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Changing tack

Print edition : Apr 25, 2003 T+T-
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq speaks at a rally against the U.S. war on Iraq, in Srinagar. Farooq, who has apparently lost faith in his traditional support bases, was in Delhi recently seeking the support of the wider Indian community.-NISSAR AHMAD

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq speaks at a rally against the U.S. war on Iraq, in Srinagar. Farooq, who has apparently lost faith in his traditional support bases, was in Delhi recently seeking the support of the wider Indian community.-NISSAR AHMAD

The All Parties Hurriyat Conference, which has suffered serious loss of ground, is desperately in search of a new voice.

Hum ko ma'aloom hai jannat ki haqiqat lekin,

dil ke behlane ko, Ghalib, yeh khayal accha hai.

[We know the reality of paradise,

but it is a notion with which we can amuse ourselves.]

- Mirza Ghalib

AS the Union government and the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) gear up for another season of attempted dialogue on the future of Jammu and Kashmir, both might do well to pay attention to Ghalib's words.

Not so long ago, the martyr's graveyard in downtown Srinagar was among the most hallowed spaces of Jammu and Kashmir's secessionist movement. The final resting place of terrorists killed in the course of the more than a decade-old conflict, the graveyard includes those who died for independence, accession to Pakistan, or even Kashmir's reinvention as part of a larger global Islamic order. For some time now, a distinctly irreverent activity has been under way in the graveyard: residents of adjoining neighbourhoods have started dumping their garbage in its unused corners.

Symbols of this kind might mean little, particularly given the less-than-exemplary garbage disposal abilities of the Srinagar municipal authorities. However, it is hard not to see the transformation of the graveyard, as a sign of a larger ideological crisis within the secessionist movement. A decade ago, Hizbul Mujahideen commander Ghulam Hassan Khan was responsible for the ruthless decimation of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. After Khan's April 2 elimination, JKLF chief Mohammad Yasin Malik made a loud show of mourning for him. Srinagar religious leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq seems to have lost faith in his traditional bases of support, and has been seeking the support of the wider Indian community from the Jama Masjid in New Delhi. And Abdul Gani Bhat, the APHC chairman, has been echoing the National Conference and the People's Democratic Party (PDP) in calling for the return of the 350,000 Pandit refugees to the Valley, a call that defies repeated terrorist fiats.

It is not hard to see just why the APHC seems so headless. Although the United States' war on Iraq has provoked widespread fury in Kashmir, it has all but buried any hopes that the United Nations will one day be able to force India to hold a plebiscite in the State. Pakistan seems an increasingly unreliable ally - it is too focussed on its own potential problems with the U.S. to push India into a dialogue. Within Jammu and Kashmir, the APHC is discovering that the government of Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed has stolen at least some of its political space. Key elements of its agenda, notably the alleged atrocities by the security forces and dialogue with the Government of India, have been appropriated by the PDP. When N.N. Vohra, the Union government's mediator on Jammu and Kashmir, visits the State in late April, the APHC is unlikely to meet him as it has no idea what it wishes to talk about.

It has become clear to the APHC that it desperately needs a new voice. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton's call for an Ireland-style resolution to the conflict was seized upon by Malik and Farooq as a potential way forward. Both travelled to New Delhi to meet diplomats to press for their support for the idea. Although no one has yet spelled out a clear road-map for what such a proposal might constitute, Clinton's initiative in Ireland led to the devolution of powers to Northern Ireland within the broad parameters of British sovereignty in the province. Such an idea has historically been rejected by the APHC, but there are signs that at least some within the organisation could live with this kind of a deal. Talking to reporters on March 15, Farooq spoke about a "negotiated solution in which the interests of both Pakistan and India are taken into account". The interests of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, which the APHC has historically claimed to represent, were not mentioned.

Another key element of the APHC's emerging strategy seems to be to scale down its demand for a three-way dialogue, involving itself, Pakistan and India. On March 14, Malik and Farooq met Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi, their first formal encounter with a politician of national stature. Malik later said that the meeting was called not to discuss Jammu and Kashmir, but the Hindu Right's assault on Muslim religious freedom and institutions. The fact that the APHC chose to meet a potential Prime Minister of India, however, had obvious significance. It came a day before Farooq was invited to address a Friday prayer congregation at the Jama Masjid, another first. Although the Mirwaiz insisted that he was not there to discuss the conflict in his State, he did touch upon the issue. "On the one hand," Farooq said, "the Centre wants the Hurriyat to engage in talks, but on the other its leaders are labelled as terrorists." Dialogue, he added, was imperative.

Mirwaiz Farooq's placement of the violence in Jammu and Kashmir within the framework of an all-India communal conflict is intriguing, and of great potential significance. On February 19, the Anjuman-ul-Nusrat-e-Islamia, his religious trust, was proscribed by the Union government. This was a major threat to the leader's patronage structure in and around Srinagar. Farooq's first public address in New Delhi, at a rally called by Maulana Asad Madani's far-Right Jamait-ul-Hind on March 9, sought to make common cause with the Jamait against the Bharatiya Janata Party's offensive against Muslim-run seminaries and schools. "Muslims from Jammu, Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh and other places," the Mirwaiz said of the government's efforts to curtail the growth of madrassas (religious schools), "will rise and resist it." Clearly, some leaders within the APHC see the possibility of using Muslim anger against the Hindu Right as an instrument for the placement of Jammu and Kashmir as a core pan-India Islamic concern.

"The Hurriyat," Farooq said after his Jama Masjid address, "does not mix religion and politics" - an assertion replete with absurdity, made as it was in the shadow of arguably the most famous symbol of Muslim religious authority in northern India. There has, however, been little sign that Muslims in India have been any more enthused by the APHC's campaign than its own diminishing constituency within Jammu and Kashmir.

There is little indication, either, that its other efforts are bearing fruit. While the APHC's decision to initiate dialogue with the Congress(I) is encouraging, it is profoundly unlikely that the organisation could present a limited regional autonomy deal to the armed groups who actually carry weight on the ground. Past efforts to do something of the kind led to the assassination of the APHC's leading dove, Abdul Gani Lone, at the hands of the Pakistan-backed al-Umar last year. Indeed, the recent upsurge of violence in Jammu and Kashmir may be intended to send a clear message of rejection to the APHC, as much as to India and the Government of Jammu and Kashmir. It has gone down the peace road before, only to back off at the first sounds of gunfire.

WHERE do events go from here? Vohra will arrive in Srinagar with an unclear political mandate, and then proceed to talk to parties with a marginal role in the conflict. Cynics point to the fact that the dialogue efforts of K.C. Pant, his predecessor, went nowhere. Moreover, Vohra has strong views on terrorist violence in the State and has in the past called for strong special laws to deter groups that carry it out. Hurriyat leaders, therefore, have no reason to expect gentle persuasion from him. Even if the Hurriyat should finally decide to talk to him, there is little ground for optimism. The quasi-official committee led by the prominent lawyer Ram Jethmalani, which did so, appears to have made no great headway. Although Jethmalani recently met Pakistan-occupied Kashmir leader Sardar Abdul Qayoom in London, his committee has failed to engage either the Hurriyat or the Union government on substantive issues. Most important of all, none of the players in this high political game seems to have any ability to influence the most decisive actors on the stage in Jammu and Kashmir: the armed groups themselves.

The APHC, it ought to be clear to even the most incorrigible optimists, is no Sinn Fein; nor is the India-Pakistan conflict similar in its content to the conflict in Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland did not run training camps for the Irish Republican Army, or use its armed forces to ship cadre and weapons across its borders with Great Britain. Great Britain and Ireland did not go to war four times in just over half a century. The conflict in Kashmir is driven not by the APHC, but by the great forces unleashed in the build-up to Partition and now shapes the crisis of identity that grips Pakistan. The APHC's new efforts, like those of New Delhi, make for an entertaining diversion for editorial writers, analysts and the bureaucrats and politicians concerned, but do little to address the larger historical crisis of which Jammu and Kashmir is just a part.