The history of dialogue is as old as the history of the Kashmir conflict. The Kashmiri leadership and government of India have been talking for the past six decades without results. Besides facilitating transfer of power from one person to another, the talks have not yielded anything positive. The stage is all set for yet another dialogue and this time the Home Minister has suggested a ‘secret and quiet’ dialogue. This is where the problem lies. The dialogue between Plebiscite Front and Government of India was also held behind the closed doors. It went on for five years and despite repeated assurances from Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah that the outcome shall be placed before the people, it culminated into Indira-Abdullah accord of 1975. So the people have every reason to be apprehensive this time. However, the leadership this time can prevent another miscarriage by consulting the people.
The leadership have many lessons to learn from history. Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah’s misadventures harmed the cause and his reputation as well but the movement survived. The accord lasted just twelve years and after one-year of his death armed guards had to be deployed at his grave to protect him from the same people who loved him. The situation would have been entirely different had he taken people into confidence at regular intervals. Political leadership has to talk. People should not unnecessarily suspect the new leadership or oppose the dialogue for the sake of it. But the right of the people to know what is going on has to be respected.
Some leaders of the Plebiscite Front especially Munshi Muhammad Ishaq accused Sheikh Abdullah of deviating from the cause way back in 1970. Munshi was expelled and a strong voice was almost silenced. The drama started on March 8, 1972 when Sher-e-Kashmir in an interview with the special correspondent of London Times said: “There is no dispute on accession. The dispute is on internal autonomy. Nobody should forget that I gave Kashmir to India.” Sher-e-Kashmir gave this statement in response to American and Chinese statements on Kashmir resolution. Indira Gandhi welcomed the statement while addressing the parliament.
In June 1972, Sheikh Abdullah went to AIIMS for check up. Indira Gandhi called on him. Sheikh Abdullah subtly expressed his desire of joining what he called `national mainstream.’ Same day a correspondent from National Herald saw Sheikh Abdullah at AIIMS. He said: “Madam Gandhi wants to open a new chapter on Kashmir. I am not stressing for self determination. I complained about my arrest in 1953.”
The statement caused a stir in Kashmir. Sensing the mood of the people, Sher-e-Kashmir on his arrival in Srinagar addressed the people in Hazuri Bagh (Iqbal Park). After reciting Quran and a few verses from Iqbal’s Quliyaat, he said: “Indira Gandhi wants to open a fresh chapter on Kashmir. I too am interested in it. I am seeking Izat aur Aabiroo (honour and respect) for Kashmiris. The outcome of talks with Centre shall be placed before the public. If people accept it, I will also accept it. If people reject it, the dialogue shall end. People must bear in mind that I shall never compromise their interests.”
Sher-e-Kashmir reiterated his stand while addressing the people on July 13, 1972. On January 24, 1973 Sheikh Abdullah while talking to Press trust of India said: “I no longer challenge Jammu Kashmir’s accession to India. However, the relations with centre must be chalked out in accordance with the instrument of accession and Article 370.”
Once again the Kashmiris reacted strongly. In response to public wrath, Mirza Muhammad Afzal Beg told the people at Pulwama: “After facing hardships at one front, we have shifted the battle field to another place. This does not mean we have deviated from the basic stand. We have changed our strategy.”
On February 1, 1973 he addressed the party workers at Mujahid Manzil. “We are not for power. Vested interests have resorted to our character assassination. You should not listen to them.”
After parliamentary elections, Sheikh Abdullah was restrained from entering into Kashmir. When the restriction was lifted, Sheikh Sahib talked to media persons at New Delhi. He said: “…… the dispute with India is not with regard to accession. We want future relations to be framed as per provisions of Article 370.”
Kashmiris once again expressed reservations. However, he pacified the people in his Sopore address. “Kashmir issue shall be settled in accordance with the wishes of the people. No solution shall be thrust on the people. I have met Indira Gandhi and we have decided to forget the bitterness of the past. The people are the ultimate authority to take a decision viz-a-viz Kashmir settlement.”
This was followed by a series of meetings with the Prime Minister but the details were never divulged. Instead the leadership tried its best to keep the anxious public in dark. And finally when Sheikh Abdullah became the Chief Minister, the Plebiscite Front was disbanded and National Conference revived. This is how the leadership ended their 22-year political wilderness.
The 1975 accord did not solve the problem. In fact, it further complicated the situation. Despite indiscriminate use of preventive detention and other black legislations, the sentiment could not be killed. Kashmiris finally reached a stage where they realised the futility of peaceful struggle and bilateral dialogue. They resorted to guns. Kashmir once again attracted international attention.
A section of contemporary leadership is ready for dialogue. A team has been constituted to take other shades of opinion on board. This is a welcome development but the real test will start when the dialogue commences. Kashmir has changed during the past twenty years in particular. People watch the developments keenly. The leaders have to keep their eyes wide open and respect peoples’ right to know. Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah after his release once said: “We committed a mistake by reposing trust in New Delhi. Bilateral dialogue never works especially when one part is stronger than the other.”
The best way to make the dialogue meaningful and result oriented is to hold a series of debates, discussions and seminars before going to the negotiating table. Let the leadership invite people from all shades of life and seek their views. Let the leadership apprise them of their agenda. Such exercises must continue when the dialogue is going on so that people come to know about the progress. The leadership should not go for a secret and quiet dialogue. Such an exercise can only erode the credibility of the leaders. Freedom movements never die. Kashmir history bears testimony to this fact. It survived when Indian troops landed in Kashmir, it survived after August 9, 1965 episode, It survived when Pakistan was dismembered, it survived when Indira-Abdullah accord was signed and it survived the onslaught of the renegades.
Some people believe that New Delhi has offered talks to leaders because of growing international pressure. The international pressure, according to them, is enough for success of the dialogue. Such people, however, seem unaware of the history. International pressure was always there. But what happened? The key to success lies with the people. Reach the people and ask them what they want. A single person cannot take a decision concerning the future of 12 million people in a closed door. The sooner this dawns on the leaders the better.