One of the PDP’s major conditions for forming a coalition government with the BJP in Jammu and Kashmir was that the Centre would start fresh negotiations with Pakistan and the separatist groups in the state, a stipulation that Prime Minister Narendra Modi inadvertently addressed by deciding to send Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar to Pakistan, ostensibly to work out the framework to resume talks. But when it came to issuing a visa to pdp’s chief spokesperson Naeem Akhter for attending a conference in Islamabad, the Pakistan High Commission rejected it, with one of its officials saying that the country considered “only the Hurriyat as the true representative of the people of Kashmir”.
When asked about the denial of visa to Akhter for attending a non-official conference, a senior official at the high commission told Tehelka that the conference was part of “Track-II” diplomacy and “we think only the Hurriyat represents the sentiments and aspirations of Kashmiris and, as such, it should be part of the efforts to resolve the issues”.
What went wrong? Over the past decade, Pakistan has been open to Track-II and civil society interactions between the two countries, which have included the mainstream political leadership from J&K. The process of interacting with the mainstream J&K leadership began during 2005-07, when the then Pakistan president, Pervez Musharraf, opened channels with the state’s leadership of all political shades, including the BJP, whose senior leader Nirmal Singh visited Islamabad in 2006 to attend the Pugwash conference and also met Musharraf. Besides Omar Abdullah of the National Conference and Mehbooba Mufti of the PDP, leaders such as MY Tarigami of the CPM and Hakeem Yasin of the People’s Democratic Front also had their respective meetings with Musharraf, who at the time was productively engaged with New Delhi over his four-point proposal to resolve the Kashmir dispute. In fact, Omar, who also discussed his party’s autonomy report with Musharraf, was even allowed to visit Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).
In March 2008, when the Pakistan People’s Party government took over, Mehbooba Mufti was not only allowed to visit Pakistan but also address a joint press conference with the then Pakistan president, Asif Ali Zardari. She also met the former president and prime minister of PoK, Sardar Abdul Qayoom, in Rawalpindi to discuss “political and economic issues” facing the two parts of Kashmir. But a year after, Mehbooba was denied a visa to visit Pakistan to attend the 12th Conference on Sustainable Development. In 2011, however, the Pakistan High Commission invited mainstream leaders such as independent legislator Engineer Abdul Rashid and PDP leader Iftikhar Ansari to attend the Pakistan Day function on
23 March. Subsequently, Congress leader Saifuddin Soz, National Conference leader Abdur Rahim Rather and PDP leader Nizamuddin Bhat travelled to Pakistan to attend Track-II meets.
But now, when the two countries are apparently on the path to resume the dialogue, Pakistan has refused to give a visa to Akhter, indicating once again a reversal of its policy to engage with the mainstream leadership of J&K. The move is also being interpreted as a reaction to New Delhi cancelling the scheduled foreign secretary-level talks after the Pakistan High Commission held consultations with Hurriyat leader Shabir Shah. It is also seen as an attempt to keep the Hurriyat in good humour and possibly as an insurance against the probable decision by Islamabad not to consult the Hurriyat before talks with India in the future.
Another reason could be Pakistan’s “unhappiness with the PDP-BJP coalition”. Ever since the J&K Assembly election results threw up a hung verdict, rendering the BJP with 25 seats an inextricable part of the government formation, Islamabad made some efforts to prevent a PDP-BJP alliance, say sources in the Hurriyat and the PDP. The process came to a head when moderate Hurriyat leader Abdul Gani Bhat called on PDP patron and J&K chief minister-designate Mufti Muhammad Sayeed at the latter’s residence on Srinagar’s Gupkar Road, in an apparent bid to dissuade him from joining the BJP.
Bhat’s meeting with Mufti, which he himself termed as a courtesy call, took the Valley by surprise as this was the first time a separatist leader had gone to congratulate a mainstream leader on the success of his party in the polls, thereby, in a sense, endorsing the electoral process in the state that the Hurriyat otherwise rejects.
Talking to the media later, Bhat defended the meeting as between “really good friends” who had studied together at Aligarh Muslim University. However, Bhat’s defence included a cryptic remark: “Snakes can marry rats and bulls can chase lizards; anything can happen with reference to the formation of the government, but at present we can say, let us not count the stars that lie beyond.”
Pakistan, say Hurriyat sources, has looked at the prevailing state of affairs in J&K with some concern, apprehending that the BJP could divest the state of its remaining constitutional safeguards and take measures to fully integrate the state into India. Recently, during a briefing for ambassadors of the members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Pakistan Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry accused the “Hindu nationalist BJP government” of trying to change the “demographic make-up of Jammu and Kashmir by settling non-state subjects”.
This fear is also seen as one of the reasons for Islamabad not being against the highest participation in polls in the Valley since the rigged 1987 election, which was followed by the armed uprising two years later. Around 67 percent of the electorate exercised their franchise in the Valley against 75 percent in 1987, despite the customary separatist boycott call.
“We did call for the election boycott,” says a moderate Hurriyat leader who didn’t want to be identified. “But we didn’t actually work to drum up public support for it.”
Now that the PDP is on its way to form the government in alliance with the BJP, Islamabad has reason not to be happy about the prospect. And denying a visa to Akhter could be one expression of this unease.
However, the separatists refuse to assign any definite reason to the denial. “We don’t know what happened. We were not on board when Pakistan welcomed and played host to pro-India leaders. And we are not on board when the visa has been denied,” says Ayaz Akber, spokesman of Hurriyat (G) headed by Syed Ali Shah Geelani.
Privately, however, the separatists are inclined to believe that denying a visa to Akhter could be a prelude to “re-sequencing” the Hurriyat meetings with Pakistan in deference to India’s condition for resuming bilateral dialogue. “We may now have consultations with Pakistani dignitaries post the bilateral dialogue rather than in the run-up to or on the eve of such talks as has been the tradition,” says a Hurriyat leader. Against such a backdrop, allowing a mainstream leader to attend a Track-II conference could have grated the Hurriyat’s sensitivities.
Geelani has already expressed himself against any decision by Pakistan not to consult the Hurriyat before the future engagement with New Delhi. “We will never tell Pakistan that if India doesn’t want them to meet Kashmiris before talks, they should agree to the condition. We will want Pakistan to meet the Hurriyat before every dialogue with India,” Geelani had told Tehelka in a recent interview. “We will urge Pakistan to remain steadfast on its position and tell India that it will always talk to the
Hurriyat before the bilateral talks and seek our opinion.”