x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Indian politicians divided over meeting Kashmir separatists

Chief minister satisfied with delegates who received hostile reception in some areas, 39-member team in Kashmir to end crisis

A man gestures as Palaniappan Chidambaram , India's home minister, left, and fellow national politicians meet residents in curfew-bound Tangmarg town, north of Srinagar, yesterday.
A man gestures as Palaniappan Chidambaram , India's home minister, left, and fellow national politicians meet residents in curfew-bound Tangmarg town, north of Srinagar, yesterday.

SRINAGAR // Divisions broke out among Indian politicians sent on a peace mission to Kashmir over attempts by some of the party to reach out to separatist leaders. The main political parties agreed last week in New Delhi to send the group in a rare display of cross-party unity. It was hoped the delegation could find a way to halt the three months of violent protests that have left 108 people dead.

But yesterday, on the final day of their two-day tour, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), complained about the efforts of some politicians in the group to meet the separatists, who had earlier rejected the delegation's invitation to meet. Meeting the separatists was not the "mandate" of the entire delegation, said Sushma Swaraj, a senior leader of the BJP, which has long baulked at the idea of engaging with separatists.

The decision to meet them "was not discussed in the delegation", Ms Swaraj said. The handful of politicians from opposition parties attempted to reach out to Kashmir's three main separatist leaders on Monday. Even though the separatists had vocally boycotted the delegation, the politicians visited their homes, and coaxed them to help restore peace in the Kashmir valley. The delegation, a diverse 39-member group of politicians and officials, arrived in the provincial capital of Srinagar on Monday to collectively reach out to various sections of Kashmir's often alienated society.

A crowd of protesters yesterday distrupted the delegates' plan to visit a government-run hospital to meet some of the injured in the violence. The delegates were whisked away by security personnel after shouts for "freedom" from the crowd. The police used batons to try to disperse the group, which responded with chants of "Go India, go back". Palaniappan Chidambaram, India's home minister, visited Tangmarg, a town 45km from Srinagar where security forces shot dead six people in protests last week. While some residents blocked the highway outside the town to protest his visit, many braved a stringent curfew to meet him.

"Imagine my body is India, and my arm is Kashmir. You're forcing the arm into a cauldron of boiling oil," an angry resident told Mr Chidambaram. "If you say that Kashmir is an inseparable part of India, why then do you not feel my pain? "You call us Indians, why then do you spray bullets on us?" Despite the hostile reception in some areas, Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of the state, said he was "satisfied" with the delegation's visit. It will return to New Delhi to submit its assessment of the situation to the prime minister, Manmohan Singh.

The polarised views of India's mainstream political parties on engaging separatist leaders highlight one of the many complications in resolving Kashmir's decades-old territorial dispute that erupted into a full-blown separatist struggle more than two decades ago. While the separatists' long-standing demand has been independence or a merger with Muslim-majority Pakistan, Hindu nationalists demand integration of the entire disputed region into the Indian state.

The BJP's "rigid politics" is disconcerting, said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a moderate separatist leader, who wore a black band on his left arm to protest against the recent civilian deaths, when the Indian delegation visited his home. This is the same party, Mr Farooq said in an interview, whose veteran leader and former prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, once said: "It is my dream and wish to resolve the Kashmir issue."

"This is the same party that once initiated peace talks with hardline separatist Syed Ali Shah Geelani. It engaged Hizbul Mujaheddin in a ceasefire and talks process in the summer of 2000," he said, referring to the militant Kashmiri group. "And now when it's out of power, it has hardened its stance to win its Hindu vote bank." In August, the prime minister, Mr Singh, suggested granting Kashmir greater autonomy, which many observers have long claimed is the only viable solution to the territorial dispute.

But the BJP was staunchly opposed. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist political organisation and its close ally, says autonomy is an "intolerable" idea that could lead to the "Balkanisation" of the Indian state. In a stinging editorial in its mouthpiece publication, Organiser in August, the RSS called the people of Indian-controlled Kashmir a "pampered lot". "Kashmiris are asking for more despite having better roads, electricity, education, railways, and one of the highest per-capita income in the country. The state gets the highest financial aid [from New Delhi] ? so what is the problem of these gentlemen?" the editorial said of Kashmir's protesters.

Yasin Malik, another separatist leader who heads the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, said that in recent years he had attempted to reach out to different "political shades" in India to resolve Kashmir's dispute. Last year, he said, he had met with two senior members of the RSS in New Delhi in a meeting "arranged by a common friend". "'Kashmir's dispute is bleeding India, it is bleeding Pakistan, it is bleeding Kashmiris,' I told them," Mr Malik said. "'If you don't show flexibility, we'll be fighting with each other all our lives'."

Mr Malik said the RSS members were receptive to his remarks, but made no assurances. He did not want to reveal their names "without their permission". Sheikh Shaukat Hussain, a professor of law at Kashmir University in Srinagar, said the Singh-led government did not need the Hindu nationalists to resolve the Kashmir dispute. "They are not serious," he said of the government. "They impose a curfew, keep the Kashmiri population hostage in their homes, and send second-rung parliamentarians to separatists to show the world they're reaching out. With this approach, Kashmir will never be resolved."