WASHINGTON DC, June 21, 2005 | ISSN: 1684-2057 | www.satribune.com

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Mir Waiz Umer Farooq addresses a Friday Gathering on his return from Pakistan

An Indian Assessment of Kashmiri Leaders' Pakistan Sojourn

By Kanchan Lakshman

NEW DELHI, June 21: The first formal visit of a faction of the separatist All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) and the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) to Pakistan between June 2-16, 2005, was projected as a major event and 'development' in the process of 'solving' the 'Kashmir issue', and was dominated by lengthy photo-ops and vigorous reiteration of the Pakistani line on the peace process and the Kashmiri jihad.

Indeed, the visit strongly reiterated the fact that the APHC continues to be a faithful Pakistani proxy, although its dramatis personae may be gradually changing.

By conferring a 'one-to-one' audience on the Hurriyat faction chairman Mirwaiz (a hereditary title of one of Kashmir's important religious seats, and also head priest of the Jamia Masjid) Umar Farooq, President Pervez Musharraf, anointed the 'moderate' separatist leader as Pakistan's new surrogate, suggesting that Syed Ali Shah Geelani, head of the 'hardliner' faction of the Hurriyat (who refused to travel to Pakistan by the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus) may have finally fallen out of favor.

After his meeting with the President, Umar Farooq declared that discussions had covered "two-three proposals in great detail", though he refused to elaborate on the Hurriyat roadmap. He did, however, add that, "We want Kashmir to be divided on geographical grounds. We don't want Kashmir to lose its identity....we support his [President Musharraf] approach."

In May 2005, Musharraf had told a conference of South Asian Parliamentarians in Islamabad that: "We do understand the Indian sensitivities of their secular credentials therefore it (the solution to the Kashmir issue) cannot be on any religious basis… Therefore it should on a people basis and on regional basis."

Disingenuously, he had earlier pointed out at a meeting with editors and senior journalists in October 2004: "The beauty of these regions is that they are still religion-based even if we consider them geographically." He outlined his 'formula' further: "To identify a region, allow maximum self governance to the people, de-militarize and take some actions to make border irrelevant."

A further endorsement of the Pakistani position was discernible in the claim of Bilal Lone, son of the assassinated Hurriyat leader Abdul Ghani Lone, that Kashmiris should have no problem with the thinking of President Musharraf on Kashmir as long as there is a consensus.

Gen. Musharraf was quoted as saying in Canberra on June 14, 2005, that an 'autonomous Kashmir' was his 'earnest desire' and that complete independence for Kashmir would not be acceptable to either India or Pakistan.

The visit broke little new ground, and Hurriyat leaders have been routinely airing these views, and have been meeting visiting Pakistani leaders on a routine basis in Delhi, even as they have tended to receive their instructions, and at least on several occasions, substantial sums of money, from the Pakistani High Commission in India's capital.

The only novelty, as Pakistani analyst Mariana Baabar noted, was that the Mirwaiz impressed the people of Pakistan with his sartorial elegance, sporting a new outfit for every public appearance, although he seemed devoid of ideas.

The biggest gainers of this inflated public relations exercise have been the Mirwaiz, Bilal Lone and JKLF chief Yasin Malik, the last of which created some space for himself with his controversial statements on Pakistan's Minister for Information, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, who Malik claimed played host to at least 3,500 Kashmiri terrorists who received training at his farm house and lands at Tarnol near Rawalpindi in the end 1980s and early 1990s.

Malik's disclosure was subsequently confirmed by, among others, the ex-Army Chief of Pakistan, Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, a statement from the Pakistan People's Party, former Interior Minister Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Naseerullah Babar, and Choudhry Nisar Ali Khan, acting president of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). The other visiting Hurriyat leaders, including Abdul Ghani Bhatt and Maulana Abbas Ansari, were completely sidelined, both in the talks and the media.

Mirwaiz Farooq's new pre-eminence implies that a new equation is emerging in the separatist camp in Srinagar. This may lead to Geelani's marginalization. Geelani, who once described himself as a proud Pakistani, has of late been as critical of Pakistan's Kashmir policy (too flexible, he alleges) as of Delhi.

With the Mirwaiz endorsing the Pakistani line unequivocally, a war of claims and counter-claims has already begun, with Umar Farooq announcing at the Jamia Mosque after Friday prayers on June 17 that the leadership in Pakistan has recognized his faction as the "true representatives" of the people of J&K.

The Hurriyat leaders also met Mohammad Yousuf Shah aka Syed Salahuddin, 'Chief Commander' of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) and 'chairman' of the United Jihad Council. Although Salahuddin, a Kashmiri from village Soibagh in Budgam district, has in the more recent months hinted at possibilities of a ceasefire, he is reported to have told the Hurriyat that India must first withdraw troops from the State. Salahuddin also asserted that he would only support the Hurriyat moves or any future solution to the Kashmir issue if Geelani is also taken on board.

On their return, the Hurriyat leaders have set about the task of convincing their miniscule support base in Srinagar that they now have Islamabad's endorsement, and have also 'offered to talk to' Delhi.

Nevertheless, despite efforts by the Hurriyat and their handlers to present a united face, fissures within the separatist conglomerate were unambiguous. The Hurriyat faction led by the Mirwaiz claimed that their 'historic' visit had made a solution to the Kashmir issue more likely in the 'immediate future'.

The JKLF, led by the terrorist turned over ground separatist Yasin Malik, however, reiterated that Kashmiris alone would decide their fate, an euphemism for an 'independent Jammu and Kashmir'. While the Mirwaiz-led faction seeks a place in a triangular process of talks with India and Pakistan, Malik seeks a central place for 'Kashmiris' at the negotiating table.

The Hurriyat-JKLF visit to Muzaffarabad, Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad has, however, also drawn some criticism on the grounds that the delegation should rather have spent time in Gilgit and Skardu, to meet other Kashmiris as well as some of the refugees there.

Gilgit and Baltistan in the Northern Areas are, in more ways than one, integral to any eventual solution of the Kashmir issue. However, these areas, with their Shia majority and their cultural proximity to the Kargil region of Indian J&K are an embarrassment both to Pakistan and the Sunni hardliners within the Hurriyat.

Shia Hurriyat leader Abbas Ansari has maintained a studied silence on the issue as well. While Islamabad's control over 'Azad Kashmir' is fairly complete, its position vis-à-vis the Northern Areas is relatively fragile. By ignoring this troubled region and focusing on posing for shutter-bugs at Lahore and Karachi, the Hurriyat has merely re-established its primary identity as a Pakistani surrogate.

In any event, their claims to be the 'real representatives' of the Kashmiris have been wearing thin, with the reversal of the relative collapse of civil governance in J&K and the successful conduct of elections at all levels - Parliamentary, State and local. Nevertheless, with the progressive delegitimization of terrorist violence, Islamabad's options are shrinking, and its efforts to retain a hold on actors like the Hurriyat can only strengthen in the foreseeable future.

The writer is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management and Assistant Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution

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