Kashmir Roundtable Conference: Another Opportunity Lost By Separatists

Md. Sadiq

26 May 2006

With the Hurriyat deciding to stay away from the second Kashmir Roundtable Conference (KRC) held in Srinagar on 24-25 May 2006, questions are being raised about the separatist outfit's commitment to the peace process and its claim of being the 'true representative of Kashmiris. The Hurriyat Conference had boycotted the first KRC held in New Delhi on 25 February. The second KRC was hailed as a significant step forward with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh outlining a comprehensive framework for addressing Kashmiri grievances. By boycotting the roundtable, the separatists have lost yet another opportunity to involve themselves in the broad-based dialogue process.

Staying Away From Dialogue
Even though the separatist outfits including the Hurriyat Conference have repeatedly emphasised on a dialogue to resolve the Kashmir issue, they have consistently stayed away whenever any opportunity to initiate a dialogue has arisen. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's initiative of launching a dialogue process which sought to involve all shades of opinions had provided a significant opportunity for Kashmiri outfits to voice their concerns. Rather than taking part in the roundtable, the Hurriyat Conference stated that it would be willing to meet the prime minister on the sidelines of the meet. However, the National Conference had objected to this demand saying that it would boycott the conference if the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) conceded to the separatist' demand. However, the PMO turned down the Hurriyat demand. Observers say that the Hurriyat's decision to stay away from the roundtable was apparently influenced by instructions from Islamabad. The Hurriyat has always sought to project itself as the sole representative of the Kashmiris. By staying away from the roundtable, the Hurriyat sought to project itself as a bigger and more exclusive group in the process for resolving the Kashmir issue. Though Prime Minister Singh showed statesmanship by extending an invitation to the separatists even though they boycotted the first KRC, the Hurriyat Conference chose to miss another opportunity to involve itself in a structured dialogue process.

While announcing its decision to boycott the KRC, Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq had said that it did not want to be part of a "crowd of hypocrite politicians and Ikhwanis (counter insurgents)". The Hurriyat leaders had also objected to the presence of mainstream parties in the conference who had demanded representation from Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). Though leaders such as the Mirwaiz question the 'representativeness' of mainstream Kashmiri political figures, he chooses to overlook the fact that whatever influence he exercises in the Valley is due to his religious stature and not otherwise. Even the other Hurriyat leaders also do not have a popular support base. Perhaps this is why they continue to stay away from testing their 'representativeness' by participating in elections. Compared to this, all those who participated in the second KRC were members of political parties who have been elected in polls that have been internationally acknowledged as 'free and fair'. Separatist leaders like Yasin Malik and Shabir Shah also chose to boycott the second KRC despite the fact that this was a significant opportunity for them to take a larger role in the peace process.

Observers say that the main reason behind the separatist' boycott is the fact that there is considerable differences within the separatist camp. The Hurriyat, which is a 23-party conglomerate, is facing internal differences between its members. The Hurriyat clearly fears that if they participate in a roundtable conference or take part in the elections, then these differences would be exposed thereby undermining their claim of being a cohesive Kashmiri group. While the Hurriyat chose to boycott both the roundtable's, it had no qualms about going to Pakistan to participate in a Kashmir conference organised by Pugwash on 10-12 March 2006. Significantly, the Pugwash guest list included most of those whom Prime Minister Singh had invited for the roundtable. Observers say that though the Hurriyat participated in a Kashmir conference in Pakistan, it chose to boycott the roundtable organised by the Indian government which had more or less the same participants.

Evolving a Humane Approach
Despite militant attacks, including a suicide attack ahead of the conference and a boycott by the separatist parties, the second KRC was held on 24-25 May 2006. Srinagar: In a major peace initiative, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sought to encourage Kashmiri militants who had crossed over to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) to return saying that their cases would be reviewed. Singh's announcement is significant as there have been reports in the media that many Kashmiri youth who had taken to militancy and crossed over to PoK were keen to return home. Singh also promised 'zero tolerance' to custodial deaths and urged security forces to adopt a 'humane' approach. Singh, who addressed the second roundtable conference on Kashmir attended by representatives of various sections of the State's society and chaired a meeting of unified command, suggested institutionalisation of arrangement to bring people from both sides of divided Kashmir closer. Pointing out that there were two dimensions to the Kashmir problem, Singh said, '"one is the relationship between Delhi and Srinagar and the other is the relationship between Delhi and Islamabad. These two dimensions are, of course, different but each affects the other." Singh also expressed his government's resolve to protect people from terrorist attacks and asked the security forces to deal with terrorism firmly but humanely while observing human rights. The second KRC was attended by 30 leaders, including representatives of PDP, National Conference, Congress and Panthers Party. The BJP's state unit and the Ladakh Buddhist Association, however, did not participate in the roundtable.

The fact that the second KRC was a significant step forward was evident as Prime Minister Singh announced the setting up of five working groups to take ahead the dialogue process in Kashmir and look for a 'consensual' solution. The panels' tasks will include: dealing with CBMs to improve the condition of those affected by militancy; strengthening relations across the LoC in terms of more people-to-people contact; economic development; ensuring good governance; strengthening Centre-State relations. The group looking into the Centre-state relations will deliberate on the special status of J&K and discuss self-rule in terms of regional federalism and greater autonomy for the state. Prime Minister Singh also regretted the absence of the Hurriyat Conference at the roundtable and expressed hope that its leaders would consider the joining the process in future. The second KRC indicated New Delhi's genuine desire to resolve the Kashmir issue by taking into account all shades of opinion and discussing all possible solutions. Observers say that Hurriyat's steadfast refusal to participate in any broad based dialogue process initiated by the Indian government is linked to the ongoing peace talks between India and Pakistan. Observers also say that Islamabad is using the separatist outfit to pressurise India on the dialogue process. Even though Pakistan has said that it is keen on a comprehensive and meaningful dialogue with India to resolve the Kashmir issue, Islamabad continues to restrain the separatist outfits from participating in any initiative launched by New Delhi. For the moment, it is clear that the separatist outfits, including the Hurriyat Conference, would continue to follow Islamabad's directives with regard to the Kashmir peace process. However, in doing so, the separatists have lost yet another opportunity to participate in a serious and representative dialogue to resolve the Kashmir issue.