for a ceasefire was strengthened by the importance Pakistan accorded to the leaders who were feted in the manner befitting state guests. But not only did most militant leaders in Pakistan refuse to meet the Hurriyat leaders, Hizbul Mujahideen leader Syed Salahuddin refused to put down the gun. In separate meetings with Mirwaiz Umer Farooq and Yasin Malik, Salahuddin turned down the offer of taking a seat in the Hurriyat's central executive and joining the peace process. He told them that the Hurriyat was "incomplete without Syed Ali Shah Geelani," the Kashmiri hardliner who stayed away from the visit.
It is even debatable whether the separatist leaders managed to spark, in any real sense, an intra-Kashmiri dialogue, the ostensible purpose of their visit. For instance, PoK leaders, like Sardar Qayoom Khan, were not allowed to be part of the 'Kashmir' delegation which called on President Musharraf. And the visiting leaders were often barred from meeting Pakistani intellectuals and journalists. The unofficial restriction reflects the proprietorial rights the 'operators' of the Kashmir struggle continue to believe in.
Yet, it would be wrong to describe the Kashmiri leaders' visit to Pakistan as an abject failure. For one, it provided them a reality-check. It's to the credit of the Mirwaiz that he publicly stated, "Pakistan doesn't have a solution to offer to the Kashmiri people". It also seems that the moderate Hurriyat leaders are almost ready to settle for internal autonomy and open borders with Pakistan's Kashmir. As Bilal Lone told Outlook, "The idea of accession to Pakistan or an independent state is no longer a solution. It may lie in the middle way." Hints of what this middle path could be was provided by the Mirwaiz: he floated the concept of a non-sovereign 'United States of Kashmir', where people could move around freely through open borders. "We desire to be citizens of the United States of Kashmir and desire India and Pakistan to give us a free hand to come up with new proposals."
There's also the issue of talking to Delhi. The Mirwaiz said, "We have never shied away from the talks. We are ready to talk to New Delhi, if invited, but discussions should be on the resolution of the Kashmir issue."