Implications Of Hurriyat Leaders' Visit To Pakistan
8 June 2005
The Daily Times
Islamabad: Many view the Indian government's decision to allow the Hurriyat leaders to visit Pakistan as a signal that Kashmiris can be a part of the peace dialogue. This interpretation is as valid as President Musharraf's claim that the visit is an acknowledgement of the disputed character of Kashmir History was made on June 2 when a group of All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) and other Kashmiri leaders crossed the Line of Control (LoC) to meet the Pakistani leadership in Islamabad. However, this did not come about without a hiccup. When they applied for permission to take the 'peace bus' to Pakistan the Indian government was agreeable to their travel to Muzaffarabad but not to Pakistan. A spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs explained the Indian reservation in terms of an understanding between the two governments according to which 'passengers travelling on the bus [could] travel only within the territory of the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir'. A spokesperson for the Pakistan Foreign Office contested this claim. The Indian spokesperson subsequently said India would leave it to the Pakistan government to ensure adherence to the understanding. The Indian claim strictu sensu appears to be well founded. However, the fact is that most of the people travelling to Muzaffarabad from the Indian side availed themselves of the opportunity to travel to Pakistan as well. In view of the ground reality, therefore, the Indian objection indeed looked strange. How do we explain it? The fact is that the Indian government was never comfortable with the idea of the Hurriyat leaders crossing the LoC into Azad Kashmir in the first place, let alone going to Pakistan. However, it could not stop them from going to Azad Kashmir after the start of the bus service. Of course, crossing into Pakistan was different. It entailed serious implications for its stand on Kashmir. The Indian government seems to be worried about the Hurriyat leaders assuming the role of 'mediators' between Pakistan and India - a role it does not countenance. In March 2001, LK Advani, then home minister, had rejected a request by the Hurriyat leaders to travel to Pakistan with the observation that ' the APHC would not be allowed to act as a mediator'. What is the big deal about the APHC acting as a 'mediator'? Perhaps the Indian government believes that this has the potential to transform bilateral negotiations between the two countries into a tripartite arrangement. This apprehension appears to be well founded. President Pervez Musharraf, too, has told Daily Times (May 24, 2005) that 'once [the Hurriyat leaders] visit us and they talk to the Indian government...we shall have a trilateral arrangement going'. The Indian government is averse to the Hurriyat leaders sitting at the negotiating table with the governments of the two countries because traditionally it has insisted that talking with the Kashmiri leadership is its 'internal affair'. That perhaps also explains the Indian government's position that it regards the Hurriyat leaders travelling to Muzaffarabad 'as individuals'. A possibly adverse opposition reaction may have been a factor in the Indian government's reservation to the Hurriyat leaders' visit to Pakistan. Let's not forget that following the agreement early this year on the Kashmir bus service, the BJP had strongly criticised the government for agreeing to a local permit system for travel across the LoC and not insisting on the passport as the only valid travel document. Asked for his views on the Hurriyat leaders' visit to Pakistan, the Indian opposition leader LK Advani - himself in Islamabad on a visit - declined comment. Justifying his silence he said it was inappropriate for him to speak on the subject while on a foreign soil. Fortunately, the Indian government did not blow the issue of the Hurriyat leaders' visit to Pakistan out of proportion. It may have realised that this could bring the peace process - already in doldrums for lack of progress practically on every substantive issue - to a grinding halt. This would not have gone down well with the international community, particularly the United States. The Indian reservation to the Hurriyat leaders' visit to Pakistan stands in sharp contrast to the gratuitous flexibility shown by the Pakistan government which has made a number of unilateral concessions on Kashmir. The latest example of this is President Musharraf's readiness to consider groups other than the APHC as representatives of Kashmiris. Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, the former APHC chairman, too, has accepted the representative status of Mufti Muhammad Syeed's PDP and Farooq Abdullah's National Conference. The Indian government, meanwhile, is in no mood to make such concessions. Reacting to the Hurriyat leaders' visit to Pakistan, a senior Indian government official has said: 'we don't consider those who have stayed away from elections the true representatives of Kashmiris'. On arrival in Azad Kashmir and subsequently during their stay in Pakistan the constant refrain of the Hurriyat leaders - both in their impromptu interviews and press conferences - was the imperative need to involve Kashmiris in the peace dialogue. This should not surprise anybody. They have been craving for this since long. At least since the early 1990s they have been agitating for a seat at the negotiating table by invariably calling a strike whenever the Indian and Pakistani leaders hold talks on Kashmir. Of course, their apprehensions of being excluded from the dialogue are not without basis. The latest irritant for them has been the phrase 'to the satisfaction of both sides' in the Islamabad declaration of January 6, 2004. Pakistan has pointed out the necessity of including Kashmiris in the talks. India, on the other hand, as noted above, is clearly wary of doing so. While prepared to talk with Pakistan and the APHC separately, it does not want both to be part of the same process. The Kashmiris' keenness for tripartite negotiation can be gauged from the fact that the ceasefire agreed by the Hizb did not survive the Vajpayee government's refusal to include Pakistan in the talks. Many Pakistani and Kashmiri leaders view the Indian government's decision to allow the Hurriyat leaders to visit Pakistan as a signal that Kashmiris can be a part of the peace dialogue. This interpretation is as valid as President Musharraf's claim that the visit is an acknowledgement of the disputed character of Kashmir.