Even though the ice has melted considerably in the region after frequent people-to-people interactions over the past 20 months, the Valley is still greatly oppressed. Strangely though, the landmark events — the Srinagar-Muzaffarad bus service and the APHC leaders visit to Islamabad — could make little impact on the souls and minds of the Kashmiris. Having sacrificed countless lives, honour, and, not to mention, loss of property, they see no light at the end of the tunnel. The Kashmiris in the Valley seem to have lost faith in the leadership of Pakistan as well as their own. The Indian leaders, however, have never been trustworthy. Srinagar perceives itself as mere cannon fodder between India and Pakistan and "their lives, honour and demands have no significance in either the region or the world." Unabated civilian killings and custodial deaths prove the futility of recent CBMs and the peace process. Opinion leaders here believe that the Indian armed forces have a vested interest in pursuing conflict and they tend to ignore orders from New Delhi. Quite often, the troops spoil political initiatives taken by the government to improve the lives of common people, thus fuelling alienation, which has already hit its highest point.
On a positive note, the concentration of forces in the cities has been significantly reduced as compared to my first visit to the IHK capital in mid-2001. Similarly, people are now less fearful and enjoy a guarded freedom of expression. The business community is hopeful to expand their trade into the Pakistan markets. In Sopore, once known as mini Pakistan, a trader remarked that J&K produces 70 percent of India’s total apple crop. Sopore sells over five million fruit boxes annually. A lack of cold storages or refrigerated transport facilities and soaring cost of transportation have slashed the profit share for Kashmiri traders. The Kashmiri traders hope for access to Pakistan, which is a natural market, owing to geographical and historical factors.
Apart from the business community, pro-Azadi groups largely believe that the bus service may dilute the main issue. The Indian officials also see the bus service not delivering enough and blame the AJK authorities of not cooperating and instead creating hurdles. IHK’s Chief Minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, said in an exclusive interview that, once Muzaffarabad cleared just one person out of 30 aspirants of the bus journey. Mufti claims to have since long been asking Delhi to open all the routes linking the two slices of the disputed state. Even he seemed disenchanted about the fate of the bus service, for which he even erected billboards with General Musharraf’s portraits in Srinagar city. It goes without saying that unless Delhi makes tangible progress on the Kashmir dispute, India should not expect continued warmth for long.
Unlike the Valley, the people of Jammu region enthusiastically support the bus service, insisting for an early opening of Poonch-Rawalakot Road as agreed by India and Pakistan. Some 90 percent of the Kashmiri refugees hail from Jammu region and prefer direct travel links in the interest of time and affordability. Strangely, for the first time in recent history, the Hindus also support travel by the Jammu-Sialkot Road. The Hindus of the region hoping the peace process bears fruit are mainly interested in developing trade relations with Sialkot and Lahore, seeing immense potential to widen business opportunities. Nostalgic feelings are amazingly high among the Hindu and Sikh migrants from Poonch and Mirpur. The aging pre-partition generation dreams to revisit their ancestral homes at least once.
Interestingly, the vernacular press is also reluctant to support the CBMs as they are cynical about the process’s outcome. While in Srinagar, I keenly read most of the local dailies and weeklies. Baring a few exceptions, almost all the newspapers represent an amazingly gloomy side of events. The recent elections of Srinagar High Court Bar Association also reflect upon a similar mood in the Valley. The Bar’s former president, Nazir Ahmad Roungha — a close aid of Mirwaiz Omer Farooq, who has also been to Islamabad with him — was defeated by Main Adul Quyyam, who rejects the peace process and terms it a "give in" to Delhi.
Likewise, when a local civil society organisation invited Yasin Malik and Omer Abdullah to a public debate, the 300 students posed deeply sarcastic and angry questions. Their tone illustrated that the Kashmiris felt ditched and humiliated by both, Delhi and Islamabad.
It is a hard reality that Mirwaiz’s faction of Hurriyat could not integrate the people in the ongoing peace process. They neither took people into confidence nor transpired their achievements before them. Instead, they appeared as the blessed guys of New Delhi and Islamabad, no matter what aspirations exist in the Valley and Jammu. At the same time, Syed Ali Gilani and Sajjad Lone, son of slain leader Abdul Ghani Lone, have left no stone unturned to question the credibility of the "moderate" leaders. Furthermore, the inconsistent polices of Islamabad have also considerably faded Pakistan’s moral position amongst the people of Kashmir.
Nowadays, joining hands with the Islamabad establishment is not a certificate of genuine and recognized leadership here. It is a common saying that Islamabad recognised Ali Gilani in the summer and Mirwaiz in the winter. Thus, the incoherent approach of "Kashmir operators" is fast eroding Islamabad’s leverage in Srinagar. New Delhi also wasted no time in discrediting Mirwaiz and his colleagues when it declined to talk to them. For months now, the Mirwaiz group is urging for meeting at the highest level but without an affirmative nod. Such a ridiculous move by New Delhi will strengthen the anti-CBM lobby. The countdown has already begun.
The true beneficiaries of the peace process to be considered are the populace of the LoC. For decades, they had to face the brunt of LoC-related violence, destroying their homes, livestock and normal life. Over 200,000 people were displaced along the LoC. Now they have retuned to their homes and are struggling to restart a peaceful life. This is one great reason for, and outcome of, the ceasefire between India and Pakistan.
Additionally, the recently held first intra-Kashmir dialogue in Srinagar under the auspices of the Centre of Dialogue and Reconciliation and the Delhi Policy Group also noted the slow pace of progress and lack of peoples’ participation in the peace process. The joint declaration reads: "Our governments and our civil societies need to address on priority." The delegates from all parts of formerly J&K state pledged to encourage the present peace process and the future settlement of the Kashmir dispute. The intra-Kashmir dialogue in Srinagar was an exceptional endeavour by the civil society as all religious communities and regional groups attended the unique meet. Dr Radha Kumar of Delhi Policy Group aptly said, "We came here as strangers but we leave as friends."