External Affairs

Hurriyat are Indian Citizens, Can Meet Any Foreign Representative, Says Govt

Hurriyat (G) leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani with Pakistani  high commissioner to India Abdul Basit at a recent Pakistan Day event in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

Hurriyat (G) leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani with Pakistani high commissioner to India Abdul Basit at a recent Pakistan Day event in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: The Hurriyat leaders are Indian citizens, and the Modi government has no problem with them meeting the Pakistani high commissioner or any foreign representative in India. But if the Pakistanis decide to meet with them, the government will object on the grounds that such meetings constitute interference in India’s internal affairs.

This, in a nutshell, is the latest official line on an issue that has become a major roadblock in India’s relationship with Pakistan ever since August 2014, when New Delhi cancelled the then foreign secretary Sujatha Singh’s trip to Islamabad in reaction to Pakistani High Commissioner Abdul Basit meeting Hurriyat leader Shabbir Shah days before her planned visit.

On April 28, 2016, minister of state for external affairs General V.K. Singh answered a parliament question about the meeting between Hurriyat leaders and Basit. This time, the question was framed in the context of their presence at the recent Pakistan Day celebrations.

In new and unusual phrasing, Singh’s written reply stated, “Since the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of the Union of India and these so called Kashmiri ‘leaders’ are Indian citizens, there is no bar on their meetings with representatives of any country in India.”

Singh’s reply then took a familiar route by equating Hurriyat with the unwanted “third party” in the bilateral dispute: “However, India has consistently maintained that there is no role for a third party in the bilateral dialogue between India and Pakistan as per the Simla Agreement and the Lahore Declaration.”

Singh’s letter added that “India’s displeasure at Pakistan’s attempts to interfere in India’s internal affairs has been repeatedly conveyed to Pakistan.”

Hurriyat leaders have been important invitees to all Pakistani national day functions – there was no difference this time. Senior separatist leaders Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Abdul Ghani Bhat were seen holding court at the March 24 reception on the lawns of the Pakistan high commission. Union environment minister Prakash Javedkar was the chief guest this year; last year it was V.K. Singh.

Tracing the background

The NDA government’s hardline position on the Hurriyat became apparent following its cancellation of Sujatha Singh’s 2014  trip to Islamabad just after it was confirmed that Basit had met with Shah.

At the time, India argued that Pakistan’s explanation that the Hurriyat were also an important stakeholder in the bilateral relationship did not hold water, even more so because Singh’s visit was supposed to entail only “talks about talks.”

Earlier, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attended the swearing-in ceremony of Narendra Modi, he was told by the Indian side that a meeting with the Hurriyat leaders may not be appropriate. Sharif acquiesced, but had to face a barrage of criticism on returning home.

After the newly-appointed foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar went to Pakistan on March 3-4, 2015, as part of his ‘SAARC yatra’, it was presumed that New Delhi’s stance would soften. But the Pakistan high commissioner invited all the Hurriyat leaders for the March 24 national day reception and New Delhi once again issued an official statement that there could be “no third party.” Ultimately, the Hurriyat leadership did attend the national day function in full strength.

It was the first scheduled meeting of national security advisors in Delhi, as part of the Ufa agreement between Modi and Sharif in July 2015, that saw India physically stopping Shah from meeting Sartaj Aziz. The top Hurriyat leadership was put under house arrest in Srinagar for a couple of hours, and Shah was detained by the police upon arriving from Srinagar at Delhi airport.

Sushma Swaraj argued at a press conference at the time that the ban on meetings between Pakistan and the Hurriyat was not a blanket ban, but that the “Indian government never allowed [the] meeting before the dialogue.” She asserted that “whenever a dialogue is held before talk, then that means you are considering them as a stakeholder.”

However, in July 2001, Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf did meet with Hurriyat leaders over tea ahead of the main Agra summit with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Vajpayee technically did meet Musharraf before meeting the Hurriyat, but that was for an elaborate public lunch and not for a political discussion.

One month later in August 2001, the question about Musharraf’s meeting with the Hurriyat leaders came up in parliament, along with questions about the government’s reaction. In a reply dated August 22, Omar Abdullah, who was  minister of state for external affairs at the time, stated: “[The] government [is] of the view that the visit of President Pervez Musharraf to India, and his meetings with the Prime Minister and other Indian leaders, was an opportunity for quiet and serious diplomacy to move India-Pakistan relations forward, in the direction of peace, friendship and cooperation. These occasions should not be frittered away in seeking propaganda… at home or abroad.”

In the India-Pakistan saga, the next test will be later this year, when India hosts the Heart of Asia Summit.

If, as expected, Sartaj Aziz does attend the summit, the question about encounters with the Hurriyat and their timings will certainly be under scrutiny again – especially given the current government’s heavy diplomatic investment in keeping the Hurriyat at bay.