“Mission Kashmir” flops at the outset

A mission that was meant to break ice proved to be a non-starter following Indian government’s lackadaisical approach in its procedure to find a meaningful solution to the internal and vexed yet complex Kashmir conundrum.

The day when Indian government’s new interlocutor on Kashmir N.N.Vohra landed in Srinagar on April 21, expectations were high that the “envelope”, which the Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee mentioned would carry invitation for talks to the dissenting view, instead found the space in local media in form of an open invitation to one and all.

The Hurriyat Conference, which was expecting the delivery of an “envelope” exclusively, got it through the dailies and that for them was a defining moment to refrain from any dialogue with Vohra. The refusal of Hurriyat, who spearhead the secessionist elements in Kashmir, to meet Vohra definitely dealt hard blow to the political reconnaissance and also brought to the fore the dichotomy in Centre’s policy on Kashmir. Was the publication an open invitation in local dailies done deliberately to avoid Hurriyat or was Mr Vajpayee unaware of Vohra’s plan for Kashmir. Vohra defended his decision not to extend any formal invitation to any groups, particularly the Hurriyat. ”Taking into consideration the past experience of K.C. Pant, I thought it better to use the media and give an open invitation to all people, including those who have a different perception, for the discussions. And this paid, evident by the fact that so many organisations met me and enriched my knowledge,” he claimed.

On Mr Vajayee’s announcement on envelope, he said Mr Vajpayee was not referring to a specific invitation to any quarter. Vohra conceded that his mission would be incomplete without hearing the separatists, who have refused to meet him. “The process (of talks) will not be complete unless we have heard and discussed with all those who are angry, who are unhappy, who are dissidents, who have faith and belief which is somewhat contrary to others and that would happen”, he said.

On his nine-day Srinagar visit, Vohra was much interested in the number game rather than the outcome. That is why he mentioned the count of 36 leaders of various political parties and 183 individuals and representatives of various organizations whom he met at high security Circuit House in Srinagar. This was his second round after his visit to Jammu on March 5. The nine-day mission from April 21-29 was marked by bloodshed and spurt in violence by militants.

The bloodletting in Jammu and Kashmir touched a new high with at least 150 persons, including civilians and security personnel and militants killed in the upsurge of militant activity in the State. The spurt in Fidayeen attacks and IED explosions proved to be spoiler in Vohra mission. For the first time, the militants targeted Radio Kashmir with fidayeen trying to seize the vital government installation. While denying that there was any “lack of clarity” in his mission, Vohra said that he had the PM’s mandate to talk to anybody who wished to come forward for resolution of the crisis.

The main argument against the appointment of interlocutor is the fine print of his position (including whether it is a full-time or part-time appointment) and the remit of his job (among other things, which the dialogue should or should not include).

One of the reasons, K C Pant, former interlocutor on Kashmir was not able to break ice with the separatists was for the reason that his ‘brief was limited,’ which did not make available to him much leeway to take the initiative to any logical conclusion.

The appointment of K.C. Pant as interlocutor was a purposeless exercise and similar was half-hearted move to appoint Arun Jaitly, as representative of the Government of India, to start a dialogue with Kashmir leaders on the question of devolution of powers. The appointment of Mr Vohra seems no different than earlier two appointments.

The only prominent group that is welcoming Vohra is Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s Peoples Democratic Party, which had demanded the appointment in its Common Minimum Programme. Mr Vohra’s mission which was limited to elected representative has been termed “directionless and fact-finding,” by those who met him. Prominent among those is Omar Abdullah, who asked the Central government to clarify the “scope” of the proposed talks between Vohra and the Kashmiri people.

The National Conference demanded that dialogue process be widened to include separatists and militants into it for positive results. Prof Bhim Singh, the supremo of Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party, a partner in the coalition Government, sought to know the terms and conditions of Vohra mission.

“The Prime Minister has failed to stood by his assurances that Vohra will be coming to Kashmir with invitation of talks for all the parties and noted by publishing advertisement in some newspapers that Vohra is in Valley is not going to serve any purpose and if centre is interested in resolving the issue by way of dialogue it should have forwarded formal invitation to all concerned persons”, he said and termed the Vohra mission as “a joke” with the political parties.

Contradiction galore in his mission was evident after failing to make any headway, the Centre sent signals to separatist organisations in Kashmir that it is willing to conduct secret parleys. However, Vohra indicated that he had held talks with separatists secretly while he engaged in a dialogue with various mainstream political parties. Without naming any separatist group or individual, Vohra claimed he had held talks with ”people who matter in Kashmir”.

”What I observed from my consultations with the people is that the Kashmiris are fed up with violence, they are disenchanted with the gun culture. They want an end to harassment from any quarter. The people are now seeing a ray of hope and want to live a dignified life,” he said. Observers view Vohra’s mission with cynicism because of the ambiguity in the terms of reference of past Centre’s initiative. Whether in the form of K C Pant or Arun Jaitley, these missions have clearly exhibited that there is still tremendous lack of will in New Delhi’s leadership about facing the ground realities in Kashmir.

It hardly makes any sense to appoint a man for listening to pro-Indian groups, whose views are quite well known, and in fact have hardly any locus stand in such a dialogue process.

Any serious peace process, meant for finding a long-lasting solution to a problem, cannot be left to one individual who lacks both a clear mandate as well as understanding about the ground realities of that place.

Chairman of Hurriyat Abdul Ghani Bhat questioned the mandate of Vohra saying Mr Vohra’s mandate is limited to administrative issues while the Kashmir dispute was political in essence which needed to be addressed as such.

Hurriyat Conference while rejecting talks with Vohra said, “Dialogue in Kashmir should be held without any pre-condition, at the highest level and with those political parties with which government has dispute.” The highest level for Hurriyat is talks with Prime Minister and cite Naga talks as clear example where Centre held parleys with Naga leadership. Senior Hurriyat leader and JKLF chairman Muhammad Yaseen Malik said “Vohra is talking to those, who have no dispute with government. He is meeting those are speaking their language.”

The former chairman of Hurriyat Mirwaiz Omar Farooq called for tri-angular process.

This he meant that parties concerned might not sit in the first juncture on the same table but every party should have dialogue with each other. Another surprising development was the refusal of senior separatist leader Shabir Shah to participate in the talks with Vohra as he considered his mission “non- serious”.

“Vohra’s nomination as the centre’s pointman and his way of holding talks is non-serious. We have refused to meet Vohra as the move is nothing as compared to previous attempts,” Shah, who heads the Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Freedom Party (JKDFP) said. Shah had earlier met all government interlocutors from K C Pant to jurist Ram Jethmalani of Kashmir Committee. Jethmalani’s Kashmir Committee role was exhausted following Vohra’s appointment. The committee is in trouble within as the group’s convenor and only Kashmiri Ashok Bhan has been removed from his post for saying it had suspended its activities. “But due to absence of seriousness and strategy, such efforts have failed. The new effort is again a non serious move and based on our past experience we consider it unimportant – the reason we won’t participate in it”, Shah said Vohra said he had met a “good number of organisations” whose activist have contested the last elections but lost. Vohra held parleys with political leaders. Among those who met the new pointman was the former State Chief Minister Syed Mir Qasim, Awami National Conference leaders. The party president and former chief minister, Ghulam Muhammad Shah, declined to meet Vohra.

The other outfits which met Vohra include PDP, CPI, the Kashmir Resolution Movement, an organisation of separatists, who took part in the last Assembly elections, Kashmir unit of BJP, trade unions, Border Peoples Front, the Mallah Insaf Party, J and K Mutahida Mahaz, Shiromani Akali Dal (Kashmir), Jammu and Kashmir Peace Council, NGOs, Panun Kashmir. Jammu and Kashmir Congress chief Ghulam Nabi Azad assured full support to the peace process initiated by the Centre.

Azad impressed upon on the Government’s pointman that dialogue should be held with all sections of the civil society and political parties of all the three regions of the state -Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh – and particularly with the elected representatives to evolve a broad-based consensus to preserve the unity and integrity and the secular fabric of the State.