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Unfazed New Delhi Continues the Dialogue Process Despite Hurriyat's Absence

Dr. Ashutosh Mishra was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • March 03, 2006

    The All Party Hurriyat Conference's (APHC) refusal, apparently under 'outside' pressure, to participate in the February 25 roundtable can be held to be detrimental to none but itself and the people of Jammu and Kashmir. New Delhi for its part justifiably went ahead as per schedule, driving home the point that the creation of a 'Naya' and 'Khushaal' Kashmir will not be held hostage to the whim and moods of any individual or group. It understands the urgency of restoring peace, order and prosperity in the larger interests of the people who do not have to wait for another 50 years to lead a normal life. The absence of the APHC at the roundtable was disappointing as it failed to live up to the high standards it had set for itself by holding talks with New Delhi on previous occasions and boarding the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus for the sake of peace.

    The participants in the roundtable chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh included Water Resources Minister Saifuddin Soz, Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil, J&K Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, Union Minister of State for Home Sriprakash Jaiswal, Minister of State in the PMO Prithviraj Chavan, Rajya Sabha member Karan Singh, National Conference president Omar Abdullah, Speaker of the J&K Assembly Tara Chand and J&K Deputy Chief Minister Muzaffar Beig, CPI(M) leader Yusuf Tarigami, Ladakh leader K Chawang, and Panoon Kashmir leader M K Kaw. The seven-hour long exercise held at the PM's residence discussed a broad range of issues including the peace process with Pakistan, status of detenus, 'self-rule', 'autonomy', terrorism, human rights, trade and development, and empowerment of people in the state. The thrust of the roundtable seemed to trash General Musharraf's idea of 'self-governance' and 'demilitarization' and reiterate that J&K has always been an internal matter, and hence solutions to the problems 'in' Kashmir have to be found through discussion with the internal stakeholders.

    India and Pakistan have repeatedly endeavoured to find a solution to the J&K issue through mutual cooperation and consultation but with little success. What has hampered bilateral efforts so far is that for Pakistan it is the 'problem of Kashmir', i.e., Kashmir is a 'disputed territory' and an 'unfinished agenda' of partition; while for India, it is the 'problem in Kashmir', suggesting that the accession of Kashmir to the Indian Union is final and complete, and the challenge rests in addressing cross-border terrorism as well as the economic and political grievances of the people of J&K.

    New Delhi's 'problem in Kashmir' approach is prudent and farsighted. Over the years it has spent energy on domestic issues in J&K such as restoration of Kashmiriyat, underdevelopment, unemployment, ineffective governance, human rights' violations, rehabilitation of exiled pundits and most notably debating the feasibility of 'autonomy' or 'self-rule' for the state. With regard to Pakistan, New Delhi has adopted a twin approach. One, discussing cross-border terrorism and two, promoting confidence-building measures to reduce mutual hostilities and improve the atmospherics for bilateral talks. On the former, talks have achieved little since Islamabad prefers to hold on to the 'jihad' card in case the peace process derails in the near future. On the latter, J&K specific CBMs such as the start of bus service between Srinagar-Muzaffarabad, agreement to start truck trade on this route, opening of five meeting points on the LoC, among others, have certainly reduced the intensity of hostilities. The question that Pakistan now poses is what next? Pakistan argues that CBMs and J&K are two different compartments, whereas India insists that CBMs are part of the solution.

    Therefore, being well aware that Pakistan would not compromise in the near term on its traditional stand on J&K, namely, 'deciding the future of J&K according to the will of the people' or 'holding plebiscite', India has pursed the domestic path to address the problems 'in' Kashmir. In recent years New Delhi has held discussions with a broad spectrum of people and groups in J&K state including the APHC for building consensus on the matter, which is a rather wise policy to adopt. This has repeatedly perturbed Islamabad, which cannot swallow the idea of being left out in the cold. The February 25 roundtable on J&K too upset Pakistan's long-term strategy, and after some recent soft-pedalling with the APHC moderates, it pressurized them to hold back this time.

    Until its split in September 2003, the APHC maintained overt hostility towards New Delhi through its aversion to everything - talks with New Delhi, peace process, CBMs, economic development, elections and dialogue within J&K. Being under the heavy influence of its mentors in Rawalpindi, it had virtually nothing constructive or substantial to offer towards J&K. But after the split in September 2003, the moderate faction of the APHC distanced itself from the hardliners and joined the peace bandwagon, which found favour not only in India but surprisingly in Pakistan as well.

    The visit of the moderates to Muzaffarabad and Islamabad in April 2005 brought to light the bold and pragmatic side of the APHC. Unperturbed by the hardliners' boycott, the delegation impressed all with its bold proclamations and utterances. It not only castigated the leadership in Muzaffarabad for glorifying militancy in J&K, but also firmly opposed General Pervez Musharraf's idea of forging reunification of the APHC. The moderates also urged the United Jihad Council (UJC) led by Syed Salahuddin to join the peace process. With regard to the hardliners holding back in Srinagar and calling the moderates 'traitors', Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, leader of the APHC, strongly responded saying,

    For fear of being labelled treacherous should we sit at home and repeat the song of UN resolutions. One lakh people have already lost their lives. Should we wait for the sacrifice of another lakh people before we begin to look at the other possible ways to resolve the issue... There are people (pointing towards S A S Geelani) in Kashmir who considered talking to New Delhi as treachery. Now we are being told that even visiting Pakistan amounted to treachery. It is high time the word treachery is redefined... when we return to Kashmir, we need to redefine certain things... certain words and phrases.

    The APHC also conceded that they cannot become part of a tripartite talk (India, Pakistan and the APHC) and can only talk separately with India and Pakistan. And after internal brainstorming, the APHC concluded that to legitimise their representation of the people of J&K (a popular contention) there was need to participate in the political process in J&K. Besides, the phrase 'United States of J&K' coined by Mirwaiz Farooq suggested the APHC's inclusive vision incorporating not only Ladakh and Jammu in the equation but Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (including Northern Areas) as well. In December 2005, former APHC Chairman, Prof Abdul Gani Bhat told Kashmir Times, "We do not support Mr. Geelani's idea that for settling the Kashmir issue there were only two options, either to remain with India or to get incorporated with Pakistan." It was also praiseworthy to find the APHC initiate and materialise the return of pundits to the valley.

    It needs to be emphasised that since 2003 the moderate faction has shown flexibility in coming to terms with New Delhi, which makes the APHC's decision to skip the February 25, 2006 roundtable intriguing. This was not the first time that the APHC was being invited for talks with the Indian government. On January 22 and again on March 27, 2004 the APHC had held talks with L K Advani and even managed to secure the release of 40 detenus from prison. Later on September 5, 2005, led by Abdul Ghani Bhatt, they held talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. They were also granted permission by New Delhi to visit Pakistan in June and December 2005. These developments were suggestive of a spirit of accommodation from all sides and therefore in this context the APHC's refusal to participate in the roundtable appears baffling. Pakistan and India are continuing their bilateral talks on J&K (third round, foreign secretary level, January 17-18 2006, New Delhi) and therefore the APHC has no moral or political grounds for boycotting it.

    How can the APHC correlate its decision to the changing mood of the people in J&K? Peoples' overwhelming participation in general elections and local bodies elections in January 2005 show their eagerness to support the policies of both the central and state governments. Their enthusiasm has come to vindicate New Delhi's vision of finding solutions through democratic means and development. On both counts, the APHC's contribution has been lacking. The absence of any concrete suggestions from them over the years for alleviating poverty, unemployment, backwardness, and illiteracy in J&K does not reflect well on the conglomeration. Besides, till date it has not only refused to participate in the elections but also called for boycott by the people. Yet, in the 2004-05 local elections, average voter turnout in the state was around 43 percent and, more importantly, over 18 percent people turned out to vote in the Valley, the bastion of the APHC and jehadi activities. The development and reconstruction plans unleashed by New Delhi through the previous Mufti Muhammad Sayeed and the current Ghulam Nabi Azad governments have received support among the people. The common Kashmiri today acknowledges that money is reaching the grassroots and development is being seen on the ground, something unheard of ten years ago.

    In this context, while New Delhi is pushing its policies in J&K with utmost sincerity and purpose, would people approve of the APHC's boycott as prudent and constructive? Perhaps not. The APHC must realise that for the first time since its inception in 1993, it has managed to earn praise from India, Pakistan as well as the people of J&K simultaneously and it should not again slide into isolation. It is in the APHC's long-term interest to keep itself relevant in the rapidly changing international and national dynamics. Its participation in such events would not only give a positive signal to the people but also help them create an identity different from those espoused by hardliners and jehadi groups. Its gesture of welcoming the pundits back to the Valley has not gone unnoticed and it stands to gain a lot more by continuing on this path.

    The APHC should notice that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was not critical of their decision, leaving space for future interaction in May in Srinagar. The Prime Minister underlined several key issues, such as people-to-people contacts between the two Kashmirs, human rights, trade, terrorism, status of detenus, 'self-rule' and 'autonomy'. All these issues are relevant for the APHC too, especially the feasibility of 'self-rule' and 'autonomy' for J&K, and it stands to maximise its interests provided it participates in such discussions. The APHC can achieve its objectives in J&K only through negotiations rather than by boycotting them under pressure from Pakistan.

    The APHC should not miss the opportunity in May when the next round is held in Srinagar. It is yet to concretise its identity and is plagued with internal contradictions pertaining to its representative status, stand on democratic processes, division of J&K on religious lines, role of UJC in peace process, and vulnerability to Rawalpindi's diktats. It sends confusing signals when, despite its dissociation from the hardliners, it continues to follow the non-cooperative and non-constructive approach of the latter. With these shortcomings the APHC could easily become history in J&K if it fails to read the mood of the people who have realised that in the 21st century development is freedom.