NEW Delhi's Kashmir policy has always been open to the charge of being, at best, a bit confused. And, during Prime Minister I.K. Gujral's recent visit to the Valley, he set a record of sorts by changing his statements thrice in three days. At the south Kashmir township of Qazi-gund, it was the liberal and progressive
Gujral who made an offer of open and unconditional dialogue with separatist groups. The following day, Gujral amended his statement. The talks, he now said, would be limited "to only misguided boys who have taken to guns" and would exclude the Hurriyat Conference, the only political platform of the separatists. The very next day, the prime minister was on record in the Lok Sabha disowning his earlier statements. Gujral's defence—he had been misunderstood as he spoke in "chaste Urdu"—is being ridiculed in Kashmir since Urdu is the official language of the state. At the end of the day, Gujral's visit seems to have only strengthened the view that New Delhi does not mean business when it talks of restoring peace in Kashmir.
When Gujral first spoke of the need for holding unconditional talks, it had been roundly welcomed. Hurriyat Conference leader Abdul Ghani Lone said his party would discuss the issue after the release of three senior leaders, who were taken into custody last fortnight. Shabir Shah, a moderate Kashmir separatist, welcomed Gujral's offer, describing it as the "right approach". However, when the prime minister backtracked, Shah issued a strongly worded statement against the "undemocratic and uncivilised policies of the Indian government". The state unit of the Congress, which had welcomed Gujral's offer, had to issue a rejoinder after Gujral's volte face in Parliament.
Insiders in the state government believe that the prime minister was forced to withdraw his statement due to pressure from Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah who is said to have pleaded with the prime minister to retract his statement. The open offer which would have included the Hurriyat Conference would, in his view, have been a blow to him since he has been extending himself in marginalising the separatist grouping.
To weaken the Hurriyat, Farooq has initiated the takeover of religious institutions where the Hurriyat Conference has support. And has been successful in taking back the administration of the powerful Muslim Auqaf Trust (MAT), which manages all important shrines including Hazratbal and that of Sheikh Noorudin at Chrar-e-Sharif. After his father's death, Farooq was made 'lifelong' chairman of the MAT and continued to hold this position till early 1990 when he left for London after militancy gripped the Valley. Several other trustees, who were close relations of Farooq, also fled the Valley. Those trustees who stayed on removed Farooq and his relations from the Trust. The provision for a 'life-long' chairman was also abolished and the Trust was affiliated with the Hurriyat Conference.
Farooq finally regained control of MAT last month when he secured the resignation of the chairman of the Trust and had its secretary arrested on charges of misappropriation of funds. The state government also took over the Jhelum Valley Medical College, run by a private trust. This Trust, though founded by Sheikh Mustafa Kamal, Farooq's younger brother and health minister, was virtually run by the Hurriyat for several years. Farooq is now eyeing other key institutions like the Bar Association and government employees' unions. And efforts are on to induct supporters of the ruling party in key positions.
Under Farooq's influence, a wiser Gujral told journalists at the end of his two-day visit that though he knew almost all the Hurriyat leaders and was "fond of them", he was critical of them for not having proved their credentials by joining the electoral process. "You have to prove your credentials before being accepted as a leader," he said.
The prime minister's second turnaround in Delhi—denying everything that he said in Kashmir—has only helped the separatists, say observers in the Valley. The Shoora Jehad (holy war council) comprising over half-a-dozen powerful pro-Pakistan militant groups has rejected the prime minister's offer on the ground that they are not "misguided youth" since they are fighting for a sacred cause. Moreover, Gujral's 'one step forward two steps back' policy is likely to be a setback for moderates in the Valley who want an end to the gun culture.