January 2004 News

Why engage the Hurriyat?

29 January 2004
The Daily Times
Bharat Bhushan

New Delhi: The moderate leaders of the All Party Hurriyat Conference are neither in a position to deliver a geographical settlement of the Jammu and Kashmir issue nor a constitutional one. The geographical settlement will eventually be between India and Pakistan; and the constitution alone, in the Indian part of the state, with the elected representatives of the people. One may then ask what is the point of discussing anything with the Hurriyat or a faction of it? New Delhi, after all, had rejected the demand of Farooq Abdullah for greater autonomy even though he was paraded as a true and elected representative of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Having boycotted the elections, the Hurriyat parties have no way of showing that they represent the will of the Kashmiri people. Nor, as the fate of the agreement with Sheikh Abdullah showed, is there any guarantee that such a settlement will be honoured permanently. Even if New Delhi were to concede that there is some genuine separatist sentiment in Jammu and Kashmir, though not to the extent of calling it a freedom struggle, it makes sense to negotiate with the separatists. Accommodating their demands to curb the separatist sentiment is certainly better than reposing faith in the military might of the state to quell it. Dealing with the Kashmir issue, however, must also be seen as a process. Jammu and Kashmir is a disturbed state and India needs to stabilise the situation to make it manageable. States tend to follow a number of complex and parallel strategies to reduce the political entropy in a situation on the boil. Any one of these strategies by itself cannot resolve the problem, but each can contribute to bringing the temperature down. Using the police and the army against militants may not finish off the militancy but it can bring down the number of militants; fencing the line of control may not fully prevent infiltration, but it can certainly curtail it; organising elections may not satisfy everyone but it opens up the political space by providing a responsive and accountable administration; and building new roads and rail links or opening new educational institutions may be no solution to ending militancy but development work shows the willingness of the state to engage with the concerns of the people. One of the many strategies of attempting to stabilise a situation is to hold a dialogue with the disaffected and dissenting voices in Kashmir. This may also not lead to a solution by itself but it would certainly contribute to making the situation relatively more malleable to change. Talking to the Hurriyat then can be seen as part of a multi-pronged strategy of handling the Kashmir situation. The Indian engagement with Pakistan in fact has created propitious circumstances for engaging the Hurriyat. Admitting that Kashmir is an outstanding issue between the two countries, New Delhi and Islamabad have decided to resolve it bilaterally to the satisfaction of the two sides. The Kashmiri groups on both sides, however, feel that they have been left out of the process and think that some options, like independence, have been closed forever. However, in deciding the fate of the Kashmiri people, their point of view must also feed into the bilateral dialogue. Pakistan’s president, General Pervez Musharraf, is talking to his Kashmiris and India must engage those on the Indian side. The two processes — of India talking to Pakistan and each one engaging the Kashmiris — can go in tandem. The dialogue with Pakistan provides India the space to talk to the Kashmiris and set its own house in order. If, because of the space provided by the India-Pakistan dialogue, and the silencing of the guns of the militants, more political detainees can be released, the peace-process can be underwritten by not only the constitutional political parties but by even those who have boycotted elections in the past and most importantly, by civil society organisations, then the credit for this must also be given to Islamabad. This process must continue — not to say that the Kashmir issue does not exist, but that gradually a solution can be worked out without the fear of the gun. The Hurriyat leadership, which had discussions with the deputy prime minister, L K Advani, and then made a courtesy call on the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is itself likely to be asked three questions by its constituency in Kashmir: Why are you talking? What will you get out of it? And, how long will this last? The Hurriyat leaders who are involved in the present talks are perhaps aware that independence or joining Pakistan is no longer a feasible option. Nothing can be had in Kashmir any longer through the power of the gun. The margin of tolerance for terrorism has shrunk not only internationally but also between India and Pakistan. Therefore, whatever the Kashmiris on the Indian side seek has to be the result of a political dialogue with New Delhi. One presumes that the Hurriyat leaders must also be aware that what they have not got through the gun, they cannot hope to get on the negotiating table. The political dialogue, therefore, has to be only about greater autonomy and guarantees that the autonomy so negotiated would not be amenable to easy tampering through constitutional changes. Safeguards would have to be put into place against any political party in power at New Delhi seeking to change the status of Jammu and Kashmir, for example, even by the Bharatiya Janata Party threatening the abrogation of Article 370 if it comes to power on its own. The process of negotiation with the Hurriyat would take time and would also have to be expanded. The influence of the Hurriyat is limited only to the valley. New Delhi cannot negotiate the future of the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir with a group that does not have a presence in the whole of the state. If the people of Jammu and Ladakh have to be brought into the process, that would take some time. So it is going to be a long haul — no overnight solutions are going to be possible. The Hurriyat through its talks with New Delhi can, however, help ease the pain of the Kashmiri people. If political detainees with no cases of violence against them are released; if the army moves out of law and order duties and is replaced by the Central Reserve Police Force functioning under the control of the Jammu and Kashmir police; if the Border Security Force slowly replaces the armed forces in patrolling the international border and the LoC; if road links are established across the LoC and if inter-Kashmir trade starts because of the Hurriyat initiative, then these outcomes alone would be worth their effort. These are benefits the state badly requires. This can be the process creating an appropriate set of circumstances for a possible solution to the Kashmir problem. It can be expanded by even inviting Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s Hurriyat or another political outfit he might float for talks and by allowing the Hurriyat leaders to visit Pakistan if they so wish. If the Kashmiri militant groups can be persuaded to join the process at some stage, there should be no objection to it. Bharat Bhushan is Editor of The Telegraph newspaper in Delhi


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