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Kashmir voices dismay at dialogue axe

A poster declaring the BJP’s state Assembly ambitions emblazoned at the party headquarters in Jammu. Picture by Sankarshan Thakur

Srinagar, Aug. 19: Amid intermittent ceasefire violations roving across the LoC from Kupwara in the north to the Rajouri-Poonch sectors down south, Kashmiri political parties have slammed New Delhi’s decision to scrap foreign secretary-level talks with Pakistan.

Some have called it “poor and predictable hard-line bilateral-ism”; others refuse to believe the guillotine on dialogue is not linked to domestic motives.

Jammu and Kashmir goes to the polls this winter and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP has pitched its provincial ambitions at an unprecedented, and unlikely, high: “Mission 44+” is its J&K slogan for the 87-strong Assembly and BJP president Amit Shah has taken that goal as a dare.

Cosying up to Pakistan close to the Assembly polls, especially when the LoC lies daily ridden with crossfire, doesn’t make a good poll platform for the BJP, especially in the Hindu-majority Jammu region, some observers contend.

The BJP’s highest J&K tally has been 11; it must look to sweeping the Jammu region (37 seats) if it is to get even anywhere close to its projected target.

The Hurriyat, whose ongoing dialogue at the Pakistani high commission in Delhi became the chief reason for India to cancel its engagement, came down hardest on the government.

“This exposes the NDA government’s hard-line ideology,” Hurriyat leader Yasin Malik told this newspaper shortly before he boarded a flight for New Delhi this afternoon.

“Narendra Modi, who wants to emerge as the only Mr Right in India, is telling Pakistan that Kashmir is not an issue he wants to discuss —his only interest is to promote trade and commerce. This is an unacceptable position for us Kashmiris, and surely also for Pakistan.”

Foreign secretary Sujatha Singh was slated to travel to Islamabad for talks with her counterpart, Aizaz Chaudhry, on August 25, the first bilateral opening at that level since September 2012.

Pakistan has officially termed India’s decision a setback. Speaking on the background to The Telegraph today, sources in the Pakistani high commission held they had done “nothing unusual” by inviting Hurriyat leaders for consultations ahead of the now abrogated talks between the foreign secretaries.

“These meetings have been happening all the time and openly,” a source said. “In any case, we believe India should not be linking a process to events. Peace between us is a long process which should carry on; small events should not rock them off the track.”

Malik was clearly displeased that Kashmir’s separatists had been “used” by New Delhi to “throw away a new opportunity”. Hurriyat leaders, he argued, had been talking “independently” to Pakistani authorities for more than two decades.

Following the opening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus link through Uri in April 2005, Hurriyat spearheads were also allowed to drive across the border for extended stays at the invitation of the government of Pakistan.

New Delhi’s decision now to quote the Hurriyat as the cause to call off talks had left him aghast, Malik said.

“Many Indian Prime Ministers, Atal Bihari Vajpayee most of all, had continued the dialogue with Pakistan in the full knowledge that we too were in regular touch with the Pakistani leadership. Is this Modi’s way of continuing the Vajpayee legacy? Is Mr Right saying all previous Indian Prime Ministers were wrong? Has he not just demonstrated that his extended arm to Pakistan was nothing but a charade?”

Malik and his elder separatist hawk, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, flew to Delhi intent on being made an “intrinsic part” of any resolution to the Kashmir issue.

Their participation in any such dialogue has been consistently swept off the table by New Delhi; direct or indirect consultations between Islamabad and the Hurriyat amounts to an intervention in India’s internal affairs, New Delhi has held.

But to Naeem Khan, another leading Hurriyat voice, New Delhi’s decision comes as “resounding proof that it is not serious about a resolution to the Kashmir issue”.

He called Modi’s invitation to Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif for his inauguration a “farce” and said: “Kashmir is the core issue between the two countries and we in the Hurriyat represent Kashmiri aspiration. If this government won’t even allow us to talk, how are we to believe it is even half serious about Kashmir or about improving ties with Pakistan?”

Former separatist Sajjad Lone, who joined the electoral process in 2009, said he felt a “sense of frustration” that the neighbours were “unable” to pursue talks despite declarations of intent.

“These theatrics should stop,” Lone said. “Why can’t India and Pakistan stop quibbling over little issues and act more maturely? There have been mistakes on both sides; the need is to overcome them and look forward, but is anybody listening? Is anybody even interested?”

Hurriyat factions are not alone in faulting New Delhi’s approach. Kashmir’s mainstream groups — the ruling National Conference (NC) and the Opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) — too believe that India has dealt a blow to the prospects of improving ties.

“It is evident from the reasons quoted by Delhi that they were looking for the first opportunity to pull out of talks and begin the blame game afresh,” PDP spokesperson Naeem Akhtar said.

“We were looking forward to resumption of talks because peace or tension between India and Pakistan directly impacts us. This positioning by New Delhi is not helpful.”

The NC’s Junaid Muttoo said the Modi government should have acted “more smartly even if its feathers had been ruffled” by the Pakistani invitation to Hurriyat leaders. But Muttoo also blamed the Congress, currently part of the ruling coalition in the state.

“It is strange that the Congress, which always advocated dialogue (with Pakistan), also challenged the Modi government to cancel the talks. In Opposition, the Congress has begun to talk like the BJP.”

But perhaps both parties also have one eye riveted on the coming Assembly elections. The BJP and the Congress are chief competitors in the Jammu region, where belligerence on Pakistan works as good electoral strategy. Especially at a time when guns along the LoC are refusing to fall silent.