It seems odd to talk about Srinagar when there is such an important meeting underway in Delhi, a ‘‘heart to heart’’ between Kashmiri leaders from all regions of the former princely state. But this meeting’s impact will be judged from Srinagar, and my own sense is that its potential to impact favourably is large.
Over the past six months Srinagar has begun to move into a post-conflict stage. The difference is palpable. There are far fewer checkpoints, and these are manned by local police and CRPF. The army is far less visible — except at night, when the hilltops ringing Srinagar glitter with the light from army barracks. Though the city still empties of its local residents at nightfall, it bustles until then. On a late July afternoon, the Mughal and Shalimar gardens were bursting with flowers and people to enjoy them, and Dalgate was, at 11 p.m., packed with tourists, the restaurants were lit, and I even heard music playing.
This is, however, only one side of the story. I was there a couple of weeks ago, when the Prime Minister’s talks with the Hurriyat took place. The local press coverage was considerable, and optimistic, but the public reaction was more mixed. Most people still doubted the sincerity of the Indian and Pakistani leadership, as well as the unity of their own — and they have reason to do so.
At the same time that the Prime Minister held talks with the Hurriyat, the Jammu and Kashmir government charged Srinagar’s fundamentalist firebrand, Asiya Andrabi, under the Public Safety Act. Andrabi had been earlier arrested, along with other women colleagues, for roughing up a woman dining with her husband, as part of her drive to rid the city of brothels. There were no protests at her arrest on common criminal charges — but when the government used the PSA against her, Srinagar went on strike. Most people concluded that this event revealed that the India-Hurriyat talks were only ‘‘for show,’’ though some accused unnamed spoilers of deliberately undermining the peace initiative by the Hurriyat.
It appears that the blunder was inadvertent — the recently appointed police chief acted in an excess of zeal, without considering whether the PSA was appropriate or assessing the potential public damage his charges might do to the nascent peace process with the Hurriyat. But the damage was done — the effect of the India-Hurriyat talks was severely reduced.
This is not the first time that the right hand has undermined the left in Kashmir. I was in Kashmir for an ‘‘intra-Kashmiri dialogue’’ in July, with participants from all the different regions of Jammu and Kashmir, including Azad Kashmir, Gilgit and Baltistan. The day after our conference began, militants took over the central cable system, closed down all the entertainment channels and substituted a text that said ‘‘we apologize to our subscribers for their loss of entertainment, but we had to do this in protest against the killing of three innocent boys in Kupwara by the security forces’’. That afternoon two militants got into the Lal Chowk shopping complex, which was soon surrounded by security forces, in an encounter that only ended two days later (which was when cable TV was restored too).
‘‘This militant attack is being done to discredit our meeting,’’ one Azad Kashmir participant said to me. At the time I thought he was exaggerating — ours was a low profile civil society meeting but now I am not so sure. The battle for Kashmiri hearts and minds has entered a new phase in which the peacemakers are gaining ground over the naysayers. The question is, how do we help the peacemakers defend and expand their space, while preventing the naysayers from using violence to disrupt the peace process?
It is in this context that the present meeting in Delhi gains salience. First of all, it brings together diverse and, until now, warring leaders from the different parts of Jammu and Kashmir. To have Farooq Abdullah, Abdul Ghani Bhatt and Sajad Lone at the same table, discussing a peace process proactively instead of combatively is in itself a huge confidence booster that all shades and sections of Kashmiri opinion will be part of the consultations for a lasting settlement. It is also an enormous step for the Hurriyat to say, as Mirwaiz Umar Farooq did, that elected political leaders and civil society must be involved in talks as well.
The problem is that these meetings are all taking place this side of the LOC. When will there be an intra-Kashmiri — or an India-Pakistan-Kashmir — dialogue in Muzaffarabad, Lahore or Islamabad? Is it possible to tackle the issue of violence without having such meetings on the other side of the LOC? From Sardar Qayoom Khan’s remarks it appears that Pakistan is beginning to recognize this need, but cautiously. Chief Minister Mufti Sayeed, Mehbooba Mufti, and Farooq and Omar Abdullah have all been invited to Pakistan. Not quite a conference, but it is another step on our slow road to peace…
The writer is a trustee of the Delhi Policy Group and Professor at Jamia Millia University. Email: email@example.com