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Reaching out

Print edition : Oct 22, 2010 T+T-
Chief Minister Omar Abdullah addressing the State Assembly in Srinagar on October 1.-ROUF BHAT/AFP

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah addressing the State Assembly in Srinagar on October 1.-ROUF BHAT/AFP

Jammu and Kashmir: The Centre launches a serious political initiative to defuse the crisis that has been raging for more than three months.

KASHMIR Valley's first interaction with mainstream political India in two decades happened after the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, decided to send a 39-member all-party delegation of Members of Parliament to study the ground situation in the Valley and to evolve that elusive formula to resolve the Kashmir impasse. After Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had failed to defuse the crisis that had claimed the lives of 108 civilians over a three-month period, the Centre reached out to the old guard, including former Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, whose People's Democratic Party (PDP) was accused of fuelling the protests. The move, official sources say, was aimed at building a consensus on ways to control the situation.

Kashmir has been passing through its worst crisis, which essentially resulted from the mishandling of a situation in the region where the idea of azadi (freedom) has run deep roots.

The strong cry for azadi, which most Kashmiris believe is round the corner, has changed the political landscape of the State. With the proponents of freedom increasingly calling the shots, a serious threat loomed over the mainstream political parties the National Conference (N.C.), the PDP and the Congress. Without trying to understand what was happening in the battered Valley, the Central government trusted the competence of the young Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah, to tackle the problems. However, what he could do was some flip-flops to make sure that he remained in office.

While the valley was burning, Omar Abdullah kept reiterating that he sought votes to govern the State and not to resolve the contentious Kashmir dispute. On September 27, he said in Jammu, People voted us to power on the development front and not for resolving the Kashmir issue. We have not made big promises of resolving the vexed issue during our tenure.

Significantly, the CCS, the country's highest decision-making body on security issues, pointed out that there was a governance deficit in Kashmir. Omar Abdullah came to power in January 2009 as the youngest Chief Minister in the country, raising the hopes of the youth who are now the target of his government. Ironically, he was given the task of preparing the ground to kick-start a process that would hand over India to a young leadership. Omar Abdullah was the test pilot in the grand experiment.

In fact, New Delhi's understanding of the issues that rankle Kashmiris underwent a sea change after the delegation's interaction on September 20-21 with various people. They cry for azadi even in hospitals, Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury, who was part of the delegation, said. Against this backdrop, the MPs' meeting with separatist leaders such as Syed Ali Shah Geelani, moderate All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) leader Yasin Malik is seen as a positive development, especially since political India has remained by and large aloof from Kashmir. The last time an all-party delegation visited the State was in 1990 under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi, who was then in the opposition.

Although the delegation that visited Kashmir in September could not meet a cross-section of the people in view of the curfew imposed in the valley, the visit has thrown a challenge to the political leadership of the country, which has so far viewed Kashmir only in terms of the high turnout in elections and the presence of Pakistan-backed militants. The delegation's mandate apparently was much wider than advising the government on long-term and short-term issues. So its intervention in providing immediate relief to the people could not be out of place.

The MPs later explained how the situation had eroded the gains of past peace processes and the high turnout witnessed in the elections. Anarchy on the streets of Kashmir, with the complete absence of law enforcement, was threatening to push the valley into a new phase of political disaster, the delegates said. The consensus among the delegates was that the State had seen bad governance.

With the all-party delegation breaking the barrier, Kashmiris naturally looked forward to a sympathetic political package. But the eight-point formula announced by Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, who led the delegation, has not cut much ice. Except for the initiative to appoint a group of interlocutors to begin the process of sustained dialogue with political parties, groups, students, civil society and other stakeholders, the rest of the measures, many believe, will not help break the cycle of unrest. By directing the State government to reopen schools and colleges immediately, the Union Minister made himself a laughing stock, with people asking, When did the State government close the schools in first place? Similarly, the announcement that an ex gratia of Rs.5 lakh would be given to the next of kin of those killed in clashes since June 11 was already among the measures taken by the State government.

The other components of the eight-point plan are: in order to reach out to the people of the State, the Centre will advise the Jammu and Kashmir government to release all students detained for stone-throwing and similar violations of law, and to withdraw all charges against them; the Centre will request the State government to convene immediately a meeting of the Unified Command of the defence forces to review the deployment of security forces in Kashmir Valley, especially in Srinagar, with particular reference to descaling those at bunkers and checkpoints in the city and other towns; the Centre will appoint two Special Task Forces for the developmental needs, specifically infrastructure, of Jammu and Kashmir; and the Centre will also advise the State government to review the cases against all Public Safety Act (PSA) detainees and withdraw detention orders in appropriate cases. The Home Minister said 84 persons had been in judicial custody, 110 had been in police custody and 51 had been detained under the PSA since civil disturbances began in the valley.

Passing the buck to Omar Abdullah on the question of considering a review of the Disturbed Areas Act to facilitate the withdrawal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) has pushed the Chief Minister further into a tight spot. Fundamentally, it is being argued that any confidence-building measure should be the outcome of a political engagement or a part of it. You cannot announce something in the air and it need not have takers, a political analyst said.

However, the appointment of interlocutors should ensure that any process of dialogue will be genuine. For the first time, political India will engage political Kashmir if this happens. So far, the engagement has been purely at the bureaucratic level.

Until now, New Delhi used only the security and strategic approaches to address the problems of Kashmir. A political intervention of an all-party nature had remained elusive. Many people believe that this left the government with an incomplete understanding of the reality in Kashmir.

The political scientist Gull Mohammad Wani said it was a good beginning that the political leadership cutting across party lines had reached out to people in Kashmir, giving them a feeling that they have a concern. They need to pick up from where they left. Reviving the confidence-building measures is important, but before that initiation of dialogue is a must, he emphasised.

Both Geelani and Mirwaiz have rejected the eight-point formula as an eyewash as they do not find any of their ideas touching its contours. Geelani said, None of our demands has been discussed. We will not bow down to the economic packages by New Delhi. Our youth did not sacrifice their lives for the economic package. He said the protests would continue until India accepts Kashmir as an international dispute and the other four conditions laid down by our party. The five points highlighted by Geelani to find a way to end the protests have received strong backing from political parties and civil society. Geelani, political analysts say, may not change his hawkish stand overnight but he is seen to have come closer to a negotiating point. When a five-member delegation led by Sitaram Yechury called on him, he did reiterate his stand that India must accept the reality on the ground and concede that Kashmir was a dispute. But he did not disappoint keen Kashmir-watchers when he said, I have given five points to create an atmosphere, you start on them.

GEELANI FORMULA

At a close-door round-table talk in New Delhi recently, the participants decided to consider Geelani's formula. Organised by the Delhi Policy Group, headed by Radha Kumar, the round-table discussions touched upon various aspects of the Kashmir situation and recommended some practical measures to the government. But the non-inclusion of Geelani's five points in Chidambaram's formula has put a question mark on the sincerity of the Centre in finding a way forward. Mirwaiz Farooq and Yasin Malik also gave a joint memorandum to the all-party delegation suggesting a method for confidence building.

Today Kashmir is caught in a cycle of unrest that refuses to break, and even if Geelani, who calls the shots, wants to give the people some respite from this, he feels he has to give the people something tangible first.

The sense of defeat is the biggest hurdle in this process, Wani said, adding that some space was a must for both sides. Of late, the State government has been countering Geelani's protest calendars by imposing curfews on the days on which he called for shopping and normalcy.

Acting on the eight-point formula, the Omar Abdullah government announced the removal of 16 security bunkers from Srinagar and the release of 50 persons arrested for stone-throwing, and set up two committees to review the AFSPA and to recommend places from where it could be withdrawn. But people hardly see these as measures that can bring back peace. They should look beyond these half-hearted steps and directly address the political issue, said Hasrat Amin, a scholar in Kashmir University.

Geelani said, We want complete demilitarisation of Jammu and Kashmir and not cosmetic measures.

Kashmir analysts believe what is lacking in taking forward the fresh initiative is the absence of engagement with Pakistan. Pakistan and its role in Kashmir cannot be ignored. The peace-building exercise with Islamabad from 2003 to 2006 had surely helped in giving the impression that something serious was happening to resolve the Kashmir dispute.

It is time to consolidate the gains of political initiative. The challenges are manifold, but sustained dialogue is the need of the hour, and it can only be made possible by demonstrating a strong political will to reach out to Kashmiris, who have been distanced from New Delhi now.