A significant turn

Print edition : February 10, 2006

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with the five-member People's Conference delegation led by Sajjad Lone (second from left). -

Manmohan Singh's meeting with People's Conference leader Sajjad Lone sends out the message that New Delhi intends to reach out not just to the APHC centrists but to all elements of the political mosaic of Jammu and Kashmir.

EIGHT months after the first bus rolled across the Line of Control (LoC) on its way from Srinagar to Muzaffarabad, the dialogue process in Jammu and Kashmir has taken a significant turn.

On January 14, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met with People's Conference leader Sajjad Lone in New Delhi's first top-level engagement with Jammu and Kashmir secessionists outside the umbrella of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC). Informed sources told Frontline that while general proposals to further the dialogue were discussed, no specific proposals were presented by either side. The significance of the meeting, however, was the signal it sent out: that New Delhi now intends to reach out not just to the APHC centrists, but to all elements of the complex political mosaic in Jammu and Kashmir.

For those in India's policy establishment who have been arguing against dialogue that focussed only on the APHC centrists, the meeting marks a major victory. Critics of the APHC-New Delhi dialogue had argued that it legitimised the organisation's untested claims to be the sole representative of all of Jammu and Kashmir's people. Over time, however, the APHC had proved unable to deliver anything in return. It was unable either to pressure terrorist groups to reduce the levels of violence or to deprive the Islamist ultra-Right of its legitimacy. Many argued that the APHC simply did not have the legitimacy to be a credible interlocutor. In April 2004, for example, Sajjad Lone charged that the APHC centrists "cannot win even a municipal election from any part of the Kashmir valley".

Manmohan Singh's meeting with Sajjad Lone, perhaps significantly, came just days after Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf called for demilitarisation of the districts of Kupwara, Baramulla and Srinagar, in a television interview. Musharraf said he, with the cooperation of India, would be able to ensure peace in these areas after the troop pullout. The Pakistan President also called for Jammu and Kashmir's regions to be granted what he described as "self-rule". Both Musharraf's ideas and the mode of their delivery irked New Delhi, which believes they were made mainly for polemic effect: Musharraf did not, notably, spell out just what he intended to do to terminate the activities of Pakistan-based jehadi groups.

Not all, unsurprisingly, are happy in the direction at which the dialogue process now seems headed. Centrist leaders of the APHC, led by the Srinagar-based cleric Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, have expressed dismay with New Delhi's decision to broad-base the dialogue. While the Mirwaiz said he did not oppose Manmohan Singh's decision to talk to Sajjad Lone, he charged New Delhi with being obdurate about the new ideas emanating from Pakistan. "India's outright rejection of Musharraf's proposals has disappointed us," the Mirwaiz said on January 17. However, the APHC centrists have little choice but to go along with the dialogue process: by opting out, most analysts believe, they would only cede further ground to their opponents among and outside the ranks of secessionists.

IT is among the rejectionist APHC faction of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, interestingly, that the most startling impact of the new situation is evident: a group that has studiously rejected any dialogue with New Delhi until it accepts that Jammu and Kashmir is a disputed territory. In a January 16 press release, one of the most senior leaders of the rejectionist APHC, Azam Inquilabi, called on Pakistan to recognise the province of "Azad Kashmir" (Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, or POK) as a sovereign entity, a proposal until now considered heretical to hardliners and centrists alike. All leaders of anti-India resistance, he said, now needed to "think anew and adopt a fresh approach towards the movement so that India eschewed the path of obduracy and denial".

Speaking to the Srinagar-based newspaper Greater Kashmir, Inquilabi later elaborated on his idea. He noted that "Kashmiris under Indian control have been suffering badly in a disproportionate war with India". This made it imperative that the armed struggle was replaced with a democratic movement. For the democratic challenge to be successful, Inquilabi said, Pakistan would have to grant POK independence. The new state would then "enter into a defence pact with, say, China or Russia, which would ultimately compel India to come clean on [a] Kashmir solution". In essence, Inquilabi was asserting that Pakistan's advocacy of the rights of Kashmiris had failed - and that the time had come for it to step aside.

While both Geelani and the Hizb ul-Mujahideen have been studiously silent on Inquilabi's idea, a welter of circumstances suggest that the senior secessionist politician was not speaking only for himself. In early January, Geelani met with Mohammad Yusuf Shah, the Hizb ul-Mujahideen's amir, or supreme commander. Geelani was granted a passport enabling him to attend the Haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, thus reversing decades of official rejection of his requests to travel abroad. As such, it is likely the meeting was enabled by the covert diplomatic channels used by India and Pakistan to push ahead with the dtente process. Tariq Aziz and M.K. Narayanan, the National Security Advisers to Pakistan and India respectively, have met several times in recent years, but the content of their dialogue has been shielded from the public.

What Geelani and Shah discussed is also not known. Pakistani newspapers have, however, reported that the United Jehad Council (UJC) has now decided to support Musharraf's new proposals. A coalition of 14 terrorist groups led by the Hizb ul-Mujahideen, the UJC had recently condemned Musharraf's evolving position on Jammu and Kashmir as a sell-out. It is unlikely that anyone in the rejectionist APHC believes that Pakistan will grant POK independence, a possibility it has rejected more than once. It is likely, though, that the proposal itself was driven by a growing constituency few people have paid attention to, but is becoming central to the dialogue process: Jammu and Kashmir residents across the LoC.

UNDERPINNING the quiet rethinking in the rejectionist APHC is the fact that the peace process has not just shaken up politics on the Indian side of the LoC: the same process is evident in POK as well. Politicians in both the Northern Areas - that part of pre-1947 Jammu and Kashmir directly administered by Islamabad, and in POK, which is nominally autonomous - have also been considering their future. Even if there is no territorial transfiguration of Jammu and Kashmir, open borders and growing commerce will have enormous consequences for arrangements built up over the past six decades. For example, the Neelam valley in POK, which was impoverished by the end of Srinagar-Lahore trade in 1947-1948, may regain influence.

Among ethnic-Kashmir secessionists, there is a growing realisation that the interests of these regions are not convergent with their own. Politicians from the Northern Areas, for example, hope to leverage the peace process to secure greater political autonomy from Islamabad and end the growing economic influence of ethnic-Punjabi migrants from the plains. However, they have no desire to be part of a dispensation in which the Kashmir valley would occupy a central role. POK politicians, for their part, hope to consolidate their influence and the affluence of the Mirpur region by using the dialogue process to diminish the province's long-standing subjugation to the interests of Punjab.

It is to this constituency that Inquilabi's ideas may have been addressed: an act of reaching out which is redolent with new possibilities. Progress in realising these possibilities, though, is contingent on the peace process delivering a consensus against violence. Here, the record is still bleak. On January 16, as politicians from both sides of the LoC met in New Delhi to discuss how to push the dialogue process forward, news arrived that terrorists had shot dead Gulzar Ahmad Rather, a nephew of the prominent Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami. A police wireless operator, Rather was killed for no apparent reason other than his relationship with the politician. Just an hour and a half later, terrorists also shot and injured an unarmed CPI(M) activist, Aijaz Ahmed Malla.

Soon after Tarigami left the conference venue, its organisers circulated a letter of condolence amongst those assembled there. Mian Abdul Qayoom, a long-standing Jamaat-e-Islami supporter who heads the Srinagar-based Kashmir Bar Association, angrily rose to announce his refusal to join in the gesture. Since no letter of condolence had been circulated for victims of custodial killings, Qayoom said, he could not express grief at the murder of Tarigami's nephew. Not one of the assembled politicians, representing the APHC, the National Conference, the Congress and the People's Democratic Party and half a dozen other formations, chose to condemn or even challenge Qayoom's graceless polemic.

A great tide of hate has flowed through Jammu and Kashmir in the past two decades, a tide politicians have so far shown little inclination to repulse. Unless politicians in Jammu and Kashmir find ways of making the peace process meaningful on the ground, what transpires in the Prime Minister's Office will have little meaning - and hold out no hope at all.

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