The long summer protest of 2016 had seen a surge in pro-Pakistan sentiment on Kashmir’s streets. Green was the predominant colour of closed shutters, an unambiguous statement in conjunction with the ‘India Go Back’ slogans painted on them and on road surfaces across south Kashmir. In the four months of agitation that erupted after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Muzaffer Wani, protesters had freely unfurled the Pakistan flags—even wrapping the bodies of protesters killed by government forces in them. Now with the protest season ebbing, the army and police are wiping away anti-India graffiti and paintings of Pakistan’s flag from walls and signboards on the streets.
The phenomenon was not surprising in itself, except the scale on which it occurred. What’s more interesting is how sentiments on the street affected the mainstream political parties: the rise of pro-Pakistan feelings on the ground has served to exert a kind of gravitational pull on the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and its rival National Conference, drawing them to a new outreach towards Islamabad. And Islamabad has not been unresponsive towards their overtures either.
Abdul Basit at a programme organised by Rajasthan Patrika on November 14
Away from the media focus, Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit held separate meetings with both Suhail Bukhari, media advisor of chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, and the NC’s chief spokesman Junaid Azim Mattu in Lucknow, on the sidelines of a conference organised by the Rajasthan Patrika Group on November 14. One session of the conference was about Kashmir and the Patrika Group had invited speakers from Jammu and Kashmir, including Mattu, Bukhari and Panthers Party leader Bhim Singh. Mattu lets on that Basit sought meetings with him and Bukhari after their keynote addresses.
Basit’s meeting with Mattu lasted for one hour and the one with Bukhari less than that. Mattu, being a representative of the opposition party, mischievously harped on the duration—recalling how in the past Hurriyat Conference leaders and other separatists used to compete with each other on how much time Pakistan’s chief diplomat would give them during high-tea invitations at the High Commission in New Delhi.
As for themes touched upon in the talks, the Bishop Cotton-educated, 31-year-old Mattu says he told Basit that the separatists would “eventually become a liability for Pakistan” and described the job of the three top separatist leaders, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq and Yasin Malik as a “sinecure”. He also briefed Basit, in detail, on the NC’s agenda. “Our proposed method for a solution is regional autonomy on both sides, and then a porous Line of Control (LoC)” as a first step towards “acknowledging the sentiment of Kashmiri nationalism”, he told the high commissioner, adding, “The Hurriyat has no agenda except abusing the mainstream.”
Greater autonomy is an old NC slogan and political rivals accuse the party of always raising the slogan when it is out of power. However, the NC describes greater autonomy as an article of faith. On June 26, 2000, the state assembly had adopted an autonomy resolution after accepting a report of the state autonomy committee (SAC) formed by the then CM Farooq Abdullah. The SAC’s main recommendation was the restoration of the pre-1953 status in the relationship between the Indian Union and the state. In March 2006, Omar Abdullah, then the party’s working president, had even presented a document on the theme to the then Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf in a one-on-one meeting in Islamabad.
There is a distinct policy shift, though, in Mattu’s line of reasoning now: he says New Delhi should engage with the separatists and Islamabad should start talking to the mainstream political parties of Jammu and Kashmir. It’s an idea the NC is hoping Pakistan will look at seriously. His argument is that, unlike the separatists, the mainstream has evolved in Kashmir, and they are institutionalised entities with a plan of action and roadmap for Kashmir. Previously, the separatist leaders have strongly objected to any Pakistani move to engage with the mainstream parties as the separatists see them as “pariahs” as far as the process towards resolution is concerned—so Islamabad’s response to Mattu’s proposal will be interesting.
Bukhari, who had posted his picture with the Pakistani diplomat on Twitter to put across a message, is now reluctant to disclose much about what transpired during the meeting. All he says is that he had “a cup of tea with Basit and general discussion”. His unwillingness to speak up can be attributed to the compulsions of coalition politics as the PDP is in an alliance with the BJP, and the latter has taken a tough posture against Pakistan after the Uri attack.
But Mattu told Outlook that he was pretty direct with Pakistan High Commissioner. “I asked him: do you (Islamabad) want to cultivate relations with the people of Kashmir or just a few Hurriyat leaders?” The Hurriyat was breaking the back of the people economically, Mattu complained to Basit, what with Geelani, Mirwaiz and Yasin continuing with their protest calendar for four months now. “The Hurriyat is the first resistance leadership that’s making conflict unaffordable for their own people and affordable for New Delhi…. They are actually forcing people to commit suicide, collectively.”
Suhail Bukhari, Bhim Singh and Junaid Azim Mattu at a programme organised by Rajasthan Patrika on November 14
Mattu refuses to disclose Basit’s reaction to his anti-Hurriyat onslaught—except to say he was all ears—saying the conversation was off the record. But he has broken a long tendency among the mainstream parties to not criticise the separatists. Unlike the mainstream parties, he says, the separatists claim the high moral ground, but are accountable to none. “Now we will speak up. We will ask them questions and seek answers,” he says. His message to the common Kashmiri people, thus, is: “If you are being oppressed by pellet guns, we will speak up; and if you are being economically persecuted, we will speak up.”
In a clever attempt to turn the tables, he says: “How can we surrender the fate of our people to these separatists, who have no political exposure, have very dismal political acumen or are completely ignorant? Think objectively, does Delhi need the Hurriyat in Kashmir or doesn’t it? The Hurriyat has become a buffer for New Delhi in Kashmir.”
Mattu had created a controversy in his address at the Lucknow conference, saying the youth of Kashmir are not alienated from the Union because of either lack of development and poor governance or because of Hurriyat or Pakistan. He contended that the alienation stemmed from the gradual political disempowerment of the state that started in 1953 when its formal autonomy came under “an extra-constitutional and illegitimate assault” that pandered to a hypernationalistic, majoritarian narrative that goes against the idea of India that J&K acceded to.
After the Lucknow meetings, both parties have also raised the pitch for dialogue with Pakistan. On November 24, NC patron Farooq Abdullah backed the idea in his own style while addressing a public meeting in Kishtwar district. “One day this big government of India has to talk to Pakistan.” With Omar Abdullah by his side, Farooq said no solution to Kashmir was possible without talking because “Pakistan is party to the dispute”. He made prime-time headlines by also trashing the Parliament resolution on retaking PoK. India has no power to take “that part of Kashmir and Pakistan no power to take this part,” he said. Upping the ante, he asked: “Kya woh tumhaare baap ka hai (is PoK your father’s property).” The crowd cheered.
Unnerved by Farooq’s pitch, Mehbooba Mufti fielded her uncle Sartaj Madni, the powerful party general secretary, to say the PDP was the actual architect of the idea of resuming the dialogue process with Pakistan. Thus, on November 26, Madni too rushed to Kishtwar to address his party workers. At a gathering that was visibly smaller than the NC’s, he said “even the National Conference and Congress are acknowledging today the fact that dialogue, settlement of the Kashmir issue and friendly relations with neighbours are key to J&K’s prosperity.”
Letting flow some choice barbs at the Abdullahs, saying those who talk of peaceful relations with Pakistan today were advocating all-out war when they were in power. “At the national and international level, they were also dubbing Kashmiri youth as Pakistani agents,” Madni said, alluding to past statements by Farooq.
And yet, despite all these words, what’s striking about the situation is the commonality between the rivals. This competitive posturing by the two mainstream parties, aggressively calling for dialogue with Pakistan at a time of increasing tension and cross-LoC shelling, has come as an interesting twist. Even if it comes to naught in New Delhi, its real utility is in the Valley: as an attempt by the PDP and the NC to recover some lost ground and shore up their own legitimacy in the common Kashmiri’s eyes.
By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar