Few people fully understand why the Modi government acted firmly to put an end to the long-standing tolerance India had shown for the links of Pakistan with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference in J&K. The Hurriyat currently has 27 members. It is a motley group divided into three factions—led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, octogenarian Syed Ali Shah Gilani and Shabir Shah, who supported militancy after he lost in the rigged elections of 1986 in J&K. The Hurriyat was formed in 1993 as a conglomerate of separatist parties backed by Pakistan. It was looked upon benignly by the Clinton administration. The formation of the Hurriyat was accompanied by the emergence of 18 Kashmiri militant groups, armed and trained by Pakistan. Hurriyat leaders had links with these armed groups.
The 18 Kashmiri armed groups soon vanished, as fewer and fewer youth were prepared to become cannon fodder for the ISI. Over the past 15 years, militancy in Kashmir has been almost exclusively run by Pakistani nationals, with backing from the ISI, for Pakistan-based groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, notionally headed by a Kashmiri, Syed Salahuddin. The Hurriyat, however, remains a valuable asset for Pakistan. Its members could never win a free election in J&K, but have financial and coercive resources to organise strikes and bandhs. Moreover, the organisation has been invaluable for Pakistan in pushing its case in forums like the Organisation of Islamic Conference.
India’s establishment has looked benignly at the Hurriyat for various reasons (some best not published) and New Delhi has allowed the Pakistan High Commission to give Hurriyat leaders extensive publicity and arrange for them to meet Pakistani dignitaries. Hurriyat leaders are also good mascots to parade by the Pakistanis in Islamic countries and seminars in capitals like Washington, London and Brussels. The covert links of Hurriyat were exposed in 2003, when India expelled their handlers, including Pakistan’s Deputy High Commissioner Jalil Abbas Jilani and three High Commission staffers.
Unlike his predecessors, Modi was not prepared to carry on with this charade of coddling separatists and looking the other way as they tarnished India’s image abroad, while acting as baggage carriers for Pakistan. When Nawaz Sharif was invited for the oath-taking ceremony, it was made clear to him that India did not expect him to continue the past practice of meeting Hurriyat leaders in Delhi. Not wishing to be isolated in SAARC by being absent when invited for the swearing-in, Sharif readily agreed. His position domestically has, however, now been almost irrevocably weakened by a rapacious army establishment determined to assert itself. He appears to have been compelled to approve unprecedented meetings between his High Commissioner and Hurriyat leaders, just prior to a meeting in Islamabad between foreign secretaries. The High Commissioner went ahead with these meetings despite being warned by Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh. New Delhi responded to this defiance of its demarche by cancelling the scheduled Foreign Secretary-level talks.
It can be argued that India’s interests would have been better served by keeping Indians and foreigners informed of India’s changed views on Pakistani contacts with the Hurriyat. It is, however, ridiculous to argue that India should have ignored Pakistani transgressions and proceeded with the proposed meeting in Islamabad. The rejection of the Indian Foreign Secretary’s advice on the High Commissioner’s proposed meeting with the Hurriyat, together with the repeated violations of the ceasefire along the LoC and international border by Pakistan, ruled out any prospect of a meaningful dialogue. The dialogue was resumed in 2004 only after Pakistan announced a ceasefire and President Musharraf assured that “territory under Pakistan’s control” would not be used for terrorism against India.
The writer is a former diplomat