In a last-minute attempt to imbue meaning into the visit of the all-party delegation that reaches here from New Delhi on Sunday, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has written to the separatist leadership requesting them to “take a lead and engage” with the delegation, “which will be the start of a credible and meaningful political dialogue and resolution process.”
Significantly, this letter, signed by her as chief of the Peoples Democratic Party, marks a visible shift from her recent hardtalk at the press conference with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh who leads the delegation. She had said, echoing her ally BJP, that only 5 per cent of the people were involved in the protests.
Whether Mehbooba’s letter thaws the chill is anybody’s guess.
For one, those she has addressed the letter to are all in custody. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq is in the Cheshma Shahi sub-jail, Yasin Malik in an undisclosed prison, Shabir Shah in the Rajbagh Police Station and Syed Ali Shah Geelani under strict house arrest.
Ironically, Mehbooba has asked these leaders to “indicate a time and place of your convenience for an exchange of ideas with the delegation”.
For their part, the separatists aren’t exactly eager either. They have urged people to “block the airport road”, “hold protests wherever the members of the delegation go” and “receive them with slogans — Go India, Go back; We want freedom”.
The ground is still tense and volatile. After 57 days of lockdown, protests are still on across the Valley, especially in rural Kashmir. With the killing of a 23-year-old man in Qazigund this evening, the death toll has risen to 74. Another body was fished out of the Jhelum in Srinagar. Today, more than 40 were injured taking the number of wounded to around 9,000 since July 9.
Mehbooba visited Kulgam in South Kashmir on Saturday and by evening, the house of a local PDP leader who had accompanied her was burnt down by people.
The lines are clearly drawn. That’s hardly surprising since all-party visits have had a record of being reduced to, what observers here call, “the dialogue of the deaf.”
Those who disagree with New Delhi — separatists, major industry groups, civil society representatives — say there is “nothing that the parliamentarians don’t already know.” And the “a” word (azadi) is anyway off the table. Those who don’t disagree with New Delhi will surely show up but say there is not much to talk about.
In fact, before her letter to the separatists this evening, the state government had put in place a script for the all-party delegation borrowed from the one in 2010.
Senior officers from the police and administration and several PDP leaders worked to organise delegations to meet the all-party team.
“The aim of the visit of such a high-level delegation is primarily to help calm tempers and provide us with an opening to bring the Valley back to normal,’’ a senior official said. “Our problem is that we are not sure who can, by meeting the visiting dignitaries, help calm the situation.”
He said that a meeting with top separatists would happen only if the delegation members are ready to meet them in custody.
And yet, there is a faint glimmer of hope among officials even if it’s about style, rather than substance. “There may be harsh talk but the talks will be cathartic. We hope the presence of dozens of top parliamentarians here will help ease the situation. Some of those from the Opposition will express empathy,” the official said.
No one’s betting on what the all-party delegates will hear if and when they meet the separatists.
Geelani has asked “all stakeholders to refrain from engaging in this meaningless exercise of meeting this delegation,” because they have unanimously committed to seeing “Kashmir as an integral part of India,” and neither have the mandate nor the intent to resolve the dispute.
Although this is Geelani’s traditional stand, this statement is important because this time he has the support of other top leaders like Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik, who had come together on a joint platform before they were sent to jail.
In the past, the separatists were divided and a section would engage on the issue of dialogue and human rights violations. Those lines seem to have blurred this time. Both Mirwaiz and Malik, sources say, have told Geelani to decide the future course of action.
Senior business leaders who met a similar delegation in 2010 are echoing this sentiment and urging the all-party team to talk to the Hurriyat.
President of Kashmir Chamber of Commerce Mushtaq Ahmad Wani, who was part of the traders who met an all-party delegation in 2010, said: “We have already conveyed to them what people of Kashmir want. They also know what is the real problem in Kashmir and how it will get resolved, unfortunately they don’t want to address the real problem. Kashmir is a political problem and we need a dialogue with the real stakeholders and not with mere mainstream politicians.’’
Said president of Kashmir Traders and Manufacturers Federation M Yasin Khan: “Instead of us, they should engage the original stakeholders of the Kashmir, I mean the separatist leadership.’’ He added that the last time, interlocutors were appointed after the all-party visit “but their (interlocutors’) recommendations were not implemented as the government was never serious”.
Mohammad Ashraf Mir, who heads Federation Chamber of Industries Kashmir, another major business group, too said that it is useless to meet the visiting delegation. “We have met them in the past but they did nothing,” he said.
Bashir Ahmad Bashir who heads an amalgam of major fruit growers and dealers associations, also said that they wouldn’t meet the delegation which should rather meet the Hurriyat leadership.
The main opposition in the mainstream camp, National Conference, says “concrete” steps need to be taken by the government to show a movement forward. “We thought pellets will be banned and some other initiatives would be taken, but so far nothing has been done,’’ said party’s general secretary Ali Mohammad Sagar. “The government has to take some concrete steps and will have to initiate meaningful dialogue”.
This scepticism regarding the visit runs through the ruling party too. Unlike in 2010, the government has launched a crackdown against the Jamat-e-Islami, one of the strongest cadre-based organisations on the ground. Most of the people arrested and booked under Public Safety Act are from the Jamat.
This move is unprecedented because Jamat sympathisers helped the ruling PDP’s rise to power since 2002. Indeed, this silent alliance, especially in South Kashmir, substantially helped PDP consolidate its base.
Given this, several PDP leaders were against this crackdown but they were marginalised, sources said, after specific directions from New Delhi to rein in what it called “provocateurs.”
Meanwhile, infiltration of fresh militants is climbing. And unlike in 2008 or 2010, where protesters would form a human chain around security bunkers or militants would halt their activities to allow protests, this year both have moved in tandem.
With the entire security grid firefighting daily, militants have got a rare opportunity to consolidate. Security officials say that once the street is calm, renewed militancy may be the next challenge.