By Rajeev Sharma
India and Pakistan are set to begin their engagement process in the first week of February when Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao is scheduled to meet her Pakistani counterpart in Thimphu on the sidelines of a SAARC ministerial meeting. This may pave the way for an Indo-Pak foreign minister-level engagement a day or two after as both the foreign ministers will be in Bhutan. Kashmir will naturally be figuring high on the agenda of the Indo-Pak talks.
On January 14, Indian Home Secretary G K Pillai announced that the UPA government may reduce the number of security troops deployed in Jammu and Kashmir by 25 percent in the next 12 months. The remark by Pillai, made at a seminar in New Delhi, assumes significance as he is widely perceived by Pakistan as a wrecker-in-chief of the Indo-Pak peace process because of his terrorism-related remarks against Pakistan last year on the eve of Foreign Minister-level talks between the two countries in Islamabad.
Pillai said the Centre was considering reduction in number of security personnel from the thickly populated areas of Jammu and Kashmir, an important suo motu Confidence Building Measure (CBM) by India largely aimed at winning over the Kashmiri separatists who have been demanding thinning of troops in the state. Pillai said more security pickets would be removed from Srinagar city in the next few months and indicated a gradual and phased handing over of security operations to the state police. Significantly, he said, the state police personnel will not be armed with rifles, but only sticks and shields to tackle protesting crowds. He also announced that the Indian government was in the process of retraining ten battalions of the Jammu and Kashmir Police for this purpose.
Besides, the Indian government is also mulling over injecting greater transparency in governance in the troubled state that has witnessed Pakistan-supported militancy since 1989. Pillai said the Centre proposed to set up a state accountability commission and appoint information commissioners to achieve this objective. Another CBM unveiled by Pillai is targeted at the Kashmiris of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). Pillai announced that India will “unilaterally” ease travel restrictions and give multiple-entry permits of six months’ validity to the Kashmiris of PoK to facilitate their easy and multiple travels to Jammu and Kashmir.
This move by India is sure to rattle the Pakistani establishment as Pakistan has consistently spurned the Indian offer of bilateral easing of the visa regime to facilitate easier travels between Jammu and Kashmir and PoK. Pillai also announced that once the six-month multiple-entry permit expires, the Government of India will not hesitate to grant another permit and will not subject the applicant from PoK to security clearance for the second time. India has repeatedly suggested more Kashmir-specific CBMs to Pakistan – such as raising the frequency of Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service to weekly and starting more bus services like Jammu to Sialkot and Kargil to Skardu – but Islamabad has consistently been in a denial, rejectionist mode. The unilateral steps by India to ease the visa regime and security clearances will undoubtedly be noticed by the international community and will put Pakistan on the back foot diplomatically once these measures are implemented by India.
Though the inter-Kashmir travel between J&K and PoK had started during President Pervez Musharraf’s regime in April 2005 when India and Pakistan launched a fortnightly bus service between Srinagar and PoK capital Muzaffarabad, the Kashmiris always remained shackled by red tape on both sides of the divide. The inter-Kashmir bus service, therefore, has had very few takers, thanks to a very harsh and rigorous visa regime and security clearances on both sides.
On January 16, Pillai, the favourite whipping boy of Pakistan for his strongly-worded public remarks that the Pakistani establishment has invariably found provocative, was at it again when he said the Pakistani probe into the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai “has not moved an inch”. He said “no real investigation” has taken place in Pakistan in the 26/11 case. Pillai also advised Pakistan to learn from India’s “fair” handling of the Samjhauta Express blast case and bring the perpetrators of the 26/11 attacks to book. He quoted his Pakistani counterpart Rehman Malik as having told him seven months ago immediately after Home Minister P Chidambaram had asked for voice samples of the ten terrorists who had struck in Mumbai from November 26 to 29, 2008 that “You would not be disappointed by our response”. Pillai made a three-words remark on Malik’s assurance: “We are disappointed”. He said: “That is not a real investigation. From the steps so far taken by Pakistan, we would say we are quite pessimistic because when the Home Minister was in Islamabad, the interior Minister actually told him that he would respond.”
It is not immediately clear whether Pillai’s public outburst on January 16 has backing of the Indian political and diplomatic establishments or whether he was acting as the lone warrior. Pillai has a huge hate base in Pakistan because of his strong Pakistan-specific remarks that several Indian Opposition parties like the BJP find just, truthful and calling spade a spade. None other than Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi had hauled Pillai over coals by blaming him for single handedly wrecking the India-Pakistan Foreign Minister-level talks in Islamabad on July 15, 2010. On the eve of talks between Qureshi and External Affairs Minister S M Krishna, Pillai had said that India had evidence of the involvement of Pakistan’s intelligence agency Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) in the 26/11 attacks. A week after the Krishna-Qureshi flop meeting, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao had met Pillai and briefed him about the impact of his Pakistan-centric remarks on the foreign minister-level talks.
The Centre’s proposed steps in J&K have come close on the heels of anti-Pakistan remarks by top leaders of the Hurriyat Conference, a separatist group that has the history of singing paeans of Pakistan. Some very sane and bold voices have emanated from the Kashmir valley in the New Year. Abdul Ghani Bhat, a top leader of the separatist Hurriyat Conference and also its past Chairman, for the first time ever took a public stand against Pakistan-supported Hurriyat hawk Syed Ali Shah Geelani and said Kashmiri leaders and thinkers were not killed by government forces but “our own people”. Bhat made this remark in context of the assassinations of top moderate leaders like Abdul Ghani Lone and Maulvi Farooq, killed in 1990 and 2002 respectively for not toeing the Pakistani line in Kashmir politics. “Time has come to speak the truth. Neither the Army nor the police killed Lone sahib and Maulvi Farooq sahib but our own people,” Bhat said while addressing a seminar in Srinagar on the role of intellectuals in the separatist movement. Significantly, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the son of Maulvi Farooq and the current Hurriyat Chairman who spoke after Bhat, and Bilal Lone, the son of Abdul Ghani Lone, have not contradicted Bhat till now. Bhat also said that if the Hurriyat had to get anywhere, its leaders needed to take into account their own follies as “This movement started with the assassinations of thinkers and the people who held an opinion.”
More important part of the Bhat speak was his frontal attack on Geelani which essentially means a negation of Pakistan and its role in Kashmir. Geelani is known to be beneficiary of Pakistani funding and diplomatic support for decades and openly declares that Kashmir should be part of Pakistan. Geelani was the architect of the Kashmir Intifada strategy which the separatists started in the valley in the summer of 2010 through series of strikes and stone-pelting. Bhat said the policy of strikes and so-called martyrdom, without any strategy, had only damaged the Kashmir cause. “There was a hartal for five months and 112 people died. And at the end of it there is nothing by way of achievement. This is what happens when there is no thinking, no strategy. If you want to rid people of Kashmir of sentimentalism bordering on insanity, you have to speak the truth,” he said. Pakistan obviously must have taken note of the sentiments of the Kashmiris and in all probability the rogue elements in the Inter Services Intelligence would have dispatched hit squads to take care of Bhat and other like-minded leaders. India must not let it happen.
India has made some bold moves on Kashmir which speak of the Indian confidence and also underline the fact that the Pakistani establishment is losing its leverage in Jammu and Kashmir, particularly the valley. India needs to keep up the tempo and must not allow a repeat of the troubled summer of 2010. Not now, not ever.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a strategic analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])