One can sympathise readily with the disillusionment the Hurriyat executive council's moderate leaders felt when New Delhi, after having agreed to let its leaders go to Pakistan, baulked upon hearing that Ali Shah Geelani was to be a part of the delegation. This had the unintended effect of making Geelani, who was till then a discredited politician without much of a support base, into a local hero. At the same time, it opened the moderates to the charge that they had sold out Kashmir's interests to New Delhi.
The moderates have been back-pedalling since. Witness Abdul Ghani Lone's statement earlier this week that the jehadis had come as friends of the people and that it was New Delhi, not Islamabad, that was straining every nerve to prevent a resolution of the Kashmir problem. But it is time to ask whether these leaders haven't allowed their bitterness to overwhelm good sense. That is the only explanation of their reaction to K.C. Pant's second letter to Shabir Shah.
Pant's response to Shah was all any Kashmiri leader could have asked for. Shah had asked whether the government would engage Pakistan in a 'trilateral' search for peace, and if it would commit itself to talking to Pakistan at a later stage. Pant gave that assurance but pointed out that for fruitful talks, Pakistan too had to want to find peace through dialogue and negotiations. But the wording of Pant's reference to Pakistan showed that India had once again greatly softened its preconditions for a dialogue with Pakistan. In the April 5 statement, the Centre had made talks with Pakistan conditional on its 'curbing cross-border terrorism and putting an end to the…anti-India propaganda emanating from Pakistan'. In his second letter to Shah, Pant simply asked Pakistan to 'cooperate with India and initiate measures that would facilitate the process'. In effect, all India wants is some concrete steps on the ground that will show that Pakistan too wants peace through dialogue.
It's only on Shah's demand that the Centre talk only to those who have questioned or rebelled against Kashmir's accession to India that Pant has stood firm. But he explained at length that the reason was the ethnic and geographical diversity of Kashmir and hence the variety of opinions held by the people of the state. No government seeking a peaceful, and by implication democratic, solution to the Kashmir problem can simply refuse to hear what other groups have to say. The government can't be faulted on its stand. To do otherwise would be to repeat the most costly mistake committed during Partition. This was the award, by a colonial power in a hurry to get out of India, of the land between the Chenab and the Ravi rivers, housing half of Punjab's Sikh population, to Pakistan. This sparked one of the greatest communal holocausts in history.
It's just barely possible the Hurriyat's moderates are blind to the implications of their summary rejection of Pant's second letter. But other Kashmiris, who value peace more than power, would do well to consider them at some length. First, the Hurriyat wants to be accepted as the sole representative of the people of J&K but this claim would have been more credible if its executive committee had even represented the Hurriyat itself. The fact is, the general council meeting the committee called before rejecting the April 5 offer of a dialogue was the first in 18 months. What's more, the members of the Hurriyat's executive committee have never been elected and have simply made themselves permanent.
The most the Hurriyat can claim is that it represents most of the people of the Valley. But its insistence that it be the only one to whom the government talks amounts to a demand that the Valley be separated from Jammu and Ladakh. This has, of course, been Pakistan's demand for at least the past six years and has been repeatedly endorsed in recent weeks by Geelani, Abdul Ghani Bhat and, once he got to Pakistan, by Sheikh Abdul Aziz. But is this what all Kashmiris want?
Rejecting Pant's second letter also implies the Hurriyat doesn't consider an attempt to reduce the level of violence in the Valley and restore normal life a prerequisite for a negotiated solution. Implicitly, thus, it wants New Delhi to negotiate with Pakistan while jehadis continue to stream into the Valley and the death toll continues to mount. Admittedly, it was precisely to stop this that Lone and others had wanted to go to Pakistan. But granted that New Delhi made a serious mistake in January, must Kashmiris be made to pay the price? Now that negotiations are being offered, can they not appeal publicly to Pakistan and the United Jehad Council to restrain the jehadis?
Last, the Hurriyat's insistence on 'tripartite'—as opposed to 'trilateral talks' or 'talks with Pakistan at a later stage'—is a thinly-veiled attempt to give Pakistan a veto on any solution any other party might put on the table. Since Gen Musharraf has more than once explicitly rejected both the Simla agreement and the Lahore declaration as bases for a settlement and clings to the 1948 resolutions, modified to apply only to Kashmir, the Hurriyat's insistence on tripartite talks amounts to endorsing the UN resolutions and a two-way plebiscite in the Valley. Only the jklf has had the courage to reject this outright. The enigma is the others' acquiescence.
Shah's decision to call another meeting of representatives from all over Kashmir to discuss Pant's reply does not arise from doubts about New Delhi's motives but is an exercise in consensus building. It is what the Hurriyat should have been doing during the eight long years during which it claimed to be the voice of Kashmir. If it still does not want to join the exercise when the only alternative is escalating violence, then its claim to represent the people of Kashmir needs to be looked at a little more closely.