When the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) announced recently in Jammu that it was ready to discuss "an alternate negotiated settlement of the Kashmir problem", it went public with its desperation to break from growing isolation in the valley, and from its mentors elsewhere. But equally important, it marked a political success for the government of India which has more or less marginalized Hurriyat into irrelevance, and indeed may embolden the central government to pursue similar policies towards other elements of the Kashmiri populace who are unwilling to understand and participate in the Indian political process.
How Hurriyat degenerated from a serious political contender with international backing to a provincial lightweight outfit with "let-us-demonstrate-and-issue-a- press-release" mentality is in itself a learning experience, especially for Kashmiri Pandits who are still wondering why they have achieved so little politically inspite of so much effort in the last eight years.
The call made by Hurriyat in Jammu was a humbling experience. Recall a time when one of its leaders, Abdul Gani Lone, was slightly hit in the head during a lathi charge in Srinagar and had to be airlifted to Delhi at the express request of the U.S. Embassy who called on him daily at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) until he recovered? Indeed, the political education of Hurriyat is an interesting example of unfulfilled expectations and a lack of political maturity thereby ensuring a perpetual enslavement of the organization to mediocre goals and ambitions.
One might say that their supporters finally saw through them and realized Hurriyat was not seeking an honorable solution for Kashmiri Muslims, but a continuing cottage industry of rabble rousing with its own accompanying gains for the leaders involved. Hurriyat has not only let their own followers down by leading them into political isolation, but its foreign mentors, too, are questioning the APHC's value and utility.
It was not always like that.
Hurriyat was a vision that came out of the efforts by the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) based in Washington, DC. USIP is an instrument of the U.S. foreign policy, and unique in that it was created by an Act of the U.S. Congress and is funded by the U.S. Congress (and not answerable to the President). However, its agenda is established in close cooperation with the U.S. Administration, ensuring thereby that USIP projects have bipartisan support. USIP mostly pursues programs deemed too controversial on the official level, thereby allowing a "second track diplomacy" to flourish with tactical support of the U.S. government.
The Kashmir issue became a USIP project after Robert Oakley, the retired U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, took over as its head. Oakley is an alumni of the U.S. security and intelligence community and the father of the "third option" regarding Kashmir. He arranged numerous interactions between Kashmiri Muslims and political and retired senior military officers and bureaucrats from Pakistan and India. He came to the following conclusions:
(a) The U.S. contention that Kashmir is a "disputed territory" seems to have a diplomatic acquiescence from both Pakistan and India.
(b) Since both Pakistan and India claim Kashmir, a workable solution may be a quasi-independent substate modeled like the "Trieste formula" (the so called third option).
(c) Even though there may be political opposition to the "third option' from some sections of public in Pakistan and India, it is achievable since each country's military will stay disengaged and there will be no war. The challenge, as Oakley saw it, was to advance the third option through political and diplomatic means.
The last point was of critical importance to the U.S. Administration since the possibility of a nuclear war between Pakistan and India is of strategic significance to the U.S. The U.S. interest arose in the Oakley Plan and the word went out that if Kashmiri Muslims fighting for azadi unite under one organization, it would receive favorable mention from the U.S. government. Soon thereafter Abdul Gani Lone made his unannounced trip to the U.S. (he traveled to U.K. for medical reasons and was granted a U.S. visa there).
It was a triumphant tour for Lone who was accorded a near-state visit stature by the U.S. government. Soon after his return he participated in the demonstration that led to the bedside visits by the U.S. officials at AIIMS mentioned earlier. Lone was projected as a leader of substance by Congressman Burton and his cohorts. APHC had come on its own.
Money started pouring in from Saudi and other sources and APHC was in business.
The Indian government seriously considered arresting Lone on his return but chose not to, and instead embarked on a policy of neutralizing him. To me this shows both the political maturity of the Indian system and my worst fear that government has a wide range of arsenal to deal with such situations.
Yasin Malik was let out (again timed carefully and only after Javed Nalka was conveniently nabbed to subdue any opposition to Malik within JKLF after his release) with great pomp and show. Malik reclaimed his stature within JKLF but promptly joined the Hurriyat, so the government pulled yet another card from its sleeve, namely Shabir Shah. Shah was a loner and different from the very start. He did not wish to be released on bail as Malik had been, even though both were told that bail terms will not be enforced.
This was a strange time in the Indian politics, when Kashmir was not only hostage to militants and terrorists, but also to arch-rival ministers Chavan and Pilot. Since Pilot supported Abdullah, Chavan cast his lot with Abdullah's nemesis Shah and a great political chess game was underway in Delhi and Srinagar.
Shabir Shah capitalized on this divide, showing himself off as a "secularist" (the same Shabir Shah who less than a year earlier had said in a printed interview that Kashmiri Pandits would be welcome in Nizam-e-Mustafa as the Holy Koran offers better protection to minorities than the Indian constitution!), and realizing Indian government sensitivities towards APHC stayed both in and out of it.
These political games began to take its toll on Hurriyat. Its best political strategist was Shabir Shah who was more loyal to himself than to APHC. On the other side, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, a political novice, started asserting his presence after receiving recognition (and a great boost to his self esteem) from the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC). One week in Washington, the next in Casablanca, and the following in Riyadh can produce its own set of complications.
The official Indian passivity at this sordid drama raised many concerns, but some of the Hurriyat complications began to burst open in public. Suddenly, solid leaders like Sayed Ali Shah Geelani and Abdul Gani Lone were on the defensive. The issue was money, big money, and they could not hide their palatial homes and other signs of wealth.
To a layman in Kashmir, it was obvious that the leaders had done well while the entire Muslim community was wallowing in misery. Suddenly Hurriyat was not seen as a major political force, but a mere hartal announcing organization content with issuing daily press releases that received wide coverage in local press, but that did very little to improve the lot of its followers.
In political terms they had reached to the point of irrelevance, taking comfort from large volume of press coverage instead of realizing its growing isolation and inability to alter the political landscape in Kashmir.
But this was nothing compared to what happened to them next. First, the USIP wound up its Kashmir charter after Ambassador Oakley left the Institute to pursue Sudan and other issues. (He is unfortunately back with a new salvo regarding Kashmir. Currently a professor at the U.S. Defense Academy, he is the brains behind a new project called the Kashmir Study Group that is funded by the richest Kashmiri Muslim in the U.S. who is a Shabir Shah supporter. But that is a topic for another occasion.)
After a lot of hard work, we -- at IAKF -- were able to convince Dr. Solomon, Oakley's successor at USIP, to drop the Kashmir project which he did. So the bipartisan support to Hurriyat was gone. But more importantly, there was a distinct change in the Indian political landscape which affected American outlook.
Farooq Abdullah had finally ended his vacillation and decided to boycott the parliamentary elections. This act of defiance earned him high credibility in the U.S. By the time he announced his "1952 slogan", he was deemed an acceptable alternative to the Hurriyat by the U.S. Because Farooq was the only Kashmiri politician who understood the Indian polity and played his cards well (without necessarily changing his beliefs or values), he found himself back in the center stage and blessed by the Indian government and the western alliance at the same time. This moment of triumph belongs to him as he laid out a political strategy that resurrected his political fortunes.
Suddenly, the Hurriyat ship, which was already rotting, began to sink in the troubled waters.
The first real shock came to APHC during a courtesy call on Robin Raphel by Mirwaiz Farooq (accompanied by Muzzafar Jan Pandit and Ghulam Nabi Fai) in early October 1995. This was expected by Hurriyat to be a routine visit that would result in a wordy press release which would gain wide publicity in the Indian sub-continent. Unfortunately, the meeting was a disaster. Instead of giving out accolades, Raphel was very critical of Hurriyat, calling the organization politically naive and misguided. She told the visitors that their lack of political finesse, combined with their continued India bashing attitude was neither helping them nor their followers. She further told them that unless they stop being immature rabble rousers, and start acting like mature politicians, there would be little to discuss. In closing she told them to improve their political image, create a pro-active political agenda and engage in a meaningful dialogue with India. ( I received this report from a reliable source at the State Department.)
Hurriyat had taken some actions in this regard, like opening up their Delhi office, but they were totally unprepared for the cold shoulder they received during that meeting in Washington. This problem was further compounded during Raphel's subsequent visit to India in early 1996, when she publicly chose to have a breakfast meeting with Farooq Abdullah, to the delight of Pilot, while refusing to meet with APHC (Shabir Shah), to the chagrin of Chavan. (Chavan however made it up at a later date when Shabir Shah was presented to President Sharma as "Mandela of Kashmir" by Ambassador Wisner at a party in the U.S. Embassy for retired President Bush.)
When the U.S. encouraged APHC to participate in the state elections, it was obvious that the rift between the two was complete. Indeed, APHC formally refused to meet with Wisner during his visit to the valley last year (junior Mandela obviously could not be that impolite and chose to meet him on his own resulting in his expulsion from Hurriyat).
The cycle was complete. What started with the U.S. had ended with the U.S.
The significance of the February 1997 visit to the State by Ambassador Wisner has largely gone unnoticed in the Kashmiri Pandit community. For forty eight hours on February 19th and 20th, the United States government, through its chief representative in India, accorded identical status to Pandits and Muslims who are politically at odds with the chief minister. Leaders of both communities were treated to identical breakfast meetings, one in Jammu and one in Srinagar.
The reason for this unusual posture by the U.S. government was to put Abdullah on notice that he must follow through on his pledge for greater autonomy, or risk the wrath of the United States including open support to his political enemies. (The chief minister for once did not mind, because that way he can keep the pressure on India.)
This bold gamble by the U.S. demanded a bold response by the invitees. While it is not clear what the Pandit group did following the meeting (other than to issue a customary press release which was done promptly), the APHC saw it as a last chance to restore their luster and glory by paying heed to the American call for their participation in the political process underway in the State.
In quick succession they denounced Pakistan for forceful occupation of POK, opened an office in Jammu, formed a 21 member Jammu unit (that includes 9 non- Muslims), called for political discussions with India, received state Congress backing for participating in the political process, and expressed a desire to open a dialogue with Kashmiri Pandits. Even in faraway places like London and Washington, almost identical requests for such meetings were conveyed to Pandit representatives on March I .
Apparently, Hurriyat has gone through a metamorphosis of the extreme kind and did not hesitate to make a desperate last minute change in its approach.
It remains to be seen how successful Hurriyat will be in their new attire. Certainly, they carry a lot of baggage that needs to be shed before the Indian government will probably make any positive gestures in return. But the central government can take satisfaction in viewing the turn of events, as they too need a leash to rein in Abdullah if necessary.
Already the signs of change are evident. Recently I was told that a senior official of the Indian Embassy, one closely involved in Kashmir affairs, invited G. N. Fai (Hurriyat representative in Washington) for lunch in a public dining place.
The political education of Hurriyat, it would appear, may be nearing its end. But did it occur in time or did they miss the boat? Only time will tell.
Besides, understanding and exploiting the Indian political system demands great manipulative skills and sheer courage. There is a method in the madness of Indian politics that allows a holy man and a killer bandit to sit next to each other in the Indian parliament. How they got there, how even National Conference got there and how Hurriyat may get there, is not a subject of contempt but one of strategy and intense posturing.
It is not enough to demonstrate on streets and expect a change in government policies. And it is almost suicidal to be taken in by publicity generated by own press releases that creates false hopes in the followers and growing isolation of its leaders. Serious politics involves quiet diplomacy and hard negotiations.
That is the real challenge facing not only the Muslims, but the Pandits too.
(The writer, Vijay K. Sazawal, Ph.D., is National President, Indo-American Kashmir Forum (IAKF) Washington, DC, USA)