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15 April, 2014

A Kashmiri intervention

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a coalition of separatist groups in the Kashmir valley, has attempted an unprecedented intervention in the ongoing Indian parliamentary elections, provoking a lively debate.

In an Open Letter, released as voting began last week, APHC Chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq made a fervent plea to the people of India to hold the new government accountable on the Kashmir issue.

“You must press the elected leadership to rise above domestic politics and work towards India’s strategic and moral interests,” he wrote.

Although the Kashmir problem has festered throughout all of India’s years as a republic, it has never figured as an issue in the national elections, mainly because most parties have gone along with the policy which evolved in prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s time.

The Bharatiya Jana Sangh, which came into being shortly before the first general election of 1951-52, vehemently opposed the special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Constitution, even though its founder, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, was a minister in Nehru’s Cabinet when the decision in this regard was taken.

At that time, entry into Kashmir and some border areas of the northeast was regulated through a permit system. Mukherjee who disapproved of the system entered the state without a permit and was arrested. His death in custody cast him as a martyr, and repeal of Article 370 became a part of the Hindutva election plank, along with introduction of a uniform civil code. However, it did not become a major campaign issue.

The Jana Party, in which the Jana Sangh merged its identity, won the 1977 elections that brought Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime to an end. Jana Sangh leaders Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Kishen Advani held important positions in the Janata government but did not pursue the Hindutva line on Article 370 and uniform civil code. When the Janata Party split on the issue of membership of the Rashtreeya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Jana Sangh re-emerged styled as the Bharatiya Janata Party. It not only revived the Hindutva plank but also expanded it to include the demand for the construction of a Ram temple at the Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya.

In 1998, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance came to power at the Centre. Vajpayee, who headed the government, put the Hindutva plank on hold in deference to the sentiments of the BJP’s secular allies. The National Conference, the ruling party of Jammu and Kashmir, was a partner of the NDA at that time.

In his Open Letter, Umar Farooq wrote, “Crushing the democratic right to protest and express political dissent, restricting free speech, persecuting entire sections of the population, foisting black laws and continuing to keep hundreds of thousands of military forces deployed for decades on end in Kashmir — surely this represents both a moral and political failure. There has to be an end to all of this.”

He said at various moments prime ministers Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh had given reason to believe that an honourable and lasting solution to the Kashmir issue could be achieved. But the hopes did not materialise. Vajpayee had offered to hold unconditional talks under the ambit of Insaniyat (humanity).

Unlike Vajpayee, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who is the BJP’s prime ministerial face in the current elections, is widely seen as a hardcore Hindutva exponent. However, in campaign speeches he has generally focused on issues of governance and development.

Article 370 figures in the party’s election manifesto. However, instead of demanding its abrogation, as in the past, the party promises to hold talks on the issue.

The Hindu, a leading newspaper, which published Umar Farooq’s letter in full, later carried the responses of a cross-section of its readers in different parts of the country. Some of them were upset by his reference to Kashmiris as “us” and Indians as “you” and criticised him for his silence on terrorism. However, others described the letter variously as timely, mature, sincere, pragmatic and very encouraging.

Umar Farooq’s letter may not make any difference to the outcome of the elections but it has helped people outside the state to understand the feelings of the Kashmiris. What’s more, many have said they share his desire for a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir issue. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 15, 2014.

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