Wanted: policy, not hubris

Print edition : July 06, 2002

The Union government is wrong to make rosy assumptions about Kashmir. Neither muscle-flexing nor elections can substitute for an inclusive dialogue to overcome popular alienation.

IT is only very rarely that India has witnessed the kind of sustained melodramatic tantrums in which Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah and his son Omar have liberally indulged for the past month, particularly after the National Democratic Alliance nominated A.P.J. Abdul Kalam as its presidential candidate, scuppering Abdullah's chances of becoming Vice-President. Abdullah exhorted the people of Kashmir to teach Delhi a lesson and even wage "war" on it (The Hindu, June 21). Then there was the coronation of Omar on June 23 where the principle of dynastic succession was heavily underscored - through the presence of Omar's little son, to boot. And there was the much contrived shedding of tears about "Kashmiris" (read, the Abdullahs) not getting their "due" from India.

At one level, these shenanigans constitute a crude attempt at bargaining with the Centre for a high office for Farooq Abdullah. At another, they represent a complex stratagem - to confront New Delhi with a situation in which it must accept the "indispensability" of the National Conference and the perpetuation of its rule for another six years.

One element of this stratagem is to prevent the Centre from opening negotiations with the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) so its leaders might join the political "mainstream". Such talks have been repeatedly sabotaged by Abdullah and the Union Home Ministry. Today, however, we are witnessing a very special moment in Kashmir, created by the U.S.-brokered India-Pakistan agreement for the termination of "cross-border infiltration" and de-escalation at the border, eventually leading to a dialogue with Pakistan on Kashmir.

The opportunity that the present conjuncture offers in the post-September 11 context is unique. The Centre will squander it if it persists with the present approach and allows Abdullah to exercise virtual veto power.

It is against this background that we must see the arrest of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the Jamaat-e-Islami member of the Hurriyat executive, and the prolonged detention of Yaseen Malik of the secular Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. Nobody can possibly believe the reasons trotted out for Geelani's arrest - accepting funds from dubious foreign sources. Any number of groups, including Abdullah's collaborators, have received funds from all kinds of sources. The "real reason", disclosed in non-attributable official briefings, is the Centre's "strategy" to isolate the Hurriyat "hardliners" so that the "moderates" gather the courage to contest the coming Assembly elections.

According to published reports, "before handing out any promises or reassurances" the government wants a clear indication that the Hurriyat will participate in the elections. It sees no "major shift in the Hurriyat's position", despite its declared wish for a "meaningful dialogue". The government remains committed to "its two-pronged strategy against the militancy - coercive diplomacy and heightened counter-insurgency operations". There is also a more hardline view in the government, which holds that there should be no talks with any non-"mainstream" party until after the Assembly elections.

Contrary to the government's intentions, harsh methods such as arrest, detention and beating are scaring away the "moderates". They send out the signal that those who want to participate in political activity in Kashmir must unquestioningly accept the official diktat; oppressive methods will be used to control all public life.

The Centre has rejected the Hurriyat's proposal for "triangular discussions' (separate dialogue with New Delhi and Islamabad). On June 20, Defence Minister George Fernandes said the government could "consider" it. But the next day, he himself contradicted this. The fact that there are any number of emissaries messing around in Kashmir - including former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief A.S. Dulat and Ram Jethmalani - should not obscure the basic thrust of the Centre's evolving Kashmir policy.

Broadly, that policy is premised on the view that having won a "victory' over Pakistan in the recent conflict, thanks to U.S. mediation, India will have to deliver on its part of the bargain that America helped seal: discuss Kashmir with Pakistan. Kashmir has attracted world attention in an unprecedented manner. The least that India must do - and the government is looking for the rock bottom - is to hold "free and fair" elections there; foreign observers may be permitted to give these credibility. If some former recalcitrant groups such as Shabir Shah's group are brought around to form a "third front", then even the Hurriyat's participation can be dispensed with.

New Delhi also feels greatly encouraged by the remarks of Joseph Biden, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at an Indo-U.S. Business Council seminar in the U.S.: "If India is willing to make substantive changes in its policy towards Kashmir, Pakistan must be willing to accept the Line of Control as a border and end its support for insurgency." It hopes this statement will influence policy-makers in the other major powers who too do not want to see South Asia's boundaries redrawn. Practically, they hope, India may not really have to negotiate the Kashmir question seriously with Pakistan.

India's policy-makers also feel reassured by the results of an "independent" poll conducted by Facts Worldwide-India, an affiliate of the U.K.-based market research company Mori, which says that 63 per cent of Jammu and Kashmir's people oppose India and Pakistan "going to war to find a permanent solution" to the Kashmir problem (Frontline, June 21, 2002). More important, 61 per cent feel that they would be "better off politically and economically" as Indian citizens, and only 6 per cent feel that they would be so as Pakistani citizens. This last has been highlighted by the media and held as proof of the "success" of New Delhi's Kashmir policy.

These premises are flawed. The critical issue within Jammu and Kashmir is not just "free and fair" elections, but inclusive and free elections. Fairness in determining the popular will can mean very little unless the electoral process involves the broadly representative spectrum of political opinion in the State. Several currents of opinion have just not been allowed to function in Jammu and Kashmir. It is only in the last week of June that the state announced a lifting of the long-standing ban on political rallies. (Since then, Mahbooba Mufti, a moderate politician, has been arrested for protesting against the Prevention of Terrorism Act, or POTA.)

Admittedly, the Hurriyat's claim to represent the Valley's people remains untested because it has never participated in elections - it identifies such participation with accepting India's sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir. But it stretches credulity to think that the APHC is irrelevant, it stands for nobody, and that elections held without its participation will make no difference to their legitimacy in the eyes of the people. No "third front" of ex-militants can be a substitute for the APHC.

Similarly, whatever India does within Kashmir - and however worthy - is no substitute for a dialogue with Pakistan. India has promised such a dialogue for 30 years, but never held it. However, with the understanding reached before and during Richard Armitage's South Asia visit, that promise acquires an altogether urgent character.

Biden's represents one of many views in the U.S. establishment. His recent statement represents the success of Indian lobbying in America. Yet, New Delhi cannot hope to bully Pakistan into accepting the LoC as the permanent border - without creating terrible resentment and bitterness. This cannot make for a fair, lasting, sustainable resolution of the issue. Musharraf has repeatedly rejected the LoC-as-border proposal. As he said in the recent Newsweek interview, "this is just not possible. If the LoC were the border, what have we fought two wars for?"

There lies the rub. New Delhi has not even begun to formulate the elements of a coherent Kashmir policy which addresses the many important moral, legal and political issues involved. They are as much about doing right by the Kashmiris and by democratic principles as about fulfilling past commitments. Any minimally coherent policy must refer to an entity that both India and Pakistan tend to keep out of the reckoning - the people of Kashmir. The Kashmir issue or "dispute" is no longer bilateral, if it ever was. There is a third party, indeed an overwhelmingly important one: the Kashmiris.

INDIA and Pakistan three years ago made some tentative informal-level exploratory approaches to a Kashmir solution, such as a "soft" corridor of free movement between the divided parts of Kashmir. But there has been no follow-up. Nor have these exploratory ideas entered India's official discourse, perhaps not even diplomatic notes. And there is the whole burden of declamatory positions ("inalienable part" of India, Parliament resolutions for reintegrating Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and so on). This burden can only be overcome through intensive political consultations and dialogue within India. All this puts a huge question mark over South Block's ability to pull off a workable Kashmir "formula".

However, there is a new smugness in New Delhi about the "success" of India's "coercive diplomacy" - a proposition that seriously underestimates the importance of U.S. mediation or "facilitation" in the post-September 11 context. Worse, there are delusions that a "triumphant" India can now dictate terms to Pakistan much in the way that President George Bush is doing to the Palestinians by demanding a leadership change. (Never mind that this constitutes obnoxious interference in the affairs of a people who have had an infinitely better tradition of democratic consultation and decision-making than any of America's Arab allies.)

At least a part of this smugness reportedly derives from the Mori poll, whose provenance remains a mystery. Facts Worldwide will not disclose who commissioned it. On close scrutiny, that poll does not warrant "satisfaction" over popular "vindication" of India's Kashmir policy, even less "support" for the bizarre formulas that the Sangh Parivar is bandying about for a three- (and now) four-way division of Jammu and Kashmir.

The full text of the Mori survey says 92 per cent of the people "oppose the State of Kashmir being divided on the basis of religion or ethnicity"; and 91 per cent believe that Jammu and Kashmir's "unique cultural identity" should be "preserved in any long-term solution". However, there are strong variations in perception among the Valley, Jammu and Ladakh. The overwhelming majority of those who would prefer to be Indian citizens belong to Jammu and Ladakh, not to the Valley. The "don't know" answers to the question are concentrated in Srinagar.

Mori states: "Whereas 99 per cent of respondents in Jammu and 100 per cent in Leh felt they would be better off as Indian citizens, 78 per cent of those in Srinagar said they did not know while 9 per cent felt they would be better off as Indian citizens and 13 per cent as Pakistani citizens."

This is not far from the general impression one gets in Kashmir: the 78 per cent "don't knows" clearly include a large number who subscribe to azadi or that version of it which equals autonomy or independence from India, but who reject merger with Pakistan. Given that the core Kashmir problem is about the Valley, this is a sobering thought. As is the conclusion that more Valley people favour Pakistani citizenship over Indian - despite Pakistan's many failures as a state and its dismal record in "Azad" Kashmir.

Popular alienation from the Indian state is a central, inescapable, feature of Kashmir's reality. Unless New Delhi gets its act together and cleans up the mess in Jammu and Kashmir in a purposive, comprehensive way, rather than through the tokenist "packages" that fail to impress anyone, it cannot possibly combat this alienation. One precondition for any progress in Kashmir is a dialogue with all currents of opinion.

Farooq Abdullah and his son constitute the principal obstacle to this. They must be restrained and, if necessary, chastised. Their attempt to substitute the "autonomy" demand for true democratic reform of governance is misguided and disingenuous. The Centre cannot inspire much confidence about the sincerity of any effort it makes for reconciliation and dialogue on Kashmir so long as the Abdullahs are in power and call the shots. The time has come for a spell of Central rule prior to the Assembly elections in Kashmir - and even more urgently, for a coherent, rational, Kashmir policy.

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