They need to talk

It would be a tragic miscalculation on the part of Kashmiri separatist leaders to pass up an opportunity for talks with the prime minister at Saturday?s round-table conference.

india Updated: Feb 24, 2006 01:46 IST

On Saturday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will host a round-table conference of Kashmiri leaders. Yet, separatists such as Mirwaiz Umer Farooq (who heads the moderate faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference), Syed Ali Shah Geelani (who heads the other faction), Yasin Malik and Shabir Shah have all declared they will not attend. What a shame. They are missing what US President George Bush, in his Wednesday speech to the Asia Society, called “a historic opportunity” to move the Kashmir political process forward.

Their justifications for thumbing their nose at the prime minister are baffling. First, they say, the conference has been called to hoodwink Bush, who is visiting the region next week. They imply that the conference is aimed at deflecting US pressure on India and Pakistan to sort out their Kashmir squabble, and that once the visit is over, New Delhi will return to indifference towards Kashmiri separatists.

This is a pessimistic interpretation, and Kashmiris would be advised to be wary of leaders who throw away an opportunity (that even Bush, who doesn’t sound miffed at being hoodwinked, advises them to seize) at keeping the dialogue with New Delhi alive. The truth is that a coalition government managing a rapidly expanding economy does not have the luxury of time that the separatists do. So if a high-profile visit prompts the next round of talks, what’s wrong with that? A creative separatist would indeed use the conference to make a splash ahead of Bush’s visit. By throwing a tantrum, they’re throwing away the chance to seize the agenda, and not just the opportunity.

Their next crib is that this is New Delhi’s device for provoking infighting among the secessionists, implying that the talks so far have favoured one separatist over another at different moments. Bizarre. If everyone’s been called for the round-table, anyone losing out on the photo-op has only himself to blame. The Government of India has given the Kashmiris an inclusive platform, not a divisive one.

Their third gripe, and it’s a serious one, is that there’s been no groundwork for the conference, and that the Government of India is calling it without an agenda in mind. What this allegation ignores is the fact that the dialogue with separatists, and mainly the Hurriyat, which claims to represent all sections of Kashmiri society, has been going on since they broke the ice in a meeting with the then Deputy Prime Minister, L.K. Advani.

They’ve had meetings in New Delhi in January 2004, March 2004 and September 2005. In the last meeting, with the prime minister, they said they would come up with a roadmap for further talks. So where is that roadmap? No one is accusing them of abandoning their own roadmap for Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s new mantra, ‘self-governance’. But it would seem a heaven-sent opportunity — just before Bush’s visit — to show up at the round-table conference with the roadmap.

The separatists’ intentions seem doubly suspect when one examines the record of their visits to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Pakistan in the months following last October’s devastating earthquake. During their visits, not one Kashmiri leader gave up the opportunity to meet and talk with whoever invited them, whether it was Pakistan’s National Assembly or Islamabad’s Kashmir Committee, headed by Hamid Naseeb Chatha. They met everyone and anyone. Yet now, they show disdain to an invitation by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself.

Their last complaint is that New Delhi has not acted on their demand for an exclusive Special Group. This would be a sort of working group that would keep the contact between the Government of India and the separatists alive and constant.

Such a group has probably not been set up because of the government’s experience of appointing official and demi-official interlocutors for the separatists over the years. The main problem is that the interlocutors have had nothing to do in the long periods between the contact — formal and informal — between the separatists and New Delhi. Several Kashmiris have themselves derisively questioned interlocutors on their role in the dialogue. It seems the separatists themselves prefer to work with the Home Ministry.

But if it’s such a big deal, then maybe they should get a Special Group. But whether it comes or not, it doesn’t seem worthy of being the lynchpin of whether or not the separatists should attend the PM’s round-table conference.

Then there’s Shabir Shah. He’s miffed because he’s not been called for a one-on-one with the prime minister, and he feels he’s more worthy for such a meeting than Sajjad Lone of

the People’s Conference, or Yasin Malik (when Shabir was released from prison in 1994, he felt he should receive a Nobel Peace Prize). So he doesn’t want to come for the round-table conference. This probably typifies the attitude the separatists take towards this dialogue with New Delhi: not much gravitas.

These separatists would do well to carefully read Bush’s speech to the Asia Society, or indeed, any of the papers that have come out of US think-tanks the last couple of years. They are all bullish on India. It would be a tragic miscalculation, both tactically and strategically, to pass up the opportunity for talks at Saturday’s round-table conference.

First Published: Feb 24, 2006 01:46 IST