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Sajjad Lone’s search for ‘something’

Praveen Swami

Sajjad Gani Lone’s decision to contest the Lok Sabha election marks a decisive moment in Kashmiri secessionist politics.

His hands firmly clamped on the Koran, Sajjad Gani Lone last year denied that he was secretly supporting the candidates contesting the elections to the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly. “He is a liar, a curse on our nation,” Mr. Lone said of the man who made the allegation — the Islamist patriarch, Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

Less than six months later, though, the head of the secessionist People’s Conference has announced he will be contesting the Baramulla Lok Sabha constituency — a dramatic reversal of position for a man who, only in December, insisted that the 2008 elections were a triumph not for democracy but “the Indian gun.” “I will represent Kashmir in New Delhi,” Mr. Lone now says, “not New Delhi in Kashmir.”

For Jammu and Kashmir’s crisis-mired secessionist movement, Mr. Lone’s decision poses fateful questions. Should the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference also demonstrate its legitimacy through electoral contest? Will Kashmir’s secessionists be able to forge tactical electoral alliances with pro-India groupings, necessary if they are ever to wield power? And ought secessionists negotiate a settlement with India rather than wait for Pakistan to do so on their behalf?

Last summer, Jammu and Kashmir was torn apart by protests against the grant of land-use rights to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board. Islamists led by Mr. Geelani claimed that the land-use rights would pave the way for the colonisation of ethnic-Kashmiri lands. Like most secessionists, Mr. Lone came to believe that the protests that followed were a mass uprising against Indian rule and decided to boycott the Assembly elections.

But many People’s Conference-linked figures didn’t share that assessment. Among them was his sister, Shabnam Gani Lone, who contested from Kupwara. Ghulam Qadir Mir, a People’s Conference-backed independent, had lost the seat to the National Conference’s Mir Saifullah by only 132 votes in 2002. Another People’s Conference-backed independent, Ghulam Mohiuddin Sofi, won from Handwara and went on to become the State’s Forest Minister.

Shabnam Lone didn’t win — but other People’s Conference leaders did well in an election which saw voters across rural Kashmir defy the secessionist boycott campaign. Abdul Rashid Sheikh, a long-time confidant of Abdul Gani Lone, used his credentials as a democratic rights campaigner and newspaper columnist to defeat the National Conference’s Sharif-ud-Din Shariq and the People’s Democratic Party’s Mohammad Sultan Pandit in Langate.

“People have voted at a wrong time,” Mr. Lone ruefully said at a press conference in December, “but we cannot pretend nothing has happened.” Early in April, the Working Group of the People’s Conference leaders met to discuss the way forward. Leaders who had left the party because of its refusal to participate in the elections were invited to rejoin. Mr. Lone received the party’s support for his decision to contest the elections.

Changing discourse

Despite appearances, Mr. Lone’s decision to contest the Lok Sabha election isn’t surprising: indeed, its foundations were carefully built by secessionist leaders in and outside the Hurriyat over the last ten years.

Early in 1997, the former head of the Jamaat-e-Islami — the parent organisation of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen — criticised what he described as “gunculture.” In an interview to a Srinagar-based magazine soon after his release from prison, the then Jamaat chief, Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, called for “a political dialogue” to end the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir.

By the summer of 1999, ideas like these had become increasingly widespread. In April that year, Hurriyat leader Abdul Gani Butt called for a dialogue between secessionist and pro-India political groups like the Congress and the National Conference. The outcome of this dialogue, he argued, would constitute the will of the people of the State. This could then be communicated to the governments of India and Pakistan — an idea remarkably similar to the dialogue process initiated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2005.

In 2000, the Hurriyat centrists helped facilitate a unilateral ceasefire declared by dissident Hizb commander Abdul Majid Dar. Fearful that it would be left with no leverage in Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate soon derailed the ceasefire.

Fate, though, was not on Islamabad’s side. Pakistan’s long-standing support of the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir became increasingly untenable in a world transfigured by the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Soon after, the hostilities that almost resulted from the Jaish-e-Mohammad’s strike on the Parliament House made clear the potential costs of Pakistan’s war-by-proxy strategy. Pakistan was compelled to cut back its support for the jihadist groups in Jammu and Kashmir.

Mr. Lone’s father, Abdul Gani Lone, sought to use the new strategic landscape to push forward his efforts for a negotiated resolution of the conflict. In mid-April 2002, he travelled to Sharjah for discussions with the powerful Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir leader, Sardar Abdul Qayoom Khan, and the then ISI chief, Lieutenant-General Ehsan-ul-Haq. He is believed to have told both men that the Hurriyat intended to open the way for a direct dialogue with New Delhi.

“If the [Indian] government is not ready to allow self-determination,” Abdul Gani Lone said soon after the meeting, “the alternative is that it should be ready to settle the dispute through a meaningful dialogue involving all parties concerned.”

Days after making that statement, Abdul Gani Lone was assassinated by a Lashkar-e-Taiba hit squad — a blunt message from the ISI to all those contemplating a deal with New Delhi that did not accommodate Pakistan’s interests. In 2004, Hurriyat leaders led by Mirwaiz Farooq met with Union Home Minister L.K. Advani, but their talks were purely formal in nature. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held a fresh round of negotiations with the Hurriyat in 2005, but its leaders never delivered on the promises to come back with detailed proposals for discussions. Finally, in March 2006, APHC leaders promised mediators they would attend Prime Minister Singh’s second round table conference on Jammu and Kashmir but backed off after threats from the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.

Secret meetings

New Delhi now focussed its energies on Pakistan — a course of action that it correctly believed would be more productive than talking to the fearful Hurriyat leadership. In secret meetings which began in 2005, Dr. Singh’s envoy, S.K. Lambah, and his Pakistani counterpart, Tariq Aziz, arrived at five points of convergence. First, the two men agreed, 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. Mr. Lambah and Mr. Aziz also agreed that India would begin troops cuts in response to de-escalation of jihadist violence, co-operatively manage resources like watersheds and glaciers and, finally, open the LoC for travel and trade.

“I think the agenda is pretty much set,” Mirwaiz Farooq told an interviewer in April 2007. “It is September, 2007,” he went on, “that India and Pakistan are looking at, in terms of announcing something on Kashmir”.

The Hurriyat leaders hoped that the deal would hand them power. By the time Mr. Lambah and Mr. Aziz arrived at their five-point formula, though, Pakistan’s descent into the abyss was well under way. Before he was swept out of office, President Pervez Musharraf asked India to defer the dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir while he consolidated his domestic position. President Asif Ali Zardari later made clear that progress on Jammu and Kashmir was not something he was willing to risk the future of his beleaguered regime on.

Early last summer, the Hurriyat leaders finally lost hope that an India-Pakistan deal was possible. Desperate, the secessionist coalition’s leadership reached out again to New Delhi. Mirwaiz Farooq signalled that the Hurriyat would not oppose the coming elections, while Mr. Butt called on the National Conference and the PDP to work with the secessionist formation to “mutually work out a joint settlement and present it to India and Pakistan.” For his part, Mr. Lone called for secessionist aspirations to be focussed on the “achievable.” “In between ‘everything’ and ‘nothing’,” Mr. Lone said, “the leadership has to consider ‘something’ as well.”

Mr. Lone’s decision to contest the Lok Sabha election marks that first step towards the realisation of this so-far undefined “something”. Few observers believe the People’s Conference has an even chance of winning the Baramulla Lok Sabha seat, but the campaign will help rebuild the party apparatus and cadre. In time, the People’s Conference could also seek tactical alliances with formations like the PDP.

Few in the Hurriyat Conference, unlike Mr. Lone, have a genuine mass constituency that could help propel them to power. Participation in elections will, therefore, be a high-risk exercise. But sitting on the sidelines could lead to political oblivion. Mirwaiz Farooq and his Hurriyat Conference colleagues will have to carefully consider the ever-shrinking options they are left with.

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