When Delhi decided to suspend foreign secretary-level talks with Islamabad, taking exception to the Pakistan high commissioner meeting Kashmiri separatist leaders, it brought a divided and exhausted Hurriyat back into relevance in Kashmir. Also significant is the way the Centre’s recent move has been viewed in Kashmir. This shift in strategy has strengthened the belief that Delhi only aims to strengthen the status quo; its political overtures to the separatists and the political mainstream in Kashmir were just meant to calm tempers and buy time in the hope that the “Kashmir problem” would eventually vanish.
The Modi government has cut through the diplomatic sweet talk favoured by the previous dispensation, baring the stark contours of Delhi’s real policy. As a result, both the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party are cornered, since there seems to be no space for their political remedies for the Kashmir dispute. The Hurriyat faction led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who has consistently suspected the motives behind Delhi’s overtures for dialogue, is vindicated. And in the disagreement between the separatist factions, the scales have been tipped. The moderates have been proved wrong. The Hurriyat now finds itself at a crossroads. There is growing public pressure in Kashmir for the various factions to unite and start a new phase of resistance, instead of continuing with unproductive dialogue. Perhaps the past holds a key to this disillusionment with dialogue.
The All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) was set up on July 31,1993. When Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was made the first chairman of the newly stitched coalition of 23 political and religious parties in Kashmir, he was 20. From the beginning, the Hurriyat was a mix of ideologies and personalities, with contradictions that would regularly surface in public. The only thing binding the various strands of this political formation was its objective. The Hurriyat constitution adopted in 1993 stated that the objective was to wage a peaceful struggle to secure right to self-determination under the UN charter and resolutions on J&K. To accommodate rival political ideologies, it included the right to independence under the rubric of self-determination and agreed to strive towards an “alternative negotiated settlement” between all three parties to the Kashmir dispute — India, Pakistan and people of the Jammu and Kashmir.
The formation of this coalition was important because it gave the separatist struggle a political face. At the time, the militant movement was the major challenge for the Centre and the lack of a political platform representing the separatists was Delhi’s main alibi for not engaging in talks. But once the Hurriyat was formed, Delhi wasn’t ready to talk outside the ambit of the Constitution — an insistence that has broadly informed its every engagement on Kashmir ever since. As brutal counter insurgency operations were launched to curb militants, Delhi started to draw the NC back to the electoral process. Though the NC initially stayed away from polls, it participated in the 1996 assembly elections, after then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao promised the “sky is the limit” for a resolution on Kashmir.
The NC contested on its autonomy plank and, though there were allegations of coercion and rigging, managed an overwhelming majority. Even as the conduct of an assembly election with the NC’s participation became Delhi’s de facto solution for Kashmir, the Centre unilaterally binned the NC’s autonomy resolution, even after the J&K assembly had passed it with a two-thirds majority.
Meanwhile, senior separatist leaders Yasin Malik and Shabir Shah, both released from jail in 1994, had decided to pursue a peaceful solution to the Kashmir dispute. Indeed, Shah had begun a process to reach out to minorities across the state to broaden the scope of a political solution. There was no response from the government. Malik declared a unilateral ceasefire, abandoned militancy and adopted Gandhian non-violence. Despite the JKLF giving up arms, scores of Malik’s colleagues were killed. In 2007, Malik had even launched a statewide door-to-door campaign, the “Safr-e-Azadi (Journey for Freedom)”, to mobilise support for the Indo-Pak peace process and create space for Kashmiri voices in the dialogue. There was no response.
A constituent member’s “proxy participation” in the 2002 assembly polls was the provocation for the Hurriyat split in 2003, but the issue of dialogue with Delhi was always the sticking point within the conglomerate. While Geelani insisted on tripartite talks, the Mirwaiz group initiated direct dialogue with the Vajpayee government. The talks yielded no results. Malik and Shah had stayed neutral during the split. While Shah met the Centre’s interlocutor, Yasin too held talks with Delhi. Again, no results. Dialogue seemed to have become an end in itself rather than a means towards a resolution. Meanwhile, Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf had scaled down its position. Islamabad no longer insisted on the UN resolutions and even sidelined Geelani, the strongest pro-Pakistan voice among the separatists. Still no result.
To pursue dialogue with Delhi, the moderates had to pay a heavy price. First, Hurriyat leader Abdul Gani Lone and then Mirwaiz’s uncle, Maulvi Mushtaq Ahmad, were killed. There was also an assassination attempt on Fazal Haq Qureshi, another pro-dialogue leader. When Modi came to power, Mirwaiz had hoped the new government would take its cue from Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and his credo of “insaniyat”, and keep up the dialogue. But this time, the Modi government has abandoned even the pretence of being open to unconditional dialogue.
Now that the gloves are off, it has only strengthened a growing conviction in Kashmir: the approach adopted by moderates for more than a decade was always flawed. The impression that Delhi had used dialogue merely to strengthen the status quo is also reinforced by the progress — or lack of it — in negotiations between Delhi and mainstream parties in Kashmir that didn’t question a solution within the bounds of the Indian Constitution. Never mind entertaining political demands like the NC’s resolution for the restoration of autonomy or the PDP’s ambitious self-rule proposal, Delhi did not even accept smaller administrative recommendations by its own working groups, who sought the repeal of draconian laws like the AFSPA. The report compiled by the most recent group of Central interlocutors wasn’t even acknowledged.
With the BJP joining the electoral battle for the J&K assembly elections this year, the situation has taken a new turn. For more than a decade, government formation in J&K was about the Congress choosing an alliance partner. It swung between archrivals the NC and PDP, and managed to stay in government. The state’s politics could be transformed if the BJP now displaces the Congress from Jammu and garners a few seats in the Valley, where its boycott of talks with Pakistan and its rebuff to the Hurriyat may win it votes among migrant Kashmiri Pandits. Apart from a polarisation along religious lines, this redrawing of the political map will make both the NC and the PDP irrelevant in the state. It could also force the Hurriyat moderates to revise their decade-long stance and push for a union with the Geelani faction in order to survive. With the sugar-coating gone from Delhi’s Kashmir policy, the faultlines are clear. There will be no room for the ambiguous middle ground created through the PDP’s soft separatism, the NC’s demand for autonomy and the dialogue mantra of the Hurriyat moderates. It’s going to be a direct battle between the narratives of integration and azadi.