A positive step

A 5-member delegation of the moderate faction of All Parties Hurriyat Conference led by its chairman, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, left Srinagar Thursday morning on what is seen as an historic politico-emotional journey to Pakistan and Pak-controlled Kashmir amid typical Kashmiri send-off marked by pro-Azadi chants and unprecedented security, looking like a human shield, along the 120 km route up to Kaman Post. Going by the reports, the Kashmiri leaders are getting a rousing reception wherever they go. After all, they are there at the invitation of no less a person than the president of Pakistan, and everyone across the country’s political and social spectrum must be vying with one another to be visible in the welcome.

However, even as the leaders were packing up for the visit, came a report from Muzaffarabad saying the United Jehad Council had decided not to meet them "as a forum". However, a UJC spokesman hurried to clarify that "it would have no objection if any of the militant leaders wanted to meet the visiting delegation outside the MJC (Muttahida Jehad Council) umbrella". The conglomerate of militant outfits based in Pak-controlled Kashmir said, "it had reservations against the way they (the Hurriyat leaders) were handling the Kashmir issue." The decision is reported to have been taken at a meeting presided over by the UJC chairman and the supreme commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, Syed Salahuddin, on Tuesday. He had left nobody in doubt that the separatist delegations, minus the hard-line leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, would not be welcome. Evidently, the UJC decision comes as a dampner in the separatist leadership’s Mission Kashmir.

Earlier, the government of India had put an almost insurmountable rider on their journey from PcK capital onward to Islamabad or any other Pakistani city. Somehow, good sense prevailed on the authorities who eventually found a way out to facilitate the visitors’ travel beyond Muzaffarabad, the chief minister, Mufti Muhammad Sayeed’s reservations notwithstanding, when they were told to carry their passports for being used for their travel to Pakistan.

The regional passport officer, obviously under instructions from New Delhi, is understood to have prepared and handed over the passports to those who didn’t have these. He even ignored the Democratic Freedom Party chairman, Shabbir Ahmad Shah’s Kashmiri nationality in his application form to grant him the permit which the latter did not avail himself of and, instead, asked his deputy, Muhammad Abdullah Tari, to proceed to Muzaffarabad. The JKLF chairman, Muhammad Yaseen Malik’s decision to go it alone as a mark of protest against the denial of permission to his 17 was no less unpleasant. In spite of all these (birth) pangs, the Kashmiri leaders have finally made it to Muzaffarabad. At the time of departure from Srinagar on Thursday, the former chairman and spokesman of Hurriyat Conference, Prof Abdul Gani Bhat, in an apparent reference to the hardline faction staying back, remarked, "I don’t want to take in terms of weakening a delegation or making it more presentable in the sense that I will go if all cannot go. It doesn’t matter, we go and we go with a determination". He said the visit was aimed at primarily building a bridge between India and Pakistan.

By any calculation, the visit reflects a ray of hope not only for the 13 million people of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, but for more than a billion in the two South Asian countries. Everything seems to be scripted towards the final settlement of the long pending dispute over the state. That both India and Pakistan have left behind the baggage of their bitter past is no mean an achievement. For the first time, Kashmiris have been recognized as the principal party and the two countries that never gave them a damn have realized the inevitability of taking them on board in their on-going composite dialogue. Both seem to have given up their rigid stands and are showing tremendous flexibility lately and, if President Musharraf’s latest were any indication, the Kashmir dispute that has dogged the relations between the two nuclear rivals for more than half a century, may well have been resolved before 2007. It is at this crucial juncture of the 57-year long struggle, that the Hurriyat Conference and its fellow groups have grabbed the historic opportunity to play their role in tandem with the two countries. Let’s hope the fortnight long visit, instead of being a mere political excursion, culminates into something concrete to achieve the goal. As the famous adage goes, well begun is half done.