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A week in Kashmir

June 08, 2013

THE strongest impression in my mind after a week in Srinagar last month is that Kashmir’s political process has reached an impasse at all levels.

The unionist parties, the ruling National Conference (NC) led by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) led by former chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed are not on speaking terms. Congress, the NC’s coalition partner, is faction ridden. The state Congress chief Prof Saifuddin Soz is hampered at every stage by union minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, who pulls the strings of his faction from New Delhi.

The separatists are as hopelessly divided. Two of their leading lights, Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Maulvi Umar Farooq, are at loggerheads. Geelani once represented the Jamaat-e-Islami in the united All Parties Hurriyat Conference. In the last few years, they have drifted apart.

On April 23, the amir of the Jamaat, Mohammad Abdullah Wani, pointedly said that the Jamaat was “aware about the problems of people and knew which party reaps benefits of boycotting elections and the final decision about participation in the coming elections will be taken in the Majlis-i-Shoora”. This was an allusion to the NC’s grab of the crucial few seats in Srinagar in the 2008 assembly elections which enabled it to form a coalition with the Congress. Those seats were won by the NC thanks entirely to a call for boycott of the polls by Geelani. He is playing the same game now.

It is time to demand the restoration of the five-year term of the assembly. In 1976, during the emergency, Indira Gandhi had the 42nd Amendment to the constitution enacted, which extended the five-year terms of the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies to six years. The Janata Party government, which came to power in 1977 following India Gandhi’s defeat in the elections, had the 44th Amendment to the constitution enacted in 1979, which restored the five-year term of all the legislatures, central and state.

Meanwhile, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah got the region’s constitution amended in February, 1977, to extend the state assembly’s term to six years. Though he stayed in power till his death in 1982, he did not restore the five-year term.

It remains to be seen if any of the separatists will contest the state elections due next year. The NC is demoralised. Omar Abdullah has proved a colossal failure in office as chief minister; whether as administrator, legislator or politician. His idiom is astonishingly juvenile. The PDP is struggling hard to return to power but it is stuck on the horns of a dilemma. It is decidedly more sensitive to the people’s sentiments than the NC, but it cannot go the whole hog with the prevalent popular mood of total alienation from India for fear of losing the centre’s support.

Neither the NC nor the PDP can come to power without the Congress’ support (read: New Delhi’s support). The Congress has a miniscule presence in the valley but with the Jammu vote it emerges as the king-maker.

Soz is unable to infuse new blood in the discredited Congress. On May 9 he met the party president Sonia Gandhi “to discuss the fate of three senior cabinet ministers who are in the dock for allegedly misusing their official position to make personal fortunes.” Greater Kashmir, a Srinagar daily, mentioned their names: Deputy Chief Minister Tara Chand, Medical Education Minister Taj Mohiuddin and Minister of State Cooperation Dr Manohar Lal Sharma.

Omar Abdullah cited “coalition compulsions” as a reason for his omission as chief minister to sack them from his ministry. He made the same excuse, on May 20, for his failure to seek the withdrawal of a law that has incurred international odium: the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. It gives the armed forces virtually a carte blanche to kill with legal immunity. Soz called the chief minister’s bluff on May 27 by making a specific proposal: “Since the security situation has improved, now the chief minister has to make a movement forward for revocation of the law from certain areas. Omar Abdullah can do so by convening a meeting of Unified Headquarters of which he is the head to take all stakeholders into confidence and get the law repealed.”

Each side is drawing up a scenario of a break before the polls. Soz is trying hard to whip up popular enthusiasm for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit; on past form he is unlikely to break the impasse.

The prime minister’s record since 2004 on the India-Pakistan peace process is creditable. There are signs that, after the sparring over the incidents on the Line of Control, he is trying to revive the process. In total contrast, his record on the domestic front has been dismal, largely because he yielded to the wishes of hardliners such as P. Chidambaram and Ghulam Nabi Azad. Recommendations of working groups, set up by all-party round table conferences that he had convened, were ignored. Two deserve particular mention: the working groups on Confidence Building Measures across Segments of Society in the State and on Strengthening Relations across the Line of Control. They were headed, respectively, by Mohammad Hamid Ansari, now vice-president of India, and by M. K. Rasgotra, former foreign secretary.

Interlocutors galore, official and others, were let loose. The last group of interlocutors comprising Dileep Padgaonkar, Radha Kumar and M.M. Ansari were deservedly snubbed by the separatists. They had also boycotted the round table conferences for the same reason: the centre had no concrete proposals for a settlement of the Kashmir dispute in its internal dimension. It has no intention of restoring the state’s autonomy, withdrawing repressive laws and ending human rights abuses. The only hope for progress lies in an accord between India and Pakistan on the dispute.

The writer is an author and a lawyer.