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Hectic moves on for J&K breakthrough

india Updated: Sep 03, 2010 12:54 IST
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Watering down of legal protection to the armed forces. A partial pullout of security forces. Conciliatory language. Release of some stone-throwers and militants who have served their terms. An economic package.

With relative calm in Kashmir and separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani (81) subtly climbing down from his rigid position of more than 50 years, these are some of the concessions Delhi could announce, perhaps as early as this week, discarding its own long-held, do-nothing policy.

“If we harbour any hopes of saving the situation in Kashmir, the window of opportunity is small; the time to do something is now,” said a highly placed source acquainted with internal government discussions told the Hindustan Times. “Geelani has made some moderate noises, and this may be best chance to move forward with him.”

Geelani, now the pre-eminent political figure on the Kashmir street, denied any backchannel discussions with Delhi but reiterated to HT: “I want to make it clear that we do not oppose talks ...and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must officially call for talks (see interview, below).” Geelani met unofficial, or track II, emissaries in August, where he first outlined his subtle new stand.

“Even he (Geelani) believes that with some minuses and pluses something can be achieved,” said one expert involved in the dialogue with Geelani. On Wednesday, after meeting Home Minister P. Chidambaram — who is heading quiet discussions on Kashmir — Chief Minister Omar Abdullah emphasised the need for political concessions to calm the anger on the streets.

These moves gained momentum after Geelani on Tuesday appeared more moderate than he has ever been since he was first arrested in 1962, not demanding an acceptance of self-determination as a precondition to talks or insist on Pakistan’s involvement.

On Thursday, conscious of the fine balancing act he is playing, Geelani appeared to harden a bit when he told HT: “Once talks starts, it (sic) has to be trilateral, including New Delhi, Islamabad and real representatives of the sentiments of Kashmir.”

Geelani is under pressure in the Valley to encourage a return to normalcy, with even the hardline Jamat-e-Islami appealing to him that education should not suffer. Yet, on the streets, the young people who have mobilised via Facebook and word of mouth insist the protests cannot stop after the death of 65 people, mostly teenagers and men in their 20s. Their continuing rage is visible all over the Internet.

Once on the fringes of the separatist movement, Geelani has emerged as the face of the so-called Kashmir intifada since it began two-and-a-half months ago with the death of 17-year-old Tufail Matoo, a cycle of violence that rattled Delhi.

“This is one of the worst bouts of alienation we’ve seen, but this could be our best chance of a shot at actually working on a settlement, instead of stalling as we often have,” said the government source.

Analysts said Geelani is trying to offer a face saver to everyone, the separatists and the government.

“Geelani saab is single handedly managing the agitation; most of his associates are behind bars, the moderates are silent, even the mainstream political parties seem to be following what he is saying,” said Gul Wani, a political scientist with the University of Kashmir. “He knows what Kashmir and Kashmiri people are going through. Many delegations are meeting him, he has also met members of civil society and understands the difficulties of people as well.”

Like many others, Wani believes confidence-building measures are “achievable”. He said those could include demilitarization and “an assurance that no killings will take place”.

“Even the government agrees that the militancy has been rolled back. So what is the need of the military in civilian areas?” said Wani. “If some sort of demilitarisation happens it can restore that sense of freedom among the masses.”

(with Toufiq Rashid)