Thaw in the time of chill

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nawaz-sherif-and-sushma-swarajWith successive meetings between the National Security Advisors (NSAs), foreign secretaries and the foreign ministers in a week’s time and official level talks planned in January, political uncertainty over Kashmir has somewhat drifted away. It has also given a much needed boost to the PDP-BJP coalition in J&K, more so to Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who sees an Indo-Pak peace process and some outreach to separatist groups in the state critical to further validate his alliance with the saffron party.

Mufti derived a lot of goodwill from the Indo-Pak dialogue on Kashmir during his previous stint (2002-05). The PDP also benefited from the re-opening of cross-LoC routes for travel and trade. However, the PDP has struggled to live up to the reputation this time. The coalition’s single-most redeeming rationale, the economic recovery of the state and the rehabilitation of the flood victims, hasn’t materialized to the extent hoped for by the people.

The resumption of the dialogue has thus come in handy for the coalition. Hemmed in by their political antagonism, the two parties have not, so far, pursued their respective ideological goals in the state. The PDP has all but shelved its agenda of self-rule and the BJP has gone silent over the revocation of Article 370 or the citizenship to refugees from West Pakistan.

An Indo-Pak dialogue, if it progresses, will certainly bring some politics into the scene. The problem, however, is the separatist groups. The Hurriyat doves led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq would be happy to go along with the renewed engagement. Supporting the initiative, Mirwaiz has said that it (the dialogue) is important “so that a just and long-lasting solution is arrived at while keeping the wishes and aspirations of the people in mind.” If the talks prompt Pakistan to, at least ornamentally, reach out to the Hurriyat, sooner or later, Mirwaiz will once again become politically relevant in the state. From 2003-07, Mirwaiz had emerged as the consensus separatist leader for India and Pakistan after Syed Ali Shah Geelani declined to accept Pervez Musharraf’s four-point proposals as a permanent solution to the Kashmir issue.

And given Geelani’s stance on the issue, he is unlikely to agree to any solution which deviates from his maximalist position of implementing the United Nations resolutions in the state. “The dialogue cannot bring any considerable change in the relationship between the two countries, if Kashmir is not resolved,” Geelani said. So the hawk will once again be a challenge to the peace process. On 14 December, a delegation from Geelani’s grouping met Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit in New Delhi to discuss the recent visit of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Islamabad where she met Pakistani leadership and launched the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue process.

“We held a detailed discussion over the recent meeting of Swaraj and Pakistan leaders on the occasion of Asia Heart Conference in Islamabad and also discussed the Kashmir policy,” Hurriyat (G) spokesman Ayaz Akbar said.

The Hurriyat delegation also handed Basit a message of Geelani, asking Pakistan to “play an active role in highlighting the human rights violations in J&K at international forums.”

If this meeting is anything to go by, the two countries may have overcome ‘the Geelani obstacle’ this time. In a departure from the usual norm, the separatist grouping will get a chance to engage with Pakistan only after Islamabad’s talks with New Delhi. In exchange, Pakistan could be expected to extend some outreach to the mainstream parties.

In the recent past, Pakistan has returned to its earlier practice of denying visas to J&K’s mainstream leaders. J&K Assembly speaker Kavinder Gupta and PDP leader Naeem Akhtar were denied visas this year on the grounds of representing the state government that Islamabad does not recognise. During Musharraf’s rule, many mainstream leaders including the BJP leader and the now J&K Deputy Chief Minister Nirmal Singh had travelled to Pakistan and met the General.

Overall, a sustained Indo-Pak dialogue will give a new direction to the politics in the state and provide a fresh space to separatists and mainstream parties to operate. But the all important question is whether the process sustains and makes some progress towards a concrete outcome.

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