Kashmir - Missed Chances
30 March 2003
New Delhi: In the months since the Assembly elections, the BJP-led Government at the centre has squandered a rare opportunity to provide leadership on the Kashmir issue that has been missing for decades writes Anjali Mody.NEW DELHI'S appointment of N. N. Vohra, its third negotiator in as many years for Jammu and Kashmir, was announced mid-thought. The Deputy Prime Minister, L.K. Advani, pressed on the issue of a Central negotiator in Parliament, made the announcement. He had no answer to questions about the terms of reference of the appointment - who was Mr. Vohra to talk to, when would he begin and what would he talk about. In Kashmir, after Mr. Vohra's first visit, everyone is still waiting for an answer. This is typical of the manner in which the Government's considered 'Kashmir policy' is played out. For, talking is not high on this Government's agenda. Mr. Advani, the current head of the department of Jammu and Kashmir affairs, has on more than one occasion said that the Kashmir problem will be solved once Pakistan ceases to support militancy in the State. His formulation is that once the 'proxy-war' is called off, peace will prevail. This position has permitted the Government to underplay the failure of the armed forces - and security agencies - to stem the flow of militants from across the border. It has also allowed it to disregard the fact that militancy in Kashmir has local roots and support. Perhaps another reason for the disregard for the local factor is the BJP's stand on Article 370 - which technically guarantees certain exceptional forms of autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir - which it wants scrapped. While the BJP in Government agreed not to raise this issue as part of its deal with its NDA partners, the party's continued adherence to it did not help the Government's cause in a State where the Centre is viewed with suspicion. But the Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir, remarkable by any estimation, opened up all sorts of possibilities. There was hopefulness in the State that comes from people feeling that their voices had been heard. The BJP-NDA could legitimately claim credit for overseeing a successful election. It was the sort of event that an imaginative political leadership would have tried to build on, especially given Pakistan's claims of supporting a war of 'independence'. However, in the few months since the Assembly elections, the BJP-led Government squandered a rare opportunity to provide leadership on the Kashmir issue that has been missing for decades. For, the BJP Government, already hobbled by its Pakistan-centred approach and the shadow of its party line on Article 370, is unable to rise above New Delhi's historical disrespect for Kashmiri concerns or alter the relationship of mutual mistrust. Even with the National Conference - a political ally - in power in the State, the BJP found itself incapable of dealing with the State differently from earlier Governments. In an unconscionable show of arrogance, it rejected the NC's Autonomy Resolution (without reading it, one former Home Secretary said with evident approval) but appointed an Autonomy Negotiator, weeks before the election, as a sop to help the NC with its campaign. With an Opposition Government in place in the State, the BJP is even less able to break the mould. The fact that the PDP-Congress coalition has, on the face of it, taken a radically different approach to the Kashmir problem only makes the relationship more difficult. Apart from delaying the appointment of its negotiator - primarily to show who calls the shots - the Centre has publicly displayed scepticism over the State Government's 'healing touch' policy. It was aware that the Special Operations Group had not been 'disbanded,' but re-christened within the police force and that the release of 'prisoners' followed agreed procedures in which its representative had a role. Yet, the charge of irresponsibility was repeated endlessly to make it stick - the healing touch should be for the people, not militants. This was an 'unmissable' opportunity to score political points over its main rival, the Congress, in the national stakes for the 'saviour of India' tag. The Nadimarg massacre has been reduced to just that. Although Mr. Advani appeared for a moment to close ranks with the State Government against the external enemy, saying that it was foolhardy to blame the Government policy for an act of such unimaginable barbarity, shortly thereafter the media was told that the Cabinet Committee on Security would, among other things, scrutinise the Congress-PDP policy of 'healing touch'. Driving home the message that it could be that 'soft on militants' thing was to blame after all. New Delhi's unwillingness to reach out is complete. Every opportunity to build bridges in Kashmir is scorned. The arrests, earlier this month, of two Kashmiri students in Uttar Pradesh triggered anger and concern over the persecution of Kashmiris, especially students, outside their State. Omar Abdullah, president, National Conference, also spoke out against the Uttar Pradesh Government's actions. The PDP vice-president, Mehbooba Mufti, went to Mr. Advani in the expectation that he would share these concerns and as Union Home Minister would send a signal that 'Kashmiri' was not another word for 'ISI agent'. But her expectations were misplaced. Those who have administered the 'Kashmir policy' of successive Governments see this as unexceptional. The people factor has always been low on the agenda, they say. For, no 'national' party has built an organisation across the State, nor attempted to understand its enormous complexities. Once in Government, there is therefore a great reliance placed on the wisdom of the bureaucracy, which excels in micro management but rarely looks at the big picture. There is a particularly strong dependence on the intelligence agencies operating in the State and their reading of the political situation, which may be different for different agencies and liable to change with the change in personnel. The current wisdom is that the All-Party Hurriyat Conference (seen as predominantly pro-Pakistani) is a spent force and can be finished off by being left out of any dialogue with the Kashmiri political groups and by its members being denied their civil rights - to travel, hold political meetings etc. Mr. Advani's inchoate statements about who Mr. Vohra would talk to - 'those who have renounced violence' - was seen as excluding the Hurriyat. This makes the BJP's lack of support for the State Government all the more curious. For, the PDP, still in the process of widening its political constituency and working within the parameters of the Constitution, has wrested from the Hurriyat its claim to represent Kashmiri aspirations. It has, thus far, succeeded in carrying a risk-averse Congress with it and its 'healing touch' appears to have acted as a salve on festering wounds. In Jammu and Srinagar, political activists and intellectuals maintain that however isolated the Hurriyat is today, it is the grouping most likely to cash in on the PDP's failures.