NEW DELHI: Unless the Modi government’s objective was to revive the sagging image of Pakistan in the Kashmir Valley or to give the jobless group known as the All Parties Hurriyat Conference a fresh lease of life, India’s cancellation of foreign secretaries’ talks with Islamabad could prove to be what the Indian Express described on Tuesday as a “self-goal”.
“Frankly, I can’t see much sense in making a meeting with the Hurriyat a touchstone for India-Pakistan relations,” analyst Ajai Sahni of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi told the Express.
“It’s almost as if the government is saying we can live with Pakistan shooting our troops on the Line of Control, but having tea with secessionists — that’s unforgivable.”
Kashmiri resistance leader Yasin Malik recalled how previous prime ministers “used to facilitate these meetings”. But, he added, the new government “wants a hardline policy”.
“Indian civil society played a vital role in Kashmir by facilitating a transition from violent militancy to a non-violent democratic movement... by isolating pro-freedom leadership and choking the democratic political space does the government want to push them back to a violent past?” Mr Malik asked.
In private, the Express said, senior officials at the Indian foreign ministry saw the decision as spurred by the fact that the meeting between Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit and Hurriyat leaders happened despite protests from New Delhi.
In other words, officials privately say the meeting would open Mr Modi to criticism from party hardliners.
“The real significance of the decision is that it brings down the curtain on a secret dialogue on Kashmir dating back 10 years and more,” the Express explained.
Just before the current row over the Hurriyat meeting, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had studiously kept himself away from Kashmiris in Delhi. His officials explained the unusual move as an exigency of the multilateral visit he was on in Delhi.
But for the Indian demarche, no Indian TV channel was going to give long exposures to Shabbir Shah or Syed Ali Shah Geelani nor would they have had new thing to say about the Kashmir issue.
In one move by the Indian government the waning influence of the disparate and querulous group got the oxygen it badly needed. Significantly it happened a few months before state elections, which the Hurriyat usually boycotts anyway. Will its members now be spurred to assume a more strident political engagement in the Valley?
In the middle of the showdown in Islamabad, few in Pakistan seemed to have noticed the arriving talks with India. Indian analysts on their part were struggling to stay with their standard theme about the Pakistan army.
After the Hurriyat showdown they were even more clueless: Was the Pakistan army going to fish in the troubled waters at home, or did it have the stamina and the focus to plot the souring of ties with India?
The speculation is unrelenting.
Some of the most ardent critics of Pakistan’s apparent support for cross-border terror were sanguine that it was still Islamabad’s business to talk to the Kashmiris since the issue was an article of faith with Islamabad, and because it had the full support of both, the Shimla Agreement and the Lahore Declaration.
The cancellation of foreign secretary-level talks didn’t stop Mr Basit from having another round of meetings with Mr Malik and other Hurriyat leaders on Tuesday.
A TV anchor, known for revelling in shrill resolves, called for Mr Basit’s expulsion. Others, including M.K. Bhadrakumar, a former head of the Pakistan desk at the Indian foreign ministry, cautioned against such ill-advised decisions.
Will the prime ministers now meet in New York next month, was the million dollar question? Many in India and Pakistan, not the least the United States, will be hoping that they do meet as they invariably do.
Published in Dawn, August 20th, 2014