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Democracy and the peace process in J&K

Praveen Swami

New Delhi must break with a script which has led to a breakdown of democratic institutions and engendered a dysfunctional political culture.

Speaking from atop his wooden throne in Srinagar’s Jama Masjid earlier this month, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq delivered a stinging attack on politicians who will contest the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly elections next month.

“I want to ask the Prime Minister of India,” the cleric and secessionist politician said in his October 10 sermon, “whether it serves any purpose to hold discussions with leaders who do not dare move among the masses unless they are protected by a cordon of guards.”

Mirwaiz Farooq’s fighting words would have had a great moral force had it not been for one uncomfortable fact: he is among the ranks of politicians he railed against. Like his secessionist colleagues Sajjad Gani Lone, Bilal Gani Lone, Abdul Gani Butt and Aga Syed Hassan, the Mirwaiz is protected by the Jammu and Kashmir police. In addition, the Mirwaiz—whose father was assassinated by jihadists — has invested in a bullet-proof car.

Early next year, notwithstanding the anti-election campaign that has now been unleashed by secessionists, an elected government will again hold power in the State. Influential figures in New Delhi’s policy establishment have been suggesting that once the rituals of democracy are done with, New Delhi, along with Islamabad, must get down to the real business of hammering out a peace deal with the very politicians who are seeking to obstruct the elections. While the new government goes about fixing roads and sewers, this line of thinking has it, the big boys will fix Jammu and Kashmir’s future.

If New Delhi is in fact serious about peace-building in Jammu and Kashmir, it must break with this script — a script which over the last six decades has led to a breakdown of democratic institutions in the State and engendered a near-clinical dysfunction in its political life. Instead, the politicians who are elected this winter must be pushed to come up with a workable vision of the State’s future — and encouraged to negotiate its contours and content with their counterparts in Parliament.

Ever since Independence, New Delhi had sought to secure Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India through a series of backroom deals. Politicians were cajoled — and sometimes coerced — to sign agreements in 1952, 1966, 1971 and 1975. Not one was debated and ratified by an elected body.

Deceit and betrayal

It takes little to see what drove this unhappy story. Prime Ministers, from Jawaharlal Nehru to P.V. Narasimha Rao, were driven by the need to defend India against Pakistan’s covert war in Jammu and Kashmir. In their vision, the proper role of the elected governments in Jammu and Kashmir was to dispense patronage, and thus undermine dissent — not deal with the issues which drove the conflict.

When Jammu and Kashmir saw the restoration of democratic governance in 1996, this paradigm continued to shape New Delhi’s policies. Soon after he took office, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee set about seeking a deal with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) — a secessionist coalition cast as the sole representative of Kashmir’s authentic, secessionist sentiment.

Prime Minister Vajpayee’s peace efforts, although helped along by generously-funded covert funding to the APHC leadership, achieved little. Hemmed in by hawks in his Cabinet, Mr. Vajpayee was in no position to make significant political concessions. APHC leaders, for their part, faced massive coercive pressures from jihadist groups like the Hizb ul-Mujahideen and the Lashkar-e-Taiba. In essence, the APHC and the Government of India played for time. Both hoped that negotiations with Pakistan would lead to an agreement that would end the conflict by gifting the secessionists power within an autonomy-based framework. Apprehensive of just that outcome, the National Conference began adopting increasingly intransigent postures, hoping to frustrate a New Delhi-Islamabad-APHC deal. Even as New Delhi talked to the APHC, though, it rejected the National Conference’s calls for a dialogue on autonomy — souring relations with the most important player in State politics.

During his first years in office, Prime Minister Singh’s policies closely mirrored those of his predecessor. He once again initiated negotiations with the APHC, and authorised a covert programme to reach out to hardline secessionists outside its fold. As before, the APHC refused to bring to the table a road map for dialogue. And mirroring the actions of the National Conference earlier, the People’s Democratic Party turned to Islamist ideas and practices in an effort to stave off the political consequences of a New Delhi-APHC deal.

In 2006, the Prime Minister finally departed from the tried and tested path, realising that it led only to certain failure. Instead of seeking a deal with the APHC alone, he now reached out to the full spectrum of political opinion in Jammu and Kashmir. Following all-party conferences in New Delhi and Srinagar, the Prime Minister set up five Working Groups on the conflict. Four of the groups — on social confidence-building measures, the cross-Line of Control relationship, economic development and governance — submitted their reports last year.

But the critical fifth group, which discussed Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional relationship with New Delhi, has not met in over a year, let alone submit a report.

Part of the reason was that major political parties in Jammu and Kashmir have not been able to arrive at a shared vision of the future. National Conference leaders reiterated their controversial 1999 proposals for wide-ranging autonomy within the Union of India, but offered no blueprint for addressing the anxieties of those residents who opposed this agenda. For its part, the People’s Democratic Party called for self-rule, but submitted only a blueprint for devolution of powers to district and regional bodies—not a map for transfiguring Jammu and Kashmir’s relationship with New Delhi. Bharatiya Janata Party representatives called for the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution (which confers a special status on the State), while the Congress said nothing at all.

New Delhi’s failure to push the fifth Working Group also stemmed from its hope that the APHC could still be made to sign on to an emerging India-Pakistan deal. At secret meetings which began in 2005, Prime Minister Singh’s envoy, SK Lambah, and his Pakistani counterpart, Tariq Aziz, arrived at five points of convergence. First, the two men agreed that there would be no redrawing of the Line of Control. Second, they accepted that there would have to be greater political autonomy on both sides of Jammu and Kashmir. Lambah and Aziz also agreed that India would begin troop cuts in response to de-escalation of jihadist violence, cooperatively use resources like watersheds, forests and glaciers, and, finally, open the LoC for travel and trade.

From the outset, the APHC rejected participation in the Prime Minister’s round-table dialogue, refusing to accept that it was just one of several political voices in Jammu and Kashmir. Speaking after a February 20, 2006 meeting where the APHC rejected an invitation to participate in the Delhi round-table conference, Mirwaiz Farooq said that while “the Hurriyat is not averse to New Delhi’s consultation process with others,” it “believes that for permanent resolution of the Kashmir crisis, the governments of India and Pakistan shall have to essentially deal with those people who have been treating Jammu and Kashmir as a disputed territory from day one.” Before the subsequent Srinagar conference, Prime Minister Singh’s advisors have long claimed, Mirwaiz Farooq tempered that stand and agreed to join in the discussions. However, the APHC backed out at the last moment.

Since then the Mirwaiz’s position has hardened. In the midst of this summer’s communally charged Shrine Board protests, he signed a secret June 19 agreement with Syed Ali Shah Geelani dropping the option of direct talks with the Government of India — the Islamist patriarch’s long-standing bone of contention with the APHC.

In his sermon, Mirwaiz Farooq lashed out at “the accords and agreements signed by Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad and Syed Mir Qasim with New Delhi, which the people of Kashmir have never accepted.” Agreements like these, the Mirwaiz said, bred a culture of “deceit and betrayal.” He is right, but he omitted to mention that secessionists were just as complicit in this corruption as pro-India politicians. Groups like the APHC are reluctant to engage in a genuine dialogue precisely because it will be substantive. Few among the secessionists have a workable vision for the future; those who do have are willing to risk the consequences of articulating one.

As things stand, it appears that the APHC and other secessionists want a deal which hands them power, not a real dialogue — a replay of the New Delhi-Srinagar pacts involving Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, which they claim to abhor. Whether the APHC likes it or not, the National Conference, the Congress and the People’s Democratic Party do speak for substantial sections of Jammu and Kashmir. Accepting this plurality of voices is a prerequisite for a meaningful peace.

Instead of empowering secessionists by starting a renewed engagement with the APHC after the elections, New Delhi would do well to turn, instead, to the politicians chosen by Jammu and Kashmir’s people to represent them.

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