The stand taken by the Modi government on the Hurriyat is a dramatic departure from the more tolerant ambivalence displayed by the previous Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee administrations
The Narendra Modi government appears to be caught in a cleft-stick of its own making as Pakistan plays its Hurriyat invite card ahead of the August 23-24 talks between the two National Security Advisers.
Going by the terms of the July 10 India-Pakistan statement at Ufa, these talks are meant to focus only on “all issues connected to terrorism”. Though the two Prime Ministers had agreed to discuss “all outstanding issues”—a euphemism to include Kashmir— and “condemned terrorism in all its forms” (obliquely acknowledging ‘state sponsorship’ of terror), the Ufa statement drew lot of flak in Pakistan for being too “one-sided”. The wily 86 year old Sartaj Aziz had to hold a press conference three days later to emphasise that Kashmir would remain a core issue for all future discussions with India. In his Independence Day message (Aug 14), Pakistani High Commissioner in India, Abdul Basit re-affirmed Pakistan’s abiding commitment to the Kashmir cause.
Terror incidents in Gurdaspur, Punjab and Udhampur, Jammu & Kashmir, saw a familiar pattern of tension ratcheting up whenever talks between the two countries are slated. Border firing and mutual recrimination about violations of the ceasefire on the Line of Control and international border also escalated, even as the Pakistani side took its time in accepting the date for the talks or the agenda suggested by India.
Against this backdrop, if the two NSAs were to discuss “all issues connected to terrorism”, it would be naïve to expect that Sartaj Aziz would not have stressed the connection between terror and persisting alienation in Kashmir. In any case, there would be nothing to prevent him from claiming before his domestic political constituency upon his return that he did so forcefully.
Last year, the foreign secretary-level talks slated to be held in Islamabad on August 25 were abruptly cancelled after Basit invited the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) leaders for consultations. Since then, ‘red lines’ had apparently been delineated about when to meet with the APHC and what to do or not do with them if Pakistan wanted bilateral relations back on an even keel.
The stand taken by the Modi government was a dramatic departure from the more tolerant ambivalence displayed by the previous Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee dispensations, regarding contacts between the Pakistanis and the APHC. The latter had customarily been invited to meet with visiting Pakistani dignitaries and to attend festivals like Eid or Independence Day and National Day and had—since early 2001 onwards— been allowed to attend them. New Delhi’s approach actually redounded to the credit of the Indian democratic system in the eyes of the rest of the world.
The Hurriyat had even been able to live down the ignominy of February 2003 when their representative, Anjum Zamruda Habib, was caught red-handed while coming out of the Pakistani High Commission in Delhi with Rs. 3 lakhs. This led to Deputy High Commissioner Jalil Abbas Gilani—later to become Pakistani Foreign Secretary and currently, Ambassador in the United States—being expelled from his post as persona non grata, the first time a ‘blue-blooded’ Foreign Service man had to suffer this fate.
This time, the invitation to the Hurriyat was issued after a crucial high-level meeting between Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief, Gen Raheel Sharif on August 18, at which Sartaj Aziz and some important ministers of the Nawaz cabinet were present. This seems to have been a calculated move to provoke the Delhi Durbar into reacting adversely, which could have provided an escape route to the Pakistanis—who are not keen to keep the agenda of the August 23-24 meeting confined to terrorism.
Who blinks first
Though the Indian authorities at first stoically put up with Islamabad’s manoeuvre—the MEA immediately briefed reporters that India had no intention of falling for this Pakistani provocation and cancelling the talks—the realisation soon dawned that this would enable the Pakistanis to draw ‘Kashmir’ within the ambit of the talks, even if obliquely. The Modi government would have egg on its face for this volte face—which would be interpreted as weakness not only by an exultant Congress baying for its blood but also internally, by hard-line detractors within the BJP and the RSS.
On Friday, the Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Vikas Swarup issued an eleventh hour statement: “India has advised Pakistan yesterday that it would not be appropriate for Mr Sartaj Aziz to meet with Hurriyat representatives during his visit ‘as this `would not be in keeping with the spirit and intent of the Ufa understanding to jointly work to combat terrorism.”
The counter-statement issued by Pakistan later in the day makes it clear Sartaj Aziz does not intend to be deterred by this Indian statement, though it remains to be seen whether he will make it to New Delhi after all.
The Hurriyat stands discredited today as an over ground pro-secessionist force in Kashmiri politics. Disclosures by A.S. Dulat, former Intelligence Bureau stalwart, in his recent book Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years have made threadbare the monetary and other weaknesses of politicians like Shabbir Shah, Yasin Malik and even Syed Salahuddin, who promised a lot but faded out due to indecisive politicking and failures to seize moments of greatness. Behind each of these failures—and the assassination of leaders like Abdul Gani Lone and Abdul Majid Dar—was fear of the gun and of the ISI. Today, though Syed Ali Shah Geelani continues to enjoy a certain standing, there is no unstinted, mass support among Kashmiris for the Hurriyat moderates’ stand on not contesting elections or their unquestioning, even servile acceptance of Pakistan’s diktats.
In a sense, the possible stalemate or cancellation of the NSA-level talks over the Hurriyat issue could even revive the organisation’s dwindling political support or impart a larger than life relevance to them both inside Kashmir and internationally.
What’s needed now
Though acrimony and recrimination may mark the NSAs dialogue, the Ufa joint statement had mentioned an “agreement to discuss ways and means to expedite” the 26/11 trial in Pakistan and the possibility of admitting additional information from the Indian side, including voice samples. The Pakistani prosecuting lawyers were quick to refer to inadmissibility of the same according to existing laws, though Tariq Khosa, the former director general of Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency, has pointed out that there is a new 2013 law which enables accepting voice samples even without the permission of the accused. Of course, retrospective admissibility could still be an issue though. Whatever the outcome, India should not expect the judicial process in Pakistan to suddenly pick up pace and bring the seven accused to justice any time soon. The only saving grace has been the complete silence and low profile maintained by prime accused Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi after his release on bail—a tactic no doubt forced on him by his ISI handlers to ameliorate the diplomatic embarrassment Pakistan faces on this count.
The NSA-level meeting, if it eventually takes place, would have been worthwhile if somehow a process of engagement is put in place, either through an agreed agenda of follow-up meetings between related functionaries, or even through back-channel interlocutors who can work quietly to try and build more trust between security managers on both sides. This would seem to be the only way forward.
Rana Banerji is a former Special Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India