Getting Engaged Again

After lying in limbo for almost two years, India and Pakistan have resumed dialogue with foreign ministers of the two countries meeting in June to formalize a new talks agenda. And with it has also started some movement on talks between New Delhi and separatists. The ball has been set rolling by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself who made talks offer to all the political actors in Kashmir operating outside the system.

It was for the first time that New Delhi sought to engage separatists after they declined to participate in the PM’s roundtable in 2006. However, in a surprising stiffening of his stand, Mirwaiz has set conditions for joining dialogue with the centre. As a proof of New Delhi’s seriousness about talks, he has sought withdrawal of troops from Kashmir, revocation of draconian laws, end to human rights violations and opening of all the cross border routes between two Kashmirs.

“If New Delhi implements these confidence-building measures, it will reflect that the government is serious and honest about the resolution of Kashmir,” Mirwaiz said.  “CBMs like these will pave the way for the dialogue and reconciliation”.  Mirwaiz also wants a bold political gesture from the Prime Minister’s upcoming visit to the state. “Prime Ministerial visits to Valley are known for the economic sops rather than for bold political measures which lend momentum to the efforts for the resolution of Kashmir,” Mirwaiz said. “We want this visit to be different. It should push the Kashmir settlement process forward”.

However, his counterpart in the parallel Hurriyat faction Syed Ali Shah Geelani sticks to his rejectionist approach to any contact with New Delhi. For him, United Nations resolutions on the state define the Kashmir problem and so a solution to it can only emanate from there. He, therefore, wants India to implement these resolutions or at the least consent to a trilateral dialogue with Kashmiris as the third party to the Indo-Pak dialogue.

With India unrelenting, the separatist-New Delhi engagement becomes entirely a moderates’ centred affair. The talks between them look set to take place in the near future. However, given their past record and the introduction of some new dynamics into the situation, these will not be any less turbulent than their preceding rounds.
In the recent past, separatist politics in Kashmir has gone through a profound shift. It is no longer moderate Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq only who dominates the separatist discourse in the state – at least in its external dimension. Now Syed Ali Shah Geelani is back in the picture as Islamabad’s best bet in the state.
Pakistan is also keen to rope in JKLF supremo Yaseen Malik and thereby be rather seen as dealing with a broad separatist alliance in Kashmir than only a leading separatist personality. This strategy in the past has alienated other separatists. As a result, the separatist landscape in Valley is in the process of being completely redrawn and it is unclear as to what its long term fallout will be.

Hurriyat moderates themselves have been non-plussed by the evolving state of affairs. In fact, senior leader Prof Abdul Gani Bhat has hardly hidden his frustration at this sudden turnaround. Pakistan’s fresh overtures to Geelani group and a renewed accent on UN resolutions has been a deep cause of unease. In a recent interview, Bhat said that both – the right to self-determination and the United Nations resolutions on Kashmir – are a non-starter. “Neither of the two, if you ask me, are (sic) relevant anymore,” Bhat said. Any search for the resolution of Kashmir, he said, has to address the socio-political realities of the state. “Kashmir is not only Muslim majority Valley alone. There is Hindu majority Jammu and Ladakh is by and large equally split between Muslims and Buddhists. How can you have an absolute solution under the circumstances.”

Bhat repeated these remarks at the May 22 rally at Handwara calling for a solution that negotiates through the complexities of Kashmir problem. “If UN resolutions could not be implemented for the past six decades, how can we say that we are any near their implementation. It is better if we arrive at a solution that is win-win for all the parties to the dispute,” Bhat said while addressing the rally.
This is for the first time that any Hurriyat leader has come so perilously close to acknowledging the complexities on ground and favoured tailoring a solution that takes these on board.  Incidentally, Bhat’s comments run counter to the changed Pakistani stance on Kashmir which has sought to revive the country’s traditional stress on the importance of the UN Resolutions on the state.

But Bhat is not perturbed. Tossing off bon mots and wisecracks, he in his inimitable style talks of re-asserting Hurriyat independence and the alliance’s sole prerogative to direct its own policies and helm its struggle. “Pakistan is a party to the Kashmir dispute. But they are not arbiters. And they shall not try to be arbiters,” Bhat said. “None of the two countries can do without Kashmiris. Kashmiris may be weak but both countries need them to find a solution. No solution can be reached over our heads”.

The reason for Bhat’s ire is also the sudden shift in Pakistan’s approach towards moderates. Islamabad has disapproved of their “quiet dialogue” with the centre, after allegedly countenancing it for some time. Doves’ self-conceived strategy of the triangular process whereby they could talk separately to New Delhi and Islamabad has also received a short shrift. And making matters further difficult is Islamabad inviting a select group of the separatists to the country thereby not only leaving out the earlier staples, Bhat and Bilal Gani Lone but also superseding the right of Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz to choose his own team.

Bhat said that Hurriyat is accountable to people of Kashmir who, he said, have given their blood to the movement. And Islamabad, according to him, disrupts the evolution of Kashmiri separatist thought process which over the years has come around to the idea of a pragmatic solution for Kashmir. “We need an imaginative solution whereby every party to the dispute goes home with a sense of victory,” Bhat said.

And this is where former Pakistan president Musharraf’s four point proposals become important for the Hurriyat. But according to Bhat, Musharraf had a fifth proposal too. “The fifth proposal of Musharraf was about an interim settlement of Kashmir which would last for ten years to be built upon subsequently if the parties so wished,” Bhat said.

And finally, Bhat had also an observation about the renewed engagement between India and Pakistan, saying it was part of the “Holbrooke roadmap” for the peace in sub-continent. “The roadmap comprises three steps: one, resumption of dialogue. Second, reduction of troops on the borders, and third joint fight against terrorism,” Bhat said.

Deep Logjam

The separatist scene in Valley, as a result, is precariously placed. Hurriyat is again at the cross-roads. As in 2005 when Musharraf’s tilt towards moderates during his visit to New Delhi split the separatists in Valley down the middle, the new Islamabad policy is likely to perpetuate this phenomenon. Will it be moderates this time round who might go into a long sulk? Even though they are in the throes of the deep rumblings over the new turnaround, moderates are unlikely to go that far. They might even prefer to wait until the contradictions in Islamabad’s new outreach to the hitherto estranged separatists play themselves out.

Given Geelani’s entrenched opposition to any solution short of the implementation of United Nations resolutions on the state and his demand for a tripartite dialogue between the parties, there is every possibility that the leader’s renewed intimacy with the Pakistan establishment could but be shortlived, as against the past, this time Geelani himself has exhibited a high degree of wariness before rushing into an all out embrace with Islamabad. Despite receiving invite more than a month before, he has yet to take a final call on a visit to Islamabad. Even during this period, he has minced no words about any fresh hint of accommodation in Pakistan’s approach towards New Delhi.

If now Geelani decides to visit Islamabad, he is likely to reiterate this linear, uncompromising line in his public appearances in the country. And given the fact, Geelani has chosen to defy Pakistan under Musharraf over almost four years, rather than tamely fall in line, dealing with him will be a challenge too for the new Pakistan establishment.

Off, on visit

Twice in the past nine months, the separatists’ visit to Pakistan has failed to come off despite two formal invitations from Islamabad. Successive Hurriyat meetings on the issue have deferred the decision on the visit which was expected to re-start Islamabad’s engagement with Kashmiri leadership which would run parallel to the resumption of the composite dialogue process between India and Pakistan.

Hurriyat was first formally invited by the Pakistan government for “consultation on the way forward” on Kashmir in September last. Besides, Pakistan government had also invited leaders of the Kashmir centers in London, Washington and Brussels to Islamabad for the purpose.

This was followed by another invite to both Hurriyat factions during the secretary level talks between the two countries in New Delhi in February.  Though the visit was supposed to follow soon after the invites were received, there has been little follow-up action. Neither Hurriyat moderates, nor hawks have taken a final decision on the visit.

Moderate separatists led by Mirwaiz, however, have not ruled out the visit even though there were serious rumblings within its ranks over the selective invitation to some leaders. While Pakistan invited Shabir Shah and Agha Hassan, it ignored earlier staples for such visits, Prof Bhat and Bilal Lone.
However, subsequently in a sudden change in its plan, Islamabad withdrew invite to four separatist leaders and restricted it to three top separatists. They are the leaders of the two Hurriyat factions Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Syed Ali Shah Geelani and JKLF supremo Yaseen Malik.

On the other hand, chairman of the hardline Hurriyat Conference Syed Ali Shah Geelani has similarly been lukewarm to the travel to Islamabad. Ayaz Akber, the spokesman of Geelani’s Hurriyat says the visit is not off and is likely to take place in near future. “In fact, Pakistan is very keen on Geelani Sahib’s visit to the country,” Akber said.
He said that during their recent visit to New Delhi for Pakistan Day function on March 23, Geelani had a three-hour marathon meeting with the Pakistan High Commissioner Shahid Malik. “Shahid Sahib insisted that Geelani Sahib should travel to Pakistan.”

Islamabad’s real objective in limiting invitations to Mirwaiz, Geelani and Malik, it is believed, is to try and get the splintered separatists to act in concert, if not actually bring them together. But with the differences between them apparently irreconcilable, such a prospect seems unlikely in the foreseeable future. Geelani, now decisively rehabilitated by Islamabad, has rejected the possibility of unity with his separatist counterparts unless they shun the path of compromise on Kashmir and return to the rigid, traditional separatist stand on Kashmir.

STAGE IS SET

This brings us again to the prospect of dialogue between centre and moderate Hurriyat. With PM giving the clearest signal for centre’s willingness for such a contact in his recent press conference, it seems only a matter of time before they meet. The stage, for now, seems set for a new round of engagement between centre and Hurriyat. However, the dialogue before it takes off has to contend with several potential challenges. And the major challenge comes from Islamabad’s approach to this. Having refused to countenance the quiet engagement between moderates and the centre, Pakistan may be loathe to support an independent talks process between Srinagar and New Delhi.  Considering the radical overhaul in its policy on Kashmir, the new Pakistan government would rather want an integrated dialogue that makes Kashmiris a subservient witness to the larger drift of the Indo-Pak dialogue. In recent past Islamabad has shown some wariness about an exclusive Hurriyat-centre contact fearing it may throw up an internal solution that does not take Pakistan government on board.

There is another dimension: that is if moderates would respect Pakistan’s sensitivities on the issue. Even though Mirwaiz by setting conditions has introduced an element of uncertainty about these talks, he has also maintained his pro-dialogue posture. Some of his senior colleagues in the Hurriyat have also exhibited some determination to chart an independent line on dialogue. This is seen as one of the potential reasons for the Hurriyat to defer visit to Pakistan. They also want Hurriyat to pursue an ideological position of its own, one that puts premium on the interests of Kashmiris.  Will they be able to pave way for a centre-Hurriyat dialogue against Pakistan’s wishes will remain a moot question.

Hurriyat has grievances against New Delhi too. It sees the centre’s recourse to talks as a time honoured mechanism to buy time and to discredit Hurriyat leadership. New Delhi’s dismal track record during several rounds of talks with Hurriyat also doesn’t help matters. Now this time around moderates desperately want centre to Walk the Talk.  It wants centre to move fast on some CBMs like the release of prisoners.

This leaves out again, the Hurriyat faction led by Geelani. They have steadfastly refused to be part of any formal or any informal negotiations, viewing these with suspicion as New Delhi’s tool to buy time in its fight against separatist movement in the state. They also vehemently oppose moderates becoming part of any such engagement, terming it a sell-out. Geelani subscribes to the old world school of secessionism which believes in an absolute solution, by which Kashmir secedes from India and becomes a part of Pakistan. And more detrimentally for moderates, this time Geelani’s faction enjoys more confidence in the new dispensation in Islamabad.

New Delhi, on the other hand, is yet to completely end its reluctance to engage Hurriyat. It doesn’t expect Hurriyat to have an independent policy of its own on talks. Besides, it also doesn’t expect Hurriyat to deliver any real change in the ground situation in the event of an agreement with it. This is why UPA for the better part of its reign since 2004, has chosen to engage Islamabad rather than Hurriyat.

But then we come to the fundamental question about a dialogue between Srinagar and New Delhi. That is, whether such exercise – if it does takes off – will be for real or just another merry-go-round. Will Hurriyat be playing its professed role as a party to the Kashmir dispute, or filling in for New Delhi’s need for an interlocutor in a cosmetic exercise essentially meant to placate US. This is a question that sooner or later moderates will have to introspect and confront. Until then, hardliners can reserve their last laugh.

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