In Kashmir, some hope earthquake augurs peace

In 1999, twin earthquakes in Turkey and Greece fostered what became known as "earthquake diplomacy."

pakistan quake victim88 (photo credit: AP)
pakistan quake victim88
(photo credit: AP)
In the byzantine, violent politics of Kashmir, it has always been about perspective. To India, this quake-savaged city is in "Pakistani-Occupied Kashmir," an area it insists was stolen from it in 1947. To Pakistan, it's the capital of "Independent" Kashmir. But when the Oct. 8 earthquake struck, the destruction crossed the divided region. While Pakistan suffered far worse - the death toll there rose Saturday to 38,000, most in Kashmir - at least 1,350 people were killed in the Indian sector. That tragedy, some Kashmiris believe, has created an opportunity to accelerate the two nations' often-stumbling peace effort, and bring calm back to the beautiful pine-forested mountain region once famed as a place of learning and tolerance. At the very least, they say, it is a time when India and Pakistan must work together. "This tragedy has not respected the cease-fire line," Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the region's foremost Islamic leader and a prominent separatist in Indian-controlled Kashmir, told reporters after the quake. Farooq urged the two countries to launch a joint effort for quake relief, and make it easier for Kashmiris to cross the frontier. "We have seen that both India and Pakistan have been hesitant in accepting each other's relief ... let's not play politics over this." The first signs were discouraging - a suicide bombing and miscues between rescuers on the two sides. But past examples show how a natural disaster can nurture peace. In 1999, twin earthquakes in Turkey and Greece fostered what became known as "earthquake diplomacy," as the longtime rivals sent each other help. And the destruction wrought by the Asian tsunami in the Indonesian province of Aceh in December helped lead to a peace accord between the government and separatist rebels. "Sometimes a small event changes the course of history," said Nusrat Bano, a retired professor of Central Asian studies living in Indian-controlled Kashmir. The quake "has generated a feeling in people that if God's wrath doesn't discriminate between the two Kashmirs, why should the world be so adamant in keeping them apart?" The quake, she said, could boost the slow-moving India-Pakistan peace process. But when it comes to Kashmir, politics usually means trouble. "We have been the main problem between India and Pakistan since 1947 ... It's always been about Kashmir," said Farooq Awan, 25, a civil servant walking with friends through Muzaffarabad, his hometown, where more than 10,000 died and much of the city was destroyed. Awan was lucky: His home and family were spared. He doubts the quake can do much to bring India and Pakistan together. "India is offering help, but I don't think Pakistan trusts India," he said. The two countries' relations are rooted in distrust. They were born in 1947, when Britain gave independence to its Indian colony by dividing it into largely Hindu India and overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan. The communal violence of partition, as that time was called, led to more than 1 million deaths. Kashmir, then technically a British protectorate and not a part of colonial India, was caught in the middle. Largely Muslim but ruled by a Hindu king, it was given the choice of which nation to join. The king, insisting he wanted to remain independent, dithered until tribal raiders attacked from Pakistan. When he asked India for help, there was a steep price: union with India. War broke out between India and Pakistan, and the eventual cease-fire line became the de facto border that still splits the territory. The division laid the foundation for decades of Indian-Pakistani enmity and two more all-out wars. It also crushed the cosmopolitan culture called "Kashmiriyat," which recognized Kashmir's differences but didn't keep its people apart. Those differences are legion: over a dozen languages and dialects, followers of Asia's major religions, and a range of ethnic groups. As the Muslim insurgency against Indian rule took hold in the early 1990s, Hindus fled the verdant Kashmir Valley, the region's historic heart, and today it is one of the world's most dangerous places. Its myriad militant groups, demanding independence or union with Pakistan since 1989, dismiss the current India-Pakistan peace process and are still waging a fight that has killed some 65,000 people. Immediately after the quake, India dispatched its first planeload of relief supplies to the Pakistani side, but when it announced that a group of its soldiers had crossed the heavily fortified cease-fire line to help Pakistani soldiers struggling with a damaged bunker, there was a rush of denials. Pakistan called the announcement "totally concocted," insisting none of its bunkers had been harmed. Then India itself backed away, saying its soldiers had done nothing but lend the Pakistanis a few shovels and a pickax. Meanwhile, after slowing for a few days, with at least one militant group saying it would suspend hostilities, the insurgent violence surged again. On Thursday, a bomber blew herself up near an Indian army convoy, the first such attack by a woman in Kashmir. Responsibility was claimed on behalf of a Pakistan-based militant movement, Jaish-e-Mohammad. Despite the peace process that began last year, India accuses Pakistan of still aiding and arming militants training in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir _ a charge Islamabad denies. History also offers up at least a couple other reasons to be pessimistic. While there were hopes in Sri Lanka that the Dec. 26 tsunami would push its faltering peace process, as it did in Indonesia, hope has since dwindled. And after India's Gujarat earthquake killed more than 13,000 people in 2001, Pakistan sent two planeloads of aid. Less than one year later, the two nations again nearly went to war.