Vajpayee initiated the process of dialogue with Kashmiri separatists, which was carried forward by his successor Manmohan Singh.
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the first to weave the twin threads of India-Pakistan relations and Kashmir outreach into a single tapestry.
In early 1999, the Lahore Declaration put Kashmir on the agenda for discussion between the two countries. In March 1999, R.K. Mishra, an eminent leftist intellectual and former editor of Patriot, became Vajpayee’s point man for back-channel talks with Niaz Naik, Pakistan’s former foreign secretary and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s emissary.
But when this initiative foundered on the bloody reef of Kargil in May 1999, Mishra focused on engaging with the separatist leadership in Kashmir. Away from the media, Mishra established communication with the separatist leadership and convinced them that he was fully backed by the Prime Minister.
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The peacemaking process so far had involved many participants, including retired defence personnel and journalists, with good intent but little effect. The prospect of track-two diplomacy was mistrusted by the Indian intelligence services, which had a free hand in engaging the separatists and laying down the parameters of the government’s Kashmir policy. Amarjit Singh (Bubbles) Dulat, who was the adviser on Kashmir in Vajpayee’s office, has written of this time in Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years.
In early 2000, at Dulat’s behest, I spoke extensively to each of the separatist leaders. This was a continuing engagement since Dulat’s time with the Intelligence Bureau (IB). The separatists yearned for dialogue but also for self-respect, an attitude shared by Kashmiri people. But there were cleavages among the separatist leadership, which reflected the cleavages within Pakistan’s political leadership on the issue of Kashmir.
On one hand, there were elements favoured by President Pervez Musharraf who sought to cut loose from the tutelage of extremists in matters concerning Kashmir. And then there were those who believed in opposing any shift from established Pakistan policy and sought to activate their carefully cultivated resources inside Kashmir.
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In December 2001, a terrorist attack on India’s Parliament led to mobilisation of the armed forces, and the dialogue on Kashmir receded in the face of Operation Parakram. The success of this operation, which persisted until October 2002, has been questioned. But in fact, war was avoided. In July 2001, a fresh attempt at dialogue with Pakistan in Agra failed.
In a bid to win the separatists back to his flagging effort at outreach, Vajpayee turned once again to the internal Kashmiri leadership in April 2003, in Srinagar. He called all those who nursed grievances in Kashmir to a dialogue with the government. He declared, with a poetic resonance long recalled by Kashmiris, that a resolution must be found on the grounds of insaniyat, or humanity. A new interlocutor was appointed: N.N. Vohra. He has been the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir since 2008.
Abdul Ghani Lone, a highly regarded leader of the separatist camp, was assassinated by pro-Pakistan sloganeers on 21 May 2002 when he was advocating peace through dialogue.
Vajpayee lamented: “Mr. Lone was assassinated because he was working for peace in Jammu and Kashmir”. Lone’s elder son Sajjad, who was earlier a member of the Hurriyat in which his brother Bilal is still an office-bearer, recalls that on the evening of the assassination, Vajpayee had called him personally to condole. “Keep heart”, he urged, “I am with you.” So inspired was Sajjad that he decided to enter the political mainstream to work towards the realisation of his father’s dream for Kashmir’s future. Later, on the suggestion of former PM Manmohan Singh, Sajjad had penned Achievable Nationhood, outlining how a Kashmiri nation might subsist within the Indian union.
Elections to the state assembly were held in September-October 2002 as scheduled. No party was barred from the contest. Despite my efforts at persuading the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) to participate, they stayed away. Chief Election Commissioner Lyngdoh was at pains to ensure that the elections were fair. The sitting government was, for the first time in the state’s history, unseated through an electoral defeat. These are incontestable facts, not mere claims, and can be ascribed entirely to the Vajpayee endeavour.
By 2003, the Kashmiri Pandit community was scattered across 270 neighbourhoods, situated in towns and villages of the Valley. But it was in the Vajpayee years that community members summoned the courage to form an NGO, the Hindu Welfare Society, which attempted to document information regarding the location and requirements of the community.
In September that year, senior government and Congress party leaders, including deputy PM L.K. Advani, met the members of the Hindu Welfare Society. Their demands were simple: residence in a secure locality and jobs for 500 men and women. By 2005, chief secretary of the state, Vijay Bakaya, himself a Pandit, was lending them a patient ear.
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A week before the SAARC summit in Islamabad in January 2004, the chairman of the separatist Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) addressed an unexpectedly cordial New Year message to Vajpayee and Musharraf. The message conveyed Yasin Malik’s earnest support with the hope that any move towards resolution will “effectively and meaningfully involve the people of Kashmir”.
Musharraf noted that people of Kashmir continued to suffer and must be involved in finding solutions. He also implied that both sides were displaying a degree of sincerity and initiative in the joint statement on the resumption of dialogue. He highlighted three key points of that statement: Kashmir was an issue, ‘composite dialogue’ was necessary for resolving the differences between India and Pakistan, and both nations needed to develop and sustain confidence-building measures (CBMs). This has become the thematic substance that has been the derivative of the dialogue between the two countries ever since.
Almost in tandem, on 22 January, Advani hosted a Hurriyat delegation at his North Block office. The APHC went on to meet Vajpayee. The process of dialogue was thus initiated, and carried forward by Vajpayee’s successor Manmohan Singh. Singh’s party, even while in opposition, had consistently encouraged a process that went further in the quest for peace. That process foundered in 2008. Will it, and can it be revived?
The writer is former chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities.