Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government is credited by everybody for the talks he initiated with Kashmir’s moderate Hurriyat Conference. Barring a courtesy call on Vajpayee, the Hurriyat (M) had two rounds of talks with his Deputy. L K Advani offers details in his book My Country, My Life
My last major initiative as Home Minister towards bringing normalcy in J&K was to hold a dialogue with leaders of the moderate faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), an umbrella group of religious and political parties and Kashmir’s most prominent separatist organisation.
Two rounds of talks were held in my office in New Delhi on 22 January and 27 March 2004. The Hurriyat team was led by its Chairman Moulvi Abbas Ansari and its members comprised Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Bilal Ghani Lone, Abdul Ghani Bhat, and Fazal Haque Qureshi.
Why did I decide to hold talks with the Hurriyat Conference, whose pro-Pakistan leanings were well-known, which had boycotted the 2002 assembly elections and some of whose leaders had links with militant organisations? Some in my own party and the Sangh Parivar were surprised at my decision. As a matter of fact, there was an element of surprise and scepticism on the other side, too, since these Hurriyat leaders had insisted on having a dialogue with me, despite my image as a ‘Hindu hardliner’ and a ‘hawk’. This image had gained further currency after Pakistan’s President, General Pervez Musharraf, blamed me for the collapse of his summit talks with Prime Minister Vajpayee at Agra in July 2002.
My talks with Hurriyat leaders were, indeed, an integral element, and a logical extension, of the Vajpayee government’s overall strategy to establish durable peace and normalcy in the state. Our strategy had two dimensions – external in relation to Pakistan and internal in relation to Jammu & Kashmir – and our government had achieved significant progress on both counts.
In January 2004, Prime Minister Vajpayee had accomplished a major diplomatic victory in India’s battle against cross-border terrorism. For the first time ever, Pakistan gave a commitment, in black and white in the form of a joint statement issued after a Vajpayee-Musharraf meeting in Islamabad on the sidelines of the SAARC summit that it would not allow any part of its territory, or territory under its control, to be used for terrorist activities against India. Internally, the conduct of free and fair assembly elections in Jammu & Kashmir, and the people’s positive response to them, had not only enhanced the Vajpayee government’s credibility, both within and outside the state, but also sent a clear message that militancy enjoyed no popular support.
The Hurriyat Conference could not have remained immune to the combined impact of these developments, as was evident from the split it suffered in September 2003. Its moderate leaders, who genuinely desired to see an end to violence and bloodshed in Kashmir, now realised the need for, and usefulness of, participating in the dialogue process, which the Vajpayee government had set in motion in 2001. The Centre’s interlocutors—first K.C. Pant, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, then Law Minister Arun Jaitley, and later N.N. Vohra, a high-ranking former bureaucrat with deep knowledge of J&K affairs—had held talks with representatives belonging to the widest socio-political spectrum in the state. One major group that had chosen to remain outside the dialogue process was APHC. The CCS meeting in October 2003, decided that I should hold talks with it, a decision that was immediately welcomed by a majority in the Hurriyat Conference, except Syed Ali Shah Geelani, leader of the breakaway faction of the APHC which continued to support militancy and advocate Kashmir’s merger with Pakistan.
I must mention here that there was a significant difference in my approach to the talks with Hurriyat leaders and that of Brajesh Mishra, National Security Advisor and Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, and A.S. Dulat, a former Chief of RAW, who was serving as an advisor in the PMO on Jammu & Kashmir affairs. I learnt that Dulat, who was in regular contact with the leaders of various groups in Kashmir, had given some Hurriyat leaders the impression that the government was prepared to look at solutions to the Kashmir issue outside the ambit of the Indian Constitution. I was very upset at this and, in my very first meeting with the APHC delegation, I made it clear that there was no question of the government entertaining any proposal outside the Indian Constitution.
The first round of talks, which lasted nearly two and a half hours, were free and frank and, surprisingly, quite fruitful too. I say ‘fruitful’ because both the Hurriyat leaders and I agreed, at the conclusion of our meeting, that ‘all forms of violence that has plagued Kashmir over five decades should end’ and that ‘the roar of the gun should be replaced by the sound of politics’. We also agreed to adopt a ‘step-by-step approach that would lead to the resolution of all outstanding issues relating to Jammu and Kashmir’.
I began the dialogue by first giving a comprehensive historical overview of the Jammu & Kashmir situation, emphasising three points: our firm commitment to peace, our flexibility on ‘all reasonable issues raised by Hurriyat and other groups, and our uncompromising position on Jammu & Kashmir being an integral and inseparable part of India. I made it clear that India would never agree to ‘tripartite talks’—between India, Pakistan and Hurriyat Conference—as demanded earlier by both Islamabad and APHC as an option to resolve the Kashmir issue. I also explained to them why the Vajpayee government had rejected granting the pre-1953 status to Jammu & Kashmir. At the same time, I said that the government was willing to consider realistic ideas about certain special powers for the state, which would help the political process to move towards the goal of permanent peace, normalcy, development and integration with the national mainstream.
I said, ‘The pain and suffering of Kashmiris is felt by all Indians, because we do not consider you separate.’ At the same time, I reminded the APHC delegation about the plight of Kashmiri Pandits living in pathetic conditions in camps outside the Valley for more than a decade. I cannot consider any solution honourable and durable which does not result in the return all the Kashmiri Pandits, and also all Muslim residents of Kashmir, who have had to flee their native land because of violence. That is an important touchstone for judging the return of normalcy in the Kashmir valley.’
In presenting their perspective of the situation in the state in the January and March meetings, Hurriyat leaders laid stress on two points: human rights violations by the security forces and political prisoners. ‘We do not want Jammu & Kashmir to remain a garrison,’ they complained. ‘We want to see normal living become possible in Kashmir.’ I said, ‘We also want to see that people in Jammu & Kashmir begin to lead normal lives, free of fear and bloodshed.’ Assuring them that the government would take steps to curb alleged human rights abuses, I told them: ‘We have given orders that security forces must have a human face while discharging their duties.’ This assurance was swiftly acted upon. Similarly, in the January meeting, I had agreed to look at the release of political prisoners in detention in Kashmir jails on humanitarian grounds, ‘except those accused of heinous crimes’. Before the second meeting, the government had released sixty-nine prisoners, and was actively processing more than five hundred other cases.
We agreed to meet again in June, when I told Hurriyat leaders, ‘we shall discuss substantive issues’. That meeting did not take place, because the NDA was defeated in the May 2004 parliamentary elections. Significantly, the Hurriyat Conference did not give a call for the boycott of the Lok Sabha elections. Its leaders publicly expressed disappointment that the Vajpayee government lost the elections.
Nevertheless, when I look back at my dialogue with the Hurriyat Conference, I experience considerable satisfaction. Most analysts described my talks with Hurriyat leaders as a ‘milestone’ on the road to peace. ‘We’re going forward and not backward and there is a change in thought and attitude at the ground level,’ said Abdul Gani Bhatt, spokesman for the APHC delegation.
A major reason for that was I found the Hurriyat leaders to be genuine, earnest and, to some extent, open-minded in their interactions with me. Similarly, on my part, I was able to convince them about my sincerity, and the sincerity of the Vajpayee government, in pursuit of peace in Jammu & Kashmir.
(Excerpted from L K Advani’s biography: My Country, My Life)