The `healing touch' the Mufti Mohammed Sayeed government promised is yet to come, after more than a hundred days of its taking power in Jammu and Kashmir.in Jammu
LATE last year, the government of Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed took power in Jammu and Kashmir, promising to initiate a dramatic programme of change. The economy would be revived; the controversial Special Operations Group of the State police would be disbanded; the State's regions would receive genuine autonomy; an unconditional dialogue with secessionist organisations would soon commence. A little over a hundred days on, almost none of these has happened. Barring moments of action - a much-hyped drive to recover power dues, or the demolition of illegally constructed roadside stores in Jammu and Srinagar - very little forward movement has actually taken place. Like its unlamented predecessor, the People's Democratic Party-Congress (I) alliance government is just about managing to splutter on, its progress interrupted by noisy and increasingly regular backfires.
Desperation was evident in the enormous glee with which the State government welcomed the appointment of N.N. Vohra, the Principal Secretary to former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, as the Union government's new interlocutor in the State. The appointment was hailed by the State Cabinet as "a milestone on the road to peace", and the Chief Minister himself described it as "very good news." On February 19, Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani told Parliament that the veteran bureaucrat had been chosen to replace K.C. Pant, the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission. The Union government, Advani said, "would continue discussions with any group or section which eschewed the path of violence." It takes little to see that this formulation falls well short of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's repeated calls for unconditional dialogue with all groups, including mainly ethnic-Kashmiri terrorist organisations. "The fact is," says Communist Party of India (Marxist) legislator Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, "we need a structured, formal framework for dialogue, not just a change in faces." Pant, interestingly enough, had not insisted that groups he dealt with reject violence. Neither had Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who in 2000 offered a dialogue with armed groups without even insisting that they first accept the Indian Constitution. The Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission tried hard to initiate a dialogue with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), even though that organisation has never condemned what it claims is a legitimate armed struggle. In the end, Pant's efforts came to nothing because the APHC itself chose not to talk to him. And, while Vohra has a formidable reputation for honesty and straight talk, many of his peers believe he is more hawkish than Pant on Pakistan. "Pant came in from outside the Kashmir policy establishment," notes a senior bureaucrat, "but Vohra has handled the fallout of Pakistan's offensive in Jammu and Kashmir." Vohra headed the committee on the management of internal security set up after the Kargil War and made a series of recommendations on upgrading counter-terrorist operations. He was also the author of a seminal 1995 confidential report on the linkages between politicians and criminals, and before his retirement eight years ago, he served as both Union Home Secretary and Defence Secretary.
If the PDP-Congress government has been clutching at straws on the dialogue issue, its conduct on other key campaign promises has not been much better.
Most figures associated with the SOG have been removed, but the crack counter-terrorist outfit itself remains up and running. It has, on paper, been incorporated within the State police. But this is something of an administrative fiction, because all its officers and staff were, and are, drawn from the organisation's ranks anyway. In official correspondence, the SOG is now referred to as the district police's `Quick Reaction Team', a term borrowed from the Army which deploys such units. The move, it is widely believed, was an unhappy compromise between the PDP and the Congress, which have radically different constituencies. Indeed, the coalition government has actually expanded the quasi-official militia groups in villages in the Jammu region. Where guns were earlier handed out only to paid Special Police Officers hired on contract by the police from vulnerable village communities, Jammu and Kashmir has now started offering weapons to unpaid volunteers.
On the economy, the PDP-Congress alliance's progress has been even more ambiguous. On February 20, the government announced that it would not pass the annual budget as scheduled on March 29, and would instead seek a vote-on-account. According to Chief Secretary Sudhir Bloeria, the government wanted time to frame a "clear picture of its finances".
Business Standard journalist Haseeb Drabu has been appointed Economic Adviser to sort out the financial mess the alliance government says it has been bequeathed by its predecessor. The government also says it wants to wait until the Planning Commission finalises the allocations for Jammu and Kashmir. Both reasons, however, seem problematic. For one, State governments nationwide routinely inherit disasters from their predecessors and yet manage to put together budget proposals. Second, no State's plan allocations have yet been completed. The National Conference has attacked the move. At a February 20 press conference, former Finance Minister Abdul Rahim Rather pointed out that a vote-on-account is only to be conducted in exceptional circumstances, for example when an election is round the corner or when it is clear that the legislature cannot pass an appropriation Bill.
MOST disturbing, the Jammu-dominated Congress and the Kashmir-dominated PDP have been increasingly fissured along regional-communal lines. State Law Minister Muzaffar Beig put up his resignation in the middle of a Cabinet meeting on February 6, in support of complaints that ethnic-Kashmiri officers were being sidelined under Congress pressure. Few Kashmiri officers were appointed to top positions after recent police and bureaucratic transfers, although Indian Administrative Service and Indian Police Service officers from outside Jammu and Kashmir - not Jammu residents - took most plum posts. Beig's resignation, promptly torn up by Sayeed, was in particular driven by demands that a resident of Jammu be given the post of Advocate-General. Beig had his way in this particular case, but the fault lines have been deepening. In November, Panther's Party chief Bhim Singh declared laws permitting only citizens of the State to buy land in Jammu and Kashmir illegal, after a commission set up by the National Conference served notices on Union Minister of State Chaman Lal Gupta and Haryana Governor Babu Parmanand to prove their status.
The decision to grant the district of Leh regional autonomy, too, has institutionalised the fissures between the mainly Buddhist region and the mainly Muslim Kargil, both part of the Ladakh region. Kashmir-Jammu controversies have plagued everything from ethnic-Kashmiri Jawaharlal Nehru University academic Amitabh Mattoo being the Vice-Chancellor of Jammu University to the presence of Muslim migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the Muslim-dominated areas of the Jammu region.
Where then, goes Sayeed's "healing touch"? It is hard to miss some of the resonances between the Chief Minister's agenda and that of Farooq Abdullah, his predecessor, after he took office. Farooq Abdullah (unsuccessfully) sought Bollywood projects; so has Sayeed. Farooq Abdullah (unsuccessfully) promised to end corruption; so has Sayeed. Farooq Abdullah (unsuccessfully) promised more humane counter-terrorist operations; so has Sayeed. Lessons on the ground are instructive. In February, a day after Id, troops cordoned off the remote village of Loang, on the border between Kathua and Doda. The operation was just like dozens of others the area has seen. In the past, the APHC protested against such actions. This time, the former Speaker of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, Ghulam Hyder Malik, led a violent demonstration against the military action. "What kind of healing touch is this?" Malik thundered. "How dare our homes be searched?" The local police station was looted, valuable equipment such as binoculars stolen, and at least one officer injured. The police, in response to the mob attack, fired just four shots, all in the air.
The National Conference's Malik won an election promising change. Just under six years from now, the need for a "healing touch" might well be on the election agenda again. But if early indications are any sign of things to come, Sayeed and his Cabinet colleagues might well find themselves on the receiving end.
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