I spent most of last week in Kashmir with a team from the Kolkata-based Centre for Peace and Progress led by its chairman OP Shah, meeting everyone we could. That, of course, included four Hurriyat leaders – Mirwaiz Omar Farooq; Shabbir Ahmed Shah; A.M. Bandey – and the one who’s got everyone’s goat: Syed Ali Shah Geelani.
But we also met Governor N.N. Vohra, who not only spent 90 minutes briefing us in detail, but also thanked us most generously for making the visit, underlining the need to reach out to all sections of Kashmiri opinion. Indeed, he even asked us to convey to Geelani his request that Geelani appeal to the youth to not jeopardize their own education and their future employment prospects by taking to the streets, even as Geelani had helped last year to calm things down.
We were also received for over an hour by the Chief Minister, Mehbooba Mufti, who got her secretariat to issue a press notice expressing her gratitude to our group and thanking us for advocating and undertaking dialogue with all concerned in line with the commitment made jointly by her party and the BJP in their Agenda of Alliance. (Rising Kashmir, 26 May 2017)
There was not a single political party that we left out. The BJP spokesperson, Hina Bhatt, joined our deliberations at the Round Table we convened on May 23 and had her say. It was very brave and commendable of her to have accepted our invitation, as she must have known that hers would be a somewhat lonely voice. I felicitate her democratic and open spirit. At the other end of the spectrum, we had the participation of A.M. Bandey of the Hurriyat. And, in between, participants of every other Kashmiri political party – the ruling PDP, the opposition Congress and National Conference, the CPI (M) veteran, Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami, and Er. Rashid, the independent MLA who hates the Congress and the BJP in equal measure, and denounced both in no uncertain terms. Besides, our round-table was graced by the pick of the Valley’s intellectuals, lawyers, university professors, businessmen, civil society activists, social workers, thinkers, writers, and press representatives, as also representatives of the two most important minority communities, the Kashmiri Pandits and the Sikhs.
Our principal objective was to demonstrate to governments at the centre and the state, and skeptics and hard-liners around the country, that every shade of political opinion and every section of society could be brought together around a table. We succeeded. And our reward was that at the high tea that followed at the nearby home of Muzaffar Shah, grandson of Sheikh Abdullah, he pulled me aside to whisper in my ear that it was the first time in more than thirty years that a Hurriyat representative had crossed the threshold of his home!
What followed was a veritable flood of individuals, delegations calling on us or inviting us to their homes and offices – the small newspapers association; the J&K Chamber of Commerce & Industry; tour operators; agriculturists; academics; lawyers; doctors; retired civil servants; and hordes of media, including media proprietors, leading editors and reporters/correspondents; plus families of Kashmiri Pandits and the oft-ignored but vitally important Sikh community; as also highly respected clerics of both the Shia and Sunni faiths. And, of course, the “separatists”.
No one, not one, in this wide spectrum of Kashmiri opinion had anything commendatory to say about the Government of India’s handling of Kashmir. In most cases, the criticism extended back to Jawaharlal Nehru and Delhi’s favoured leaders of Kashmir, from Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed to Mehbooba Mufti (Sheikh sahib excepted), but the condemnation was most virulent about the present national leadership. One highly respected opinion-maker put it succinctly: hitherto, he said, it was Kashmiris getting alienated from India, now it is Indians getting alienated from Kashmiris.
Everyone we met – without exception – stressed that nothing has been more damaging to mainland India’s image in the Valley than TV coverage, particularly two channels, one of which has not even started airing in the Valley but whose anchor has earned notoriety amounting to hatred from his earlier role in the second despised channel. “Why can’t those channels be closed?” we were repeatedly asked, while we struggled to explain that it cannot and must not be done in a democracy, and asking them to view other channels such as the one I am at present writing for.
Our claims to democracy were often met with mockery. What democracy? Kashmir, they said, is virtually under military rule. Someone gave the figure of 13 lakh security personnel – ranging from the army to the cop on the beat – to control what I later heard a former army chief boast on TV were some 90 remaining militants, just ninety, down, thanks, he said, to military action, from thousands at the height of the militancy. Then why have our security personnel grown so exponentially if the number of militants has been pruned so drastically? The certificate of commendation given by the army chief to Major Gogoi, who tied an innocent man to a jeep to parade him around as an example to others, despite the poor devil having been one of the miniscule number who actually voted in the recent Srinagar parliament by-election, has spread such loathing right across the Valley that the good work done by the armed forces, incidental to the principal purpose of their presence there, has been virtually wiped off Kashmiri reckoning. And when Amit Shah talks the language of Viceroy Linlithgow about only three-and-a-half districts of the Valley being disturbed, it only provokes a sneer on most Kashmiri faces and a conviction in their minds that they are under a form of colonial rule. For Linlithgow similarly dismissed the Quit India movement, until the Brits themselves were dismissed from the subcontinent just five years later.
Let that not happen to us in Kashmir. We cannot have Kashmir and not want its people. That was powerfully brought home to me as I went on my morning walk past the Chief Minister’s Private Office near which stands the Church of All Saints. A hoarding outside the Church is emblazoned with a line from a psalm: “Zeal for your House consumes me.” Zeal for Kashmir certainly consumes Modi – but not apparently for its people, who, in the last three years since the BJP came to power at both the centre and in the state, have been distanced as never before from the rest of the country by ghar wapsi, love jihad, beef bans, cattle slaughter bans, gau rakshak excesses, Yogi Adityanath and his private army, the Hindu Yuva Vahini – plus the overwhelming military presence wrapped in the security blanket of AFSPA. Hindutva and army domination of the Valley is certainly no way of winning hearts and minds.
Begging pardon, for this is a site for family reading, the present government’s Kashmir policies call to mind Nixon aide Chuck Colson’s notorious advice during the Vietnam War: “Catch them by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.” Inevitably, the Americans lost. So will we, if this continues.
Governor’s rule was much talked about while we were in the Valley, as it was tangentially hinted at in unattributed briefings emerging from New Delhi. The nonchalant reply we received was: “What difference would that make?” For, Governor’s rule or no, elected Chief Minister or no, it is the army that is calling the shots. “We are,” said many, “under army occupation.” One wit added that Governor’s Rule would put Kashmir under army rule even as Ayub Khan had put all of Pakistan under military dictatorship. In any case, the unanimous view was that when the BJP national leadership was overwhelming and undermining the state government, there would be little to distinguish Dilli Raj through a subordinated state government from Dilli Raj through Governor’s rule.
Perhaps the point that raises the most concern is that the youth, all born in the troubled decade of the 90s or the even more troubled 21st century, are under no one’s control and are operating at no one’s behest other than their own volition. Even the Hurriyat and its chairman, Geelani, are being sidelined. Notwithstanding hot denials by the Hurriyat itself and its many sympathizers, Zakir Musa’s is the rising voice and influence, threatening to overtake even Geelani, thundering that he, Musa, will behead any Hurriyat leader who describes the Kashmir issue as a “political issue”, when it is in fact an “Islamic” issue. Musa has since withdrawn his threat but any observer can see the looming danger, for if we do not want to settle with the Hurriyat, we may find ourselves confronted with Musa and his ilk.
As the Mirwaiz underlined to us, the greatest danger is of the political issue of Kashmir being converted into a Hindu-Muslim issue. In a telling aphorism, and in impeccable English, he said that what was once the issue of Jammu & Kashmir is now being communalized into the issue of Jammu v/s Kashmir.
That is what makes it imperative that we talk now, while there is yet time, than find a fundamentalist Islamic revolution unfolding in our midst. The most chilling words I heard were that we have so far confined ourselves to Kashmir, we may need to move on to Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. The speaker did not spell out what he meant. To those who have ears to listen, the unstated implication is clear.
The 23d May Round-Table was opened, after brief introductory remarks, by the veteran and frequently elected CPI (M) leader, Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami, who explained his participation by saying that Kashmir’s voice must reach the Indian mainstream since the major lacuna in the Kashmir discourse had been that the Valley had failed to communicate with India’s intelligentsia and the generality of Indian public opinion. Turning then to the Home Minister’s claim that problems in the Valley would be resolved within a year, he asked what could we expect Rajnath Singh to do in a year that he had failed to do in three years? He further asked, with reference to Amit Shah’s statement the previous day, why, if everything was normal in Kashmir except for 3½ districts, were there 1.3 million security forces stationed all around the state?
He was followed by the Congress leader, Saifuddin Soz, who said the Prime Minister must understand Kashmiri outrage at the Government of India rewarding Major Gogoi when “everyone”, including the “international community”, was condemning using an innocent Kashmiri as a “human shield”. He added that TV channels were “vilifying” Kashmir and Kashmiris, and strongly underlined that there was a “Revolt” underway in Kashmir.
The PDP’s representative, Nizamuddin Bhatt, voiced the Valley’s anger at the “humiliation” being inflicted on the state. He felt that governmental conduct at state, national and regional levels had to be “changed” so that a national consensus is evolved on “nationally important issues”. Describing the Manmohan Singh period as one that shed a little “light” on the Kashmir and Pakistan issues, he called for dialogue with all stakeholders, adding that the PDP-BJP Agenda of Alliance (AoA), which commits both parties to dialogue, must be regarded as the irreducible “bottom line”. He concluded that TV channels were seriously misleading the nation.
Engineer Rashid, MLA, opened by remarking that Geelani was “irrelevant” and that what should concern everyone was the rise of Zakir Musa. He warned that if you do not talk to the Hurriyat, and keep calling anyone who advocates such dialogue as “anti-national”, you will end up having to talk to Musa, the militants and the students on the street. He demanded to know how the state government reconciled its efforts to “facilitate” the annual Amarnath Yatra with preventing Geelani from mounting the pulpit.
Aga Ruhallah, spokesman of the National Conference, in a thundering denunciation of India, described the country as “egotistic, ignorant and inhuman”. He held that it was not meddling by Pakistan that was causing the trouble, it was that Kashmiris have been failed by the Indian state for seven decades. He claimed that the media, especially television, was being “instigated” by India to run daily programmes against Kashmiris as India was becoming an “RSS nation” and the army is turning into an “RSS instrument”. The “only solution”, he maintained, was the unanimous resolution on autonomy passed by the state assembly in 2001.
Dr. Hina Bhatt, spokesperson of the BJP, in a very brief intervention, regretted that no one had offered any solutions and were just resorting to blame-games.
Javaid Mir, formerly of the Hurriyat, said the BJP had declared war on the Hurriyat. He said past promises had been broken and pleaded that this “tyranny be ended” to “find a peaceful solution” through dialogue.
A.M. Bandey of the Hurriyat took the floor as the last “political” speaker to say that he had come to the Round-Table with the hope that “something would emerge” from the discussions that might be conveyed to the BJP in New Delhi, but was disappointed to find that there was no “united voice” here. He was particularly concerned at this lack of unity as keeping Kashmir on the boil suits the BJP. Therefore, he said, “The Road Ahead”, which was the theme of the Round-Table, was “thorny and bumpy”. He stressed that Kashmir was a “political” issue that took root when in 1947 the Kashmir “movement” was turned into a “dispute”. It was the failure to resolve this political issue “bilaterally” between New Delhi and Srinagar that had sparked the violence. He concluded by clarifying that the
Hurriyat’s stand was that everything could resolved by peaceful means through dialogue; the Hurriyat was not begging for dialogue but believed that it was only through dialogue that disputes could be resolved.
[I have put his words in italics because it was the single most important outcome of the conference. As I had translated his words into Hindustani in my concluding remarks, he asked to see my notes, and after reading through the words quoted above, confirmed that I had taken down his remarks, made in English, accurately.]
Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, who had been released from house arrest only 48 hours earlier, said the current dispensation had made the issue appear to be one of Muslim Kashmir v/s Hindu India. He said his party had never viewed the J&K issue as a Hindu-Muslim issue but as a political issue with a historical background. Now the fourth generation of Kashmiris is on the streets and they are imbued with “hate” for India. The stone-pelters are under no one’s control. The Valley is, therefore, moving towards anarchy beyond the control of the present leadership in the state, leaving little space for politics and political solutions. He held the media responsible for “hounding” Kashmir and Kashmiris, and asked why Vibrant India, the India of democracy and pluralism, finds no reflection on TV screens when it comes to Kashmir. He described one anchor in particular as “deceitful and lying”.
The Mirwaiz continued that after the Hurriyat had agreed to dialogue, Dr Manmohan Singh and Home Minister P Chidambaram had “let us down”. Ten years of the UPA were “wasted”. Hence, inside the Valley, dialogue is being equated to “sell-out” and the scope for politics is being increasingly restricted. You may, he said, have problems with our ideology but you must engage with the Hurriyat. Also, action on the ground is needed to enlarge the scope for political dialogue. For, in the alternative, if the “iron fist and military might” replace political action, especially now that the National Conference and the PDP are both “decimated”, there would be a most unfortunate outcome: Zakir Musa and his ilk would take over and the Kashmir issue would get completely “Islam-driven”, especially as these forces gain in direct proportion to the rise of the RSS, Hindutva and Yogi Adityanath, and the “othering” of Kashmiri Muslims. The key question now is: how do we move beyond communalism? Or is it that the BJP government actually wants further Muslim radicalization so that the Muslims of Kashmir are crushed by the military and thus the BJP’s Hindutva vote-bank gets strengthened?
He sought a “triangular” approach that would open the channels now closed between New Delhi and Islamabad, as well as Srinagar and New Delhi, indeed why not between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, even Srinagar and Islamabad, for, he said, the Hurriyat “can ask Pakistan to be more accommodative”. Why not “use the Hurriyat for that purpose”? Indeed, Pakistan will be satisfied if J&K “gets something out of it”.
He said militants and the Pakistan factor are “a reality” and that the Hurriyat are now no more than “watchers”. So, the “challenge for all of us” is to get together and seek a solution in which nobody wins all they want but accommodation between different viewpoints is secured.
The situation, he concluded, is no longer a question of Jammu & Kashmir, but of Jammu v/s Kashmir.
Shabbir Shah, who was released from house arrest in the morning of our afternoon meeting, stressed that the people of Kashmir must reach out to the “people of Hindustan” to tell them that we do not want to break India but end a situation in which Kashmir is the cause of all the trouble that India is being put to. We are not against India, he said, and want only “love and friendship” with them. He roundly condemned all assaults on Kashmiri Pandits and said he had rushed to the Raghunath Mandir in Jammu when it was damaged.
He then went on to list all the Indian Prime Ministers who had met him, starting with V.P. Singh, who had visited his “garib khana” after demitting office; Chandrashekhar, with whom he obviously enjoyed a warm relationship; Gujral; Vajpayee; and Manmohan Singh – except for the present Prime Minister. Why not then India talk to us – and to Pakistan? Why not settle when you are suffering because of us? After all, he added, I am received with honour everywhere in India. Then why are pellets and guns used against us here? Why guns to reply to stones? There are war clouds gathering on the horizon. We will all be destroyed.
Turning to the “atrocities” in south Kashmir, he said India’s freedom fighters saw one Jallianwala Bagh; we have seen dozens. Our efforts to find answers have not been reciprocated. TV channels are being misused. It is believed we can be bought. It is not understood that we are deeply concerned with the education of our children.
We seek, he said, “result-oriented and meaningful dialogue”, either a referendum to discover the will of the people – or dialogue. He had spent 31 years in jail or under house arrest without any case having been brought against him in any court. He feared nothing for himself but sought justice for his friends like Er. Farooq, sitting next to him, who had been jailed for 19 years before being released by the Supreme Court as wholly innocent.
Syed Ali Shah Geelani was still under house arrest when we called on him. So, when he stepped out of his home to walk us perhaps ten yards towards our car, he was stopped firmly by security. I joked that we had at least granted him the liberty to stretch his legs. He laughed and warmly embraced me.
Geelani opened what, in effect, was his video-taped oration (subsequently circulated to the local media) by saying he knew we could not “liberate” him and his companions nor “rid us of our difficulties”; yet, he had decided to meet us to inform us of the “reality” of the situation in Jammu & Kashmir. He demanded that the Hurriyat be given, above all, the right to freedom of expression to:
i. restore peace to the Valley
ii. improve India-Pakistan relations
Dialogue, he said, had been going on since 1947 but no solution had been found, essentially because while India says it will “dialogue” with us, it insists at the same time that J&K is an “integral part of India.” So, while you say you are “offering” us something, you are actually denying us what we ask for. J&K has given more “sacrifices” for its cause than India had during its freedom movement, beginning with the massacre of five lakh Muslims killed in Jammu immediately following the Maharajah’s accession to India. True, Chidambaram had said that the story of Kashmir was one of “broken promises” but did nothing about it.
You had promised a plebiscite and then gone back on your pledged word. I have been kept in jail or under house arrest almost all the time, and not even permitted to pay my respects to a dead relative. At Burhan Wani’s funeral, “lakhs” had joined the procession without any trouble-making but they were shot at. Why? He then read out a long list (that he subsequently handed over to me) claiming that in the year or so since then, 100 mourners had been killed; 17,340 were injured; 6,000 had suffered pellet injuries; 360 had lost an eye; 30 had lost both eyes; 19,500 houses were burnt; 8,000 lost moveable property like cars; 11,700 were arrested; Insha, a girl who had opened a window to see what was happening had been shot at and blinded. Why? Why, he asked rhetorically, are your forces so brutal and cruel?
He continued that you seem to love cows more than you do human beings. Afzal Guru was hanged only to slake the Indian thirst for revenge. We have known oppression under both Congress and BJP rule and will keep our agitation going till you withdraw your forces.
[Readers are invited to note the huge difference in tone and substance between Geelani and his fellow-Hurriyat representatives in their conversations with us. The Hurriyat is a “Conference”, not a homogenous organization. It is, in fact, a conglomerate of some 26 factions that are not all on the same page when it comes to the way forward. This has important implications for any dialogue process. Some will join. Others might join later. Yet others will never join till their impossible preconditions are met.]
Answering questions from the group, Geelani’s response to Zakir Musa’s threat to behead anyone who said, as Geelani did, that the issue was “political” when it was, in fact, “Islamic”, Geelani paused a long while and elliptically replied with a non sequitur, “Islam is Hayat – life”. Clearly it was a question he had no wish to answer.
Individuals and Associations
It was the unanimous view of everyone we met that the present stand-off was untenable. If something were not done now to defuse tensions, things would inevitably blow up uncontrollably. Some of our interlocutors were of the view that action on governance issues, especially on rampant corruption, and sustained economic development, had to be the immediate priority; others believed political action, particularly dialogue with all sections and all stakeholders, was the necessary pre-requisite. All agreed that here was little time available.
On the issue of Pakistan funding the Hurriyat that was the big issue following a TV expose, this was shrugged off as barely constituting “breaking news”. Clandestine funding by Pakistan was as a old a story, and as well-known, as clandestine funding by Indian agencies. Some were of the view that we should be far more concerned with open funding by the Saudis of hundreds of mosques and madrasas all over the state, which was, in fact, being encouraged by both the state and the centre despite the radicalization this inevitably engenders. Others disagreed. And one interlocutor asked us to ponder over the implications for Kashmir of Trump’s initiative for an “Islamic NATO”.
At the J&K Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and in conversations with individual businessmen, it was made abundantly clear to us that business losses are not their key concern; they strongly believed that would automatically improve once the political situation improves. India, said one leading light, “is at war with its own people in Kashmir.” There is no trust and no one believes “your promises of prosperity”. Particularly resented was Modi’s fatuous remark asking Kashmir’s youth to choose between “tourism” and “terrorism”. That one remark had brought tourism crashing down to under half of expected arrivals as the alliteration implied that Kashmir was a haven of terrorism and, therefore, not suitable for tourists. (I was personally struck on my visits to the Kheer Bhawani temple and Gulmarg, and in tourist spots around the city, at the disproportionately large numbers of South Indians among the tourists, reflecting perhaps the lesser level of media news and comment on Kashmir in the South as compared to the North).
Infuriated by TV coverage of the Valley, the Secretary-General of the Chamber said Kashmiri businessmen going to other parts of India were finding it difficult to get hotel rooms because the visual media had painted all Kashmiris “black”, and Kashmiri students, for this reason, were being harassed in educational institutions all over the country.
If, in fact, there are only ninety (90) militants left in the Valley compared to the “thousands” at the height of the militancy a quarter century ago, as authoritatively stated in a TV interview to Vir Sanghvi by Gen Bikram Singh, former chief of army staff, on the basis of information imparted to him by IGP, Srinagar, the overall situation in the Valley is surely conducive to a major political initiative by the BJP and its PDP ally in their jointly promised Agenda of Alliance.
The Chief Minister clearly thinks so and had travelled all the way to the capital to plead for this with the Prime Minister. She was of course rebuffed but remains persuaded (as she told us) that not until tensions are brought down can she give her full attention to issues of governance, particularly the wide-spread corruption that is eating into the innards of her administration.
While a parallel dialogue with Pakistan, as initiated during the Manmohan-Musharraf period, holds the key to bringing Kashmir around, the immediate need is to open the doors to dialogue to all sections of Kashmiri opinion that are open to talking to us, and all segments of Kashmiri society (including especially the exiled Kashmiri Pandits and the brave remaining Sikhs) as we demonstrated at our Round-Table in Srinagar on 23 May.
The two critical questions on which the prospects for “meaningful” dialogue turn are:
i. the agenda for talks, and
ii. the list of those who will be invited.
A possible way forward
I speak for myself and neither for the group that went to Srinagar nor for the Congress that has not even included me in the party’s Group on Kashmir, let alone in any other parry position. I am, as it were, a freelance Congressman!
In my view, the agenda most likely to attract a positive response rests on the statement made by former UPA Home Minister, P Chidambaram, that he had proposed to the Cabinet Committee on Security that the starting point for dialogue be the 26th October 1947 Instrument of Accession. Others have suggested that the more appropriate point of departure might be the Delhi Agreement of 1952 between Sheikh Abdullah and Jawaharlal Nehru. However that might be, the important point is that, apart from the subjects agreed to in the Instrument of Accession as the domain of the central government, all other central legislation since applied to the Riyasat be brought back to the negotiating table. Let consensus be reached on what should be retained and what might be dropped.
Further, the talks should be held within the framework of the twin assurances of Prime Ministers PV Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee that the “sky is the limit” for autonomy and that the negotiations will not be confined within the framework of the present Constitution but expanded to “insaniyat (humanity), jamhuriyat (democracy) and kashmiriyat (the traditional Kashmiri ethos)”.
If required, the Constitution can be amended later, as it already has been over 120 times without adversely affecting its basic structure and the fundamental rights inscribed therein. Note also that under article 371, eleven states of the Union, including Gujarat, have been given special provisions applicable only to them, and the most relevant instance is of Phek and Tuensang districts of Nagaland where it is expressly provided that no legislation of the Nagaland assembly will be enforced in these districts unless and until approved by the MLAs representing these two districts. We have the flexibility to include in the permanent provisions of the Constitution any special arrangements that we might agree to in negotiations with a broad spectrum of Kashmiri representatives. Many like Geelani might balk at any agreement that does not provide for the Riyasat to cut itself from the rest of the country, but the larger consensus (that “99 per cent of Kashmiris have no desire to join Pakistan”, as we were repeatedly assured) is likely to prevail.
In addition, the key agenda papers should include the unanimous 2001 resolution on autonomy of the J&K assembly painfully negotiated by the Farooq Abdullah government with all sections of political opinion, all segments of society (including the absent Kashmiri Pandits), and all regions of the state (other than those under illegitimate Pakistani or Chinese occupation); the operative recommendations of the 2001 Interlocutors report; similar recommendations by the numerous all-Party delegations that have visited the Valley since “the sky” was presented as the “limit” for autonomy; and the very practical recommendations of the six working groups (committees) on development and governance issues convened by the UPA; and, of course, any appropriate recommendations submitted by civil society.
As for who we should talk to, the obvious answer is to anybody who is ready to talk to us today or later. Given the wide reach of those ready to talk now, we may not prejudge who will come to the negotiating table, who will come in after seeing the initial progress and who will adamantly stay out. Let us move forward with whom we can – but let us move forward. We cannot remain mired in denial.