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A bumpy ride again

Print edition : Oct 07, 2005 T+T-
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil (left) with Hurriyat leaders prior to the meeting at the Prime Minister's residence in New Delhi on September 5.-V. SUDERSHAN

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil (left) with Hurriyat leaders prior to the meeting at the Prime Minister's residence in New Delhi on September 5.-V. SUDERSHAN

The renewed dialogue process on Jammu and Kashmir raises some hope, but it is marked by confusion in several areas. Besides, the keys to peace lie in Islamabad, not Srinagar.

LIKE the virtues of motherhood, the desirability of dialogue is near impossible to dispute. The Manmohan Singh government's decision to resume dialogue with the Mirwaiz Umar Farooq-led All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) has been greeted with near-universal applause. Most observers see the dialogue as being a key element in the complex process of restoring peace to Jammu and Kashmir - one that will, at least, strip jehadi violence of its political legitimacy. It is worth considering, however, that real-life motherhood, as distinct from the version seen in infant formula advertisements and afternoon soap operas, can be both painful and unhappy, and that the business of making history in Jammu and Kashmir may, similarly, involve hard work.

On September 5, representatives of the mainstream APHC - as well as some secondary secessionist groups - met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It was the first formal engagement between them and the government since January 2004, when Mirwaiz Farooq met Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani. That dialogue went nowhere - dissensions within the APHC, the resistance of jehadi groups, and the change of regime in New Delhi all contributed to the impasse. Following the coming to power of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), considerable efforts were made to bring on board formations that rejected dialogue, notably the Islamist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. While these efforts to broadbase the dialogue sank without a ripple, they seem to have had the effect of nudging the APHC back to the table.

Insiders told Frontline that little of substance was discussed in the talks - bar a commitment that both sides would meet again to discuss the mechanics of future engagement after Manmohan Singh's visit to New York. Government negotiators did have a list of the 45 prisoners they were willing to release as a confidence-building measure, but the APHC asked for and received a full-blown review of the cases of all those under detention on terrorism charges and under the controversial Public Safety Act (PSA). Perhaps the point of contention was the APHC's decision to visit Pakistan after it was granted permission to visit Pakistan-administered Kashmir in June, which some in New Delhi saw as a betrayal of past commitments. APHC leader Abdul Gani Butt, however, replied that his organisation had understood that New Delhi had in fact wanted the development - a sign of the occasional confusion caused by the multiple mediators who worked behind the scenes to bring about the dialogue.

WHERE does the Centre go from here? Mirwaiz Farooq will lead another APHC delegation to meet with the Prime Minister after the latter's return from New York, but considerable confusion exists on the precise mechanics of the dialogue process. Contrary to reports in the media that a five-member committee has been set up to negotiate with the APHC, the Centre remains unable to agree on the structure of future dialogue with the secessionist coalition. Four of the five individuals reported to have been appointed to the committee - National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan, official interlocutor on Jammu and Kashmir N.N. Vohra, bureaucrat Wajahat Habibullah, Congress politician Saifuddin Soz and former Research and Analysis Wing chief A.S. Dulat - told Frontline that they had not so far been contacted by the government. Two of them also said they were unlikely to participate in such a committee even if approached, citing personal commitments and doubts about the wisdom of creating such a body.

All of this points to larger divisions within the policy establishment on the ongoing dialogue with the APHC. Shortly after the UPA took power last year, officials had persuaded the new government of the need to broaden the dialogue in Jammu and Kashmir by engaging non-APHC secessionists. However, efforts by Habibullah earlier this year to bring anti-talks rejectionist figures, notably Geelani, on board did not yield results. Inevitably, the failure of this enterprise placed pressure on the government to resume its dialogue with the APHC. However, the government seemed disinclined to do so even late this summer. At a meeting chaired by Narayanan in July, officials expressed concern that the dialogue would give APHC leaders the de facto status of being the sole spokesmen of the people of Jammu and Kashmir and thus marginalise elected representatives. Interestingly, informed sources said, neither Narayanan nor Vohra was involved in the subsequent decision to meet with the APHC.

Politicians within Jammu and Kashmir seem to share their unease. Several of them have called for an inclusive dialogue, representative of the ethnic and political diversity of the State. In a recent public letter, Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami called for the convening of an all-party conference in Jammu and Kashmir, arguing that it was imperative to make "sincere efforts to bring together all the diverse threads". Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed has said nothing on the subject, expect calling, in general terms, upon the APHC to put its representative status to the test. His actions, though, make clear the State government's unhappiness with its exclusion from the dialogue. A day after the meeting between the Prime Minister and the APHC, where a review of the detention of people under the PSA was discussed, the State government ordered the detention of a second-rung Islamist activist, Asiya Andrabi, for two years - making clear its intention to resist decisions to which it was not party.

IT is unlikely, though, that a broad-based dialogue will take place, at least in the short term. Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf desperately needs the imprimatur of the APHC to legitimise his half-step towards accepting something resembling the status quo in Jammu and Kashmir. Both the APHC's calls for an end to violence and the fact of its direct engagement with the Indian government, some analysts believe, will help Musharraf rein in jehadi groups and marginalise Islamist opposition to an acceptance of the Line of Control (LoC) as a permanent border. In this sense, the talks between Manmohan Singh and the APHC are not about finding a resolution to the political conflict in the State. They are, instead, principally aimed at helping Pakistan retreat from its six-decade posture on the future of Jammu and Kashmir, a posture that fuelled both the succession of India-Pakistan wars and the jehad-without-end in the State.

All of this is well understood by critics of the dialogue process, among both politicians in Jammu and Kashmir and policy-establishment figures in New Delhi. However, critics point to the fact that the UPA government's efforts to help President Musharraf make good on his promises to end terrorism contain within it several risks. For one, India risks undermining many of the gains that have been made since democratic processes were revived in Jammu and Kashmir a little under a decade ago. Mirwaiz Farooq has made it clear that the APHC intends to bring a wide spectrum of issues - Indian counter-terrorism legislation, possible prisoner releases, and human rights violations - to the table. All of these are questions the Jammu and Kashmir government has separately raised with the Centre. Unless elected representatives of the State are at the table where these questions are addressed, the dialogue process could undermine the legitimacy of the People's Democratic Party (PDP)-Congress coalition government.

Second, it remains unclear just what the APHC might gain from a successful dialogue process. Few believe that the APHC can accept some variant of the status quo in Jammu and Kashmir, even one that concedes significant federal autonomy to the State. The APHC most certainly has little incentive to do so, for there is little evidence that its constituents would be able to gain power through the democratic exercise, which would have to precede such an agreement. Even a cursory look at the raw data on the 1987 elections - those grouped together under the APHC umbrella as well as the Jamaat-e-Islami and elements of what is now the PDP fought in alliance - makes it clear that a secessionist platform would at best be able to gain a majority of seats only in the Kashmir Valley, leaving it well short of the mandate needed to form the government in the State. As such, it is hard to conceive of incentives that could persuade the APHC to abandon its position as the de facto representative of the people of Jammu and Kashmir for a post-dated and unsigned cheque promising power.

Finally, and most important, the Centre would also have to pay the costs of a failed dialogue. Should the APHC walk out of the dialogue process at some point of time, claiming that the Centre was being intransigent, it will have very real consequences. India's position on Jammu and Kashmir, for one, will most likely come under considerable pressure. Pakistan would represent the core problem as India's unwillingness to make concessions to even its chosen dialogue partners. Even if these pressures did not create serious problems, there would also be consequences within Jammu and Kashmir. Islamists such as Geelani and his supporters amongst the terrorist groups would claim that their resistance to dialogue had been vindicated. With the APHC discredited, the Centre would come under pressure to make concessions to the extreme Islamist right wing. Of course, as Indian strategists point out, this is excellent reason for the APHC not to walk out of the dialogue, but the fact remains that a prolonged fruitless dialogue will have much the same impact as a failed one.

MANMOHAN SINGH'S repeated warnings that the dialogue process cannot progress without an end to terrorism, of course, points in the direction of the core problem ahead: the keys to peace lie in Islamabad, not Srinagar. Pakistan began to de-escalate its war through proxy in Jammu and Kashmir after the near-war of 2001-02, aware that a failure to calibrate the jehad could lead to existence-threatening crises. Nonetheless, violence continues apace in the State; it is only by the exceptionally macabre standards in the 1990s that what we see today can be described as a step towards normal life. Much of the ongoing terrorist violence has been directed at coercing the mainstream political system. Attempts on the lives of high-level PDP and Congress politicians, and successful assassinations of low-level ones, are an everyday occurrence. Aware that crises like that of 2001-02 impose disproportionate costs upon Pakistan, and hard-hit by the punishment his military has been taking in both Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province, Musharraf may simply be biding his time in the hope that the dialogue process goes nowhere - after which the jehad in Jammu and Kashmir would resume.

All of these possibilities are, of course, speculative and, quite possibly, excessively pessimistic. Still, it is not without reason that pessimist prognoses have a record of proving right in Jammu and Kashmir: a little caution after all costs nothing.