The release of the leaders of the All Party Hurriyat Conference is welcome. But why in the first place were they put under detention, just after the parliamentary election in 1999 were over? And why have they been released in instalments? Union Home Minister L.K. Advani has said that the release was not a casual action but was “an initiative towards peace and normalcy in Kashmir”. Citing the example of talks between the Government of India and the Naga rebels and Bodo militants, he expressed his government´s willingness to talk to the militants in Kashmir “on every demand, legitimate or perverse”.
Asked about the demand for restoration of pre-1953 position in Jammu and Kashmir, Advani said talks could cover even this aspect, the basic parameter being the need to remain within the Indian Constitution. This is certainly a distinct advance over the traditional Bharatiya Janata Party position, which has held that abrogation of Article 370 is the solution to the Kashmir problem, and over the recent statements by the leaders of the Jammu BJP and by other members of the parivar in which they have equated the demand for autonomy with that of azadi and treason.
But is this advance far enough to the ground where the Hurriyat can reach? Can it afford to accept the terms of settlement that Farooq Abdullah´s National Conference has been demanding from the Centre? There are obvious and formidable difficulties on both sides to changing their declared stands too drastically. Despite much media speculation, not much is known about the groundwork done by mediators preceding the release of the Hurriyat leaders. Yet, some tentative suggestions may be made to whosoever may care to consider them.
The release of the Hurriyat leaders should not necessarily be linked to a settlement, and even if no basis is found for talks they are entitled to remain free unless they break a specific law. In fact, the other political leaders in detention against whom there are no criminal charges should also similarly be released.
Talks at any level should be held without any pre-condition on either side. When prime minister Narasimha Rao, in an earlier time made an offer for unconditional talks, the Hurriyat unfortunately rejected it and demanded trilateral talks which included Pakistan. The fear then was that the offer of unconditional talks might never be repeated. Besides, the suggestion of trilateral talks could be made at the beginning of the bilateral talks with the Centre, so it should not be put forward as an obstacle. Moreover, the Hurriyat leaders could continue to have talks with the Pakistani government through its High Commission in New Delhi, as they had been doing.
This time, the Government of India must be urged not to insist on the condition of the parameter of the Indian Constitution; just as it has set no conditions for talks with the Naga rebels. As the talks begin, the government can try to convince the dissidents why it is not possible or desirable to trascend that parameter. The first item on the agenda, formal or informal or at the track-two level, should be de-escalation of violence on both sides. At the very least, there should be an agreement to end violence against innocents. Let nobody be threatened or killed for religious and political belief.
An atmosphere needs to be created for a multilayered dialogue on a variety of related problems which were put in a cold storage awaiting final agreement about the status of the state, but which have complicated a settlement on the main problem itself. The question of inter-regional relations within Jammu and Kashmir and return of migrants to the Valley, if tackled, would actually facilitate a discussion on the status of the state.
Unlike the days of Jawaharal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Abdullah, there is no single leader or party in India or in Jammu and Kashmir to take up decisions on behalf of the respective people. Therefore, widespread consultations at the national level (with non-BJP parties) and the state level (with non-Hurriyat parties in Kashmir Valley and the leadership in Jammu and in Ladakh) must proceed on all related issues before a breakthrough is made.
Finally, India-Pakistan talks need not be postponed indefinitely. The recent peace initiatives at the non-official level, one may hope, will recreate the Lahore spirit in which a meaningful dialogue can be resumed between the two estranged neighbors, inseparably linked with shared history and future destiny.