Using the Hurriyat visit to build confidence
WHEN SOME two dozen Hurriyat leaders cross the `Aman Setu' on foot and enter Pakistan-occupied Kashmir on Thursday for a tour of the region as well as Pakistan, the short walk they take will belie the great distance New Delhi has travelled in its approach to the Kashmir issue.
In 2000 and 2001, the Vajpayee Government's `Ramzan' ceasefire floundered and eventually produced no political outcome because the Prime Minister's Office and the Home Ministry at the time could not see eye to eye on allowing the Hurriyat leadership to visit Pakistan. The stumbling block was the Government's desire to dictate the composition of the proposed Hurriyat delegation. Subsequently, the Centre remained unhelpful on the question of foreign travel, denying most Hurriyat leaders except Mirwaiz Umar Farooq a passport. Despite the Centre beginning a dialogue process with the group, the passports question remained a lingering sore. Today, not only has the Government of India actively worked to ensure that the Hurriyat leaders are able to travel to PoK, it managed finally to overcome its initial hesitation in allowing the use of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus as a transit facility for the Hurriyat men to enjoy a more extensive visit to Pakistan-proper.
Since the letter of the agreement which launched the intra-Kashmir bus restricts passengers to travel only within the borders of the erstwhile princely State of Jammu and Kashmir, New Delhi has now hit upon the artifice of passports for the separatists' onward journey from PoK.
The solution is a win-win for everyone concerned. The Hurriyat men get passports, the Pakistan Government gets to freely host them anywhere in the country without causing too much heartburn in India, and the Manmohan Singh Government gets to fend off critics like the BJP who might otherwise have sought to exploit the Hurriyat leadership's "passportless" travel to Pakistan. It matters little if the passports are stamped by the Pakistani side or not, since it is the sovereign right of a government to take decisions on such matters as per its own inclinations. "The understanding between India and Pakistan as far as the bus service is concerned is quite clear", the external affairs ministry spokesman said on Wednesday. "If leaders are invited to visit Islamabad and they do so then the onus for that part of the journey lies on the Pakistan authorities". The only loser in all this, perhaps, is Syed Ali Shah Geelani. The Vajpayee Government's insistence in 2000 that he not be included in the proposed Hurriyat delegation to Pakistan had forced his rivals and detractors within the separatist conglomerate to rally around him. Today, with the Government having no objection to his visit, it is Mr. Geelani who has chosen not to board the bus to Muzaffarabad.
Whether it is working to plan or not, New Delhi's decision to allow the Hurriyat to visit Pakistan is a major and dramatic confidence-building measure. It is low in risk and high in symbolism, and will allow General Pervez Musharraf to tell Pakistani public opinion that India too is prepared to display new thinking on Kashmir. The April 18 joint India-Pakistan statement had evoked an unusually hostile reaction in Pakistan, in part because of the perception that Islamabad has conceded too much. When changing the country's external borders has been an article of faith for decades, the General's call for borders to be made irrelevant understandably caused consternation among many. He also came under fire for suggesting, while in New Delhi, that the separatist leaders were marginal to the bilateral dialogue process. By letting Gen Musharraf play host to the Hurriyat in Islamabad and other cities of Pakistan for a whole fortnight, however, New Delhi will help him to fend off domestic critics whose cries of "sell-out" help no one.