Debating India

OPINION

The Secretive Peace

PREM SHANKAR JHA

Saturday 13 December 2003, by JHA*Prem Shankar

Article paru dans Outlook India, ?dition en ligne du 13 d?cembre 2003.

Delhi and the Hurriyat are serious about talks. Media shyness proves that.

There is one unambiguous indication that, in sharp contrast to previous such offers, all of which have come to naught, the talks which will soon take place between New Delhi and the Hurriyat are going to be in dead earnest. That indicator is the near-total silence being maintained by all the key players in the forthcoming dialogue-L.K. Advani, N.N. Vohra and the Hurriyat leaders themselves. Last week, all the Hurriyat leaders were in Delhi. They met ambassadors of various countries, three visiting former ambassadors from the US here on a track-two mission and various other notables. But none of them has breathed a word to the media about these meetings.

The government too has been silent. Other than a few speculative stories in the press about when and how often Advani will meet the Hurriyat leaders, there has not been a peep out of any of its key members.

All this bodes well for the talks. It means that both sides are taking them seriously. But this is only the beginning. In the months ahead, both the Hurriyat leaders and the Union government’s negotiators will come under pressure to let out tidbits to the ever-hungry media. They will be asked over and over again what results are likely to emerge and they will be accused of indulging in talks for talks’ sake. They will have to learn not to be provoked.

The reason is that in accepting New Delhi’s offer of talks after having steadfastly shunned them for the past two-and-a-half years, the Hurriyat has crossed a line that it can’t cross back over again if the talks fail. In April 2001, when the A.B. Vajpayee government appointed K.C. Pant as its negotiator for Kashmir, the then Hurriyat chairman, Prof Abdul Ghani Bhat, took exception to Pant’s omnibus invitation to all Kashmiri groups and refused to meet him on the grounds that it was being asked to "board a crowded bus". Last year, he spurned talks with Pant’s successor N.N. Vohra on similar grounds. The distance the Hurriyat has traversed can be judged from the fact that last month it was the selfsame Bhat who justified the body’s decision to enter into a dialogue with New Delhi.

Behind this lies a profound, once-and-for-all change in Kashmir-the split in the Hurriyat. Till the split, the Hurriyat’s decisions were largely controlled by Pakistan. The umbrella organisation had originally been set up by Pakistan in 1991 to eliminate intra-militant clashes-then mainly between the pro-independence JKLF and the pro-Pakistan Hizbul Mujahideen-and present a united front. But gradually it came to acquire a personality of its own, thanks to a significant portion of the Kashmiris vesting their hopes for a political solution-and an honourable return to peace-in it. The more Hurriyat responded to this expectation, the more tenuous grew Pakistan’s hold on it. But the Hurriyat’s funds came from Pakistan. As a result, it continued to dance to Islamabad’s tune. In July 2000, Bhat criticised the peace overture by Kashmir’s Hizb chief Abdul Majid Dar as "hasty and ill-conceived". In the next two years he refused to enter into a dialogue with New Delhi. Throughout these months he maintained the Kashmir problem could only be resolved through tripartite talks that included Pakistan. But as the 2002 elections approached, the Hurriyat found it increasingly difficult to explain its poll boycott to ordinary Kashmiris. When a growing number of the Hurriyat’s members began to discuss the possibility of participation seriously, Pakistan closed the debate by arranging the assassination of its seniormost leader, Abdul Ghani Lone.

Pakistan’s game was, however, a losing one. The elections were held and even die-hard sceptics in the Valley were convinced of their fairness when the National Conference lost.In the months that followed, the choice for the Hurriyat became one between remaining intransigent and losing a lot of its supporters to the newly emerged Peoples’ Democratic Party, and entering into a dialogue with New Delhi.

Those in control of Islamabad’s Kashmir policy saw which way the wind was blowing when its lone champion, Ali Shah Geelani, was eased out of the executive committee, and Moulvi Abbas Ansari, a moderate Shia leader, became the new chairman. They, therefore, played their last card and announced a split in the Hurriyat and the emergence of Geelani as its "true leader".

This ploy hasn’t worked. At the meeting last month, in which the Hurriyat announced its acceptance of New Delhi’s talks offer, 22 of the 27 member organisations were present. But the mere presence of a rival Hurriyat, which is constantly accusing it of having "sold out" to Delhi, has limited its options. Today, to retain its base in Kashmir, it must take a position that is radically different from that of the pdp, which is committed to asserting Kashmiri autonomy through the electoral process, and still find a position that doesn’t go beyond India’s federal structure and is thus acceptable to New Delhi.

More importantly, the dialogue between New Delhi and the Hurriyat will need to be fine-tuned to stay in step with the unfolding Indo-Pak peace process. All this makes it virtually impossible for any talks now to yield concrete results. Thus the only course open for New Delhi and the Hurriyat is to use their forthcoming talks to get to know each other, establish a framework for future negotiations and explore how the latter can help in pushing forward the dialogue with Pakistan. All that will give lean pickings to the media because it will have to be done secretively. Self-restraint on the media’s part will make their task easier.

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