The > arrest of the Kashmir separatist leader Masarat Alam Bhat within six weeks of his release from jail shows an early collapse of the ‘healing touch’ policy adopted by the Jammu and Kashmir government led by the Peoples Democratic Party soon after coming to power. Mr. Alam was a known troublemaker with the potential to instigate violence, and little thought seemed to have gone into the decision to let him walk free from jail after more than four years in detention. At a rally to be addressed by Hurriyat chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani in Srinagar, Mr. Alam was at the head of a group of youths shouting anti-India slogans and > waving the Pakistan flag , forcing the government to first place him under house arrest and later take him into custody. That the PDP and its partner in government, the Bharatiya Janata Party, were divided on how to deal with Mr. Alam was evident from the start. Not only did the PDP fail to consult the BJP on the issue, it appears to have underestimated the sinister consequences of releasing Mr. Alam without wresting any kind of assurances from him. If Mr. Alam’s release last month embarrassed the BJP, his arrest now is an acceptance of failure by the PDP, which was at pains to stress that while the released person had a history of involvement with stone-pelting he had never wielded a gun.
If political considerations weighed heavily in the decision to release Mr. Alam, matters of practical policing seemed to have forced the government’s hand in ordering his rearrest. Other than giving the hardliners in the Kashmir dispute an opportunity to regroup, the release and rearrest episode appears to have achieved little. The Kashmir issue is not any closer to a solution. Politically, both the PDP and the BJP will be seen as having bungled in this case. In a State torn by violence, flag-waving and sloganeering might seem minor crimes, but the Jammu and Kashmir government cannot be seen as ignoring the anti-national implications of Mr. Alam’s waving the Pakistan flag in the Valley. If the government does not clamp down on this symbolic defiance, it will only embolden the separatist forces. Political autonomy for Kashmir will have to be negotiated within the framework of India’s sovereignty, and the crackdown following the waving of the Pakistani flag is a clear statement of intent and purpose from both the State and Central governments. The Masarat Alam release and rearrest fiasco was an avoidable political miscalculation. Nothing must be allowed to undermine the credibility of a genuine political initiative from the Mufti Sayeed administration, which should pick up the threads of the earlier dialogue between New Delhi and Srinagar on proposals for more autonomy for the State.