The Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, gave an inspiring speech about peace on July 15 in the city of Jammu, but his comments were rejected by opponents of compromise and dialogue. The Prime Minister was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters at the University of Jammu, and he used the occasion to deliver a major address about the situation of the State of Jammu and Kashmir.
His comments were widely reported and discussed by Indian and Asian news sources—and virtually ignored in the Western press. He emphasized repeatedly to his student audience at the university that Jammu has a history of peaceful accommodations among different groups of people. “I know that over these years you have welcomed, with open arms, thousands of migrants, refugees and displaced persons,” he said.
He told the students a story they may already have known: that the founder of the city, Rajah Jambhu Lochan, while out on a hunting expedition, spotted a goat and a tiger drinking together from the same watering trough. He asked his aides the meaning of the sign and they reportedly told him that “the soil of the place excelled in virtue and for that reason no living creature bore enmity against another.” The city was therefore founded with a spirit of tolerating pluralism.
Singh went on to discuss the importance of recognizing the legitimate aspirations of the people in the three parts of the state: Ladakh, Jammu, and Kashmir. “I believe,” he said, “it is possible to pursue the development of a united State of Jammu and Kashmir even while respecting and addressing the legitimate aspiration of the people of each of the three regions.” Now is the time for the people of the state to get beyond their 60 years of conflict and fighting, he said. The state should become, instead, a symbol of peace.
“Jammu and Kashmir is the finest expression of the idea of India. Diversity of faith, culture, geography and language has traditionally never been a source of conflict.” Describing the traditional harmony of the state, he argued that “we now need to revive those bonds and that spirit of accommodation and mutual respect even while we sit down, in good faith, to resolve many of our genuine differences.”
He didn’t minimize the importance of security for everyone, and he emphasized the need for good governance and economic prosperity. He envisioned a devolution of power down to the village level throughout the state. He feels strongly that cultural distinctiveness in each village and community should be secure enough for their different languages, lifestyles, arts, and crafts to flourish.
He also sought to strengthen the dialog that India and Pakistan have been developing over the past few years about the Kashmir issue. He is not about to give way on the Line of Control as the border of India, and an independent Kashmir is not going to happen. But he sees a different future for the state, based on a continuing dialogue with Pakistan. “I hope and believe that Jammu and Kashmir can, one day, become a symbol of India-Pakistan cooperation rather than of conflict,” he said. He expressed the thought that, while “borders cannot be changed…they can be made irrelevant.” He suggested that “the Line of Control can become a line of peace with a freer flow of ideas, goods, services and people.”
He concluded the speech with a call to share natural resources across the border. He said that he intends to continue the dialog with Pakistan, since “there is no alternative but to work for building peace.” His rhetoric was very different from that of other world leaders who refuse to talk with their perceived enemies and who label them as evil.
Reactions in the Pakistani press were moderate. Pakistan Dawn suspected that Dr. Singh’s comments about working to reach an accord with Pakistan, and his offers to share resources across borders, may have been timed to assist the President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf.
The more intransigent groups quickly rejected the peace proposals. The day after the speech, the chairman of the United Jihad Council, Syed Salahuddin, called the proposals “sugar coated poison.” He questioned the idea that the Line of Control, “which has triggered the massacre of more than five hundred thousand Kashmiris ever since its inception [could] be referred to as a symbol of peace.” He blamed India for deploying 750,000 troops in the region, and argued that the only solution to the Kashmir problem was the right of self determination. He didn’t mention the Prime Minister’s offer to include all groups with all points of view in a series of round table conferences.
On Tuesday this week, the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front also rejected the proposals of Prime Minister Singh. The JKLF issued a statement indicating opposition to any solution that did not accept the right of the people to vote on their own future. The group also rejects the Prime Minister’s concept that Kashmir will remain legally part of India, even while gaining de facto independence. Both groups reiterated uncompromising positions, with no willingness to consider alternatives that might lead to peace in the region.
Ravina Aggarwal explained, in her recent book Beyond Lines of Control, that the international hostilities in the region have produced an atmosphere in which intolerance and conflict are widely accepted. Whether the Prime Minister’s ideas can lead to an eventual settlement remains to be seen, but the peace in Jammu and Kashmir that Singh envisions, if it also produces the devolution of powers and local autonomy that he mentions, could benefit Ladakh enormously.