Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's decision to meet the Hurriyat leadership is a no-brainer. That makes it a dubious first. It is not clear what policy aims are being sought to be addressed through an apex-level dialogue with the separatists.In his time Atal Bihari Vajpayee had wisely resisted the idea of dealing directly with the Hurriyat though his positive moves in respect of Kashmir had opened up the space for reaching a truce with the people, above all by ensuring a fair assembly election that was acclaimed within the Kashmir valley and way beyond. Subsequently, he got his home minister to keep the Hurriyat engaged though the separatists had boycotted the polls.
Naturally, no representative government can decline to discuss issues with any section of the people, no matter what their grievances, aims, or demands. But does the conversation have to be at the level of prime minister in order to be deemed genuine?
What if the interaction hits a dead-end, as is likely to be the case, since the Hurriyat brings nothing to the table? It has little to offer that compliments the search for peace or contributes to the strengthening of the democratic milieu in Kashmir.
Besides, if the prime minister engages the Hurriyat directly, why not, let us say, also the Naxalites, should they make that demand in order to secure a higher profile for themselves. Indeed, the ULFA has already done that. Like the Naxalites and ULFA, the Hurriyat too has made it abundantly clear that no process of discussion can influence its aims.The original Hurriyat has split. The section led by Ali Shah Geelani, which propagates Kashmir's merger with Pakistan, repudiates the very idea of talking with the government until the Indian State comes to view Kashmir as 'disputed territory.' Other breakaway elements, most notably Yasin Malik's Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front that tilts at windmills and rather grandiloquently speaks of 'independence' for all of J&K (including areas under Pakistan control), are also keeping away from Manmohan Singh's table.
With these elements -- who represent by far the more stable and the more influential sections of the original Hurriyat -- staying out, there is little likelihood that Mirwaiz Umer Farooq and his cohorts, who are being engaged by the prime minister, can rustle up anything even remotely resembling a coherent posture.
Indeed, the Mirwaiz will be looking over his shoulder even as he raises a steaming cup of tea at the prime minister's office. He and his group will be conscious that they command neither fire-power nor stand at the head of people's power in Kashmir. This is likely to make them unduly anxious about taking imaginary false steps and fearful of condemnation at the hands of the Hurriyat blocs missing at the discussion. And it should not be forgotten for a minute that the Mirwaiz's own party, the Awami Action Committee, has traditionally sported the pro-Pakistan creed, a fact he adverted to when on a tour of Pakistan recently. This too leaves him little room for manoeuvre even if he were to be inclined, at a personal level, toward negotiation.
Given the baggage the Mirwaiz carries, there is not much in concrete terms that he and his group can present on the eve of conferring with the prime minister. Indeed, their only realistic aim can be to gain a higher profile for themselves through the dialogue. This may add to their CV and promote their case when it comes to representation in certain fora, especially since they also happen to be the flavour of the season in Islamabad.
Small wonder that all that the Mirwaiz has found possible to say in recent days is that the interaction of his group with the prime minister will signal for the first time that the people of Kashmir have at last become a party to the discussion on the status of Kashmir. The flagrant sub-text here is that the Mirwaiz's Hurriyat is the true voice of Kashmir. This, of course, is being economical with the truth and would make the Kashmiris guffaw.
What is true is that the Hurriyat boycotted the last assembly election and the people defied them to vote in large numbers. About 40 percent exercised their franchise eventually though some 800 were slaughtered in the run-up to the election for showing the temerity to take an interest in the poll process. That is the measure of the gap that has come to exist between people's aspirations and what the Hurriyat propagates. Anyone with the least familiarity with Kashmir recognises this. And yet, New Delhi privileges the likes of the Hurriyat by holding direct talks with them though they stand ignored by the people. This is the surest way to alienate the people whose disdain for all Hurriyat factions -- not just the Mirwaiz's -- is not any more a matter of conjecture.
Through the years of turmoil that dogged Kashmir, Pakistan officially regarded the separatists as the sole legitimate voice of Kashmir. However, General Pervez Musharraf was recently obliged to note that those elected by the people, the MLAs, were also representatives. This was not just a long overdue recognition of reality. In effect, it was points shorn off the Hurriyat by Pakistan under force of circumstances. This was Pakistan doing what it can -- even by going against its own grain -- to keep in touch with popular opinion in Kashmir. And yet, the prime minister has seen no incongruity in the idea of confabulating with the Hurriyat.
For the move to be meaningful, it should deliver at least on one of three counts: draw India and Pakistan closer; draw the people of Kashmir -- who have been through an unimaginable trauma -- closer to the Centre; gain India points in counsels of the world for talking to secessionist elements. Indeed, it will be extraordinary if any of these goals is met.
Pakistan's stance on Kashmir essentially flows from its understanding of the two-nation theory. The start of a process of discussion between the Indian leadership at the highest level and Kashmir's secessionist conglomerate can only boost hopes in Islamabad. As such, it could lead to the Pakistan establishment dragging its feet even more on the composite dialogue with India. As for deepening the truce with the people of the valley, the prime minister's move vis-a-vis the Hurriyat is likely to bring on exasperation among the populace, and a sense of despair. It is unlikely to be noted as an act of bridge-building.
If this is the case, it is hard to see how India is going to earn the gratitude of the power-brokers of the world when it talks to a marginalised Kashmiri set that play no part in calming the valley. It is apparent the prime minister has been inappropriately advised.
Anand K Sahay is a visiting professor at the Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.