Politics of skipping

The Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his two-day visit to Kashmir chose to ignore the separatists or any reference to revocation of AFSPA and other such laws or acknowledge the political problem ailing Kashmir. Khursheed Wani analyses.
On June 7 morning, when Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and Governor N N Vohra along-with the entire security paraphernalia assembled at the Srinagar International Airport to greet Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh on his Kashmir visit, two innocuous protests were taking place in the city, almost deserted by the separatist sponsored strike. A handful of women disembarked from a vehicle at press enclave, unwrapped a pile of placards and began shouting slogans. They were relatives of two Shopian women, Neelofer and Aasiya, who died a year before in mysterious circumstances. Though a CBI probe ruled out any foul play and declared their death occurred due to drowning in a local stream, the protesting women insisted the deceased had been raped and murdered. They demanded identification and arrest of killers.
Another token protest occurred at a somewhat unusual place. A handful of protestors led by MLA Langate Sheikh Abdur Rashid emanated from a government bungalow at Jawahar Nagar to proceed on a march to Lal Chowk. They cried against the killing of three villagers in a fake encounter at Line of Control, who were passed off as heavily-armed infiltrators by the army officers to earn ranks, prizes and accolades.
The aberrations were erased by the police in a jiffy. The Shopian women were hurled abuses and bundled back in the vehicle they emerged from. The MLA was pushed into the confines of his house for the rest of the day. And, the city was declared “normal” for the prime minister’s two-day stay.
It appeared that the intention with which the prime minister arrived in Srinagar was in total contrast with the presumptions generated at the ground level. A section of separatists expected a formal invitation for the talks in spite of the fact that the ground work had not been done for the purpose. And, most of the people were looking forward for a stern message to the security forces to safeguard human rights in Kashmir. But, the Prime Minister chose to focus more on the issues of governance and announcing packages from declaring saffron cultivation and trade as a national mission to granting Rs 100 crore to the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences. The admonition to the security forces in the backdrop of LoC killings was routine and incidents like this were described as consequence of the “attempts to disturb the lives of the people of Kashmir from across the Line of Control”. Interestingly, while delving on the political dialogue, the Prime Minister chose to ignore his meetings with separatists (held between 2004 and 2006) and instead recalled his three Roundtable Conferences, which were not attended by the separatists.
Nevertheless, separatists’ expectations were not misplaced. The reason they were thrown out of the dialogue loop, in 2007 beginning, was precisely that Government of India chose to drift from engagements with the then Pakistan President Gen Parvez Musharraf whose power was on a shaking precipice. The internal situation in Pakistan sabotaged the settlement of Kashmir issue, which was a signature away, according to former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri. The Government of India deemed it improper to work with Kashmiri separatists when Pakistan was kept out of frame. This is the reason why Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was, despite his efforts, denied audience in New Delhi in January 2007 after his arrival from Pakistan. Ever since, there has been no overt engagement between the Hurriyat and New Delhi.
The subsequent developments in Kashmir also went against the separatists. The 2008 Amarnath agitation followed by the unexpected turn out in assembly elections proved to be the watershed. The separatists failed to consolidate on the momentary eruption of the people. The calculated risk of holding elections also went to the government’s side.
Now that India has again initiated a dialogue process with Pakistan after the Thimpu meeting between Manmohan Singh and Yousuf Raza Gilani, which would be followed by mid-July foreign secretary level talks, the separatists expected a chance to chip in. Pakistan, on its part, wants them to be on board albeit at its own conditions. That is why a standing invitation exists for a selected group of separatist leaders including Syed Ali Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar. Pro-dialogue Hurriyat’s worry is that Pakistan has deleted some of its leaders from the choice list of invitees and Geelani-led Hurriyat is not in agreement for forming an alliance with a crowd of leaders, a suggestion communicated to separatists by Islamabad.
Another factor that prompted Dr. Singh to speak from a position of strength is the diminishing level of violence and number of militants in Jammu and Kashmir. Despite some major encounters in the Valley where casualties were inflicted on the security forces, or a fidayeen attack in Lal Chowk in January 2010, the graph of violence continued to recede. The Army’s claims that infiltration attempts are on the rise, received a drubbing in the wake of staged encounter in Macchil sector, logically compelling Omar Abdullah to put a question mark on all such encounters on the LoC.
So, “we are ready to talk to all sections of society who are opposed to terrorism and violence”, is a casual offer unintended to evoke a positive response. “This is old wine in new bottle”, was the even slapdash response from United Jehad Council chief Syed Salahuddin.
On Pakistan, the PM did not say anything new. The oft-repeated irrelevant border theory was reiterated and initiation of meaningful talks for resolution of “old issues” was preconditioned with Pakistan disallowing its territory be used for acts of terror against India. In the backdrop of Thimpu meeting with Prime Minister Gilani, Dr. Singh said, “Both the countries accepted that there is a trust deficit between us. We also agreed that this distance between the two countries must be reduced”. This is perhaps, one area, which was hailed across the board in Kashmir. Common Kashmiris understand that the situation on ground level would show signs of improvement when India and Pakistan get closer to each other. The onus of resolution of Kashmir issue largely lies on the two countries.
Before Prime Minister’s arrival in Srinagar, political entities in Kashmir started demands for the repeal of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that offers unbridled powers to security forces in combating insurgency and Public Safety Act (PSA) that empowers the state to detain anyone without trial for two years. Mirwaiz Umar, on the anniversary of his father on May 21, demanded repeal of draconian laws, and release of prisoners. People’s Democratic Party chief Mehbooba Mufti wrote a letter to Chief Minister demanding a special session of the Assembly to discuss the consequences of these Acts. The chief minister in response promised to waive off the Act by the conclusion of his tenure in 2014.
This Valley-specific debate on AFSPA did not evoke a response from the Prime Minister. He did mention the wrongdoings of the security forces and the government’s responsibility to safeguard rights of the civilians, but there was no specific mention of the Center’s intentions to do away with the harsh laws. No assurance was offered to the mainstream political leaders who chose to touch this issue in the close-door meeting with the Prime Minister.
But this does not mean that PMO took the Macchil killings casually. A day before PM’s arrival, GOC-in-C (northern command) Lt. Gen BS Jaiswal’s announcement that two officers suspected to be involved in the gruesome killings have been sidelined pending inquiry, was prompted by the PMO. The Army’s apprehensions on militants’ designs to disrupt PM’s visit were also nullified. The prime minister’s venues were not changed, as reportedly suggested by the army. Instead, the state government put in harshest security measures like snapping mobile phone signals and declaring Boulevard Road out of bounds for commoners.
Understandably, the Prime Minister’s main focus remained on governance and development. He put the Omar Abdullah government on notice by referring to complaints in Srinagar and other cities related to power supply, drinking water, roads and ration shops. He prompted the state government to address these problems and extended his government’s help in this regard.
The Prime Minister deliberately chose to give the impression that the disillusionment in the Valley, especially among the youth, is more for economic reasons rather than political. “I am concerned that many youth from Jammu and Kashmir and especially from Srinagar feel disillusioned due to the lack of economic opportunities. We will make every possible effort to create adequate employment opportunities in Jammu and Kashmir”, he said. Mentioning specifically Srinagar youth and their disillusionment indicates that the state government has highlighted the issue of stone-pelting and proposed the central government to address it more seriously. Currently, dozens of youth have been jailed for their alleged involvement in stone-pelting.
And, first Kashmiri civil services examination topper Dr. Shah Faisal’s special mention in convocation speech was in tune with the Government of India’s renewed outlook on Kashmir.

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