First Person | Winds of Change

Centre’s decision to engage with Kashmiri Separatists was long overdue

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

Once again, the season of hope seems to be visiting the state of Jammu and Kashmir. After being out of range for a long time, the state once again is blipping on the government of India’s radar screens. In just a matter of weeks several encouraging statements have been issued by various Union ministers, which can only have positive connotations in Kashmir.

After setting a cat among the pigeons by announcing the allocation of one Central University in Jammu and Kashmir last year, the Union human resource development minister Kapil Sibal recently relented and on September 25 swapped the proposed Indian Institute of Management (IIM) with another Central University to assuage both Jammu and Kashmir.

On the political front, after testing waters gingerly with his toes for several months by making such statements as, ‘government is considering withdrawing Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act from certain urban areas’ or withdrawal of the armed and Paramilitary forces in a phased manner, strengthening the state police and so on, the Union home minister P. Chidambaram finally took the plunge. Newspapers quoted him in the last week of September saying that he was ready for talks with Kashmiri Separatists, essentially Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Sajad Lone, both of whom have been in some kind of political wilderness for a while. The Indian intelligence agencies seem to have thrown up a double whammy.

Interestingly, a few days before Eid, Mirwaiz had made an unprovoked statement saying that time for anti-India rhetoric was over. Though he hastened to add that he favours talks with both India and Pakistan, it was the first part that was unprecedented. The Kashmiri mainstream leaders like Farooq Abdullah and Ghulam Nabi Azad, both former chief ministers and now Cabinet ministers, were quick to lap this up. Attending the international golf tournament in Srinagar, both of them patted the Mirwaiz (figuratively, of course, since Mirwaiz by then had gone to New York to attend the ministerial meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) contact group on Kashmir. Making use of the visit, he also met the Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi). The statement clearly did not go unnoticed at the Centre.

What made Sajad Lone kosher was his decision to chuck Separatism for mainstream politics. His critics said that he had made a blunder by openly (he has been surreptitiously fielding candidates for Assembly elections for a while now) contesting the Parliamentary elections. Lone himself was dejected when he lost the elections and probably believed that his political career was finished as his credibility was eroded. At least, that is how he sounded on a few of his entries on Facebook. But now, hopefully both the beleaguered leaders would be rehabilitated. The mood of the people in the state is clearly demanding a change in the old positions.

However, Chidambaram has done better than merely inviting the Separatists for talks. He has also let it slip that the government is seriously considering reforms in the AF(SP)A, release of political prisoners and facilitating the return of those Kashmiri who had crossed the LC, but now want to come back to the state and join the mainstream. Apparently, there are a large number of such people who have been sending feelers to their families in Kashmir. In fact, the Indian Army, from time to time has been holding surrender ceremonies where reformed militants hand over their weapons to the area commanders.

Another leak from the government suggested that it is mulling over granting more autonomy to the state than what it currently enjoys under Article 370. While the chief minister is likely to get more powers than his counterparts in other states under this plan, the Centre may also abrogate its power to dismiss the elected government of the state under Article 356. All these issues are likely to figure in the meeting with the Separatists that may take place by the end of October. Perhaps, there is no harm in hoping that the state chief minister Omar Abdullah and Chidambaram be India’s deliverance boys as far as Kashmir is concerned.

Governments, especially in India, are genetically engineered to alienate the people. Forget about Kashmir, even in the national capital, people are frequently on the streets protesting police high-handedness or indifference of the local MLA. It takes a concerted effort to ensure that people remain on the side of the government. In Kashmir, this task is not just difficult but monumental. The Central government once again seems to be taking a small step. To reach the finishing line, this has to be followed with several more steps and in quick succession.

There is only one way Pakistan’s status in Kashmir can be reduced to that of sponsor of terrorism – when Kashmiri people will be on our side. In 1965, when Pakistan invaded Kashmir confident of people rising up to receive them with open arms, they were on our side. Times have changed, but not so much that they cannot be on our side once again. Only, politicians will need to rise above intelligence inputs.


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