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As the PM returns from Kashmir the big question still remains: Will normalcy finally prevail? 

By Syed Nazakat in Srinagar

The sun rose over the Sher-e-Kashmir International Convention Centre (SKICC) like a white apparition. Inside the complex, around Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, sat 30 Kashmiri leaders to see how they could win peace in troubled Kashmir. Down and around the complex, there was nobody on the boulevard road save the alert soldiers. The whole Srinagar city had been taken over by soldiers. The only banner one spotted stood outside the entrance of SKICC read- “Committed to peace, progress and prosperity”. 

Yet violence returned after the meet with four persons killed in  grenade attack.

The huge deployment of troops and the tense atmosphere of Srinagar city had made one wonder how different was today’s Kashmir Peace mission to Kashmir from the early 1990s when militancy erupted in the valley. For one man who has seen Kashmir all through these years the simple question after the Prime Minister concluded his second round of talks with the Kashmiri mainstream leaders on May 25, was whether there was any hope at all of resolving the Kashmir issue?

“On the face of it the answer is simply no,” says Wajahat Habibullah, a top bureaucrat and a man who worked behind the scenes to piece together the Kashmir tangle. “If we have to succeed in solving this problem we have to keep the balance between Islamabad, New Delhi and Kashmir,” he said. It was for the first time that an Indian Prime Minister had held talks directly with Kashmiri leaders in Kashmir. The message from the PMO was clear : the PM is serious about progress in Kashmir. “I have conveyed to President Musharraf that we are sincerely committed to peace and development in this region. We are awaiting Pakistan’s response on some concrete suggestions which we have made,” Manmohan Singh said. In reply to a question, Singh said that the Centre is ready to find ways and means to talk to militant groups if they shun violence and choose the democratic path to resolve the issues. He said that the scope of homecoming of those youth who have crossed the LoC and want to return could be discussed at an appropriate forum, keeping in view all security aspects.  The Prime Minister said though he was not an astrologer to predict the mindset of any body, he, however, hoped that the separatists would participate in any future Round Table Conference.

The big achievement of the second round table was that at the end of it five working groups were constituted to look into all issues affecting Jammu and Kashmir and it was hoped that these groups would work towards finding a common ground and forging a consensus on specific issues through a time-bound result-oriented approach. But the Prime Minister’s round table has given an insight on how hard it is to win peace in Kashmir. The Hurriyat leaders and other separatists who met the Prime Minister and also shared a table with the mainstream political parties many times in the past refused to sit with who they call ‘ a bunch of political hypocrites’. The National Conference categorically stated that it was not going to meet the Prime Minister if he holds a separate meeting with the separatists. The BJP boycotted the round table. A political party of the Sikh community living in Kashmir asked the Prime Minister why they had not been invited to the round table.

Good homework was also lacking in the second round. Not only separatist leaders but even those who participated in the first round of talks boycotted it. Out of the 41 invitees only 30 turned up for the talks. “We don’t know about the agenda of the meeting. We received the invitation letter just a few days before the round table,” said Sajjad Lone, another prominent separatist leader who was invited by the Prime Minister. “How could we be a part of any process where we don’t know who is invited and what they are going to talk about,” Lone said.

Late on Thursday afternoon, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, chairman of the Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of two dozen political separatist groups, told Sahara Time that they would not like to be a part of the “crowd”. The Hurriyat considers that the crowd comprising political hypocrites and Ikhwanis (former militants), with no agenda can hardly produce a result in terms of the permanent settlement of the Kashmir problem. But he welcomed the Prime Minister’s initiative to solve the Kashmir issue.

Two issues – autonomy and self-rule – have remerged out of the second round of the round table. National Conference president Omer Abdullah said that his party has put forward a greater autonomy proposal before the Prime Minister. “We are hopeful that this time our proposal will not be turned down,” Omer said. The big immediate challenge for the government will be to make sure that what the Prime Minister termed ‘zero tolerance’ should be implemented on the ground. “Without security, talk of a peace process is academic. If we can’t stop people from being shot down, it is just words,” said Pervez Imroz, lawyer and human rights activist.

Since its eruption in 1989, militancy has claimed at least 85,000 lives, mostly innocent people. Before summer there had been a long lull in the fighting. New Delhi even claimed that Kashmir was once again safe for tourism. But recently the killings of 35 people in the mountain villages of Doda and Udhampur on April 30, the attack on the Congress rally in Srinagar city in which 11 people were killed, the series of grenade blasts, the Fidayeen attack on a BSF vehicle and one after another a number of bomb blasts on the eve of the round table clearly show that there is no sign that insurgency is winding down in Kashmir.   The Prime Minister’s visit just provides the militants an excuse to raise the ante. Despite all the security arrangements the militants still managed to lob five hand grenades in Srinagar.

According to the security agencies in Srinagar the situation is about to get worse. Over the past few years militancy has taken a decidedly dangerous turn, with young boys joining the fray. The call for Jihad is still rising in the streets of Srinagar and the far off villages of Kashmir, and is being answered. A top intelligence officer in Srinagar told Sahara Time that the newcomers have sophisticated arms, high-tech communication equipment and the motivation to die while killing their enemy. ” If we kill four militants. Pakistan sends four more,” says S Shirinivasan who heads the intelligence branch of the BSF in Kashmir. “And the problem is that the militants need just a few men to keep the pot boiling”. An entire generation of Kashmiris has grown up with no experience or understanding of peace They have only the faintest memory of what it was like not to have soldiers on the streets and sandbags on roads.

“There is such a high percentage of young people who see their future as something totally black,” says Manzor Ahamed. And it is very dangerous.

Seventeen years into the turbulence that turned Kashmir from a tourist paradise into a killing field, there seems only one way for peace to return: that the three sides in the conflict – the Kashmir leaders and the governments of India and Pakistan – should move forward. All are saying that they want to end differences in outlook to bring peace in Kashmir. But no one is quite clear how to find a common ground.  

(Sahara Time, June 3, 2006)

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