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A divisive agenda

Print edition : Apr 01, 2000 T+T-

Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah's recent conclave with United States-based secessionist leader Farooq Kathwari is seen as part of a larger U.S.-sponsored covert dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir, in which the Vajpayee Government is complicit.

PRAVEEN SWAMI

JOIN the dots on the graph charting the future of Jammu and Kashmir, and it is hard to miss the shape staring back from the page. On March 8, Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah and a group of his top Cabinet colleagues held a closed-door secret meeting with Farooq Kathwari, a U.S.-based secessionist leader. The meeting, held at the Secretariat in Jammu, appears to be just part of a larger U.S.-sponsored covert dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir. Indeed, there is growing evidence that the Bharatiya Janata Party-l ed coalition government in New Delhi is complicit in this dialogue, which could lead to a violent communal sundering of the State.

Kathwari heads the Kashmir Study Group (KSG), an influential New York-based think tank which has been advocating the creation of an independent state carved out of the Muslim-majority areas of Jammu and Kashmir. The owner of Ethan Allen, an upmarket furn iture concern which includes the White House among its clients, Kathwari's associates in the KSG have included influential Indian establishment figures, notably former Foreign Secretary S.K. Singh and retired Vice-Admiral N.K. Nair. Kathwari was blacklis ted by successive Indian governments and on one occasion was even denied permission to visit the country to meet a seriously ill relative. Shortly after the BJP-led coalition took power in 1998, however, he was granted a visa.

It is still unclear at whose initiative the visa was granted. But Kathwari arrived in New Delhi in March 1999, carrying a series of proposals for the creation of an independent Kashmiri state. Called Kashmir: A Way Forward, the proposals were the outcome of the KSG's deliberations. On this first visit, he met what one senior intelligence official describes as a "who's who of the BJP establishment". Kathwari also appears to have visited Jammu and Srinagar, staying at the home of a top National Con ference politician. Frontline has so far been unable to establish whether he met Abdullah on that occasion.

Public disclosure of Kathwari's proposals provoked a minor storm. Both S.K. Singh and N.K. Nair disassociated themselves from its recommendations. Nonetheless, Kathwari seemed encouraged enough to push ahead with a new version of Kashmir: A Way Forwar d. Last September, a fresh version of the document was finalised after, its preface records, receiving reactions from "government officials in India and Pakistan". The new document was even more disturbing than the first. At least one KSG member, the University of South Carolina's Robert Wirsing, refused even to participate in the discussions. But the BJP, it now appears, was not wholly unhappy with the direction Kathwari was proceeding in.

Kashmir: A Way Forward outlines five proposals for the creation of either one or two new states, which would together constitute what is described in somewhat opaque fashion as a "sovereign entity but one without an international personality". "Th e new entity," the KSG report says, "would have its own secular, democratic constitution, as well as its own citizenship, flag and a legislature which would legislate on all matters other than defence and foreign affairs... India and Pakistan would be re sponsible for the defence of the Kashmiri entity, which would itself maintain police and gendarme forces for internal law and order purposes. India and Pakistan would be expected to work out financial arrangements for the Kashmiri entity, which could inc lude a currency of its own."

Four of five possible Kashmiri entities the KSG discusses involve two separate states on either side of the Line of Control (LoC), and territorial exchanges between India and Pakistan. But the fifth Kashmiri entity outlined in Kashmir: A Way Forward - of a single state on the Indian side of the LoC - is the most interesting of the KSG proposals. Premised on the assumption that Pakistan would be unwilling to allow the creation of a new entity on its side of the LoC - although there is no discussio n of what will happen if India were to be similarly disinclined - the new state would come into being after a series of tehsil-level referendums. All the districts of the Kashmir Valley, the districts of Kargil and Doda, three northern tehsils of Rajouri and one tehsil of Udhampur, the KSG believes, would opt to join the new Kashmiri state.

Kashmir: A Way Forward attempts, somewhat desperately, to prove that its assumptions are not based on communal grounds. "All these areas," it argues, "are imbued with Kashmiriyat, the cultural traditions of the Vale of Kashmir, and/or interact ext ensively with Kashmiri-speaking people." But this assumption is patently spurious, for several of these areas also interact similarly with peoples who do not speak Kashmiri. There is no explanation, for example, as to why the linguistic, cultural and tra de links between the three northern Muslim-majority tehsils of Rajouri district and the three southern Hindu-majority tehsils are of any less significance than those they have with the Kashmir region.

Nor is it made clear what linguistic affiliation the tehsils of Karnah and Uri in Kashmir, where just 3.2 per cent and 3.1 per cent of the population were recorded as Kashmiri-speakers in the 1981 Census, the last carried out in Jammu and Kashmir, might have with the Valley. Indeed, these tehsils have recorded some of the highest voter turnouts in successive elections from 1996, suggesting that their residents have little sympathy for Kashmir Valley-centred secessionist politics. Similarly, while Ramban and Bhaderwah tehsils in Doda are not Kashmiri-speaking and principally trade with Jammu, the KSG proposals make the a priori assumption that they would vote to join the new state.

OFFICIALS in Jammu and Kashmir seemed uncertain of just what Kathwari and Abdullah discussed during their meeting. State Chief Secretary Ashok Jaitley told Frontline that the meeting had indeed been held, but said that he was unaware of just what was discussed. "What I can tell you is that the initiative for the meeting was not ours," he said, "and that the highest quarters were consulted before it was held." Others said Kathwari had requested the meeting to discuss a potential timber business in the State. Neither the Jammu and Kashmir Directorate of Public Relations, which handles media interaction with the Chief Minister, nor Abdullah's personal staff, responded to queries from Frontline.

Even leaving aside the minor point that following Supreme Court orders, felling forests is illegal in Jammu and Kashmir it seems implausible that the content of Kathwari's dialogue with Abdullah centred on raw material for Ethan Allen. The National Confe rence's proposals for Jammu and Kashmir's future have striking similarities with those that the KSG is touting. The controversial report of the Regional Autonomy Committee (RAC), which was tabled in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly last year (Frontline , July 30, 1999) and is in the process of being implemented, bears similarities with the KSG proposals. Muslim-majority Rajouri and Poonch are scheduled to be cut away from the Jammu region and recast as a new Pir Panjal province. The single districts of Buddhist-majority Leh and Muslim-majority Kargil too will be sundered from each other and become new provinces.

In some cases, the RAC Report and the KSG proposals mirror each other down to the smallest detail. For example, Kashmir: A Way Forward refers to the inclusion of a Gool-Gulabgarh tehsil in the new state. There is, in fact, no such tehsil. Gool and Gulabgarh were parts of the tehsil of Mahore, the sole Muslim-majority tehsil of Udhampur district, until 1999. Gool subsequently became a separate tehsil. But the proposal for Mahore's sundering from Udhampur and inclusion in the Chenab province was fi rst made in the RAC Report. According to the RAC plan, as in the KSG proposals, Mahore would form part of the Chenab province, while Udhampur would be incorporated in the Hindu-majority Jammu province.

Significantly, Abdullah's plans for the future of Jammu and Kashmir's relationship with India match the KSG's formulation of a quasi-sovereign state. The report of the State Autonomy Committee (SAC), which was released in March 1999 and is now under cons ideration by the Centre, would leave New Delhi with no powers other than the management of defence, external affairs and communications. Fundamental rights mentioned in the Constitution, for example, would no longer apply to Jammu and Kashmir if the SAC has its way. They will have to be substituted by a separate chapter on fundamental rights in the Jammu and Kashmir Constitution, which now contains only Directive Principles. The Supreme Court's jurisdiction over Jammu and Kashmir will end and the State Election Commission will conduct polls in the State, not the Election Commission of India.

While the National Conference's demands for greater autonomy are in themselves not disturbing, the context in which they have been made and their character are. For one, the SAC proposals were pushed through without debate in the Assembly and a nation-wi de political debate on the issue, promised by Abdullah, never took place. Meaningful autonomy seems to be the last of the SAC's concerns. The report does not contain even one sentence about financial autonomy, essential to prevent the interference from New Delhi that the SAC set out to end. Even more intriguing is the fact that no BJP leader outside Jammu, despite the party's long opposition to State autonomy, has criticised the SAC report. Abdullah made clear at a press conference in Jammu that the in itiative for the report to be submitted to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs came from New Delhi, not the State.

JUST what, then, is going on in those corridors of power where policy on Jammu and Kashmir is framed? It is evident that many of the proposals floated by the KSG, and which have permeated the RAC and SAC reports, have some form of U.S. backing. Shortly a fter Prime Ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif met in Lahore, Pakistan Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz called for a district-wise referendum in Jammu and Kashmir. It was a sharp departure from his country's historic position. Journalist Talat Hu ssain, writing in the Pakistani newspaper The Nation, reported that Niaz Naik and R.K. Mishra, the back-channel negotiators during the Kargil war, had discussed what was described as the 'Chenab Plan', a sundering of the State between the Muslim-m ajority areas to the north of the river and the Hindu-majority areas to its south.

Former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has also been talking about what appears to be a U.S.-approved formula for "deliberate, incremental advances" towards a final settlement in Jammu and Kashmir. Bhutto advocated that "the two sections of Kashmi r should have open and porous borders" - a proposition remarkably similar to that advocated by the KSG. This should happen prior to a final period when "the parties commence discussion on a formal and final resolution to the Kashmir problem, based on the wishes of its people and the security concerns of both India and Pakistan". "Both sections," she wrote during the Kargil war, "would be demilitarised and patrolled by either an international peace-keeping force or a joint Indian-Pakistani peace-keeping force. Both legislative councils would continue to meet separately and on occasion jointly."

Political analysts in Jammu and Kashmir not taken in by the rhetoric of a new relationship between India and the U.S., and they are sadly few, have little doubt about the deal that is being brokered. "You only have to read Shyama Prasad Mukherjee to unde rstand that Hindu fundamentalists never wanted the Muslim-majority areas of Jammu and Kashmir to be part of Hindu India," says academic Balraj Puri. A deal where the Muslim-majority areas of the State get broad autonomy in return for the National Confere nce agreeing to greater integration for its Buddhist and Hindu-majority, he suggests, will allow both the National Conference and the BJP to proclaim victory to their respective chauvinist constituencies. Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA Mohammad Y usuf Tarigami told Frontline that top BJP ideologue K.R. Malkani had, at a conference in February, told him that a division of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh was, in the long term, inevitable - an idea many on the Hindu right have endorsed in the past.

Speaking to Frontline after news of the meeting of the two Farooqs appeared in The Hindu-Business Line, one top official described the event as "trivial", and Kathwari as "an irrelevant busybody". Its hard to believe that Abdullah, who has consistently opposed dialogue with the secessionist All Parties Hurriyat Conference or the leadership of terrorist groups, finds it acceptable to hold closed-door meetings with "irrelevant" secessionists unless they have the right connections. Some obser vers believe that U.S. President Bill Clinton's India visit could lead, in months to come, to the appointment of an official to oversee dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir. The official could be packaged as a facilitator of dialogue rather than a mediator. Wha t is clear is that dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir with the BJP as a participant is under way - and it is time the rest of the country was told about the contours of the communal deal that is being engineered.