A parallel EC might be a smokescreen for initiating dialogue
In a bid to stay in the reckoning in the post-September 11 scenario and following Pervez Musharraf's January 12 promise of cracking down on jehadi groups, the Hurriyat Conference has kick-started a nebulous and tentative political process.
To prove its "representative character" in the Valley, which was being increasingly questioned in the changed regional and security context, the Hurriyat dramatically announced last fortnight that it would set up its own "autonomous and impartial" Election Commission which would oversee free and fair elections in the state.
After a four-hour meeting of its executive on January 27, the Hurriyat said it would conduct a three-phased poll in the Valley, Jammu, Ladakh and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). As a first step, an expert committee would present an internal report of "distinguished" members who would comprise the panel to oversee the poll. Selection of candidates and polling agents would follow, the Hurriyat ruled.
According to a top functionary in the Union government, those likely to be part of the Hurriyat poll panel include civil rights activist Tapan Bose, Rajya Sabha MP Kuldip Nayar, former Delhi High Court judge Rajinder Sachar, journalist Ved Bhasin and two ex-judges in PoK.
Does this mean the Hurriyat has decided to enter the public domain and contest the assembly polls slated for this September? "Never. We won't participate in rigged elections," says Hurriyat chairman Prof Abdul Ghani Bhat. Adds the Hurriyat's Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, "This move is to silence our critics who can't stomach the fact we represent the broader spectrum of Kashmiris."
Despite the tough talk and public posturing, insiders within the 23-party conglomerate told Outlook that the Hurriyat was looking for an honourable excuse to open a dialogue with New Delhi. "A political space has to be created whereby at least a faction of the Hurriyat can participate in the polls," says a Hurriyat member. Behind-the-scenes players who have been working on the Hurriyat included K.C. Pant's team, intelligence agencies, western missions, the PMO and the latest facilitator in the peace initiative, Wajahat Habibullah.
The Hurriyat's rethink has been prompted by some of the difficulties it faces. The changes, especially after Musharraf's January 12 speech, haven't been lost on the Hurriyat, which has found itself increasingly marginalised and in desperate need to prove that it has a following in the state. Reports of infighting, differences in ideology and approach between the hardliners and moderates and the failure to evolve a healthy consensus have added to its troubles.
"The Hurriyat understands the limitations of the gun culture spawned by various militant formations. That's why they want to reach out to diplomatic missions to help in beginning a meaningful dialogue," says a key interlocutor in the Pant mission. Put simply, the Hurriyat can no longer thrive on militancy and its call for a boycott of the state polls in the present context will have limited impact.
The constitution of the National Kashmir Committee by Musharraf under the leadership of former PoK president Sardar Abdul Qayoom recently has added to the Hurriyat confusion. Qayoom, who is also from Prof Bhat's Muslim Conference, has asked the Hurriyat to come up with a bold and courageous statement to show the "political face" of the movement and has simultaneously rejected "independence" as a possible solution to the Kashmir dispute.
The setting up of a Peoples' Commission, selection of candidates for 87 assembly constituencies and appointment of 50,000 polling officers and agents for the Hurriyat's "independent" election seems an uphill task with no state support. "Don't worry. We will detail out our plan of action in good time," says Prof Bhat.
He's optimistic but many separatist leaders have questioned the Hurriyat's decision to form such a commission, describing it as an "escape route" from its real problems. Says People's League spokesman Manzoor Ahmad, "Mahatma Gandhi did not seek a mandate from the people for independence from the British. There is no need for such a commission." Another leader, Hashim Qureshi, added, "The move vindicates my stand that the conglomerate has no locus standi among the people in the state."
However, several officials in Srinagar believe that the Hurriyat's action may be a step to force New Delhi to meet its political demands, at least half-way. For long, there has been a lack of direction and control in the Centre's Kashmir policy. Pressure to start a dialogue has been building up and the Hurriyat does not wish to be left out.
Published in OutlookIndia.com