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Kashmir – The Vajpayee Years book review: The dialogue is the deception

On July 20, 2000, Abdul Gani Bhat, sitting at his Wazirbagh residence in Srinagar, made a startling confession during an interview. He admitted that he and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq had met AS Dulat, albeit briefly, during an interaction in Delhi. Bhat was then the Hurriyat chairman and Dulat headed the Research and Analysis Wing of India. “We never knew the RAW chief was also in the room. Once he introduced himself, we requested him to leave,’’ Bhat had said. Though Bhat denied that they were talking to Dulat, his admission to a meeting was enough. There was uproar in Kashmir.

For years, Dulat was a mysterious character from a spy thriller, who seemed to be everywhere in Kashmir, trying to win over separatist leaders and elected officials for New Delhi. Unlike his peers, he had been a spy who used words and cash as weapons. He lured top militants into giving up arms. He charmed separatists with lofty promises of peace. Where words didn’t work, he used money to buy their loyalty.

In Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, co-written with journalist Aditya Sinha, Dulat explains his ‘mission’. “If anybody has any doubts about the path I took – of talking, talking, talking – and how unbeatable dialogue is as both a tactic and a strategy then I will tell them what Agha sahib (Kashmiri educationatist Agha Ashraf Ali) said to me — you were sent to disrupt the Kashmir movement in the friendliest possible manner.”

Dulat’s account of his ‘mission’ doesn’t disappoint. Although he has not divulged any new information, there is no doubt that the larger truth about Kashmir clearly comes out. It shows the ugly face of New Delhi in its dealing with Kashmir, where consecutive governments have focused on managing and not resolving the Kashmir dispute. It shows that India and Pakistan have turned Kashmir into a game of chess where the people, even the leaders, are pawns with no agency of their own. It shows that New Delhi was never ready to change the status quo.

Leave aside the demand for azadi, it establishes that New Delhi didn’t even consider the views of Jammu and Kashmir’s legislative assembly or its elected representatives. The book shows how positions and stances of most Kashmiri leaders, across the separatist-mainstream divide, are not determined by the wishes of the people but the managers of this conflict sitting in New Delhi and Islamabad.

Dulat’s foray in Kashmir in the early 1990s was through his ‘dialogue’ with Shabir Shah, whom he describes as the big daddy of militants. Shah was in prison then and Dulat writes, “We really massaged his ego, encouraging him to think….that we wanted to see him as chief minister.” Shah was not lured but Dulat was successful with Shah’s lieutenant Firdous Baba. A few years later, Baba was one of four militant commanders who surrendered and met then Union home minister SB Chavan. Dulat does not mention that Baba rues his ‘mistake’ and has even publicly apologised for it.

Dulat’s biggest success came later. He recalls how he stumbled on to the vulnerability of Hizbul Mujahideen’s Majid Dar. Dar’s wife desperately wanted to return to Kashmir from Pakistan. That was Dulat’s opening. Dar returned, announced a ceasefire and started a ‘dialogue’ with New Delhi. The talks didn’t achieve anything but the Hizb split. This was a major feat for New Delhi. Dar was subsequently killed in 2003. Dar’s lieutenants, who had participated in talks, were killed as well; one of them mysteriously by the Jammu and Kashmir police.

Dulat says that then prime minister PV Narasimha Rao’s promise that “the sky is the limit” for a Kashmir solution was aimed at coaxing Shah to participate in the 1996 elections. Shah didn’t rise to the bait but the polls became possible only because of the National Conference’s participation. Farooq Abdullah was promised autonomy. But when his party, with two-thirds majority in the J&K Assembly, passed a resolution for autonomy, it was summarily rejected. He had helped New Delhi in 1996 by entering the electoral process. But the promise made to him was never intended to be kept. Abdullah surrendered his autonomy demand, but he wasn’t forgiven. Dulat says that New Delhi ‘induced’ Abdullah to leave Kashmir by falsely promising him the post of the vice-president and replaced him with his son Omar, who had become the Centre’s favourite.

Dulat’s account of almost all of New Delhi’s dialogue initiatives, whether with separatists or mainstream leaders, demonstrates that the purpose of the talks was only to tide over the immediate crisis and strengthen its position. Abdullah’s successors Omar and Mufti have since been unsuccessful in making New Delhi agree to remove even draconian laws like AFSPA.

The talks between the Hurriyat moderates and the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government (2004) were the culmination of Dulat’s mission. But in the end, all dialogue was an end in itself, without any substantive progress made on any issue.

Today, New Delhi coldshoulders CM Mufti’s demand to start talks with the same Hurriyat.

Even if Dulat insists that ‘talks’ are the only way forward and seeks a return to Vajpayee’s “hardnosed common sense”, his anecdotes show that the Kashmir policy of consecutive governments has been to ensure the status quo. When the situation was out of control in the mid-1990s, the promise was that the “sky is the limit”. Later, even autonomy within the ambit of the Indian Constitution turned out to be a hollow assurance. Today, New Delhi refuses to even acknowledge the Kashmir dispute.

Dulat also recounts anecdotes that show how New Delhi handles Kashmir’s elected leaders. In one such story, Brajesh Mishra sends a message to CM Farooq Abdullah. Mishra tells Omar, then a Union minister, “…convey to him that if he’s not willing to cooperate then we have our own ways of doing it”. (Dulat repeatedly endorses Farooq’s credentials as an Indian nationalist. He also reveals how Mehbooba Mufti wasn’t allowed to share the stage with PM Vajpayee because of ‘suspicions’ of her ‘militant links’.)

Dulat also says that each time they would develop a relationship with a separatist, Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI would “bump him off”. That did happen repeatedly. He insists that though there were informal discussions to choose a tit-for-tat policy, it was a choice never made. That is not true. There have been scores of extra-judicial killings by the security agencies, which are all recorded. The reason why separatist politicians were spared was because New Delhi always preferred known variables to any unknowns that might have emerged after a shake-up in the separatist camp. Also, as Dulat has clearly recounted, the separatists have never pushed the envelope to the point where they would face the full wrath of the Indian state: a call for hartal or a statement to the press has never threatened the establishment.

Lastly, a word about Dulat’s analysis of a Kashmiri, who “rarely speaks the truth to you because he feels you are lying to him”. He quotes Mishra as saying that “the only thing straight in Kashmir is a poplar tree”. This reminds me of what a Palestinian said to the Israeli writer David Grossman, author of The Yellow Wind: the worst thing that you did to us was to make politicians out of all of us.

Kashmir – The Vajpayee Years book review: The dialogue is the deception
by Muzamil Jaleel,

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