Manmohan Singh's initiative pays attention mainly to the economic needs of the State. There is some disappointment in the Valley that it does not address the genesis of the political problem.
"I HAVE come here to see the changing colours of the chinar leaves," said the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi when she came to Kashmir for the last time in an autumn. The famous remark came just days before her assassination in 1984, when somebody asked her about the purpose of her sudden visit. Emotive statements have always been associated with Prime Ministers' political programmes in Kashmir. For instance, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee struck an emotive note, while at the same time being ambiguous, in his every visit to the Kashmir valley. In 2000, he set the stage for a dialogue when he said: "The talks with any group would have to be within the parameters of insaniyat (humanity)." Three years later, he used the platform of Kashmir to extend the hand of friendship to Pakistan.
For a change, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh tried to be different from his predecessors. There was less of drama and emotion in his public address at Srinagar on November 17 and more of plain-speaking and announcements, including that of a reconstruction plan worth Rs.24,000 crores, Rs.18,000 crores of which is to be spent on Centrally sponsored schemes. On the political side, he reiterated the Central government's position of unconditional dialogue with separatists, while ruling out a specific invitation to any faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC). To Pakistan, he sent out a message - partitioning of the State or even the redrawing of international boundaries is ruled out. Two days before his visit, he ordered troops reduction in the State.
Manmohan Singh's visit and his reconstruction plan were welcomed by the ruling People's Democratic Party-Congress alliance. Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed termed it a realistic approach to the problems of the State. He said: "The economic plan of the Prime Minister addresses the problems confronting the State such as unemployment and poor infrastructure for industrial development." The Finance, Parliamentary and Law Minister Muzaffar Hussian Baig said: "The plan, with emphasis on electrification, will help us to catch up with the rest of the country in terms of industrial development. In addition, the human capital base will also be developed by investment in the education sector."
The ruling political elite got a bonanza, as they were able to persuade the Prime Minister to remove the ban on fresh recruitments in government services in the State. The State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Mohammad Yosuf Tarigami, points out that it is the responsibility of the State government to utilise the money judiciously and get its priorities right.
Among the mainstream parties, the National Conference was not enthused about the visit. Its President, Omar Abdullah, was quite emphatic in saying that Kashmiris needed a political package, and that an economic plan could not address the political alienation of the people of Kashmir. But immediately after the Prime Minister's departure, the National Conference had a reason to cheer up. Reports attributed to the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) hinted that the Central government was willing to concede autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir with the continuation of federal checks such as the jurisdiction of the Election Commission, the Supreme Court and the Auditor-General.
The National Conference has been demanding the restoration of autonomy to the State, a demand supported by the Left parties, allies of the Congress party at the Centre. Omar Abdullah said: "We are happy that at long last our demand has been taken seriously. In the final analysis the political aspirations and urges of the people of the State have to be met and we believe discussion on autonomy is the way forward."
The Prime Minister's economic plan triggered a bout of tension with people on both sides of the regional divide, alleging that they had got a smaller share of the plan. This has again stressed the need to create a decentralised and institutionalised polity within a diverse State to decide on the share of each region with objective criteria.
In reaching out to the separatists, the Prime Minister offered unconditional talks and emphasised that his doors were open for anybody. But this failed to reach up to the expectations of the separatists who have flatly refused to talk "till the time Kashmir is accepted as a dispute" by the Central government. Both moderates and hardliners termed the visit disappointing as, according to them, it did not address the genesis of the problem, which demands a political solution to the issue. The caretaker chairman of the moderate faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, said: "The Prime Minister could not feel the pulse of the people of Kashmir who want a political solution to the issue, and in no way did the visit strike an emotional bond with the people." The Chairman of the Tehreek-ul-Hurriyat, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, was more combative in voicing his reaction. He said: "Economic plan or packages make no difference for Kashmiris. The Indian government has to address the Kashmir issue by accepting it as a dispute. Unless it is done, the economic doles would be considered an insult to the people."
The Prime Minister's visit almost led to the breakdown of the dialogue process, which started with the faction of the Hurriyat now headed by the Mirwaiz. The Mirwaiz demanded permission to go to Pakistan and a specific invitation to enter into a dialogue with the Central government. This infuriated the Central government and the Prime Minister appeared to be reluctant to offer a specific invitation as was done by the Vajpayee government. Later, the Mirwaiz clarified that he was prepared to talk with the Centre before going to Pakistan. This made no change in the position of the Prime Minister; in his last press conference in the State he refused to extend any specific invitation. Speculation was rife that this would hasten the unity between the two factions of the Hurriyat.
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, representing the institution of classical Kashmiri Islam, was quite confident that unity with Jamiat-e-Islami and Syed Ali Shah Geelani was on the cards and the visit of Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz would hasten it. Mirwaiz believed that the Pakistan Prime Minister would prevail on Geelani to soften his line. Pakistan, which had earlier recognised the Hurriyat faction led by Geelani, was now vociferously clamouring for unity between the two groups.
Ultimately, the ideological differences seemed to be an obstacle and the differences came out in the open after their meeting with Shaukat Aziz. The moderate Mirwaiz Umar Farooq accused the separatist Geelani of being rigid in his approach. Nobody can claim, least of all any faction of the Hurriyat, that even all the factions put together represent the entire diversity of opinion and the religious and ethnic communities of the State. Dialogue with any faction of the Hurriyat may not bring peace, as was apparent when the previous Central government started a dialogue process. But engagement with small or big factions should continue in the Prime Minister's new initiative on Kashmir, as a common meeting point cannot be ruled out. For instance, the Mirwaiz - whose political base remains intact in central Kashmir, courtesy the institution he represents - merely echoed the line of the Prime Minister that partition of the State is no solution to the Kashmir tangle. The new initiative of the Prime Minister paid more attention to the immediate economic needs of the State, but on the political front it could at best be described as a probing mission.