A lose look at what the principal spokesmen of the government and the prime minister have said in the wake of the terrorist attack in Mumbai shows that it has only postponed the talks that were scheduled to take place between foreign secretary Shyam Saran and his Pakistani counterpart.
But most Kashmiris see in this postponement the confirmation of their darkest fears. The carefully nuanced statements by the prime minister, in which he has drawn a clear distinction between terrorists based in Pakistan and the Pakistani government, and called the postponement a temporary setback, have made as much impact upon them as water on a duck's back.
They have taken their cue instead from the screaming headlines in the national press, the choleric writings by some of India's most respected journalists, and the thinly veiled demands for retribution by some of the 'talking heads' on TV, and concluded that the peace talks are dead. Today they are struggling to come to terms with the possibility that there may be no end to the tunnel of despair in which they have been living for the past 17 years.
This conclusion reflects a bone deep distrust of New Delhi. Initially, the Kashmiris were highly suspicious of Mr Vajpayee's promise of free and fair elections and his willingness to look for a solution to the Kashmir 'problem' on the basis of 'insaaniyat' (humanism).
But the dramatic warming of relations between India and Pakistan that followed prime minister Vajpayee's offer of a hand of friendship in 2003, the unequivocal endorsement of the peace process he initiated by the Congress, and the victory of the PDP in Kashmir in an election that was manifestly free and fair, had led them hope that a durable peace was at last around the corner.
This hope nibbled away at the edges of their alienation and distrust till, in three bye-elections held last May in the valley, the voter turnout exceeded 69 per cent.
But by then two developments had begun to tinge their hope with anxiety. The first was the sudden increase in infiltration from Pakistan that followed the October earthquake. Delhi reacted by dragging its feet over the peace process, and hardening its demand that Pakistan first live up to its promise to stop all cross order infiltration. Dr Manmohan Singh's refusal to visit Pakistan to watch a cricket match added to their misgivings.
The second was his government's last minute capitulation, against its better judgment, to the Congress MLAs from Jammu who threatened to resign if Mufti Sayeed did not keep his promise to hand over power to a Congress chief minister. This was seen as proof, if proof were needed, that no government in Delhi would ever hesitate to sacrifice Kashmir to further its political interests in the rest of the country.
Nine months after he became the chief minister, few people have an adverse word to say against Ghulam Nabi Azad, but there is an all-pervasive feeling that he is a stranger to the valley and does not understand its problems and sensitivities. As a result instead of guiding Delhi in its delicate negotiations with Kashmir, he is being guided by it. This has upset the delicate balance that Mufti Sayeed had established between the interests of Delhi and those of Kashmir. The change has left Kashmiris feeling increasingly insecure, and begun to widen the gap between them and Delhi once again.
An unfortunate convergence of setbacks within a fortnight in the second half of May brought Kashmir fears into sharp focus. The first was Azad's wholly unnecessary commemoration of Rajiv Gandhi's death anniversary in Srinagar, which triggered a fidayeen attack that left six persons dead; the second was the decision to hold the prime minister's second Round Table Conference in Srinagar.
The unprecedented security arrangements this made necessary bought the police and army out in force in Srinagar, and locked down the city in a virtual curfew for days on end at the height of the tourist season. To Kashmiris, both demonstrated an imperial lack of sensitivity towards their sentiments. The tragic drowning of two dozen school children in a boating accident on the Wullar lake that resulted from gross negligence by the navy personnel who took the children out on the lake hardened the feeling that Kashmiri sentiment and even Kashmiri lives did not seem to matter.
Thus when five grenade attacks on tourists that killed eight people and injured 37 in Srinagar on July 11, even mainstream politicians began to subscribe to the belief that these were organised by hawkish elements in the Indian security forces with the specific intention of derailing the peace process. As proof they point to the fact that three men arrested for hurling grenades were 'Ikhwanis' ie former insurgents who had been 'turned' by the Indian intelligence agencies and were now in their pay.
Inquiries with the police revealed that they had arrested only one person and the man was not an Ikhwani but a member of the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba . In fact the police had already established through interrogations that both the July 11 and the end-May attacks on tourists had been planned and executed by the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba. But its press conferences have received only cursory attention in the local press and its claims have not been believed.
In this pervasive atmosphere of distrust Kashmiris believe that Delhi has made the Mumbai bombings a convenient pretext for discontinuing the dialogue with Pakistan. They now dread that under Ghulam Nabi Azad, the Kashmir government will go back to the Farouq Abdullah line of trying to suppress the militancy through military action backed by economic largesse and greater accountability in government. This has failed before. It will fail again, but thousands more will die before sense dawns on New Delhi once again.
* The author, a noted analyst and commentator, is a former editor of the Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Financial Express, and a former information adviser to the prime minister of India. He is the author of several books including, The Perilous Road to the Market: The Political Economy of Reform in Russia, India and China, and Kashmir 1947: The Origins of a Dispute, and a regular columnist with several leading publications.
(The author's articles can be read at www.premshankarjha.com)
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articles by Prem Shankar Jha