For the first time since violence was imported to the Valley in 1988, a prime minister seems anxious to put to rest criticism that paralysis plagues the Centre's Kashmir policy. Fighting off a personal-political crisis that many saw as potentially cramping his space for manoeuvre in Kashmir, A.B. Vajpayee has pulled out another package to stop his peace plan from meandering to a dreary end. With K.C. Pant, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, as the mutually accepted official interlocutor, New Delhi has cast the net wide by inviting for dialogue all militant groups active in the state who are "desirous of peace". The overture also goes out to groups currently "outside", a pointed reference to the Hizbul Mujahideen (read Syed Salahuddin), a section of which, led by Abdul Majid Dar, came forward for talks with Delhi last July.
Importantly, New Delhi has decreed that the talks will be without preconditions—a clause through which it seeks the moral high ground to question the Hurriyat whether it would now "not be inconsistent for them to set preconditions for dialogue." It is an undisguised plea to the Hurriyat not to insist on, among other things, passports to travel to Pakistan. At the same time, the Centre has made it clear that bilateral talks with Pakistan is a separate matter that will be taken forward once it curbs cross-border violence and its anti-Indian propaganda. Coming just prior to foreign minister Jaswant Singh's meeting with US secretary of state Colin Powell, the announcement is designed to elicit a specific response on j&k from the new US administration. Coincidentally, it has also come when ex-president Bill Clinton was on a visit to India.
By casting the political net wider than the Hurriyat, the move aims at reassuring all other political entities in the Valley that have felt neglected all these months while R.K. Mishra covertly wooed the Hurriyat for the PM. If the Hurriyat react positively to this, it would be the first time since April/May 1996 when a group of militants, led by Babr Badr, Bilal Lodhi, Imran Rahi etc, broke away and formed the Forum for Permanent Resolution of Jammu and Kashmir.
But the issue of whether the Hurriyat will travel to Pakistan is still hanging in balance. Abdul Ghani Lone has in the past said that he was against the idea of the Hurriyat travelling to Pakistan—he feels there are other more important things that first need to be discussed. Pant's deputation may also put pressure on the Hurriyat into taking a clearer stance now. A section of the Hurriyat has, however, made it clear that minus Pakistan, this initiative will not travel far.
The latest move to resuscitate the political process is at least a month overdue. At the heart of the paralysis is an unresolved debate on how best to proceed with the Kashmir initiative. Syed Ali Shah Geelani is the wedge that divides the government. The pmo has been of the firm view that the advantages in letting Geelani go to Pakistan far outweigh the disadvantages. At the same time, many in the home ministry think otherwise. The external affairs ministry has also weighed in with the opinion that it would be unwise to let the Hurriyat inveigle itself as a third party on Kashmir under the aegis of the Shimla Accord. By bringing Pant into the picture, the Centre now hopes to send a signal that it still can produce results.
A meeting at the pmo last week grappled with all these issues. A suggestion was made that passports be given individually to Hurriyat members so that they can travel to Pakistan, one at a time. But the recent Sheikh Aziz experience has come as a dampener—Aziz was given a country-specific passport so that he could attend his brother's marriage in Pakistan—a move meant to send the signal that New Delhi was not opposed to individual Hurriyat leaders travelling to Pakistan. But when he went to obtain a visa, the Pakistani high commissioner apparently dissuaded him from travelling. Aziz went back to Srinagar, claiming that the marriage had been postponed. New Delhi now is of the opinion that Islamabad will not encourage anything less than a delegation to travel to Pakistan—that is, a delegation complete with Geelani as a member.
Pant thus has his task cut out. Especially since on the ground, and politically too, officials involved in the process admit that the so-called ceasefire now looks counter-productive.
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