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'We need to talk to the Kashmiris'

Last updated on: July 09, 2008 13:40 IST
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The Jammu and Kashmir assembly election is due in September. The crucial border state has witnessed the worst violence seen in two decades, over the allotment of forest land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board. The ongoing political turmoil has heightened the stakes for various parties in the fray.

A S Dulat, member, National Security Advisory Board, is one of India's leading experts on Kashmir. A former special director of the Intelligence Bureau and former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing, he also served as then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's adviser on Kashmir.

In the inaugural curtain-raiser feature on the Jammu and Kashmir election, Dulat discussed the situation with Managing Editor (National Affairs) Sheela Bhatt. An interview conducted before the violence over the Amarnath shrine land transfer:

According to you, how has the situation in Jammu and Kashmir changed?

The situation is much better now; violence is less. You will find lots of Gujarati and Bengali tourists enjoying Srinagar. But this doesn't mean that militancy is over; I would say that militancy has reduced considerably.

The Indo-Pakistan peace process has gone into slow motion because of the internal troubles in Pakistan. Do you think Kashmiris will have to wait till the bilateral talks resume?

I believe there was a great opportunity last year, which we missed. In March-April 2007, President Pervez Musharraf was still in control and he was apparently very reasonable on the issue of Kashmir. That was the best time to move forward.

The Kashmiris are a very adaptable people. They will wait. From India's point of view, I think we have lost a great opportunity. I don't think we should keep talking to Pakistan. We should talk to the Kashmiris. Ultimately, this matter has to be settled between New Delhi and Srinagar.

Two rounds of talks between the Centre and Kashmiri leaders have been criticised and dubbed unsuccessful.

Nothing came out of the talks because results don't come that easily. I don't know why the dialogue stopped and whether the Hurriyat or the government is responsible for it. I don't see any particular reason for discontinuing the dialogue.

The assembly election is scheduled to be held in September.

The political scenario is very much in election mode. At one time, there was hope that the Hurriyat leaders and separatists would participate in the election. Now, it is definite that the Hurriyat is not going to participate. There is some talk about some separatists, some secondary leaders on the fringes of the Hurriyat, who might participate -- but there is still a question mark over it.

The main contest is between the National Conference, the Congress and the People's Democratic Party. It is too early to judge what will happen eventually.

An easy assessment would be that there might be a hung assembly. No party will get an absolute majority. But anything can happen as we get close to the election.

There are reports that clashes are taking place on the border and infiltration attempts are also on the rise.

I told you the situation is much better, but that does not mean Kashmir is now normal or that militancy is over. There are problems and we will have to keep our fingers crossed that this election passes off peacefully. One bad incident in Srinagar -- like when Lone saab (Hurriyat moderate Abdul Ghani Lone) was assassinated in 2002 -- one such incident will put the whole election process backwards.

Do you think the central government will make some gesture just before the election -- like giving hope for more autonomy or something in that direction?

I don't think the central government is going to make any such gesture. This election is going to be fought as it is, where it is and on the status quo. All parties know it. This question of autonomy and all this will come up only after the election.

What will be the role of the Pakistan factor in this election?

The Pakistan factor is there when you talk about terrorism. I'll attribute the improved situation in J&K partly to the fact that Pakistan is holding back. If Pakistan decides to disturb the election, then violence will increase. In that sense, Pakistan is a deciding factor and it will also be a factor in the election. Even though the separatists may not participate, Pakistan might still support some of the candidates.

Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Farooq was all set to enter the political fray.

That's what I am saying. In last March-April, when the Hurriyat leaders came back from Pakistan, Musharraf was firmly in charge of his nation. The Hurriyat leaders, at that point of time, gave the impression that the message from Pakistan to them was that they (Hurriyat leaders) should prepare for elections.

But now, Musharraf is not the same. The situation in Pakistan is fluid and uncertain and our dialogue with the Hurriyat is currently at a standstill. After (External Affairs Minister ) Pranab Mukherjee's visit (to Pakistan), there is talk of grand reconciliation and all that. That is fine but I think as far as Kashmir is concerned, we need to talk to the Kashmiris.

You have given a pretty picture but there is still a feeling of alienation when the President of India visits Kashmir and when military excesses takes place.

I show optimism to an extent that one needs to show optimism. But things have improved. For the first time, Kashmiris have talked about development and attributed it to the Congress chief minister (Ghulam Nabi Azad, who resigned on Monday). Many Kashmiris thought that because he was the Congress chief minister, he can get things done in New Delhi. I agree that this does not mean that problems are over. Let me put it like this -- now, the Kashmir situation is looking better.

An official from the Prime Minister's Office -- while briefing me on the PM's achievement in the last four years -- didn't mention 8 to 9 per cent GDP growth. He said Dr Singh's first achievement was peace in Kashmir and that he could soften the border row and start the bus service between Srinagar and Muzzaffarabad.

It will be wrong to say that Kashmir has been peaceful only since 2004. The peace process started much before 2004. The United Progressive Alliance has continued the process that was started by the National Democratic Alliance. I think that the dialogue with the Kashmiris should have continued.

We often say the Kashmir issue will not get solved in our lifetime. What do you think?

I hope so, it should get solved.

But that is very unlikely, right?

I am reminded of something. It is interesting. Sardar Qayyum (the former president and prime minister of Pakistan occupied Kashmir) was in India last year. He has visited India before 2007, but he used to be quite defensive during his previous trips. Earlier, he used to say that there is no easy way out, it (resolving the Kashmir issue) will take too long, whether it will happen or not, the Kashmir solution may not be possible in our lifetime.

But last year, he was very optimistic. That again is a very positive indication. He said, 'Whatever can save Kashmir and Kashmiris should be acceptable to both sides'. I thought it was a very positive statement. You can interpret it in whatever way you want. It means you have to be realistic. It also means 'take whatever you can get'.

How do you see the short term future of leaders like Yasin Malik, Shabbir Shah and Syed Ali Shah Gilani shaping up?

They only have the separatist label in common. But, Gilanisaab has decided to be a pucca hardliner and he is too old to change now. But if he could be assured of becoming the chief minister, then it would be a different thing. But he knows that he cannot become the chief minister. After all, it is all politics.

Do you think that someday the separatists will be able to take hold of the assembly and try to secede?

Nobody comes to the assembly to secede. They come for power. If they try any such thing, they will lose the power. People used to say that if the Akalis came to power, they would implement the Anandpur Sahib resolution. How many times have the Akalis come to power? Where is the Anandapur Sahib resolution? The Akalis are having a jolly good time in power.

Kashmiri leaders have said provocative things about the use of dual currency in Kashmir.

(Laughs) In Kashmir, you can use any currency. If you have dollars, you are all right.

What is currency? It means nothing. The Pakistan currency will be exchanged into Indian currency. What else? In a sense, this is expected.

I think the advantage of having separatists in the election is that they raise such agendas and people forget. When the separatists are out of the election fray, their agenda -- to some extent -- is being taken up by mainstream parties.

What do you think the separatist leaders want?

They want safe landing! They don't want to crash! New Delhi is not providing them a safe landing, therefore they will not land! Since the dialogue with the Centre has broken down, they have nothing to show to their constituencies. It was believed that the talks with the Centre will give them something and they will go to the people and take credit for it. Now, they can't take part in the election without an assured safe landing.

Who is most likely to become the next chief minister?

If I have to bet on anybody, then I will bet on Omar Abdullah, because only the mainstream parties are going to fight the election. And the National Conference has an edge; they are working hard.

The PDP has a stronghold in southern Kashmir but that is weakening as important leaders are defecting.

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