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How Rao broke the ice in J&K

In October ’04, I called on Narasimha Rao of an evening. We met at his home on Delhi’s Motilal Nehru Marg and I was struck by the ...

Written by Wajahat Habibullah |
December 30, 2004

In October ’04, I called on Narasimha Rao of an evening. We met at his home on Delhi’s Motilal Nehru Marg and I was struck by the fragility of his appearance but equally by the clarity of mind. He spoke extensively of his concerns about Kashmir, an issue on which I had occasion to work with him.

In mid-’93, under the PM’s specific directions, I was asked to head the administration of the Kashmir Division, as divisional commissioner. When I called on Rao before my departure, he explained that my foremost duty was to be to restore public confidence in the government in an atmosphere of revolt and violence. My basic strategy was to seek to convey to disaffected citizens that the civil administration was their well wisher, even supporter.

Our response to the crisis in mid-October ’93 at Hazratbal, the font of Kashmir’s Sufi tradition, became the first test. I arrived at a settlement with the militants on November 2, ’93. The next morning I attended a meeting with the governor and the unified command of the administration, many of whom were opposed to the proposed settlement. After hearing everybody out, the governor asked me to proceed with it. It was apparent to me then that his instructions came from the highest political authority in the land.

At the end of the crisis, the Hazratbal shrine remained sacrosanct, all militants had surrendered and there were no casualties. More important, given the alienation, public confidence had been won even though it was to prove transitory because of the subsequent failure at Charar-e-Sharief. Hazratbal is perceived by many as a turning point in the insurgency. Since then, large sections of Kashmiri youth, particularly the educated, stopped supporting violence as a means of redress, some turning to political agitation.

Today, there is growing recognition that the resolution of Kashmir lies in dialogue. The intellectual leadership, including the local press, now urges dialogue. These trends owe much to the way the siege at Hazratbal was handled. And, at every critical moment of that siege, when I was overcome by doubts, Rao stood by me. I remember particularly that when food was first served to the inmates of the shrine, most of whom were civilians, there was public criticism. I therefore called the PM, who came to the phone personally and advised me to persist in my efforts. On November 3, a military truck rammed the car I was driving in from the Raj Bhavan with Lt Gen Zaki, an advisor to the governor, injuring him and almost killing me. The implementation of the settlemen was delayed to November 16, because of suspicions that the crash was not an accident. However, as I recovered in New Delhi, I was often called in for consultations by the PM, who was determined, despite opposition, to see that power was returned to the people and was anxious to explore ways to conduct elections.

In an address to the nation on November 4,’95, the PM promised J&K anything short of independence. Known as the Burkina Faso Declaration, it sought to spell out a credible framework for resolution. Its principal features: no abrogation of Article 370. Autonomy within the framework of the Constitution, including change of nomenclature of governor to sadar-i-riyasat and CM to wazir-i-azam. Working out economic packages for J&K. No partition of the state. It was agreed the Sheikh-Indira accord of ’75 would be benchmark. The Centre would impose no person or party on the state. This was the prelude to holding elections in J&K to be followed by assembly elections which returned an elected government in ’96. This approach has informed the government’s Kashmir policy thereafter.

The writer is at present secretary, Panchayati Raj

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