One thing India and Pakistan can agree on

A Kashmir independence fighter makes enemies on both sides as he dreams of a free and secular state and tries to stay out of prison.

Published January 15, 2002 11:14PM (EST)

On Saturday, as hundreds of Islamic militants across Pakistan were being arrested by local police in an attempt to ease escalating tension with India, Amanullah Khan sat in his office and calmly laid out plans to build an independent country in Jammu Kashmir, the disputed mountainous region that includes areas controlled by India and Pakistan.

Currently, hundreds of thousands of Indian and Pakistani soldiers are facing each other across the Line of Control, the cease-fire line brokered by the U.N. that chops Kashmir into two unequal pieces. India controls about two-thirds of the region. The decision by Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to arrest Islamic militants was designed to defuse the conflict between the two countries, which flared up after an attack on the Indian Parliament by Muslim extremists Dec. 13.

With his phones bugged and his movements closely watched by the secret police, Amanullah Khan can at least say he's not in prison. It's significant that the chairman of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front was not arrested with other political opponents of the Pakistani government Saturday -- the JKLF's general secretary was arrested -- but he remains in limbo, thinking about his next move as Pakistan and India deliberate about whether to go to war over Kashmir for the third time.

Although war over Kashmir is clearly nothing new, both countries are now engaged in a nuclear arms race that threatens the existence of South Asia, a region that is home to more than 1 billion people. The tension, which has risen sharply in the last month, also threatens to disrupt the U.S.-led war on terrorism, in which Pakistan plays a crucial role.

Khan supports neither side's claim on Kashmir. "Our objective is to reunite Kashmir and make it a fully independent country, democratic and secular, having good relations with India and Pakistan," he said Saturday, sitting in his Rawalpindi office. Khan's is a remarkably simple position, but one that has made him nearly as unpopular with the government of Pakistan as it has with India. Both countries covet Kashmir as part of their own territory, India claiming that Kashmir was ceded by Maharaja Hari Singh in 1947, while Pakistan asserts that Kashmir should be Pakistani because it is largely Muslim. Like Northern Ireland, and the Israel-Palestine miasmas, the conflict over Kashmir smolders, threatening to ignite larger wars.

This circumstance has placed Khan, the chairman of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, on a supremely isolated patch of political ground, unable to travel abroad, harassed by Pakistan's numerous powerful intelligence agencies and frequently imprisoned. While a gas heater glowed in the corner of a dark room, Khan explained matter-of-factly that he had been tortured in a Pakistani prison by electric shocks. "I lost my memory for a month, but it came back," he said. "In prison, at one point, I weighed only 41 kilos [about 90 pounds] because we were not allowed enough food." Years of mistreatment have clearly left their mark on Khan, ruining his health; his hands shake visibly as he talks to a visitor.

Articulate and disarmingly direct, he seems as if he would be more at home in a London suburb than Rawalpindi, but it is unlikely that he will ever be allowed to leave Pakistan again. India has demanded his extradition and has placed Khan on a list of 127 people it accuses of being involved in terrorist activities.

Under Khan's leadership, the JKLF has not shied away from violence, and during our conversation Khan took credit for starting a bombing campaign in 1988, the first events in an outbreak of violence that still continues in the region. "For 40 years, we knocked on every door but nobody listened, so we turned to armed struggle." Khan went on to say that he believed the movement had been hijacked by religious extremists, and that they had tarnished the cause of Kashmir's independence. "They have limited our range of movement," he said wistfully.

It's likely that Pakistan, through intelligence agencies, simply opted to support groups that lined up with its territorial aspirations, rather than patronize an independent thinker whose goal was to create a secular ministate nestled between India and Pakistan. Khan's unborn country, Jammu Kashmir, would have the unusual distinction of being bordered by three nuclear powers, two of which are the most populous nations on earth. To the east, China, fearful of chaos on its western border, maintains an alliance with Pakistan, selling it advanced weapons and nuclear technology. China is trying to balance the influence of India.

Significantly, Khan's biggest success was not a military campaign in Kashmir, but a peaceful mass march on the Line of Control 1992, complete with thousands of demonstrators attempting to cross from the Pakistan-administered area into Indian Kashmir. The march was broadcast live by the BBC but ended in disaster when Pakistani forces fired on the demonstrators, killing several people, including a young boy. The march attracted international attention and won a concession from then-President Nawaz Sharif that the status of Kashmir should be decided in a referendum. Later, Sharif initiated the Lahore process, a series of peace talks with India over the status of Kashmir, but was unable to see it through to a conclusion, because he was deposed by a disgruntled army general, Pervez Musharraf. Sharif remains in exile in Saudi Arabia.

The obstacles facing Khan and those who support Kashmiri independence are so large they are nearly absurd. Strangely, it may be one of the only workable solutions to the status of Kashmir that does not involve long-running civil disturbances and guerrilla war. If any situation begged for the intervention of a neutral third power, this would be it. Anticipating the question, Khan says that he would welcome the intervention of the UN to guarantee stability.

"If the population of Kashmir was allowed to vote in a free and fair election, by secret ballot, independence would win by about 60 percent. The remaining votes would go to union with India or Pakistan," Khan said with his usual candor. "If the elections were not by secret ballot, I think the number would be 15 percent." But of course neither India nor Pakistan supports an independence resolution, so war -- or a continuing, bloody standoff -- is more likely than a democratic solution to the Kashmir question right now.

By Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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