Shadow on talks

Published : Jan 01, 2010 00:00 IST

in Srinagar

THE quiet diplomacy aimed at addressing the internal dimension of the Kashmir problem is yet to take off, but the political dynamics in the Valley have started taking a new and rather dangerous turn. After the murderous attack on senior Hurriyat Conference (moderate) leader Fazl Haque Qureshi, the war of words between the moderates and the hardliners led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani is taking a direction that can lead to compartmentalisation in Kashmiri society and has disastrous consequences.

The attack on Qureshi was received with shock by the moderate camp led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and by those who have been projecting the dialogue with Delhi as the only way forward on the Kashmir problem. The sections opposed to any engagement with the Government of India could be expected to try and stall anything that might give legitimacy or credibility to such an engagement.

There are forces that have the potential to derail any such process, and a single bullet has the power to turn the clock back. This is what the attack on Qureshi tried to do even though the situation has improved as far as militancy is concerned. Home Minister P. Chidambaram had stated that the quiet dialogue process had started and the response from the separatists was positive. This assertion in Parliament not only authenticated media reports that said the moderates had joined such an engagement but also led to suspicions in the separatist camp, particularly the one led by the Mirwaiz.

On his part, the Mirwaiz had repeatedly denied any engagement, saying that any communication would not mean dialogue. The latter was caught in a precarious situation: throughout the past two weeks, he was trying to buy peace, with both the hardliners and his own moderate colleagues, and legitimise his connection with New Delhi. He has often said that he believes in a triangular approach of engagement: New Delhi-Srinagar, Srinagar-Islamabad and New Delhi-Islamabad. But the idea is yet to get a foothold. The attack on Qureshi came before he could make any headway in his efforts to neutralise the hardliners demand of tripartite negotiations on Kashmir, making him more vulnerable.

At the moment, the dialogue with New Delhi has taken a back seat, notwithstanding the Mirwaizs assertion that it will go on because it is the only way of working out an amicable solution. The new discourse in the separatist camp is centred not around dialogue but on the differences between the two factions. The trading of accusations began with the Mirwaiz alleging that provocative statements on dialogue led to the attack on Qureshi. It was a clear reference to Geelani, who has consistently opposed direct engagement with New Delhi. His stand is that the Government of India must first accept Kashmir as a dispute and agree to tripartite talks between India, Pakistan and Kashmir.

In response to the Mirwaizs accusations, Geelani responded that whatever he said was the truth and he was not responsible for the consequences.

The war of words reached a crescendo when Qureshis Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Political Front (PPF) came out with a bitter statement after a meeting chaired by Musadiq Aadil, a close friend of Qureshi. The JKPPF is not in the business of sell-out. Sell-out has happened much earlier when on one hand we were being rendered jobless but on the other hand oath was being taken on Indian Constitution, the statement said in a thinly veiled reference to the fact that Geelani fought elections in the past.

The PPF asserted that the attack on Qureshi was engineered by an extremist and fascist mindset and vowed that the party would never surrender before extremism and fascism.

This kind of rhetoric has the potential of deepening the rift in the separatist camp firmly on ideological lines. That would do no good to a dialogue process but would further isolate the Mirwaiz, who has been under tremendous pressure even from his associates not to strengthen the communication link with New Delhi. His approach is already under attack from neo-hardliners such as Democratic Freedom Party (DFP) chief Shabir Ahmad Shah and National Front chairman Naeem Khan. Both parties are with his faction of the Hurriyat.

Pakistan, too, has withdrawn its support to the Mirwaiz. Insiders say that Islamabad has conveyed to the Mirwaiz that he must first build a consensus within the separatist camp and then make a journey to Pakistan as part of his triangular way of addressing the problem. The statements from Pakistan-based United Jehad Council, headed by Hizbul Mujahideen supremo Syed Salahuddin, have also cautioned about a single-line approach to the dialogue process. And if government sources are to be believed, leaders like Shabir Shah are closer to the anti-dialogue constituency in Pakistan which is why he spent more than a year in jail after the 2008 agitation in Kashmir.

Finding a common ground on the dialogue with New Delhi, that too without any prior commitment, is becoming a difficult task for the Mirwaiz. He was a signatory to a joint resolution in 2008 in which all the separatists agreed to abide by the 1993 Hurriyat Conference (then undivided) constitution, which does not allow bilateral engagement. The agreement also stipulates that New Delhi must first accept Kashmir as disputed territory.

Nevertheless, the constituency for dialogue in Kashmir is not shrinking. But the way both sides (New Delhi and the Mirwaiz) approached it has made things messy. There is a widespread perception in Kashmir that the credibility of dialogue has eroded in the past 20 years, mainly because New Delhi has not displayed sincerity and seriousness. The failure of the dialogue process that began in 2004 is cited as an example. It was continued by the United Progressive Alliance government when it came to power that year, but it got derailed amid accusations from both sides. Indeed, the Mirwaiz paid a heavy price for reaching out to the government in 2004: his uncle Moulvi Mushtaq was shot dead and his 100-year-old Islamia School was burnt; there were also a few unsuccessful attacks on his house.

Earlier, the veteran separatist leader Abdul Gani Lone was killed for talking peace. The first breakthrough in the dialogue process was witnessed in July 2000 when the then Hizbul commander, Abdul Majid Dar, announced a unilateral ceasefire. It was short-lived, but the Hizb commanders held a round of talks with the then Home Secretary, Kamal Pandey. The failure of those talks and the antagonism to the quiet dialogue process is attributed to selective leaks by what Kashmir experts call vested interests in the bureaucracy. In 2000, the Hizb commander, on seeing the army of mediapersons there while entering the Nehru Guest House in Srinagar for talks, shouted that this was not part of the deal. The media were in fact called by the Police Control Room. On whose direction it did so is not known.

Now that both New Delhi and the Mirwaiz have reiterated their stand on pushing through the dialogue, it is important that the Government of India supports the Mirwaiz on what he thinks is the right approach to keep the extremists at a bay. His intention to hold talks with Pakistan does not fit into New Delhis stand that dialogue with Islamabad is conditional on the latters taking action against the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks.

It is a fact that Pakistan is facing the worst ever crisis since it was born in 1947. But to push a dialogue on Kashmir, it has to be taken on board. Maybe it is a better option to wait for a while. In any case, extremist activities originating in Pakistan can derail any peace initiative in Kashmir.

Gull Mohammad Wani, Professor of Political Science at Kashmir University, said, Pakistans fragile situation cannot be taken as an opportunity by India as it will not help to garner any support in Kashmir. He added that to hold a dialogue only with Kashmiris was a one-legged approach. Quiet diplomacy, he said, was suggested by civil society as well, but GoI [Government of India] should be far more cautious in maintaining that quietness and not endanger the players who opt for it.

Chidambarams initial approach was hailed by the people in the Valley as he talked about the uniqueness of the problem in view of Kashmirs history, but what followed did not quite reflect a sophisticated approach. The stakes in a dialogue process like this are high, and any progress can be ensured only by a guarantee that the process is credible. There could be no better time to move forward as the level of violence is low. Instilling confidence in those who are ready to be part of the process is the only way to ensure that it goes forward.

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