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The pointed symbolism did not escape anyone in Srinagar. When the Centre decided to change the venue of the Inter-State Council meeting from New Delhi to J&K's summer capital, it was sending out an emphatic message to the people of Kashmir as well as the international community. The subtext: normalcy had returned to the Valley and the Centre was supportive and sympathetic to Mufti Mohammed Sayeed's healing touch policy. Sadly, the cheer couldn't last for long.
The meeting of chief ministers and lieutenant-governors from across the country on the sprawling lawns of Srinagar's newly built Sher-e-Kashmir International Convention Complex (SKICC) was indeed impressive. And when Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee spoke of the shimmering waters of the Dal Lake and how tourists had returned to Kashmir, everyone applauded. But soon a louder noise ripped through the gathering. As Vajpayee was concluding his inaugural address, a suicide attack shook the nearby headquarters of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL). Militant-turned-politician Javed Shah, his security guard and two others were killed in the 12-hour encounter between two militants and security forces.
Srinagar was once again on the edge. The terrorists had chosen the BSNL office where people had queued up last fortnight to apply for mobile phones. When security forces landed up, the militants moved to an adjacent hotel from which Javed Shah ran his newspaper, Watan.
The police say the intention was clearly to disrupt the Inter-State Council meet. "We had intelligence inputs that the militants were planning to strike around the meeting venue. We ensured that they failed to carry out their plans," says K. Rajendra, IG (Kashmir range). Before this attack, militants had shot dead two securitymen at close range in Srinagar's high security zone and escaped.
The psychological impact of such incidents on locals is always immense. Kashmiris had remained indoors on August 27 as a separatist group had called for a strike call. Because of the BSNL attack, they chose to do the same the next day as well even though there was no strike. "Such incidents would definitely discourage those who might otherwise be inclined to lend a helping hand to the Mufti's normalisation efforts. But it's nothing unexpected. Personal safety comes first," says Hilal Ahmed, 47, in downtown Srinagar.
The conference missed out on sending positive signals to business houses interested in investing in Kashmir. According to sources, the chief minister would have liked to showcase the meet to India Inc but finally what the TV networks rolled out were clouds of smoke billowing from the hotel building where the encounter with the militants took place.
The only good news was Vajpayee's offer to talk to "everybody". But the Hurriyat responded to the offer by calling a bandh. "The goodwill gesture by Vajpayee has been squandered by the Hurriyat. There was no need to react in this abrasive manner," says a local leader from one of the Mufti's peace committees.
As for the Hurriyat, it appears to be in a state of flux. With the exit of senior Jamaat-e-Islami leader Syed Ali Geelani, it is fighting for survival as a separatist political forum. Geelani, who was fast emerging as an ideologue for pan-Islamist separatists, recently announced he would be floating a political organisation of his own. His exit has put a big question mark on the cohesiveness of the Hurriyat that looks like cracking at the seams even before it can take up the task of engaging in a dialogue with the Centre.
It is true the militants have taken away the sheen from the Mufti's claim of normalcy at a time when all eyes were on the state. But the Mufti still maintains that the situation in the Valley has already going from good to better.On the ground, there is truth in this claim. However, the militant's capacity to hold hostage any future peace overtures in Kashmir cannot be undermined.