February issue 2004
Much Ado About Nothing
As the Kashmir Valley shivered under heavy snowfall in the third week of January, political antagonists in New Delhi were busy warming up over cups of tea and photo sessions. The All Parties Hurriyet (Ansari faction) Conference delegation met the deputy prime minister Lal Kishen Advani and later Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Advani’s invitation to Hurriyet earlier this month, following the SAARC summit and the resumption of air, road and rail links between India and Pakistan, initially came like a cleansing fresh breeze. When asked by the media a few days before the much hyped talks on January 22, Advani had inferred that he expected the talks would be low on hype and high on substance. What emerged after the hype had settled was exactly the opposite.
There is no doubt, however, that the mega-event was a step ahead of the KC Pant, Ram Jethmalani and NN Vohra missions. Firstly, it was an invitation straight from the deputy prime minister, who also holds the Home portfolio, and obviously stands on a higher pedestal than the other interlocutors who were generally viewed as unauthorised to initiate a dialogue. Secondly, it was a direct invitation, unlike previous cases where no formal invitations were ever extended to “separatists.” Thirdly, the talks on January 22 also paved the way for a meeting with none other than the Prime Minister himself.
However, there is much more to the meeting than meets the eye. The bonhomie on January 22 between Advani and the five-member delegation of the Ansari faction christened by the media as the “moderate Hurriyet,” was too smooth and cordial to be real. The manner in which a statement was prepared and readily agreed upon within no time at all, aroused suspicions about whether the entire event was stage-managed and pre-meditated. When the issue of the release of political prisoners was projected as a serene picture of cordiality between the two sides and was sold as a major breakthrough, there was much scepticism in Jammu and Kashmir, specially in the Valley, about the underlying purpose behind the show-piece meeting.
The unusual smoothness of the affair was not the only reason for scepticism. There was no invitation to the Geelani Hurriyet faction or to any other separatist individual or organisation. Interestingly, ever since the Hurriyet split some months back, the two factions are seen as moderate and extremist by the media, and pro-India and pro-Pakistan by the people. There was a general perception that agencies on both sides had a role to play in splitting the 22-party conglomerate of separatist leaders which at one time was a force to reckon with in the Valley, as well as Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir. Surprisingly, neither the JKLF which has maintained a distance from both Hurriyet factions, nor Shabbir Shah, who at one time was on the right side of New Delhi, received an invitation. Only the Ansari Hurriyet was singled out. The fact that Hurriyet was a dreaded word for New Delhi before the split lends credence to the belief that New Delhi and Islamabad were burning the midnight oil to create a rift among the separatists. That the Geelani-led Hurriyet did not receive similar patronage from Pakistan, owing to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s own domestic compulsions of reining in fundamentalist organisations, is another story.
The Hurriyet delegation included Fazal Haq Qureshi and Bilal Lone. The Lone brothers have been discredited in the Valley not just for fielding proxy candidates in the 2002 assembly elections, but also because of much speculation over their joining mainstream politics.
However, more importantly, the meeting dealt with little else other than the question of political prisoners and paving the way for Hurriyet leaders to visit Pakistan. The event soon fizzled into a damp squib with much ado about nothing. It was clearly a diversionary tactic from the basic Hurriyet stand on the issue of deciding the future of Kashmir. This figured nowhere in the joint statement released by the Hurriyet leaders and Advani. The only point the joint statement focussed on was conducive steps towards a solution, which was then projected and offered on a silver platter as the solution to the Kashmir dispute. Obviously, the main issue had become a casualty of the much-publicised talks. Ironically, the issue of the release of political prisoners was already something that the state government had agreed on in principle, even though its implementation left much to be desired.
There is suspicion surrounding the basic purpose behind the sudden bid for friendship not just between India and Pakistan, but also between New Delhi and the Kashmiri separatists, who till six months ago were being shunned as the ‘untouchable terrorists.’ There have been indications that US pressure has been instrumental in setting the tone of friendship in South Asia. As far as the ruling BJP is concerned, it was probably trying to kill two birds with one stone. While US pressure may have been one factor, another happens to be the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections. The BJP is looking forward to reversing its 1999 election strategy of Pakistan-bashing in the wake of the Kargil incident, to peace and dialogue in the current season of peace initiatives and confidence-building measures. The question is how far will these peace moves proceed if ‘peace’ itself is not the genuine motivation and purpose?
The common ground that hostile strangers – the BJP and the Hurriyet – seemed to have found in New Delhi, may well go down in history as an important event. However, though it may have broken the ice, will the meeting melt the frozen turbulence of several decades? Or was it all just a PR photo-opportunity?