Redefining the centre in Kashmir

Written by Muzamil Jaleel | Srinagar | Updated: Dec 30 2008, 04:25am hrs
When the new government is formed in J&K, it will begin with a moral high ground unknown to mainstream politics in Kashmir. With 62 per cent voter turnout and an unprecedented number of contestants, a peaceful poll process has provided an extraordinary credibility to the new dispensation. Still, this overwhelming mandate to the mainstream political parties does not spell an end to separatist sentiment. Nor is it a referendum for a status quo-ist policy on Kashmir.

A deeper look at Kashmirs political landscape shows major shifts towards a new middle ground, especially in mainstream politics. Over the years, differences among the separatist forces have been growing. This trend began during the 2002 assembly polls when the Peoples Conference decided to field proxy candidates in its traditional strongholds of Kupwara and Handwara districts. This led to a split in the Hurriyat where the hawk, Geelani, disapproved of proxy participation and left the conglomerate. The moderate camp led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq shaped its politics around a three-way dialogue processbetween Hurriyat and New Delhi, Indo-Pak process and dove camps parleys with Islamabad.

Geelanis rigid stance that only tripartite talks will work didnt get a good response even from Islamabad, which preferred a relationship with the Mirwaiz camp. The post 9/11 international scenario had also made it tactically difficult for Pakistan to do business with Geelani, seen as an Islamist politician.

Meanwhile, New Delhi too engaged the Mirwaiz camp in direct dialogue. Sajjad Lone and JKLF chief Yasin Malikthe only separatist politicians outside the ambit of the two factions of Hurriyattoo began direct parleys with New Delhi.

By the time the poll bugle was sounded earlier this year, the separatist brigade had understood that their poll boycott call would have no takers on the ground. Feelers from Islamabad also suggested that Pakistan would not support a violent anti-poll campaign. Militancy, too, was under serious strain, especially after the successes of the J&K polices counter-insurgency operations literally wiping out the entire top brass of Hizbul Mujahideen. Apart from Geelani, every separatist group and politician was getting ready for the unthinkable. The Mirwaiz group began trying to delink the election process from the larger question of the resolution of Kashmir. Sajjad Lones position too had been to delink polls from the Kashmir issue, saying that the scope of the polls is limited to the resolution of local governance issues.

For the moderate brigade among the separatists, the PDP was becoming a major competitor with its politics of soft separatism. The National Conference too was rethinking its strategy. The party had substantially softened its stance towards Pakistan as well as militants to re-establish a Kashmir-centric political discourse. NC president Omar Abdullah and other senior leaders had made several visits to Pakistan to liaison with the Pak establishment. The red carpet welcome for Omar Abdullah in Islamabad suggested a major shift in Pak policy towards Kashmirs mainstream political parties. This led to a competition of sorts between the NC and PDP for the Kashmir-centric, Pakistan-friendly spot in the Valleys mainstream politics.

But Kashmirs roller coaster politics had something else in store. The Amarnath land row in June exploded into a separatist agitation. As the controversy had religious overtones, Geelani took centrestage. The sudden shift in popular mood put pressure on the moderate camps that were already facing a serious threat of irrelevance because of failure of talks with New Delhi and the anti-Musharraf wave in Pakistan.

Mirwaiz took a calculated risk and extended an olive branch to the hawks. His meeting with Geelani led to the formation of a loose alliance in the form of a co-ordination committee entrusted with spearheading the separatist agitation. Now, the gun was conspicuously absent from the separatist discourse. Hawk-dove divisions, however, had disappeared and soon the traditional bickering re-emerged in the separatist camp.

When people came out in Bandipore district on the first day of polling, the long queues outside the booths changed the equations once again. Even Srinagar city witnessed a four-fold increase in turnout. When the polls concluded, the separatists had already conceded defeat for their poll boycott and promised introspection.

In this process, Kashmirs mainstream political discourse too has substantially changed. The PDP had jumped into the fray only after unveiling its self-rule documenta political manifesto that seeks the resolution of Kashmir well outside the ambit of the Constitution. This conflict-resolution model provided steps towards a confederation between the two parts of Kashmir, increased influence for Pakistan in the state and decentralisation of political and economic powers.

The NC too expanded its autonomy plank to accommodate the new international aspect of the Kashmir dispute. A committee was formed to discuss the contours of the autonomy plus plan that seeks self-rule for Kashmir besides a new relationship with Pakistan occupied Kashmir.

Thus, when the new government takes oath in Kashmir, it will be occupying the moral high ground of a mass mandate. But it will also be confronted with a new realityboth the separatist and mainstream discourses have shifted. Their common ground is the need for a resolution of the Kashmir conflict.