AFTER the Nobel committee in Norway last year awarded its annual peace prize to a jailed Chinese writer and dissident, Liu Xiaobo, controversy raged for months. China’s government huffed and snarled, blocked any relatives from travelling to pick up the prize, told ambassadors of friendly countries to boycott the ceremony, then launched its own, bizarre, rival peace prize. For those who fret about China, both the authorities’ original treatment of their dissident and their reaction to the prize offered troubling evidence of growing illiberalism.
It is now about time for parliamentarians and others who nominate candidates, and for the committee that picks one, to start the process of finding a 2012 laureate. The most basic criteria are these: that some long-running and nasty conflict needs attending to; and that some worthy individual or institution deserves recognition for trying to put things right.
Having just spent some days in Kashmir, in the part of the territory run by India, I am struck that—as far as I am aware—there has never been serious consideration of dishing out a prize for anyone trying to solve the troubles there. No one should doubt that Kashmir suffers grim problems, of two broad sorts. First is the disputed status of the territory. Rival claims by India and Pakistan, ever since a confrontation in 1947, have served as one of various causes of the three full-scale wars between the neighbours. Kashmiris’ own demands for independence muddy matters further. Second, especially in the past couple of decades, is the repressive behaviour of India’s security forces in the territory they control, as they confront militants who are encouraged, armed and deployed by Pakistani backers. On top of this are civilian protesters, such as the stone-pelters of last year, who carry no guns but attack and provoke Indian police and soldiers.
The consequences of it all have been grim indeed, even weighed with the wars aside: thousands killed; more who have been disappeared, jailed or abused. Kashmiris have had many civil rights suspended. Those who dare to speak out are jailed for long periods, often without either charge or trial. Under prolonged emergency rule people are routinely put under house arrest and forbidden from speaking in public. Torture is dismally common. Over the years human-rights groups have documented cases of execution by police, rape, destruction of property and more. Although India, a democracy, in theory guarantees its citizens freedom of speech, authorities also prosecute sedition—so many Kashmiris must fear reprisals if they do speak out.
This year the situation in Kashmir appears relatively calm. But difficulties are not far off. In travels around Srinagar and into the countryside beyond, I found heavily armed police and soldiers all over the place. Still, Kashmiris—and the Indian soldiers and police trying to keep order—are delighted by the relative improvement, which seems to be the result of fatigue among the protesters and better training among the police.
Given the long-running trouble in Kashmir why has the Nobel committee paid it no serious attention? Some in China might suspect that a Western institution gives democratic India a softer ride than it does China. Or perhaps the committee is distracted by regular elections, lively newspapers and other elements of democracy, and so doubts that Kashmir’s problems are really serious.
Neither answer is satisfactory. Instead, the answer may be a lack of an appealing candidate as potential laureate. Among politicians on the subcontinent it is possible to imagine that Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, and maybe even his counterpart in Pakistan, President Asif Zardari, being recognised for trying to promote peace between their countries. On July 27th, for example, their foreign ministers will meet in Delhi. But this process has achieved little yet, and in any case the two leaders are trying hard to keep Kashmir’s status out of discussions, since it is so tricky to address.
Inside Kashmir itself there are various worthy NGOs and activists, some helped by foreign donors, who promote useful things like youth employment, education, care for the environment and the like. But these hardly add up to a big push for peace. As for the UN, it has a presence, but does almost nothing.
Nor, among local politicians and the jailed activists, is there any local Nelson Mandela: an individual who stands out for making prolonged personal sacrifices in the search for a peaceful end to conflict and for better treatment of ordinary people. Many Kashmiri politicians are seen as opportunists who at times supported either militancy or repression. The most notable, outspoken political leader today is the ageing Islamist separatist, Syed Geelani, who remains popular because he has kept his position unchanged for decades. But Mr Geelani, who wants Kashmir to be part of Pakistan, hardly seems peace-loving and is regularly blamed for encouraging bloodshed in the territory. Put another way, his consistency is also evidence of immense stubbornness, a refusal to consider any sort of compromise, reconciliation or forgiveness in the search for peace.
Perhaps likelier candidates exist among more restrained separatists. The current Mirwaiz, spiritual leader of Kashmir’s Sunni Muslims, Umar Farooq, was accused by police last year of inciting violence, though he denied it and is generally reckoned to be a moderate. That is the more remarkable since his father, the Mirwaiz before him, was assassinated probably by hardline separatists for holding his own temperate views. Similarly Sajjad Lone, whose moderate father was murdered in similar fashion, counts as a separatist who has put forward sensible ideas about sharing power in which a united Kashmir would enjoy “soft” borders with both Pakistan and India. Yasin Malik, who leads a part of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, a former commando group which renounced violence in 1994, could be another candidate. But these separatist figures have been eclipsed by prominent Mr Geelani. Among those acceptable to India is the most prominent woman politician in Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti Sayeed, president of an opposition party. However it is not clear on what basis she would lay claim to a peace prize, though her father, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, as chief minister from 2002 to 2005 became well-liked for his efforts at reconciliation.
The result—unless there is a strong candidate whom I have overlooked, and if so, please make a suggestion below—is that the Nobel committee will ignore Kashmir again, sparing India’s authorities the sort of blushes that China suffered last year. One day, however, India will surely be the centre of attention for the Nobel committee, which famously failed to dish out a prize to Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps its biggest oversight yet. Mother Teresa, an Albanian who became an Indian citizen, did get a Nobel peace prize in 1979 for her humanitarian work among the poor, but beyond that, this massive country seems woefully neglected.