Monday, Nov 24, 2003
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OVER THE YEARS, efforts to bring about a negotiated end to carnage in Jammu and Kashmir have resembled what soldiers call the Kadam Taal: the parade-ground art of marching briskly on one spot without actually moving forward. But even hardened sceptics concede that this time it might be a little different. On Thursday last, the secessionist All Parties Hurriyat Conference announced it was willing to open a dialogue with the Union Government as soon as it received a formal written invitation. One of the key proponents of dialogue within the APHC, the Srinagar-based religious leader, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, has been authorised to conduct negotiations. The APHC's decision followed an October 22 announcement that Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani was willing to hold direct talks with the Hurriyat. Officials in New Delhi also let it be known that they intended to issue an early invitation, perhaps after the end of the month of Ramzan. For once, the APHC centrists have shown real flexibility: they have not demanded, as in the past, that they should be allowed to travel to Pakistan to consult armed groups before a dialogue commences.
Is this the beginning of a new dawn? Not yet. The APHC has demanded that the talks should be "unconditional and focussed on the resolution of the Kashmir issue." These are objectives Mr. Advani has already rejected publicly. While insisting that "the unity, integrity and sovereignty of the country cannot be compromised," he said that the Government favoured "decentralisation" and was prepared to take steps for that. To Kashmir-watchers, the term "decentralisation" is a counter to the concept of `State autonomy' to which the BJP is allergic. The Deputy Prime Minister's formulation might have been addressed as much to Atal Bihari Vajpayee as to the APHC. On May 8, the Prime Minister raised in Parliament the prospect of an "alternate arrangement" in Jammu and Kashmir, a phrase that triggered much political speculation. The moderates in the APHC, however, believe that Mr. Advani's posture represents election-eve polemic and that the Government will prove considerably more flexible behind closed doors than it is prepared to appear in front of television cameras.
As things stand, those in the Union Ministry of Home Affairs charged with drafting the letter of invitation are grappling with a tough semantic exercise. Their letter must use terms that will allow the APHC to claim that all options, including independence, are open for discussion and that New Delhi acknowledges it as a legitimate settlor of the fate of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. At the same time, the Union Government must be enabled to claim that secession is not on the agenda and that the APHC does not represent a `nation'. The biggest problem, of course, will be off the dialogue table. Not being a principal in the conflict, the moderate APHC faction that New Delhi is engaging has no influence over the armed groups. Even some centrist groups like the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front chose not to participate in Thursday's meeting. The Islamists led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani do have influence over the armed groups but will not use it since they have not been invited to feast at the peace table. Without a de-escalation of violence, the Union Government will find it very hard to sell even the smallest concession politically. Pessimists on Jammu and Kashmir might turn out to be right with depressing regularity, but it serves the interests of India and all its people, including the people of Jammu and Kashmir, to ensure that a positive approach is adopted, that nothing is allowed to trip up talks with the Hurriyat and that the Kadam Taal is broken at least one step at a time.
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