Moment of reckoning
18 February 2002
PREM SHANKAR JHA
New Delhi: THE PREMATURE and misleading publicity given by several newspapers and TV channel discussions held by a senior IAS official of the Kashmir cadre, Wajahat Habibullah, with some of the leaders of Hurriyat, has once again demonstrated how a competition-driven press, hungry for bylines and sound bytes, can derail national policy on life and death issues. Habibullah, who enjoys unmatched esteem in Kashmir because of the key role he played in 1993 in averting the storming of the Hazratbal shrine, had begun urging Hurriyat leaders not to boycott the coming elections in Kashmir soon after August 15. when Atal Bihari Vajpayee made his solemn promise that the next elections in Kashmir would be free and fair. He had been doing this in his personal capacity, but the news item, which emanated from Srinagar, made it appear that Habibullah had replaced K.C. Pant as the governnent's 'negotiator' and that the Hurriyat was actively considering taking part in the next elections.
Both "facts' were distortions of the truth. Habibullah enjoyed no official standing and had not replaced Pant; and all that the Hurriyat had done was to agree to put the item in the agenda of its next executive committee meeting. In an attempt at damage control, Pant decided to speak to the press. He made it clear that although the Hurriyat had not agreed to take part in the next election, the government regarded even its willingness to consider elections as a way out of the current deadlock, as a 'step forward'. But by then the media had the bit between their teeth and only The Hindu published an unvarnished account of his statement. The premature and distorted publicity convinced the Hurriyat leader's that Delhi was incapable of good faith; that given the lack of sore discipline and purpose in the central government, its initiatives invariably ended by destroying the reputation of anyone who was willing to look for a peaceful solution to the Kashmir problem through a dialogue with Delhi. They therefore retreated into their shells once again. This was not an accidental development. The original news item was planted on an agency reporter by the J&K government. Its first purpose was to hustle Hurriyat into denying the news and thereby taking it very difficult for it to change its mind later. Its second purpose was to expose Habibullah and discredit Pant in the eyes of the Kashmiri leaders. Its third purpose was to alert Pakistan that if it had any residual influence on, or ability to coerce the Hurriyat leaders, it had better exercise it now. This is not the first time that Farooq Abdullah has played this game. An even more flagrant abuse of the press occurred on August 2, 2000, when senior officials of the Kashmir police invited journalists to a press conference, scheduled to be held after senior home ministry and RAW officials met leaders of the Hizbul Mujahideen to hammer out the modalities of the July 24 ceasefire, two hours before the meeting took place. As a result, when the Hizb leaders arrived at the Nehru guest house to attend what they had imagined would be a deep cover meeting, they were confronted by 150 journalists and cameramen of the world's press. Abdullah has excellent reasons for wanting to frustrate Delhi's initiatives. He knows that in a free and fair election, Kashmiris will vote for literally any credible alternative to his government. This situation has arisen because of a cardinal mistake he made in the very first year of his six-year tenure. He announced that he would create 50,000 jobs in the state government, but did not give even one of them to any of the 31,000 Kashmiri nationalists who had turned militant in 1990 but laid down their arms by 1995. Nor did he make the slightest effort to open a dialogue with the leaders of the nationalist (as opposed to pro-Pakistan) tanzeems, and co-opt them into democratic politics. Instead, Abdullah used the 50,000 jobs to build a following for the National Conference in the worst of feudal traditions. What was worse, he delegated the task of recruitment to his MLAs, who promptly began to charge Rs 15,000 per chaprasiship to Rs 50,000 for the post of a teacher in a state school. Other than the houseboat owners and taxi operators whose loans were 'rescheduled', Kashmiris soon realised that Abdullah had forgotten nothing and learned nothing. Abdullah's attempt to marginalise the militant nationalists failed and Hurriyat grew in strength. By May 2000, Delhi knew it had to talk to the Hurriyat, but its purse strings were controlled by Islamabad. Those are the links that Delhi has been trying to cut, so far in vain. Today, Abdullah's goal is to hurry the assembly election while Hurriyat is still off balance and, once it has boycotted it and world attention has therefore waned, to rig enough seats to ensure the National Conference's victory Last November, he announced a host of transfers of district officials. A few weeks ago, he extended the tenure of retiring Chief Secretary Ashok Jaitly, in whom he has implicit faith, without bothering to inform, let alone consult, Delhi, despite the fact that Jaitly is an IAS and not a Kashmir civil service official. Kashmiri intellectuals and militants have drawn the unavoidable conclusions. Last week it became apparent that Abdullah intends announcing the next election within a matter of days. The resemblance between Abdullah and Louis the Fourteenth of France is unmistakable. But Delhi cannot afford to allow India to go the way of the French monarchy. If Abdullah calls an election in March or April and Hurriyat boycotts it, if there is no credible opposition, in a fail-election the vote in the Valley is not likely to exceed the two per cent recorded in November 1989 by very much. The world will then draw its conclusions. If a credible alternative emerges. The NC will have to rig seats to win if Delhi allows this to happen in the present supercharged atmosphere. It will do even more harm that wholesale abstentions. Delhi's argument since 1953 has been that India is a federal democracy, so those who prefer the gun are either agent of Pakistan or simply perverse. Hurriyat also needs to reexam in its present stand that it will organise its own elections under its own 'election commission'. Technical difficulties apart, the impossibility of doing this in Jammu and Ladakh will make this a Valley affair. It is thus a paper-thin pretext for separating the Valley from the rest of Indian Kashmir — a project that has been dear to Pakistan's and Hurriyat chairman Prof. Abdul Ghani Butt's heart. Even in the Valley, all that the 'pro-India' parties need to do is boycott the polls to make it as meaningless as the one that Abdullah intends to organise. If his confused peers in the Hurriyat executive committee allow Butt to have his way, Kashmiris will remain wheat between Indian and Pakistani grindstones for another six years. Butt's colleagues would do well to remember not only that the key issue today is the fairness of an election but that Delhi cannot afford another rigged election if the Kashmiri nationalists decide to take part in it. Rigged elections in 1987 gave birth to a civil war, caused 30,000 to 35,000 deaths, and created Salahuddin. Today, India and Pakistan are nuclear weapons States, there are a million men facing each other on the border, Musharraf is seeking an excuse to continue the jehad in Kashmir, and the world is watching Kashmir like a hawk. Allowing Abdullah to rig the next election would be suicide. Hurriyat has a responsibility not only to Kashmir but to the rest of the world. History will judge it a traitor to both if it does not take up the gauntlet Abdullah is about to throw.