Praveen Swami

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's round-table process calls for a transfiguration of political attitudes in New Delhi and Srinagar.

"YOU CAN'T shake hands," Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told the Christian Science Monitor in 1982, "with a clenched fist." Six years into its failed attempts to engage the secessionist All Parties Hurriyat Conference and Islamist terror groups in Jammu and Kashmir, New Delhi has reached out to the political parties the State's people have elected to speak for them. Five committees formed from among the participants in the recent round table conference will now discuss all aspects of the State's future, including its constitutional status.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's round table process on Jammu and Kashmir is without dispute historic in its scale. By enabling elected representatives to collectively negotiate the future of the State with the Union of India, the Prime Minister has restored democratic praxis to the centre stage of its political life. Political parties whose position has long derived from the exploitation of religious fundamentalism and dispensation of state patronage jihad and kebab will now have to transfigure themselves.

Some insight into what lines the committees will proceed along is available from private minutes of the round table conference obtained by The Hindu . Deputy Chief Minister Muzaffar Beig's presentation on Jammu and Kashmir's legal relationship with India, where he emphasised that the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India must remain applicable to the State, will be a keystone. So, too, will Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Muhammad Yusuf Tarigami's calls for regional and district-level elected bodies.

Significant ideas have also emerged on reaching out across the Line of Control. During his speech, the former Chief Minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, said the People's Democratic Party's calls for self-rule were directed at Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Mr. Sayeed's suggestion that his party had no issue with the basic structures of Indian democracy was a significant departure from the PDP's recent public position. It is, indeed, possible that some committees may even invite suggestions from Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Realising these ideas, of course, will not be easy. Neither the National Conference nor the PDP made significant movement towards district or provincial-level autonomy during their time in office, for example, because State-level legislators were loath to have their authority undermined. Nor an acidic exchange seen between PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti and the former Chief Minister, Farooq Abdullah, on the first day of the round table suggests will a consensus prove easy to arrive at.

Much will depend on how much seriousness of purpose New Delhi demonstrates. That none is certain just when the members of the five committees might be appointed, and on whose authority, does not bode well. A committee that was supposed to have been set up in September last year to negotiate with the APHC, notably, sank without trace. Discussions have not been held, either, on whether the committees will have expert advisers and if and when they will invite presentations.

Not a few signs exist, moreover, that some in the Jammu and Kashmir policy establishment are still uncomfortable with the kinds of plurality the round table process demands. On the second day of the round table, Union Minister Saifuddin Soz succeeded in arousing the ire of several participants by suggesting that all that was needed for a resolution of the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir was a deal between two "great families" a reference to Mr. Sayeed and Dr. Abdullah.

Finally, New Delhi seems to have given no serious thought to how, or even if, it intends to negotiate now with the APHC or terror groups such as the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. Mr. Soz, along with Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah and the former Research and Analysis Wing chief, A.S. Dulat, had all sought to bring the APHC on board in the weeks before the round table. How the contact can now be maintained without undermining the legitimacy of the round table committees and their membership is unclear.

Lessons from history

But the biggest problem is this: the round table process calls for an enormous break with the past. In the two decades after independence, mass parties in Jammu and Kashmir acquired a curious relationship with ethnic-religious fundamentalism. Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad's regime, which came to power in 1953, positioned itself as a protector of the Kashmir Valley's Muslims against Hindu fundamentalism and of Jammu Hindus against Islamist tendencies, real or imagined, represented by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Bakshi's regime had good reason to perpetuate the existence of these twin fundamentalisms and did so with energy. His successor, G.M. Sadiq, used not-dissimilar tactics to maintain the primacy of the Indian National Congress, into which the National Conference had been subsumed. Mr. Sadiq promoted the Jana Sangh in Jammu, describing it as "a lesser evil" than secular opponents, while Buddhist clerics in Ladakh were used to undermine the position of the regional leader, Kushak Bakula.

Anxious about the prospects of India-Pakistan war, New Delhi endorsed these actions, seeing the dominance of the Congress as necessary to push forward Jammu and Kashmir's integration with India. Mr. Sadiq delivered. In April 1965, for example, the State legislature renamed Jammu and Kashmir's Sadr-i-Riyasat as its Governor and its Wazir-e-Azam as Chief Minister. The term Wazir-e-Azam had been generally translated as Prime Minister terminology New Delhi had long been uncomfortable with.

New Delhi's pursuit of integration drove Sheikh Abdullah and his one-time enemy, the Srinagar cleric, Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq, to join hands. Claiming that New Delhi's policies threatened the existence of Kashmiri identity, they called on their cadre to boycott marriages, funerals, and religious ceremonies hosted by the families of Muslim members of the Indian National Congress. Images of Pakistan's founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, made an appearance on the walls of Sheikh Abdullah's headquarters.

In the passport he was issued for his travel abroad, Sheikh Abdullah insisted that his identity be entered as a `Kashmiri Muslim,' a wilful conflation of nationhood with religion. As the scholar Navnita Chadha-Behera has perceptively noted, the "clock had turned full circle." "In the 1940s," she has observed, "the Sheikh had joined hands with Indian nationalism in order to challenge Muslim nationalism, and now he joined forces which stood for the Muslim identity in order to challenge the Indian identity."

What is significant here is that Mr. Sadiq's regime made little effort to present a coherent challenge to ethnic-religious chauvinism: its energies were confined to containing the agents of fundamentalism, not the ideological basis of their legitimacy. As long as Sheikh Abdullah or the Mirwaiz's protests did not pose a challenge to the regime, their existence served the useful purpose of persuading New Delhi that the body of the Chief Minister was all that stood between India and the abyss.

In 1977, facing a challenge from the Jamaat-e-Islami-Janata Party alliance, Sheikh Abdullah himself adopted the same tactics. His party administered oaths to potential ethnic-Kashmiri voters on the Quran, and shipped in clerics to campaign in Muslim-majority areas of Jammu. Sheikh Abdullah was careful to assert that "Kashmir was a part of India and Kashmiris were Indians," but added that "if we are not assured of a place of honour and dignity in India, we shall not hesitate to secede."

Like Mr. Sadiq, Sheikh Abdullah was happy to wage war on fundamentalists he had, in the run-up to the elections, proscribed some 1,125 Jamaat-e-Islami schools, describing them as sources "of communal poison" but he had no desire to engage in frontal battle with Islamists. His son and successor, Farooq Abdullah, acted in much the same way. As Islamist protests in Kashmir spiralled out of control from 1987, Dr. Abdullah saw them mainly as an instrument with which he could leverage concessions from New Delhi.

Underpinning this political history is the jihad-kebab trope: the idea, shared by Prime Ministers from Jawaharlal Nehru to P.V. Narasimha Rao, that the proper role of elected regimes was to dispense patronage, and thus contain political dissent, rather than to act as agents of the making of history in Jammu and Kashmir. The jihad the communal mobilisation that challenged Jammu and Kashmir's accession to India was a matter to be dealt with through deals made behind closed doors.

For the past decade-and-a-half, Indian policy making on the conflict has been driven by professional mediators, academics, and unelected bodies such as the APHC all of them claiming to have knowledge of, and power over, an entity called "the Kashmiri mind," whatever this racist construct might be. Few of them have an interest in embracing a process that allows the peoples of Jammu and Kashmir to exercise their own minds and act upon whatever vision of the future they arrive at.

Can Prime Minister Singh realise his own vision? Within his own party, few seem to have the energy or imagination that is now needed. Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil's vapid 13-page round table speech, which was bereft of a single idea of substance, is a case in point. Failure will, inevitably, prove a crippling personal blow. Yet the Prime Minister has a real chance of making history instead of just another deal. It would be tragic if he does not summon the will to step ahead, rather than stepping away.