Even as the threat of war looms large along the Indo-Pak border and the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir, New Delhi seems to have not given up on finding some political solution to the Kashmir problem. Last year it was K.C. Pant, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, who was nominated by New Delhi to hold parleys with Kashmir leaders. Last week, Delhi chose Wajahat Habibullah, a senior bureaucrat, who enjoys considerable goodwill in the Valley, to continue the dialogue.
Habibullah, a senior IAS officer of the J&K cadre and currently heading the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy of Public Administration in Mussoorie, paid a 'secret' visit to Kashmir and met a cross-section of people.
His meetings with the Hurriyat chairman, Prof Abdul Ghani Bhat, and two other senior functionaries of the 32-party amalgam, Abdul Ghani Lone and Yasin Malik, were the focus of much speculation.
Points out analyst Tariq Mir: "Both India and Pakistan are under tremendous pressure from the West, especially the US, to resolve the Kashmir dispute. This is the reason why New Delhi has once again opened channels of dialogue, this time through Habibullah, who enjoys a good reputation in Kashmir." Mir is of the view that "this time talks can be fruitful as Pakistan also seems to be forced into bidding goodbye to its extremist approach on Kashmir."
Habibullah is seen by many in the Valley as one official who is sympathetic to the plight of the Kashmiris. It was he who negotiated with the militants on behalf of the government during the 1992 Hazratbal siege. Reports of how he took hot biriyani for the militants holed up in the shrine had evoked loud protests from the BJP at that time. Indeed, so close was he to the heart of the average Kashmiri that when his car was involved in an accident with an army vehicle at one point, there was no dearth of conspiracy theories.
Although Hurriyat leaders are tightlipped over what transpired during their meeting with Habibullah, insiders point out that the latter used all his skills to persuade the Hurriyat leaders to revive "a meaningful dialogue" with the Centre. Delhi's new 'envoy' is believed to have promised that the proposed talks would be unconditional and there would be a serious effort to break the ice. According to a source, the general drift of Habibullah's message was: "Let us see if we can get anywhere ahead. Let us try to work out some mutually acceptable formula".
It was after Habibullah's meeting with the Hurriyat leaders that the conglomerate decided to send a three-member delegation to Delhi. Though there is no question of reviving talks with the Centre in a haste, the leaders are to meet government officials and diplomats of important western countries.
The members of the delegation have been chosen after considerable thought. In it are Lone (considered to be a moderate), Malik (known for his pro-azadi position), and the controversial hardline Jamaat leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani (a staunch advocate of Kashmir's accession to Pakistan and defender of the jehadi movement in Kashmir). To the surprise of everybody in Srinagar, Geelani and Malik had a closed-door meeting here before Malik left for New Delhi, where he was to appear in court in connection with criminal cases pending against him. Lone is also in New Delhi ostensibly for a 'medical check-up', while Geelani is expected to join them soon. A senior Hurriyat leader told Outlook that the composition of the delegation is to show to New Delhi that there are no differences within the Hurriyat as is being suggested by intelligence officials.
According to sources close to the Hurriyat leadership, no one expects the delegation to achieve any immediate progress.Says a Hurriyat leader: "The delegation can be expected to start any dialogue with New Delhi only after there is some form of consensus on basics like the nature of the talks, the involvement of the Kashmiri leadership from across the LoC in the dialogue and also the inclusion of Pakistan in the final lap of the talks."
The popular perception in the Valley is that Pakistan has been forced to change its stance vis-a-vis militancy in the region. Surprisingly, the harsh action announced by Pervez Musharraf against mujahideen groups, including the banning of the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Lashkar-e-Toiba, did not evoke any negative response in the Valley even from extremist quarters. While the common man welcomed the Pakistani action, the leaders of extremist groups preferred to maintain a meaningful silence.
Interestingly, Pakistan, evidently in an attempt to make the separatist movement in Kashmir acceptable as a political struggle, set up a high-level national committee on Kashmir. But what surprised secessionist leaders in the Valley was the nomination of former prime minister of Pakistan Administered Kashmir, Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan. Khan has all along been very vocal in criticising jehadi groups and their activities in the Valley. He was the first and only politician from Pakistan who extended his full support to the Ramzan ceasefire offer of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and had advised the Hurriyat not to miss the opportunity to talk to New Delhi.
Khan has made no bones in strongly opposing the involvement of jehadi as also non-Kashmiri groups in the Valley and for this reason was sidelined for a long time by the isi. Musharraf's decision to instal him as head of the Kashmir committee is seen here as a resurrection of sorts of the moderates.
In the new situation emerging in South Asia, where no country is willing to distinguish between different types of terrorism, the challenge before the Hurriyat is immense. Should it participate in the political process without wrangling concessions from the Centre? Should it insist on a comprehensive political package before it agrees to participate in the assembly election slated to take place later this year?
There is a view that the Centre might insist on the Hurriyat's participation in elections to prove its popularity before entering into any substantive dialogue. This school of opinion holds that the Hurriyat doesn't have too many options, and with Paskistan eschewing terrorism, it would be more prudent on its part to attempt gaining control of the levers of power.
Others, however, feel it will be suicidal for the Hurriyat to contest polls without the Centre announcing a package aimed at addressing the alienation of the Kashmiris. For one, the Hurriyat could be accused of betraying the 'cause' for power. Two, the Kashmiri population will find it hard to justify the suffering of more than a decade, were the Hurriyat to participate in the polls without wresting significant concessions.
No wonder it's believed the Hurriyat is willing to talk on all issues except participation in the assembly election. But if the proposed talks fail to take off, the Hurriyat will have to rethink its strategy in taking forward its Kashmir movement.
Published in OutlookIndia