Peace in Our Time: Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Unfinished Mission Kashmir
For the first time in the history of the Kashmir dispute, Atal Bihari Vajpayee forced both sides to agree that had he been in power for a bit longer, the Valley Kashmir would have been different.
In this May 11, 1998, file photo former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announces India's nuclear test, in New Delhi. (PTI photo)
New Delhi: The Kashmir dispute, many might agree, hinges on two main opinions shared by the people and parties that are on two different sides of the political spectrum: one that support its secession and the other that doesn’t.
Both sides — represented by a wide variety of people — refuse to budge from their stand when it comes to Kashmir dispute. Yet, for the first time in the history of the dispute, a man forced both these sides to agree on one thing: that had he been in power for a bit longer Kashmir would have been different. Or, perhaps, the decade long conflict, solved.
This argument can be proved by presenting a set of opinions on the man by two people who are on the two extreme sides of the issue. First, a statement made by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat, who in 2016 had said, “If Vajpayee had more time, Kashmir issue would have been solved.” Second, a pitch made by Hurriyat Conference Chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a year later, when he invoked Vajpayee and said, “We want India to exhibit ‘Insaniyat, Kashmiriyat, Jamhooriyat',” — a subtle acceptance to the former prime minister’s engagement on Kashmir.
Much has been written about India’s former PM, the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the statesmanship he displayed while trying to solve the Kashmir dispute. While the conflict in the troubled state still lingers, Vajpayee is one man who has been equally lauded for his efforts to find a solution to the Kashmir conundrum. This begs a question: had he been PM for another term, what were the odds?
In 2002, 13 years after the first militant guns had roared in Kashmir and the Valley was trying to wriggle out of the violence that had engulfed it, Atal Bihari Vajpayee spoke to India from the Red Fort. “Insaniyat aur Jamhooriyat (Humanity and Democracy) are keys to the progress of Jammu and Kashmir,” he declared. The famous slogan still resonates. So much so, that Modi invoked Vajpayee’s famous slogan on Kashmir twice from the historic Red Fort. First during the 2016 Independence Day speech, when he said, "When Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister, he had adopted the path of insaniyat (humanity), jamhooriyat (democracy), Kashmiriyat (Kashmiri culture), and we walk the same path.” The second time during the 2018 Independence Day speech, declaring, “Atalji called for 'insaniyat', 'Kashmiriyat', and 'jamhooriyat'. He also said that the issues in Kashmir can be resolved by embracing the people of Kashmir.”
But the former prime minister’s engagement on Kashmir dates back to 1953. It was Vajpayee who accompanied Bharatiya Jan Sangh founder Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee to Kashmir. Vajpayee was at Mookerjee's side when he went on a fast-unto-death in Kashmir, protesting against the system of carrying a permit for entering the state and the "inferior" treatment of Indian citizens visiting Kashmir. Both Vajpayee and Mookerjee barged into the state against the entry-system and were subsequently arrested. Mookerjee died while in custody in a Srinagar house somewhere in Nishat in June 1953, triggering an agitation that led to Sheikh Abdullah’s dismissal and arrest.
Decades later, Vajpayee handled Kashmir as Morarji Desai’s External Affairs Minister from March 26, 1977 to July 28, 1979. Yet, his major accomplishment on Kashmir could be in 1994, when the Valley was burning, witnessing some of the bloodiest violence, and Pakistan was seeking to get a resolution over Kashmir issue tabled at a UN forum. Cutting across political and other divisions, Vajpayee joined Salman Khurshid, the then deputy to foreign Minister Dinesh Singh, and Farooq Abdullah to foil a high-decibel Pakistani attempt to attack India through a resolution at the UN Human Rights Commission. It’s at the UNCHR that Vajpayee said: "For a great nation like us, there was a certain humiliation involved in having to go around begging for votes on a Human Rights issue. Let us now use this reprieve to clean up our act in Kashmir or there will be a Geneva every few months."
However, this display of statesmanship on the dispute, which suited India’s interests, many might say had its fair share of failures. For example, in July 2000 Vajpayee defended his government's decision to turn down a request for autonomy in Kashmir. He said the demand for autonomy would never be accepted but he would consider any request for more financial and political powers. This was when Farooq Abdullah had set up a committee on the state's autonomy whose report was adopted by the state's Assembly on 26 June, 2000. The National Conference had a two-third majority in the Assembly and the report demanded that Jammu and Kashmir's autonomy be restored and the state be given the political and constitutional status which it enjoyed till August 9, 1953, when Sheikh Abdullah was dethroned and arrested. The Farooq Abdullah government submitted the report to the Vajpayee Government, which rejected it outright.
Rejecting the autonomy committee report, the Vajpayee government said,"The Union Cabinet finds the resolution passed by the State Assembly of Jammu and Kashmir endorsing the Report of the State Autonomy Committee unacceptable" and that "the Union Cabinet feels that the acceptance of this resolution would set the clock back and reverse the natural process of harmonising the aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir with the integrity of the nation."
The NC stalwart still asserts that autonomy to both sides of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir is the "only solution", saying that India and Pakistan could not keep people of the region hostage to their ego.
In 2000, the Vajpayee’s government had also started working on a ceasefire in the hinterland which was marred by daily violence from both the sides — militants and armed forces alike. On July 24, 2000 Hizb ul Mujahideen’s Abdul Majid Dar announced a ceasefire for three months. Talks followed immediately but the initiative was lost. The ‘talks’ were never followed up. However, to revive the process, Vajpayee announced the non-initiation of combat operations (NICO) in the month of fasting in December 2000. Though it generated a lot of positive feeling in the hinterland, this initiative also could not last long.
However, three years later, Vajpayee helped the Indian subcontinent get a ceasefire along the LoC. The ceasefire was effective on the night of November 26, 2003. Though there have been violations taking place for the last few years, this agreement is perhaps the major outcome of the talks between India and Pakistan, which he had personally initiated. The ceasefire triggered a positive shift in the lives of millions of people straddling along the LoC in J&K.
But this was much after when the irreparable damage had been already done when the Agra Summit failed and Vajpayee’s and Musharraf’s fundamental differences over Kashmir turned out to be too strong to let both the countries find a solution to the Kashmir issue. Eighteen years later, on March 2018, lawyer and constitutional expert AG Noorani, who has written extensively on Kashmir, said, “Vajpayee did not have the courage to keep his word. He was a classic example of hypocrisy.” While there might be diverse opinions on this, one thing is clear that the Indo-Pakistan summit over Kashmir in Agra in 2001 could have sealed the Kashmir deal.
Was Agra summit a Vajpayee failure? No one could say that. But his fading grip over his own party men, perhaps, could have been a reason.
The former head of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) AS Dulat revealed in his book Kashmir - The Vajpayee Years, that, “It was because the Pakistanis gave all their attention to pleasing the then Prime Minister of India, AB Vajpayee and didn't care much about LK Advani that the summit turned out to be a stalemate.”
Now that the PM Modi is also looking to walk on the path laid by Vajpayee on solving Kashmir issue, the question that will, perhaps, remain part of a contentious debate for the years to come is: could Vajpayee and his doctrine really have solved the Kashmir issue?
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