Vajpayee’s Kashmir

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Bed-ridden Atal Bihari Vajpayee might be oblivious to the fact that, in the just-concluded Lok Sabha polls, NC and PDP made more references to his “contributions” than their own. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi invoked his Kashmir doctrine before reneging swiftly during campaigning. R S Gull re-visits Kashmir’s Vajpayee days to examine if the politicians were making a larger than life image of the poet Prime Minister in strife-ridden state

India and Pakistan premiers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharief shaking hands in 2014

It was the sheer coincidence when Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s cavalcade entered into the park adjoining Sonawar’s SK Stadium on April 18, 2003, a Friday, the bells in the local church started ringing. Contents of his speech that started triggering a change in Kashmir and on the India-Pakistan front, he delivered later, made many people in Srinagar and Delhi to name it the ‘Good Friday’ speech.

“All problems are settled through talks. We are ready (for talks) to solve the problems within (internal) and the problems outside (external)”, Vajpayee had told a huge crowd that Mufti Sayeed had managed to assemble. There could be some delay, he said, but the delay is better than a bloodbath.

“I visited Lahore with peace message saying we need to have a friendship with our neighbours. They attacked Kargil. Then I invited General Musharaf to Agra thinking that in the background of Taj Mahal the Pakistani General will understand the language of love. But that did not happen too. We believe that efforts of friendship must start from both sides and not by one side only”, Vajpayee said. “Even then we are ready for friendship. We have everything, we share thousand years old civilization… We need to co-exist. Maps are changing. We also must change and it is the appropriate time for changing the maps. We in Delhi are changing maps. We will work jointly..,” the poet Prime Minister said emphasizing “it takes two hands for a clap”.

Vajpayee offered dialogue for settling the problems of Kashmir – both internal and external.  “We must work in tandem to save democracy, humanity and Kashmiryat”, he said, offering “justice and humanity” (Insaaf Aur Insaniyat Kay Aadhaar Par) as the basis for talks.

Vajpayee in 1953 accompanied Shyama Prasad Mukherjee to Kashmir.

That was not all. Vajpayee said he promised free and fair polls and delivered. Referring to the past elections, Vajpayee said that after his August 15, 2002, speech when he promised “free and fair polls”, people came to him complaining – “Vajpayee ji, votes (in Kashmir) are not counted and if counted, not accepted. But I made the promise and kept it.” He was clear in asserting that “Right of the franchise does offer you a right to elect your leader but a vote cannot fill your belly.”

Vajpayee has not been a novice on Kashmir. He has been one of the few Indian leaders who was involved on Kashmir front for a long time. It was Vajpayee who in 1953 accompanied Bharatiya Jan Sangh founder Dr Shyama Prashad Mokherjee to Kashmir. They barged into the state against the entry-system and were arrested. Mokhrejee died while in custody in a Srinagar house somewhere in Nishat in June 1953. It triggered an agitation and led to Sheikh Abdullah’s dismissal and arrest.

As Morar Ji Desai’s External Affairs Minister (March 26, 1977 –July 28, 1979), Vajpayee handled Kashmir. Much later in 1995, when Congress premier P V Narasimaha Rao of the ‘sky-is-the-limit fame’ was grappling with a devastating resolution on human rights in a UN body, he chose Vajpayee to lead the team – a job he accomplished with Salman Khursheed and Dr Farooq Abdullah.

So when Vajpayee was elected to lead India (first for 13 days between May 16, 1996 and June 1, 1996, then for 13 months till mid-1999 when the government came crumbling for want of one vote and finally for the third term for full five years from October 13, 1999 to May 19, 2004), he knew the complexities of a contested territory, its governance and the development. With his own style of statesmanship, Vajpayee made his era different on Kashmir front.

Vajpayee visited J&K many times. His three-day visit to Srinagar (May 21-23, 2002) was a failure because it was overshadowed by the assassination of senior Hurriyat leader Abdul Gani Lone. But all his three subsequent visits on April 18, 2003, August 27-29, 2003 and April 14, 2004, to Jammu, were all significant.

A day after his ‘Good Friday speech’, Vajpayee invoked the impact of Iraq war to package it as a ‘warning for poor and third world countries’. Rejecting a third-party intervention, Vajpayee suggested a serious bilateral way-out.

Vajpayee with Dr Farooq Abdullah during his visit to Kashmir.

“If today they (Islamabad) make a public statement that they will stop the infiltrations, dismantle the terrorist machinery, tomorrow I will send a senior MEA official to Islamabad,” Vajpayee said. “The issues shall remain between India and Pakistan only. There are many people ready to advise us. If we involve a third party, it will make the issues complex”.

Refusing to be a ‘dream merchant’, as Hurriyat had accused him of, Vajpayee said Kashmir separatists should not demand a Naga-type talk because “we keep them in a higher status”. Besides, he advised Mufti not to extend his ‘healing touch’ to the people “who inflict the wounds”.

Earlier, in the University of Kashmir, Vajpayee asked people not to remain “obsessed with the acrimonious and unrealistic goals of the past” and look to the future with a constructive approach that “there is no problem, which cannot be resolved peacefully and democratically”.

“We have often faltered in our journey towards peace. It was sometimes forgotten that democracy is too delicate a plant to be subjected to manipulation and mishandling,” Vajpayee said insisting that lessons need to be learnt from these mistakes and resolve not to repeat them.

This was completely different from his May 2002 visit that he undertook in the backdrop of the assassination of Hurriyat leader Abdul Gani Lone. It was a visit in a vitiated atmosphere of Kaluchak massacre and a military build-up on the frontier for last five months. War clouds led him to talk about “a decisive battle” and “a new chapter of victory”. The three-day visit was a PR disaster. He interacted with most of the unionist camp but offered nothing barring a questionable package.

Then NC was his ally (Omar was Vajpayee’s minister) and host with Dr Farooq Abdullah, the chief minister of the state. “We have turned down the autonomy report after properly examining it,” Vajpayee said. “We are ready for a dialogue (with NC) if they have any problem in managing b the tter development of the state or if any constitutional provision is a hurdle. We are ready to talk.” It was a Himalayan embarrassment for the ruling NC.

In between the two visits and in follow-up to his ‘Good Friday speech’, many things had changed. Though he never hinted at any major compromise, assessing Vajpayee by his actions in his two terms, suggest that the old man was in a rush to make history. Happenings in Kashmir apart, Vajpayee faced three major problems during his term on the security front. All were embarrassing.

Firstly, mixed contingents of militants and Pakistani soldiers came knocking on the Kargil front in May 1999. It led to massive butchery and devastation in the region on either side of the LoC. The crisis for Vajpayee was that the attack came within months of the Lahore Declaration and his bus ride to Islamabad in the winter of 1999. Massive costs apart, it led to the killing of 527 soldiers as 1363 survived injured, slightly less than the costs it entailed for Pakistan.

Hijacked IC 814 being surrounded by cadres of Taliban in Afghanistan in 1999.

Secondly, when Pakistan had called off and withdrawn under pressure building within Pakistan and Washington, Jaish-e-Muhammad militants hijacked Air India aircraft from Kathmandu with 176 passengers on board. As the pressure mounted back home, Vajpayee sent his External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh to Srinagar and fetch three detained militants – Masood Azhar, Omar Sheikh Rashid and Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar. They were flown to Taliban ruled Kandhar to end a nightmare that dented Vajpayee’s image.

Thirdly, five suspected militants drove in to the Parliament complex on December 13, 2001 killing five cops, a Lok Sabha security guard, and a gardener as 18 others survived injured. As the pressure mounted over the attack on India’s temple of democracy, Vajpayee sent troops to the borders as the full scale mobilization was ordered. Rival armies remained in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation till October 2002 when demobilization was announced. By then, however, 789 soldiers were reported killed in accidents, mostly involving mine explosions.

For any Prime Minister, especially from the right-wing, it was a huge crisis hitting hard the credibility of the process. But not for Vajpayee who used these failures to get the Indian subcontinent get a ceasefire on the LoC. The ceasefire was effective on the night of November 26, 2003. Though there have been violations taking place for the last few years, this agreement is perhaps the major outcome of the talks between India and Pakistan.

The ceasefire triggered a shift in the lives of millions of people straddling the LoC and IB in J&K. There were people who had never seen the light of the day for years. They would crawl to the food depots during nights for supplies and there was no education or commercial activity. The only business of the government in these areas was to fund the dungeons in which the people were living 24 x 7. It enabled the populations displaced by the shelling to return closer to homes.

But Vajpayee’s government had started working on a ceasefire in the hinterland much earlier. On July 24, 2000 Hizb ul Mujahideen’s Abdul Majid Dar announced a ceasefire for three months. Dar was reportedly flown to Srinagar from Middle East to announce the initiative. Security grid responded with “minimized as well as limited” operations.

Talks followed immediately. In the first round on August 3, Hizb group comprising four commanders, point man Fazl Haq Qureshi and his friend Musadiq Aadil submitted a set of 12 suggestions to be implemented as CBMs. As Hizb’s Pak leadership withdrew, it triggered a serious credibility crisis. The initiative was lost.

Hurriyat (M) Leaders with the then Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The ‘talks’ were never followed up. To revive the process, the Prime Minister announced the non-initiation of combat operations (NICO) in the month of fasting in December 2000. Though it generated a lot of positive feeling in the hinterland, it could not last long. “The Government of India had declared unilaterally a policy of Non-Initiation of Combat Operations in J&K with a view to lowering the levels of violence and creating an atmosphere conducive to the commencement of a peace process in the troubled State,” the policy announcement from Delhi read.

In its immediate follow up, Vajpayee appointed K C Panth as his point-man. He stayed in Kashmir for a month, talked to everybody from cart-puller to the hotelier but faced Hurriyat boycott. Mostly, he had development at the core of his exercise.

It was after a series of botched up processes that Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani mandated Ram Jethmalani to get Hurriyat for discussing “reverent issues”. The engagement led to a formal invite from Advani. The first round of talks between Advani and the four separatist groups comprising Muslim Conference, Peoples Conference, Awami Action Committee and Itehad-ul-Muslimeen took place on January 22, 2004. A day later they had a courtesy call on Vajpayee.

Second round of talks took place on March 27, 2004. In the second round the issue of human rights and the case of detainees was taken up and Advani said “substantive issues” would be taken up in June when third round would take place. Change of guard prevented the third round in June that eventually took place on September 5, 2005 in which the Prime Minister said he would consider troop reduction to boost the peace process. Nothing happened.

All these initiatives had given Vajpayee a sort of satisfaction that he proved different on India-Pakistan front. In April 2004, when he visited Jammu, his last visit to the state, he sounded content with what he had done.

“Pakistan agreed that its soil would not get used for carrying out terrorist activities in India. Had she agreed it earlier,  Agra would not have failed. But they have agreed, this is a big thing and people must know it”, Vajpayee said. “In the last few months, this is my fourth visit to J&K. This time, I am happy that there is no shelling on borders. The two countries are actually playing cricket.”

For a Prime Minister whose reign witnessed a lot of crisis and who owned a nuclear button, Vajpayee did not give up his ideas. “Peace has no alternative. Wars can not settle the differences. Both the countries have agreed to go ahead and talk and solve all issues. Pakistan has also agreed. The entire world wants it”, he said. “India wants to settle issues honestly.”

Mufti Sayeed government was instrumental in getting ADB funded projects.

  Vajpayee was slightly different. During his tenure, Vajpayee announced two economic packages – the Rs 8519.82 crore on May 23, 2002, and Rs 6425 crore on April 19, 2003. The jobs that were announced to be created by the package projects like railway line and the golden quad road projects were labour days, which rarely benefitted J&K. Both the packages were a grand mix of strategic and defence projects that were otherwise to be executed under routine plans. Long-term loans to hospitality sector, certain bridges, water supply schemes and community information centres (CIC), vocational training centres were part of the package. Vajpayee even included the Manali Leh Road along with the Rohtang Tunnel in his Kashmir package! Getting DD Kashmir to Srinagar from Delhi was part of the second package and it is still operating from India’s capital.

Initially, NDA resisted the state government idea of sourcing multi-lateral funding by offering double the resource that it requires because it was being sourced from ADBs post-conflict fund. Even Pakistan had objected to it. But insistence by Mufti Sayeed led government’s team led Vajpayee to approve the idea that eventually led to the setting up of Economic Reconstruction Agency (ERA) in J&K. ERA currently is an ADB funded project and has emerged as a parallel multi-sector development agency. Permitting J&K to source multi-lateral funds was a major contribution. Interestingly, this is the only multilateral resource that J&K and PaK shared and neither India had a problem nor Pakistan.

And planners in state government assert that the Prime Minister’s Reconstruction Plan (PMRP) that Dr Manmohan Singh announced after replacing Vajpayee was actually conceived by NDA

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