Another step forward

Published : Jul 01, 2005 00:00 IST

The visit of Hurriyat leaders to Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir and then Pakistan is seen as a sign of an emerging consensus over engaging Kashmiris to find a lasting solution to the Kashmir issue.

JUNE 2, 5-30 p.m.: It was yet another moment of triumph and celebration in the current phase of India-Pakistan relations as leaders of the moderate faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) from Kashmir crossed the Aman Sethu (Peace Bridge) to begin a historic visit to Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK).

Former Pakistan Prime Minister Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain and a large contingent of international and local mediapersons had gathered on the POK side of the Line of Control (LoC) to witness the reception that was planned for the nine-member delegation led by Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Omar Farooq and Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) leader Yasin Malik. The Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus arrived five hours behind schedule but no one complained. The festive atmosphere was palpable, in contrast to the sombre mood on the Indian side of the LoC, as this was the moment POK and Pakistan had looked forward to for 58 years. The POK police band played poignant tunes as schoolchildren attired in colourful costumes waited anxiously to catch a glimpse of the Kashmiri leaders. Order collapsed at the sight of the delegation and much fanfare followed.

But a week into their visit, the euphoria and the eagerness to reach out to the visiting leaders were clearly on the wane. As one commentator put it, Pakistan had never witnessed such a catharsis vis-a-vis Kashmir. It is as if the visit of the Kashmiri leaders has provided an opportunity to the whole nation to ventilate on a subject that has been discussed day in and day out.

In their first engagement in Muzaffarabad, the leaders sought to de-romanticise popular notions in POK and Pakistan on the Kashmir struggle and inject a sense of realism into the listeners. Omar Farooq and Yasin Malik did some plain-speaking, which must have come as a surprise to several sections.

Omar Farooq asserted that there could be no resolution of the Kashmir dispute without the involvement of Kashmiris in the dialogue process and that the visit could at best be seen as a beginning in the inclusion of Kashmiri leaders in the process. Yasin Malik went a step further and asked the people to stop romanticising the struggle of Kashmiris. He asked the POK leaders what role Pakistan had given them in its dialogue with India.

Besides enabling the delegation leaders and various sections of Pakistan and POK express their pent-up emotions, the visit of the delegation provided Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf an opportunity to demonstrate to Pakistanis that he was on the right path on his India policy and in his pursuit of a solution to the Kashmir issue. The ringing endorsement of his Kashmir policy by the delegation members, barring Yasin Malik, would help Musharraf in convincing critics at home that he has not "undermined" the Kashmir cause. The manner in which the visit itself came about is undoubtedly a reflection of the dramatic transformation in India-Pakistan relations ever since the previous government in India headed by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee extended a hand of friendship to Pakistan in April 2003.

The stated objective of the Hurriyat is to become part of the India-Pakistan dialogue process to explore various options acceptable to the diverse people of the former Jammu and Kashmir state and both India and Pakistan.

Although there is a broad understanding between India and Pakistan over engaging the representatives of the people of Kashmir in finding a solution, differences still exist over who should represent Kashmiris and the other no less important communities, and how they have to be engaged. For Pakistan the Hurriyat constitutes the "true" representatives of Jammu and Kashmir whereas India sees the Hurriyat as one of the many representatives. Reluctance on the part of Yasin Malik to take part in the meetings along with the rest of the delegation must have made Islamabad see merit in the Indian position. The visit of the Hurriyat delegation itself could not have been possible without the nod from both New Delhi and Islamabad.

For the first time, Kashmiri leaders have been allowed to cross the LoC into Muzaffarabad and subsequently into Pakistan. There were token protests from India on the invitation extended by Pakistan to the Hurriyat leaders. The initial reaction of India was that if the delegation was to travel beyond Muzaffarabad, it would be a violation of the agreement on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service, which clearly envisaged that the passengers could travel only within the jurisdiction of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir.

It is certainly not a coincidence that India did not protest when the Hurriyat leaders crossed into Pakistan and began their high-profile visit. All indications are that it was part of an agreed script between India and Pakistan when Musharraf visited New Delhi in April.

Many Pakistani and Kashmiri leaders view the Indian government's decision to allow the Hurriyat leaders to visit Pakistan as a signal that Kashmiris can be a part of the peace dialogue. This interpretation is as valid as Musharraf's claim that the visit is an acknowledgement of the "disputed" character of Kashmir.

WITH his extraordinary flexibility on various issues related to Kashmir, Musharraf made it relatively easy for New Delhi to allow the leaders' visit. In his speech to South Asian parliamentarians in May, he asserted that a solution to Kashmir would have to flow from the option of making the borders irrelevant. Ruling out any solution on the basis of religion, he said the only way to go forward was to grant maximum possible autonomy to both parts of Kashmir.

It was clear after the Hurriyat leaders met Musharraf on June 7 for over five hours that the delegation had actually been invited to endorse the new line of thinking in Islamabad on the resolution of the Kashmir dispute and its relations with India.

Omar Farooq echoed the statement of Musharraf that the time had come to move beyond the United Nations resolutions on Kashmir. Significantly, he even appealed to the militant groups to give up their guns and support the political process. Subsequently, he talked about the need to make borders irrelevant in order to resolve the Kashmir dispute.

The Kashmiri leaders' visit has raised a number of questions about the unity among the Kashmiri groups. The leadership not only in the Kashmir Valley but across various regions and communities remains divided. Within the APHC, the Syed Ali Geelani faction has adopted a hard line, although it does not reflect the mainstream views across the State, but the Jamaat-e-Islami of Jammu and Kashmir does not agree with him. Geelani was the favourite of Pakistan until a few months ago. The new bond between Mirwaiz Omar Farooq and Musharraf indicates that the Geelani-Omar Farooq rift is complete.

Throughout the trip and during their public appearances, the Kashmiri leaders faced embarrassing questions on the divisions within the Hurriyat ranks and the estrangement with Geelani. Omar Farooq handled the criticism with care and diplomacy but had no clear answers.

The differences within the delegation also stood out clearly. Yasin Malik, who favours an independent Kashmir, stayed away from all the major meetings and succeeded in getting a separate audience both with Musharraf and with Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz.

The Hurriyat leaders made it a point to call on the United Jehadi Council and Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin in a bid to convince him about the futility of the militant struggle in Kashmir in the context of the changed ground realities after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Salahuddin continues to be bitter and Islamabad believes that getting militants on board the peace ship is still work in progress. There is the realisation that to silence the gun it is imperative that the militant outfits are convinced about the participation of Kashmiris in the negotiation process and are brought into the mainstream by granting amnesty.

As the delegation leaves for Srinagar in mid-June, the immediate focus would shift to measures both Pakistan and India would initiate in the next few weeks to stop violence, by militants or security forces.

Proposals have already been floated to open more routes, perhaps even truck services, to connect the two sides of Jammu and Kashmir. Since neither Pakistan nor Kashmiris will accept the LoC being turned into a permanent international border, and India rejects the idea of redrawing the borders, a middle course could be found through an innovative approach.

The middle course as seen by Musharraf is making the border dividing Kashmiris irrelevant by softening it, demilitarising all the regions of Kashmir, and engaging Kashmiris of various regions to find a lasting solution that is acceptable to them as well as to India and Pakistan.

The general consensus in Islamabad is that it is time to seize the moment and let Kashmiris decide their fate in a framework that takes care of the ground realities and a shared fate with India and Pakistan.

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