The Indian government’s announcement of the third leg of roundtable conference on Kashmir stirred up heated debate in the Kashmiri political landscape where all the pro-independence outfits unanimously turned down the invitation. New Delhi has invited all the mainstream and separatist parties to the roundtable scheduled in the last week of this month. The pro-independence groups are not likely to share the podium with the National Conference, Congress or People Democratic Party. The Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, will chair the conference wherein the five working groups, set up by the premier last year, will possibly come up with some remedies to the Kashmir problem within the Indian union and without properly addressing its external dimension.
A couple of weeks ago, Manmohan Singh, in response to the public demand spearheaded by pro-India People Democratic Party (PDP)’s chief Mufti Muhammad Sayed, constituted two committees: one, to ascertain how and when the phased withdrawal of security forces from Jammu and Kashmir can take place. And the second committee would look into how the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) can be scrapped. The act is one of the several draconian laws.
The opinion within the Indian establishment seems divided on demilitarisation and negotiations with the resistance groups. Initially, New Delhi unequivocally rejected President Pervez Musharraf’s proposal to begin with demilitarisation of Kupwara and Baramula districts. But, now this proposal has garnered the support of the Kashmiri people and also a pro-Indian party that is leading the move. It is said that hardliners, particularly, National Security Adviser, M K Narayanan, former spymaster, calls the shot and bluntly opposes the demilitarisation. Towing him, a certain former security apparatus is making a lot of hue and cry against the demilitarisation. The senior officers, generals, even the state governor and chief minister are building up hysteria against both the demands through their regular opinionated statements in public.
On the contrary, external affairs secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, leads the moderate group within the Indian establishment. Serving in Beijing and Islamabad, he had a deep insight on both countries’ approach towards the conflict resolution. He had played an instrumental role in the rapprochement between China and Delhi. Owing to his success, he was chosen by Atal Behari Vajpayee to further the peace process with Islamabad and Manmohan Singh trusted him by elevating him to the external affairs secretary. During his stay in Islamabad, he made impressive inroads among the Pakistan civil society as well as across the various shades of political opinions. It is learnt that he wants to make some visible concessions on Kashmir so that the alienated segment of society could become part of the peace process. On the other hand, Narayanan and his coteries want to make a deal between pro-Indian Kashmiri leaders and New Delhi instead of bringing the separatists on board. The tussle between Narayanan and Menon has become one of the major stumbling blocks in advancing the peace process.
So far, the major Indian pretext for not demilitarising Kashmir is the militant threat to the security of civilian lives. S S Dhillon, the commander of the 15th Corps for the Indian Army in Srinagar, has told media that infiltration had gone down to zero level. This has given vintage to the demilitarisation process. Moreover, within the valley politics demilitarisation has become a political slogan for several leaders. Mirwiaz, Syed Ali Gilani and Syed Salauddin had also supported it. But all the separatist stakeholders are least interested to make permanent solutions on the basis of present geographical contours.
The intense political activity in Delhi and Srinagar indicates that partial demilitarisation is around the corner. At the same time, according to Mirwaiz, hectic efforts are underway in New Delhi to rope in the pro-freedom groups for power politics. A number of observers believe that Hurriyat is about to jump into electoral politics. In this context, New Delhi is now treating Mirwaiz faction at par with the mainstream parties. As a matter of fact, the Mirwaiz faction put its entire stakes at risk by engaging with the Indian government but at the end of the day they were left dejected and frustrated. Now, the Indian establishment discredits them by equating them with Muftis and Abdullahs.
Recently, Kashmiri domestic politics took a dramatic turn when pro-India National Conference’s president, Omar Abdullah, made a striking demand. He said that no solution of Kashmir was possible without the involvement of Hizbul Mujahideen in the dialogue process. He urged India and Pakistan to hold talks with the United Jihad Council and Hizbul Mujahideen’s chief, Syed Salauddin. Besides him, PDP’s chief, Mehbooba Mufti, has always been advising Delhi to bring Hizb on board. The JKLF leader, Yasin Malik, known as pioneer of militancy, also sets dialogue with Hizb a precondition to a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir dispute. A number of intra-Kashmir dialogue conferences organised by Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation, Delhi, have persistently been arguing a seat for militants in the ongoing process.
Hizb welcomed the suggestion for the first time in its 17 years long armed resistance. Cutting across the political divide, Hizb’s inclusion into the dialogue has become a bipartisan demand of the Kashmiri stakeholders. However, several questions arise regarding Hizb’s future course of action. It is a fact that Hizb has played an instrumental role in highlighting the Kashmir issue by rendering huge sacrifices. It commends immense respect and credibility among masses. Syed Salauddin is a household name in Kashmir and is regarded as one of the most trusted leaders of the state.
From all accounts, the ongoing peace process is not only sluggish but also could not make any difference in the lives of common people. The much fanfare CBMs such as bus service and number of intra-Kashmir conferences also proved selective and elitist. The unabated human rights violations by the security forces also rub salt in to the festering wounds. Besides, moderate leadership led by Mirwaiz Omer Farooq has failed to defend the flexibility shown by his group in the changed circumstances. To make this process a success story, Hizb’s inclusion to it is imperative. It may give the entire process sanctity and make it acceptable to the public. It should not be ignored that Syed Ali Gilani, staunch critic of the peace process, has special influence on Hizbul Mujahideen ever since its inception. Armed groups such as Lashkar and Jaish also have great respect for him. Due to Gilani’s commending position within these outfits, he has emerged as one of the key influential leaders of the valley. Often he is described as "he holds the key to the peaceful settlement of Kashmir".
In this context, if the Indian government is serious to initiate dialogue with the Hizb then it has to take some tangible steps such as withdrawal of draconian laws and eventually announcing the ceasefire with militants. Above all, talks should be time-framed and result oriented. It is to appreciate that at last sanity has prevailed over the pro-Indian Kashmiri leadership and now they are supporting dialogue with dissidents. At least now, the approach of building consensus among the local stakeholders is emerging on some critical issues although gradually but steadily. The current insistence on Hizb or militants’ inclusion into the dialogue process is the manifestation of this mindset.