The perception gap on the condition of women on both sides was evident at the latest intra-Kashmir dialogue
November 5, 2012. Women stood on both sides of the Line of Control on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad crossing in Kashmir. As they waited, it began to drizzle. Officials on both sides seemed to be waiting interminably for the other side to open the gates. Finally, the waiting ended and for the first time in the troubled history of Kashmir, 10 women from the Kashmir Valley, Jammu and Ladakh walked across the Kaman bridge to talk about peace with their counterparts on the other side of the LoC.
A journey that took them only a few hours was many months, almost a year in the making. Since 2007, women from both sides of the LoC had met in two Intra-Kashmir Cross-LoC Women’s Dialogues facilitated by the New Delhi-based Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation (CDR). The first meeting was held in Srinagar, the second in Gulmarg in 2011. On both occasions, the women from across the LoC had to undertake a four-day journey across the Wagah border.
This year, the newly-formed AJK Women for Peace Organisation based in Muzaffarabad decided to hold the dialogue. The women they invited from Jammu and Kashmir insisted they would only attend if they were permitted to travel across the LoC.
What should have been a routine matter in fact took months of intense negotiation. There is a misconception on both sides of the LoC that the 2005 confidence-building measure (CBM) of opening the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar road was only to facilitate the meeting of divided families. In fact, there is no such specific reference in the agreement and it is open to Kashmir residents on either side. Yet, because of this assumption, only those wanting to visit family on the other side could seek permits.
On November 5, when the 10 women crossed over they set an important precedent that could open the way for many more intra-Kashmir dialogues.
The cynics would say, what of it if the larger political issue of Kashmir remains unsettled. Yet, a prerequisite for peace between countries and between regions must necessarily be a meeting of minds between the people. In the absence of routes of communication, how can there be any conversation that could presage peace?
This is what the three dialogues between women have been attempting. It is not as easy as it sounds. Apart from the logistical problems, there is a real perception gap.
If you say “Kashmir”, “women” and “suffering” on the Pakistan side of the LoC, the only response is the suffering of women on the Indian side. There is an automatic assumption that just because there is no conflict of the kind seen on the Indian side, women across the LoC face no problems. Indeed, even during the three-day meeting in Muzaffarabad, which still bears the scars of the devastating 2005 earthquake, this perception gap was evident.
Some of it is inevitable as there have been campaigns, studies, books and reports in abundance about the many ways in which women in Jammu and Kashmir have suffered since the beginning of militancy in 1989. In contrast, there is little by way of similar studies about the impact of conflict on women on the other side of the LoC. As a result, there is a tendency to focus entirely on women on the Indian side. And many of the demands in the consensus statement reflect this, such as a call for demilitarisation and setting up of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The delegation from Jammu and Kashmir, however, repeatedly asked that they be informed of the situation of women on the Pakistan side of the LoC. Some information did come through but not nearly enough.
For instance, there was practically no mention of the problems women face in the Neelum valley. When Indian and Pakistani troops exchange fire — despite the 2003 ceasefire agreement, violations continue — the families in the Neelum valley bear the brunt. On the Pakistan side, this is also a poor region. Many of the men have migrated to jobs in Pakistan’s urban centres or the Gulf. The women left behind are displaced for varying periods, their isolation from the rest of the region denies them basic services such as health care, and their poverty increases their vulnerability.
There was also silence about the thousands of women who crossed over in the 1990s and live in camps or have merged with the local population. These displaced families are being given some relief according to a recent study but most of them, particularly the women, want to return to their homes in India. Only a small percentage living outside the camps did not want to go back.
Still, at the end of the three days, this difference in perception was set aside because the main issue was not comparative suffering but how to address the needs of women on both sides of the LoC.
The overwhelming demand was for easing travel and communication between the two sides, including a special appeal by the women from Baltistan, Gilgit and Ladakh for a crossing that would facilitate their travel. Almost all the women, from both sides of the LoC, had heart-rending stories to tell about the price their families have paid because of the impenetrable line dividing the region. And even as they talked of this, there was joy as two sets of cousins “discovered” each other from among the participants.
The most remarkable experience was that of Effat Yasmin, an economics professor from Kashmir University. During a casual conversation during a coffee break with Sajda Behar, a section officer in the education department in Muzaffarabad, she discovered that their mothers were first cousins. In fact, Sajda had applied for a permit to travel to Baramulla in 2005 and only got it this year. She is yet to make the journey.
Like Sajda’s long-pending journey, the journey to peace is complex. This might have been a women’s dialogue. Some of the issues were specific to what women experienced. But you could not escape the politics underlying the Kashmir issue. The women who talked know this and do not deny it. But they believe that they too should have a role in formulating peace because they have carried the burden of conflict.
(The writer went to the meeting in Muzaffarabad on the invitation of the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation.)