In Kashmir, A Settlement Is Not Enough

Brian Cox and Daniel Philpott

Authentic auguries of peace in Kashmir lie in India’s and Pakistan’s recent agreement to hold comprehensive talks.  Pakistani President Pervez Musharaff’s hint that he would drop Pakistan’s half-century long demand for a plebiscite in Kashmir and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s willingness to negotiate with the Hurriyat Conference, Kashmir’s leading council of separatists, are the most hopeful signs of a settlement since violence broke out in 1989.  

But an agreement between a President and a Prime Minister is not enough.  Attempts at peace in Israel and Palestine, Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Angola reveal how quickly even a comprehensive settlement, no matter how well crafted its codicils or good its concept of governance, can relapse into a continual cycle of breakdown and resumption, bombings and more cease-fires.  Will the impending talks become another failed attempt?   

Among the most menacing obstacles to peace are the hardened hearts of Kashmiris of all ranks and religions.  In our work with Kashmiris over the past three and a half years, virtually everyone we have spoken to has suffered or knows someone who has suffered arbitrary detention, torture, or the death of a loved one.  Such unhealed wounds will break out into the gangrene of revenge, which can in turn metastasize to the entire body politic and cripple any settlement.  Typical was the story of one Muslim man who tells of militants murdering his father and his brother and then shooting his own body full of bullets, which he survived through nine surgeries.  When we met him he was in his eighth year of a vendetta to find and kill the gunmen.

Without a vision, a people will perish, the Hebrew scriptures tell us.  What Kashmir needs is a moral vision that can serve to transform hardened hearts and wounded relationships.  It might then recover its own historical tradition of “Kashmirayat,” a pluralistic culture in which Hindus and Muslims once lived and prospered together.    

Working for the Washington-based International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, we have now conducted six seminars that have imparted a moral vision of reconciliation to over 350 Kashmiris on both sides of the line of control that separates India and Pakistan.  The participants come from civil society, the middle layer of activists, professionals, and students whose influence extends upwards to elite leaders and downwards to the grass roots.  

The experience always begins with cries of woundedness.  A Hindu Pandit refugee launched one seminar inauspiciously with a diatribe against Muslims, who had driven him out of his home a decade earlier.  Before we broach healing, then, we are sure to discuss social justice -- self-determination, refugees, and human rights.

But a moral vision of reconciliation reaches beyond justice to seek a change in hearts and the restoration of wounded relationships.  A pivotal moment in the seminar comes when participants are asked to hear the suffering of the other community -- not to set aside their deep convictions, but simply to hear.  At this point, an unexpected turning, a surprising softening -- a transformation of the heart -- often occurs.  

It is religious traditions, the Abrahamic faiths of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, as well as the Hindu faith, in which reconciliation resonates longest and deepest.  The seminar culminates in a service of reconciliation where, through the reading of sacred texts and communal prayer, participants are moved to speak words of healing, repentance, and forgiveness.  It was here that the Muslim man stood and renounced his vendetta, forgiving the slayer of his family from his heart.  Here, the Hindu refugee apologized to Muslims for not understanding their suffering and forgave them for wounding Hindus.  

Following the seminar, many of the participants continue to meet in “cell groups” where they grow deeper in their understanding of reconciliation.  Guided by a core group of committed leaders, they form a cadre of foot soldiers who work to spread reconciliation throughout the land.  We also meet regularly with top political and military leaders from all of Kashmir’s major regions, engaging them in conversation about faith-based reconciliation.  Together, these initiatives form a nascent movement for reconciliation that might become the adhesive that can prevent a peace settlement from crumbling apart.

Recovering Kashmiriyat is indispensably the work of a president, a prime minister, and Kashmiri leaders.  But just as important, millions of Kashmiris must reach into the wells of their faith traditions and draw upon the healing waters of a vision that enables them, in the words of Irish poet Seamus Heaney, to look “to the far side of revenge.”

Brian Cox is Senior Vice President and Kashmir Project Leader at the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy in Washington, D.C

Daniel Philpott is a political scientist and Faculty Fellow of the Joan B. Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.