On 18 August, the Narendra Modi government called off foreign secretary-level talks with Pakistan after the Pakistani envoy to India met Kashmiri separatist leaders. This signalled a major departure from the Kashmir policy adopted by the previous NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which had aggressively wooed the Hurriyat for talks. Kashmiri separatists have been freely visiting Pakistani dignitaries at the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi.
In March 2002, when Vajpayee visited Kashmir and offered to hold talks with the Hurriyat, its then chairman Abdul Gani Bhat rejected it and called for tripartite talks involving Pakistan as well. An earlier attempt for talks by KC Pant, the then Central interlocutor, had met the same fate, with Bhat likening the exercise to “fishing in the desert”.
That was a time when a united Hurriyat used to dictate the political discourse in the Valley. It responded positively only when the Centre proposed talks outside the framework of the Constitution — a mechanism that Vajpayee called “the compass of Insaniyat”. Separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, however, opposed the move and floated a hardline grouping, the Hurriyat (G).
In January 2004, a Hurriyat delegation met the then deputy prime minister, LK Advani, and also had a brief interaction with Vajpayee. The Centre sought to institutionalise the dialogue with the separatists and did not oppose their frequent consultations with the Pakistan High Commission.
The UPA under Manmohan Singh took the process forward for a while. Singh held one round of dialogue with the moderate Hurriyat and the then independent separatist leader Sajjad Gani Lone, before embarking on another initiative: a round-table dialogue in which he sought the participation of a broad array of the J&K-based political and social organisations, including the Hurriyat. Terming it as deliberate attempt to downgrade its political standing, the Hurriyat opted out of any engagement with the Centre.
But Singh didn’t stop Hurriyat leaders from visiting Pakistan. In fact, in 2005, soon after the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road was thrown open, Hurriyat delegates were allowed to use it to visit Pakistan through PoK and were also issued passports. Considerable headway had been made in Singh’s talks with the then Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf and both the countries had roped in the moderate Hurriyat led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front supremo Yasin Malik to rally the Valley’s separatist constituency behind the pursuit of an “out-of-the-box” solution to the Kashmir tangle.
These interactions grew more frequent and intense with Musharraf expanding his outreach to even the mainstream politicians in the state. He met National Conference leader Omar Abdullah, then in the Opposition, besides Congress and cpm leaders and state bjp leader Nirmal Singh, while they were in Lahore to attend a Pugwash Conference.
The Mirwaiz emerged as a consensus separatist leader for India and Pakistan, and he organised a public contact programme in the Valley to mobilise support for the “Singh-Musharraf solution”. He was the only Kashmiri leader who was privy to the “broadly agreed outline of this settlement”, which, according to him, mainly focussed on “areas of resistance” in Kashmir and left out Gilgit, Baltistan and Ladakh.
“The two countries were moving towards gradual demilitarisation, self-governance, open borders and joint management on Kashmir, albeit there were persisting differences on many issues,” Mirwaiz told TEHELKA in an interview early this year. “The attempt was to create a new settlement model for Kashmir, which would attempt to address the issue outside the stated positions of the two countries. It was like India and Pakistan were cooperating to give Kashmiris the maximum political concessions they could.”
But now, with the Modi government calling off talks with Pakistan because the Pakistani High Commissioner met separatist leaders, Hurriyat’s role in the Indo-Pak engagement seems to have come a full circle. “We are there to help the process, not to harm it,” Mirwaiz told TEHELKA before leaving for talks with High Commissioner Abdul Basit. “Kashmir has been a lingering, core dispute between India and Pakistan. There can be no peace without resolving it. And while India and Pakistan talk to address the issue, they cannot leave out the people whose issue it is.”