Round-table conference By A.G. Noorani - Saturday 26th March 2011

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BY itself no institution can repair the absence of sound policy. Institutions are run by humans; not on their own steam. In recent days, Kashmir`s leaders, frustrated at lack of movement, have been clamouring for a round-table conference (RTC) on the Kashmir question.
Its most eloquent advocate is the former chief minister and patron of the People`s Democratic Party (PDP), Mufti Mohammed Sayeed. In a speech at Srinagar on Feb 26, he advocated an RTC and spelt out the details.
He said “If Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wants to resolve the Kashmir problem amicably, he should convene a round-table conference to be attended by all stakeholders, including the mainstream and separatist leadership. It should proceed by implementation of confidence-building measures (CBMs) on the ground; including the unconditional release of political prisoners and those detained on charges of stone-pelting, revocation of the Disturbed Areas Act and curtailment of powers given to the army under the Armed Forces` Special powers Act, and reduction of armed forces from civilian areas.”
It is unlikely that the Kashmir government headed by Omar Abdullah of the National Conference (NC) will carry out these CBMs in earnest even in the event of the centre asking it to do so; which is itself unlikely. His is one of the most repressive regimes Kashmir has known. Anticipatory measures are now being taken to forestall expected and dreaded public protests during the summer.
Mufti Mohammed Sayeed knows that yet he renewed the call for an RTC on March 13. The `mainstream` Unionists, the PDP and Omar`s NC hardly speak to each other. The All Parties` Hurriyat Conference split in 2003 and neither faction presents an impressive appearance. An RTC makes sense only if it offers a reasonable prospect for an accord. It is worse than useless if failure is inevitable. Syed Ali Shah Geelani differs from Mirwaiz Umar Farooq while Yasin Malik prefers to plough a lonely furlough.
In South Asia, the RTC acquired a nostalgic charm because of the RTCs convened by the British government in London in 1931. Remember the RTC convened by President Ayub Khan on Feb 26, 1969 as power was slipping away from his hands?
An RTC was mooted by none other than Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah 45 years ago for similar reasons; he was in despair. He had met the prime minister of China, Zhou Enlai, in Algiers, on March 31, 1965. He was arrested on his return to India on May 8, 1965 and interned at Kodaikanal. In September 1965, war broke out between India and Pakistan, culminating in a ceasefire on Sept 20. Sheikh Sahib realised that he had no hand to play; not least because of his own indiscretions.
On Oct 6 and 7, 1965, two of Jayaprakash Narayan`s emissaries, K. Radhakrishna and Narayan Desai, met him in Kodaikanal. As late as in April 1964, JP had strongly advocated a plebiscite in Kashmir. After the war, he ruled it out.
Extracts from the minutes of the Sheikh`s meetings with his two visitors, recorded by them, which are being published for the first time here, reveal why the RTC had won his support: “With a change in the attitude of the Government of India, the Sheikh feels that it should be possible for him and other leaders of Kashmir to sit together with like-minded people outside the government and consider solutions to the Kashmir problem under the changed context. No particular solution should be ruled out.
“The implications of all solutions should be fully worked out — as working papers — and the merits and demerits of each solution carefully weighed. This should further lead to a round-table conference with the leaders of the government where a final solution might be reached. Such a solution will also have to be discussed with international powers and their concurrence also sought. When normal relationship with Pakistan is restored, the Government of Pakistan might be brought in the picture.
“The Sheikh feels that the original proposal for referendum is no longer practical in the changed context. He was prepared to accept that de-accession [of Kashmir] was well-nigh impossible. The question of fullest regional autonomy should be examined, provided there are some guarantees that history will not repeat itself.” some some
The RTC was to serve, not as a negotiating body, but as a sounding board. Out of a Tower of Babel, it was hoped, a silent agreement might emerge. Sheikh Sahib wanted movement; de-freezing of the thaw. He was unrealistic. The Government of India led by Lal Bahadur Shastri was politically weak. Sheikh Abdullah was released on Eid day, Jan 2, 1968 by the Indira Gandhi government. Hers was not a strong government either. existing state of affairs replacement
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh convened as many as three RTCs on Kashmir, all of which the separatists boycotted. The unionist parties, the PDP and the NC, want reform of the . The separatists seek its by a new order. They seek precisely that; not mere redressal of grievances.
No RTC can bridge the fundamental divide. Indeed, the unionists refuse even to forge a united front on the quantum of autonomy they want. An RTC is, therefore, doomed to failure. Three RTCs were held in New Delhi on Feb 25, 2006; in Srinagar on May 25, 2006; and in New Delhi on April 24, 2007. Five working groups were set up. Their reports have been ignored. Sadly, that included reports on strengthening relations across the Line of Control (LoC).
The separatists have dismally failed to evolve a sound policy of political mobilisation. In such a situation, progress will be possible only if Pakistan and India move ahead to finalise their existing accord on the four points.
They will, of course, consult the Kashmir parties also; that indeed has been done while the four points — demilitarisation, irrelevance of the LoC; a joint mechanism for both parts of Kashmir and agreed self-rule for each of them — were being negotiated. It is on the last particularly, that all Kashmiri parties must contribute constructive ideas. No RTC can fill the void left by the absence of sound policies.
The writer is an author and a lawyer.

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