The All Parties Delegation came and went. Still kashmir remains under seige. Curfew continues, and newspapers remain off the stands. The reaching out measures of the members of delegation, who showed up at the houses of separatists including hardliner Syed Ali Geelani, soon fell into skepticism, with BJP members saying the visits were private.
The All Party Delegation (APD) was the first major motorcade on the Srinagar Airport Road in weeks, as the stone pelting clashes and public protests had made the road nearly out of bounds for the highly secured cavalcades of ministers and top officials.
The road got a facelift for the visitors. Scores of labourers were put on work on Sunday, to white wash the walls to erase the anti-India graffiti like ‘Go India go back’. Tons of stones and bricks, and other debris, all that could relay the seriousness of the crisis in Kashmir was cleared from the path.
In the evening, as a CRPF party was withdrawing from streets in the outskirts of Sopore town, they responded to hoots of youth by bullets. One young woman was killed inside her home by what officials said was a “stray bullet”. One more death – that would hardly make any difference to the visiting delegation next day. Nor did the fresh firing on people protesting her killing next day have any impact on delegation’s visit that by now was in the town.
The delegation went about its business – to take stock of ground situation, not to be bogged down by the fact that city it was in had no newspapers for the last nine days.
The state government invited a number of political parties from either side of the ideological divide, some trade, business and industry groups, associations representing houseboats, shikaras, apple-growers, village headmen, butchers, travel agents, a chain of NGOs running orphanages, owners of DPS school chain and Christian missionaries, Sikhs, Gujjars, Bakerwals, lecturers, teachers and transporters and some ‘prominent citizens’.
Not all the invitees turned up. Panthers Party declined the invite, so did the Samajwadi Party calling it an eye wash. Kashmir Press Guild, an association of newspaper owners, stayed off to protest the media gag.
Peoples Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti accused the state government of trying to sabotage the APD visit.
“Instead of facilitating the access of common man who is the victim of government atrocities, members of civil society, human rights organizations and the information activists to the delegation it (government) has curtailed the movement of every single soul in Kashmir,” she said. “Ikhwanis and those living in security camps are being sponsored as proxies of the government to provide doctored and unreal versions to the delegation.”
A PDP delegation, however met the APD on Monday without its president.
The APD started to garner attention when a five member group showed up at the residence of hard line separatist Syed Ali Shah Geelani, chairman of All Parties Hurriyat Conference (G).
In the meeting that took place before television cameras, Geelani reiterated his five conditions for entering into any dialogue.
“(P) Chidamabaram has rightly said that we (India) has made pledges and commitments to Kashmir and it is time to accept them. We have the same demand,” Geelani told the lawmakers led by CPI (M)’s Sitaram Yechury.
Geelani wants New Delhi to accept Kashmir as a dispute, set prisoners, free, demilitarize the region, punish the personnel guilty of gross violations of human rights and withdrawn the black laws.
“He (Geelani) has his point of view (on Kashmir) and the government of India has its own viewpoint,” Yechury told reporters after the meeting. “We will take up the five points with the government of India.”
Yechury said it was totally unacceptable to India that civilians especially youth are being killed like this – 109 in 100 days. He said the security forces are accused of excesses and the issue was taken up in the parliament.
Besdies Yechury, Assaduddin Owasi (IUML), N N Rao (TDP), Mr T Balu (DMK) and Dr Ratenala (Akali Dal) were part of the group.
Geelani told the lawmakers, “You passed a resolution in the parliament but it neither changed the situation nor gave any legitimacy to India in J&K,” he asserted. He said he was not against talks but it should have clear mandate.
Geelani offered the guests juice and told them that he cannot offer tea as no milk was available because of curfew.
Two other groups from the delegation met Hurriyat (M) chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and JKL Chairman Yasin Malik at their residences.
The meeting with Mirwaiz was also televised, with viewers seeing the chief cleric and CPI leader Gurudas Dasgupta stating their views. As Dasgupta agreed to most of Mirwaiz’s objections on police terror, he however was vocal in stating that he could not stand by the demand of Aazadi. Mirwaiz was wearing a black band on his arm in protest against over 100 killings in last three months.
Dasgupta however could not use his eloquence next day when he and ten other delegates, had to cut short their visit to SMHS hospital, as the wards resonated with pro-independence slogans of patients and attendants. Police later swooped on the hospital and according to sources picked up two men for protesting during the visit of delegates.
The legislators undoubtedly made history by breaking protocol to meet separatists, and the gesture conveyed the beginning of a new process. But soon it triggered a division in the All Party Delegation (APD) itself. BJP leader Sushma Swaraj told reporters while visiting the Hazratbal shrine that reaching out to separatists was not a good idea. “It was not a collective decision,” she said.
Yechury however maintained that the visits were “on behalf of the delegation.”
The controversy, however, led to the intervention of the chief minister Omar Abdullah who told reporters that reaching out to separatists was “part of the plan”.
“The fact that delegation has come here is important but more important is that they have reached out to various sections,” he said while talking to reporters at Tangmarg. “It is only a first step, I am hoping that something substantial will come out.”
The ‘divide’ did not impact the activities of the lawmakers. Later the Lok Jana Shakti Party leader Ram Villas Paswan met Syed Ali Geelani. The All India Majlis-e Ittihad al-Muslimin leader Assaduddin Owaisi also called on Mirwaiz Umer Farooq . Geelani assured Paswan that the minorities in Kashmir are safe and he promised him that he will take up the issue of human rights in the Lok Sabha.
Langate MLA Engineer Sheikh Rashid met the delegation along with two of his voters– an old woman and a former militant.
Bibi Jan, 80, who lives in a remote Gujjar belt, requested the delegation to get her son released. With tears in her eyes, Jan informed that her son Sameer was picked up by police and dubbed a stone pelter. Police then demanded Rs 20,000 for his release which she arranged by selling off her land. She said she paid the money to a mediator but her son was not released.
Jan’s other son has crossed over to in 90’s. The troops destroyed their house forcing the family, which includes two daughters, to migrate to Sopore. After 20 years when she returned to live in their ancestral village, her son Sameer was caught and dubbed a stone pelter.
Legislator Rashid said he was stopped and frisked at 26 places, while travelling to Srinagar to meet the delegation.
Another man accompanying Rashid was Ghulam Hassan Khan, former militant, who had given up militancy and served detention. “He is my voter and one day I got a call from police that they need him. I took him in my vehicle and police promised me he will be set free within 10 minutes,” said Rashid. After five days, he was informed that police have registered an FIR against him saying he was caught in Srinagar while carrying two grenades and some letterheads of Lashkar.
Rashid said he urged the visiting lawmakers that they should encourage New Delhi to accept Kashmir as a dispute. He claimed to have asserted that revoking AFSPA from places like Srinagar would have no impact because it needs to be withdrawn from places where it is destroying lives.
The presence of Dr Farooq Abdullah as part of the delegation was a hindrance for some visitors to talk about governance.
“If I criticise the same government with which I have to interact the next day, it is harmful,” said one trader.
There were, however, quite a few voices that talked about the governance issues. Perhaps the strongest was that of the Congress, though they are part of the ruling coalition. Prof Saif ud Din Soz, the state congress chief, reiterated that governance needs “a lot of improvement”.
The non-political entities, on the other hand, were by and large filtered. Law Ministry sources said there were a large number of requests for having interactions with the visiting delegation but they could not be permitted because they were not cleared by police. In certain cases individuals seeking meeting were asked to give in black and white what they intended to convey.
The Federation Chamber of Industry Kashmir (FCIK), Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), Tourism related traders and hoteliers sent a joint team.
“There were lot of speculations that we will be seeking compensation for the massive losses the trade and business community has suffered but we did not ask anything,” Shakeel Qalander, president FCIK said. Qalander is one of the members of the task Force that Prime Minister set up under Dr C Rangarajan for creating a job package for Kashmir’s unemployed.
Chamber President Nazir Ahmad Dar in his brief two page memorandum, talked of “systematic policy of genocide” and a “reign of terror” aimed at forcing “people into submission” and asked if “this was the face of democratic and human India?”
The APD however got bit of feel of pain and resentment on ground on their visit to a hospital, and to Tangmarg, where cabinet minister Ghulam Hassan Mir had allegedly arranged a gathering for the home minister.
Tangmarg lost six people and had scores injured when a mob – allegedly instigated by a National Conference local leader Ali Mohammad Sofi, razed all the symbols of the government in a series of conflagrations on the second day of Eid.
The team to Tangmarg included home minister P Chidambaram and BJP members Arun Jaitely, Sushma Swaraj. Chidambaram and BJP members were not part of any meetings with separatists. There were some uncomfortable questions.
“When you kill a civilian in Maosit belt, you all apologize but what are you doing here?” a young boy asked the delegation at Tangmarg.
“Your forces kill anybody and everybody but what is more painful for us is that when your personnel resort to rapes,” the boy whose identity was not known said. “You say Kashmir is your integral part but your forces have been butchering us.”
Though there were voices supporting the official discourse of lack of employment opportunities, infrastructure and even a young man concluding his interaction with a surprising ‘jai Hind’ but the dominant responses were about solving Kashmir and putting an end to the excesses by the security grid.
So overwhelming was the demand that even the official spokesman acknowledged it.
While talking to the Home Minister, the official spokesman said, “the people urged for starting a sustained and meaningful dialogue with open mind and heart with all stake holders to resolve the Kashmir imbroglio forever”. They “demanded an immediate check on excesses committed by the security forces” and assured that the youth of the Valley would respond positively and not resort to violence.
The team later flew to Jammu, where they met Kashmiri Pandits, and jailed separatist leader Shabir Shah besides other delegations. Shah is currently admitted in a hospital in Jammu where a three member team met him.
The BJP, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Sangarsh Samiti and Panun Kashmir told the delegation that “AFSPA should not be withdrawn and total integration of the State was the only solution.”
Kashmiri Pandits expressed resentment over the delegation talking to separatists.