Prem Shankar Jha, Senior Journalist
THREE PREVIOUS ESSAYS in this series have described how an inability to respond decisively to threats emanating from a rapidly changing world is endangering India’s future. Nowhere is this more true than in the government’s handling of the problem of separatism in Kashmir. Two weeks ago, after a long period of political hibernation, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), suddenly appeared in New York and exhorted the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) to appoint a special envoy for Kashmir. This set the cat among the pigeons in Delhi. But when he went a step further, visiting Washington and announcing on his return to Srinagar that the US too had agreed to appoint a special envoy for Kashmir, New Delhi’s consternation turned to anger.
At another time, a more self-confident Delhi might have curbed its annoyance and probed the Mirwaiz’s motives and statements more closely. But today it does not want answers, because it has painted itself into a corner from which it seems not to want to get out. In the corridors of North Block, the unexpectedly high turnout in the December state elections despite the crackdowns, police firings, house arrests and curfews of the previous four months, gave a significant victory to the hawks — who have always insisted that the Kashmiris understand only force — over the doves, who advocate engaging the separatists in the search for a political settlement. The prime minister, who was previously very much in the latter camp, suddenly sealed the hawks’ victory when he proclaimed from the ramparts of the Red Fort on August 15 that “separatism had lost its relevance”.
But even before his speech was drafted, this claim had become hard to sustain. No amount of juggling with the voting figures could change the fact that the December vote in the Valley was 20 per cent below the peace-time norm of 71 to 72 per cent witnessed in 1977 and 1983. Nor could the government slur over the fact that the abstainers remained concentrated in the cities and formed the bulk of Kashmir’s educated youth and virtually its entire intelligentsia. In other words, the elections had not even dented the intellectual core of Kashmiri separatism.
Within three months of the formation of the Omar Abdullah government, this dissident core had shown how adept it was at keeping Kashmiri anger on the boil. Through a barrage of unproven allegations, it was able to turn three purely local incidents — the death in suspicious circumstances of two girls in Shopian, the kidnapping of a minor in Baramulla and the rape of a young woman by a besotted cousin in the Kashmir Police — into indictments of a quisling government in Srinagar, and of Indian security forces posted in Kashmir.
The Shopian incident was particularly revealing as the villagers forced two sets of doctors to declare that the girls, Asiya and Neelofar Jan, had been raped and then murdered. This remained the basis of all investigations for more than two months till a forensic investigation carried out in Delhi, after the exhumation the bodies, showed that there had been neither rape nor, in all probability, murder. The presence of a CRPF camp not far from the site of the two deaths had been sufficient to give rise to the worst suspicions among the villagers. This had given the dissidents the opportunity they had been waiting for.
The striking similarity between Shopian and the tragic Watlab incident four years earlier — when the drowning of two dozen or more schoolchildren after a naval boat overturned in the Wullar lake had been immediately ascribed to an attempted molestation of a schoolgirl by a drunken Indian naval rating that went sour — shows that very little has really changed in Kashmir. But having boxed itself into a corner, New Delhi is now left with no option but to defend it. And it fears that simply entering into a dialogue with the Mirwaiz will undermine its claims of victory.
The dissident core has shown how adept it is at keeping Kashmiri anger on the boil
A necessary corollary to the belief that separatism has ended is the need to treat all those who raise the issue as politically-irrelevant troublemakers. This explains the timing and the vigour of the Mirwaiz’s diplomatic offensive. For New Delhi’s insistence that separatism was dead left him with no option except to sink into obscurity. It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration or, for that matter, other Islamic states will act on the cautious assurances they may have given to the Mirwaiz. But New Delhi could easily turn his initiative into an opportunity to put some pressure on Pakistan to resume the back channel talks where they were left when Musharraf lost his power to push difficult decisions through the Pakistan assembly in April 2007, for that is precisely what the Mirwaiz wants.
This was spelt out on October 11 in the most unambiguous possible manner at a three-day intra-Kashmir conference organised by the Mumbai-based Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation in Srinagar. Speaking on behalf of the Mirwaiz and the Hurriyat’s executive council, Fazal-ul-Haq Qureishi, perhaps its most respected member, stated bluntly that neither the UN resolutions nor Delhi’s insistence that Kashmir was an integral part of India, provided any kind of basis for a resolution of the dispute. “Times have changed, the world has changed and the people have changed,” he said. The Hurriyat accepted that any solution to the dispute had not only to meet the needs of the Kashmiris but also respect the security concerns and national constraints of Pakistan and India as well. The Hurriyat therefore was prepared to accept limits on ‘azadi’ within the framework of Indian and Pakistani sovereignty over the currently administered areas and leave the task of defending Kashmir to the two countries.
It’s still to be seen if Obama or other Islamic states will act on the assurances they gave to Mirwaiz
The Hurriyat, Qureishi said, “was aware that similar proposals had been made by other major groups in Kashmir, including some of the mainstream parties”. It was therefore prepared to discuss how to take forward the dialogue on the future of Kashmir with them. Its aim and its hope, was to be able to provide a bridge between the two countries so that they could resume the dialogue that had been broken first by Musharraf’s fall from power and then the terrorist attack on Mumbai. The Mirwaiz confirmed that these were indeed his views, when the very next day he told at a seminar organised by the APHC to remember his father, the late Maulvi Farooq, that, “Our people are being killed. We will put all our efforts to resolve this conflict through dialogue but we will take no decisions in haste.”
After over two decades of mutual incomprehension, Delhi has tended to treat the statements of the Mirwaiz with a large dose of mistrust. But this is not the first time that the Mirwaiz has asserted his commitment to a solution that is acceptable to Pakistan and India that requires the least disturbance of the delicate political and social balances in each country. He said exactly the same things at a conference organised in 2006 by Pakistan’s National University of Science and Technology in the presence of a large number of officers of the Pakistan army. He stuck to the same position during a hugely attended seminar of Kashmiri intellectuals in Srinagar in May 2007, at a time when the hastily-cobbled demands for self-rule and autonomy by mainstream parties gearing for the coming state assembly elections were steadily eating into the Hurriyat’s platform and provoking demands from nervous cadres that the Mirwaiz adopt a stance closer to Geelani’s.
Perhaps the time has come for Delhi to emerge from its state of denial, admit that the problem of militancy has not yet been resolved, and that both in order to do so and to insulate Kashmir from a possible overflow of Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorism from Pakistan in the coming years, it needs to work with moderate and responsible leaders like the Mirwaiz, instead of against him.
(This is the last of four articles that deal with the challenges before the Indian nation)