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The surprise findings of an opinion poll elicit charges of bias
In Kashmir, just as surely as one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter, one man's concern is another's conspiracy. Conspiracy theories have come rushing in, how would they not, after a MORI (Market and Opinion Research) poll showed that 10 times as many Kashmiris would rather be with India than with Pakistan. The Pakistanis are calling it an Indian PR ploy because the poll was actually administered by the Indian wing of MORI. In India, some see it as an elaborate plot to lull the government into holding a plebiscite.

Lord Eric Reginald Avebury, the man behind the poll, has become controversial on both sides.

He has had a long history of taking a strongly pro-Pakistani position, a stand from which he has taken several steps back in recent years. For that reason, the Pakistanis see him as now becoming more pro-Indian. Lord Avebury himself sees it rather differently. "There is no conspiracy of any kind," Lord Avebury told Outlook. "We had no idea what the answers would be when we began. It was an attempt to discover what the people of Kashmir are thinking about these important issues."

The survey in Kashmir Valley, Jammu and Leh showed that 61 per cent would rather see Kashmir as a part of India than of Pakistan. The vast majority thought the solution lay through democratic elections, though in Srinagar area that proposition won a slim majority of 52 per cent. "Some replies were reasonably obvious, some were a little more surprising," Lord Avebury says. Like the view of 36 per cent that war is the answer. The poll was conducted in April and now "many might think differently", Lord Avebury cautions.

But does he support a plebiscite? "Let me put it this way," he says, "the poll shows that most people want peace and stability so they can get on with their lives. A bilateral solution is the only way forward. But in formulating our strategies we should have regard to the opinion of the people of Kashmir." That opinion is indicated by the poll that shows 61 per cent want to be citizens of India and 6 per cent of Pakistan; 33 per cent didn't know what they wanted; two-thirds believe that the involvement of Pakistan in the region has been bad; two-thirds believe that foreign militants have damaged the Kashmiri cause; two-thirds say there can be no elections while violence continues; the majority want to preserve Kashmiriyat with secularism at its core; more than half believe Kashmir needs a new political party.

As many as 93 per cent say peace will come through economic development and more jobs; 86 to 88 per cent, with over 70 per cent in each region, want free and fair elections, an end to militant violence and cross-border infiltration, and "direct consultation" between the Indian government and the people of Kashmir. As many as 74 per cent want people from outside Kashmir to invest in the state. A huge 92 per cent oppose the division of Kashmir on lines of religion or ethnicity, and 80 per cent want Kashmiri Pandits back.

MORI, perhaps the world's most respected agency for conducting opinion polls, insists its Kashmir survey wasn't rigged. "It was done with absolute integrity and honesty," Peter Hutton, deputy managing director of MORI in London, told Outlook. The poll was conducted "by professional researchers from our representatives in India Facts Worldwide", he said, adding that the questions were designed at their offices in London to be fair and objective and weren't very complimentary about either the Indian or the Pakistani role. Hutton says they did their sampling "as fairly as we could" and used "Muslim interviewers in Muslim areas and Hindu interviewers in Hindu areas to minimise any bias from that point of view". The poll, he said, was "a sincere, objective attempt to measure the views of the public".

The survey was done on behalf of the Friends of Kashmir group Lord Avebury heads (not to be confused with other groups also called Friends of Kashmir). That group, Lord Avebury said, includes expats in Britain and the US. Who are they? "We don't reveal that sort of information," Lord Avebury quips. Indians who would want to influence the findings? Or Pakistanis embarrassed by what the survey found? Or both? When you get into conspiracy theories about conspiracy theories, it's time to stop.
Published in outlookindia