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BEGINNING AFRESH

Kashmir is on the threshold of a historic election, coming as it does in the post-September 11 world where, apparently, all elements of Islamic fundamentalism are in full display to counter Indian democracy that is seeking to survive through a free and fair poll. The Western world is focussing its attention on the Kashmir election and backing this exercise for its own reasons. It fears that if the elections fail then the subsequent takeover by Islamic fundamentalist forces would result in an inevitable clash between India and Pakistan that could eventually become nuclear, a spectre horrifying to the United States of America and the rest of the world.

It is with this objective in mind that the West is taking a keen interest in the poll process and even nudging the separatists to participate in it. In fact, diplomats are going out of their way to woo the separatists to the polls, probably much more than the Kashmir Committee of Ram Jethmalani is.

Their premise appears to be simple — once the indigenous Kashmiri separatists take part in elections, India can be prodded to open a meaningful dialogue with them. The Indian prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has addressed these international concerns in his August 15 speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort, “Dialogue can be held with the representatives elected by the people”.

This statement in itself means nothing to the Kashmiri separatists, particularly the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, the recognized voice of the secessionists both inside Kashmir and outside, since it makes participation in the elections a pre-condition for any dialogue. But it could be seen to be at least one positive step in the Kashmir stalemate which has the separatists and the Centre taking impossibly rigid stands. Yet, it was but obvious that international pressure would mount on both for a softening of the respective stances.

There is no doubt that New Delhi has at times compounded the problem despite being willing to talk to separatists about anything short of azaadi or freedom. The former prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, had said that “the sky is the limit” in such matters. But the words were never translated into action, and the key players in Kashmir found that New Delhi was making promises it did not mean to keep.

The separatist camp holds that bilateral talks in the past have left a bitter taste in the mouth. They have history to attest to their argument, whether Central leaders like it or not. Jawaharlal Nehru had promised that the wish of the people of Jammu and Kashmir would be granted through a plebiscite as ordained by the United Nations security council resolutions. India could have gained at that point of time because the Kashmiris, who had resisted the Pakistan-sponsored tribal invasion, were fiercely pro-India then. They had seen the horrors unleashed by the Pakistani tribals. But India missed that golden opportunity.

Sheikh Abdullah had also promised greater autonomy that left the state in control of all affairs except communications, defence and foreign affairs. But what happened once he was deposed in August 1953 is a tragic story. Their distinct identity was threatened. And if the Sheikh Abdullah-Nehru accord could not work, there was not too much hope for the Sheikh Abdullah-Indira Gandhi accord in 1975 that brought Abdullah back to power. The accord was not only breached, but the Congress performed the trick of pulling the rug from under the Sheikh Abdullah government by withdrawing its support.

Why was Sheikh Abdullah brought to power if he was meant to be dislodged' Clearly, the Congress was pursuing a bizarre politics that left a lasting mark on the minds of the Kashmiris. They gradually distanced themselves from India, emotionally and politically. The distance was already increasing under Sheikh Abdullah, and his son, Farooq, fuelled this anti-India sentiment for his political survival.

Things gradually got murkier. New Delhi again committed a political blunder by installing a government headed by Farooq Abdullah’s brother-in-law, Ghulam Mohammad Shah and dismissing the government of Farooq Abdullah. Democracy was trampled upon again. New Delhi forced an accord of alliance with Farooq Abdullah in 1986 to share the spoils of power. But that caused a disaster. By 1989, when India had ruled the state for almost 42 years, there were not even 42 supporters of India among the Kashmiri Muslims.

Since the previous accords had failed to douse the flames, there was no reason to believe that future accords on similar lines would work. The Jamaat-e-Islami leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, now lodged in Ranchi’s prison on charges of sponsoring and financing terrorist outfits with funds channelled from Pakistan, often quipped: “There was never a leader greater than Sheikh Abdullah on Kashmir’s political scene who bartered his credibility for the sake of India and what did he get' Delhi never trusted him. How can Delhi trust anyone'”

As this history makes evident, the dialogue between Srinagar and New Delhi has always been bitter. But once the dialogue process starts and there is some Pakistani endorsement of it, the hopes for peace can only brighten in Kashmir. The elections have shown to the separatists that they have to take their own decisions. They cannot stay in obscure isolation for ever.

The prodding from the West for these elections have shown that they have to open channels of dialogue in the full glare of the world. It is immaterial to whom and through whom they talk. As long as the process remains transparent — both to the people of Kashmir and to the people of Pakistan and India — this is bound to yield results. This is where the importance of the elections gets magnified. The separatists may not be part of the polls, but they are definitely a part of the one offshoot of the polls — dialogue.

After the assassination of the Hurriyat leader, Abdul Gani Lone, the fact that has dawned on all the separatist leaders is that they are unsafe. Neither India nor Pakistan can protect them if they remain ambiguous on the issue of Kashmir. Pakistan will always nudge them in the direction of open confrontation with India and New Delhi will try to lure them to a dialogue. Both the situations are fraught with risks. But for them the most dangerous fact is that many Islamic fundamentalist groups, who have embraced the ideology of jihad, are neither in the hands of Pakistan, nor willing to listen to the separatists, not to speak of India which remains clueless about many of the mass- murders in the valley. This was clear from the cold-blooded murder of Lone on the day when Kashmir was observing the 12th death anniversary of Maulvi Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq. There could not be a more frightening spectre.

Amidst the confusion that followed Lone’s murder, Hurriyat had to find a way forward. Jumping into the electoral fray was not the best option for it. That would have subjected it to ridicule. Moreover, Farooq Abdullah would have scored a moral victory for himself and his party, the National Conference, if the Hurriyat had agreed to fight the elections, for he had challenged it to take part in the elections in February 1997 and reportedly offered to dissolve the barely six-month old legislative assembly. More than that, the question that the Hurriyat could not have answered is why there had been so many deaths if elections were the solution to the problem.

Evidently, the processes of dialogue and elections are two different things. Participating in polls means accepting Indian sovereignty, while holding a dialogue is talking as equals. The dialogue process can be taken forward or snapped in the middle. But once the decision to participate in the elections is taken, it becomes irreversible.

It is because of this that the separatists were insisting on dialogue first and elections later. In this regard, what Shabir Shah, chief of the Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Freedom Party, said makes sense, “Participating in the elections is not a crime but it should be preceded by dialogue so that hopes can be generated that the solution is the goal and not the governance. Change of guard in the chair of the chief minister or otherwise makes no sense at all. We did not sacrifice one lakh lives for the change of the government.”

One other thing is clear. The elections in Kashmir are not anathema to the separatists. Compare this with the situation in 1996 when they were out on the streets, marching behind banners saying no to elections. “No elections, no selections, only solution”. The mood in the valley is changing and a credible polls would certainly open doors for peace and mid-term polls where the Hurriyat too would be seeking a role of its own.

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