Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 39, Dated October 02, 2010
The Conspiracy that Failed
The All Party Delegation of Parliamentarians to Srinagar was intended to be a farce, says PREM SHANKAR JHA. It didn’t quite turn out that way
|Lip service Ram Vilas Paswan, Sitaram Yechury, Sushma Swaraj and other delegation members at the Hazratbal shrine
AT THE END of the first day the media, which gathered in Srinagar to cover the visit of the Parliamentary delegation to Kashmir, dubbed the exercise a farce. The script was written and directed with painstaking attention to choreographic detail by National Conference President Dr Farooq Abdullah and followed somewhat uncritically by Union Home Minister P Chidambaram. The state government was given the task of setting the stage and choosing minor actors and extras.
In Kashmir, the first misgivings arose when the Home Ministry was given the sole responsibility of organising the visit. In 2002, the Home Ministry had organised a similar visit for the Vajpayee government’s first interlocutor on Kashmir, KC Pant. Pant found that there were no appointments with ‘non-mainstream’ intellectuals and activists but that meetings with taxi and houseboat owners’ associations were scheduled.
On his own initiative, Pant organised a secret meeting with Azam Inquilabi, a colleague of Kashmir’s first martyr in the cause of freedom, Maqbool Butt, and a one-time chairman of the Muzaffarabad-based United Jihad Council. Inquilabi had returned to Srinagar several years earlier, totally disillusioned with Pakistan and violence. On the urging of well-wishers, he came very quietly at the end of the day to meet Pant at the circuit house. The meeting proved invaluable to Pant but the state administration leaked the news that Inquilabi had met Pant to the local media. This all but destroyed his capacity to act as a mediator thereafter.
The Home Ministry had played a similar game when, after its second meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Hurriyat (Mirwaiz) had agreed to take part in a conference along with the NC, the PDP, the Congress and the Hurriyat (G). But, as the Home Ministry made its preparations, the number of political parties to be invited rose to nine and then rapidly to 80! At that point, Delhi’s second interlocutor for Kashmir, NN Vohra, intervened but only managed to get the number pruned to 28. The Hurriyat (M) leaders withdrew, convinced that they were about to be hung out on a clothesline to be viewed as ‘collaborators’. The muchtouted conference produced only mountains of paper.
KASHMIRIS THEREFORE had good reason to fear that the same charade was about to be repeated, and Delhi did not disappoint them. The Home Ministry further delegated the arrangement of the meetings to the state government, which put two NC party members, Sagar and Tantray, in charge. These worthies did their level best to ensure that the delegation heard only what the NC wanted it to hear.
Those wishing to meet the delegation were asked to fax their request with a short summary of their presentation. They and their views would be vetted by state CID before they were allowed to attend. In Delhi, these arrangements might have looked routine, if archaic and security-obsessed. But in Delhi they would not have been accompanied by a total — and I mean TOTAL — curfew from Sunday morning onwards.
The curfew ensured that those who wanted to meet the delegation had to venture out to find an STD shop, persuade the owner to open it, send the fax and wait, or come back repeatedly for a reply, braving a nervous CRPF man’s bullet or baton. If invited, they would have to find a vehicle to take them to the conference venue. Since there was not a single private car, auto, or bus on the road in Kashmir, the only way they could come was to ask the government for a car. As I found out to my cost within hours of arriving in Srinagar on Saturday, to be seen in a white Ambassador is to invite a political kiss of death. Needless to say, no one who had not been prechosen by the NC came within a mile of the meeting.
The ruling party took no chances. To insulate the delegation members further, it lodged them in the Lalit Grand Palace hotel several kilometres from the city. The meeting took place a further half-kilometre away at the Sher-e-Kashmir conference centre on the banks of the Dal lake. The entire area, which includes Farooq Abdullah’s beloved new golf course, is so cut off from the rest of the Valley that it makes the Green Zone in Baghdad look like a battlefield.
Even these safeguards did not assuage the NC’s paranoia. The handpicked Kashmiris were surprised to find Farooq Abdullah sitting with the MPs. A number of invitees, such as Yusuf Tarigami, used their cell phones to protest to Congress Central minister Saifuddin Soz that Farooq’s presence at the conference (and the proven vindictiveness of NC governments in the past) would make it difficult for them to speak freely. In a final, unkind cut, when Soz mentioned to Congress ministerial colleague Taj Mohiuddin that Farooq should have recused himself, Mohiuddin told Farooq what Soz had said. Farooq Abdullah stayed put throughout, and Chidambaram, great lawyer that he is, saw nothing wrong in this. Since no one in Kashmir believes he is naïve, they have concluded that he co- authored Farooq Abdullah’s script and that — as has happened before — the Home Ministry hijacked powers that belong rightly to the Prime Minister.
WHAT KIND of people was the NC keen on keeping out? One was Muzaffar Bhat, Kashmir’s foremost champion of the Right to Information (RTI). Bhat, a dentist, has filed more than 1,000 RTI applications since 2002. Like eight other activists in the rest of India, he nearly met his death in February while investigating a complaint of Public Distribution System misuse in an NC constituency, and escaped only because of timely intervention by the CRPF, alerted from Delhi by Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh.
When Bhat’s request to the chief secretary of J&K to meet the delegation elicited no response, he sent the following email to Prithviraj Chauhan, who inexplicably dropped out of the delegation on the eve of its departure: “You had assured us in Delhi two days back that we would be given time to meet the All Party Delegation in Srinagar but it is so unfortunate that the government created hurdles for the civil society to meet the delegation. We did not get any invitation or intimation from J&K government in this regard… Only NC supporters, labelling them as members of civil society, have been allowed to meet the delegation. This is so unfortunate. We had lots of stories to tell the APD regarding corruption, human rights, RTI activists’ harassment, etc... We are very much unhappy with this dictatorial attitude of the state government.”
Fortunately for Kashmir, and for India, there were two groups of actors in the drama who refused to follow the script: the media assembled in Srinagar, and the Parliamentarians. On the second day, in groups of five to a dozen, they broke out of the cordon sanitaire and heard, for a brief while, the real voice of the Kashmiri people.
It is because of them that Muzaffar Bhat, who has spent eight years of his life convincing Kashmiri youth that they are not powerless; that Indian democracy can be made to work, and that they can hold their government accountable, may still have the last word.
PHOTO: ABID BHAT