The United Progressive Alliance’s top brass — Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi — last visited Kashmir together on October 28, 2009, when the Baramulla-Anantnag train service was extended from Wanpoh to Qazigund. Their visit was preceded by months of turmoil over the alleged rape and murder of two young women in Shopian that finally ended with the findings of an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation.
As Chief Minister Omar Abdullah told Dr Singh and Ms. Gandhi in an address, “Kashmir is not simply an economic problem. It is essentially a political problem that needs a political solution.”
That’s exactly what the valley’s separatist leadership has been pleading since the eruption of armed insurgency in 1990. Pressed for an interpretation, Mr. Abdullah would call “autonomy” the solution. Revocation of the Jammu and Kashmir Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has been the National Conference’s second-highest pursued agenda. Till date, it has achieved neither.
This time around, nobody in Srinagar is expecting Dr. Singh or Ms. Gandhi to announce ‘greater autonomy’ or revocation of AFSPA, as the UPA regime has indicated from day one that such issues were least within its competence and confidence.
No ‘quiet diplomacy’
There are indications that none of the separatist leaders has shown any inclination toward joining a secret meeting with the Congress’s top brass. All the Track-2 champions, who had thronged Srinagar last fortnight, have packed off. Men, from an intractable Syed Ali Shah Geelani to self-styled moderates Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik, are understood to have conveyed to New Delhi that there was no scope of a meeting until the previous “commitments” were fulfilled.
“Returning Afzal Guru’s mortal remains,” according to some sources, has been added to the separatists’ clichéd conditions of releasing “all political detainees” and booking Police officers for over a hundred civilian deaths of the 2010 street agitation.
What then makes the June 25 visit significant?
Dr. Singh and Ms. Gandhi are visiting Srinagar for the first time after the street turmoil in 2010 and Guru’s execution in February 2013.
The Prime Minister was in Srinagar on a two-day visit in 2010, to attend the convocation of Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agriculture Sciences and Technology, Kashmir. Within two days of his departure, the valley seethed with reactions to the death of 13-year-old Tufail Matoo, allegedly in tear gas shelling by the Police. Over a hundred protestors died in the next three months of violent demonstrations. The then Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s phrase of “quiet diplomacy” was never heard thereafter.
A pause of turbulence
Otherwise a frequent visitor, Ms. Gandhi too has not been seen in the valley in the last three years. On February 14, 2009, she was accompanied by the then Minister of Railways Lalu Prasad Yadav, Minister of Civil Aviation Praful Patel, besides Ghulam Nabi Azad and Omar Abdullah, when she inaugurated the new terminal building of Srinagar Airport and flagged off the now-defunct Srinagar-Dubai air service. She also inaugurated the extension of the train service from Mazhama to Baramulla.
On October 11, 2008, Ms. Gandhi and Dr. Singh travelled together to launch Kashmir’s first train at Nowgam Railway Station near Srinagar. Later, on May 29, 2010, Ms. Gandhi inaugurated a tribal cultural centre in Jammu. The valley subsequently witnessed two political turbulences.
On June 25, Dr. Singh and Ms. Gandhi are to attend a meeting with the Chief Minister and his council of ministers, other meetings with leaders of different mainstream political parties, besides their scheduled meetings with the Police and the armed forces. A commemorative stamp in the name of legendary poet Mehjoor is also being released. Train service from Qazigund to Banihal, through the 11-km-long Pir Panjal tunnel will be extended on June 26.