Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Kashmir conflict and the Indo-Pak peace process: The role of India’s Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee

The Indian and Pakistani National Security Advisors are getting ready for a strategic dialogue even as tensions across the Line of Control (LOC) and within the Kashmir Valley are mounting. In this context, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s role in establishing a peace between the two estranged neighbours has become a subject of debate. The chief of India’s Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), Amarjit Singh Dulat, earlier the head of the Kashmir Group in India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) and later dealing with the same subject in the R&AW and then in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) from 2001 to 2004, has provided a sympathetic if controversial account of Vajpayee’s role as a peace-practitioner in his recently published autobiographical narrative (‘Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years’, 2015). Dulat reported directly to the Prime Minister and his National Security Advisor, Brajesh Mishra.

The author praises Prime Minister Vajpayee’s perceived efforts in particular to establish a peace process on Kashmir with President Parvez Musharraf of Pakistan. He refers positively to Vajpayee’s Lahore visit and discusses the Agra Summit of 2001in some detail. He tells us exactly what happened at the Summit discussions drawing on accounts produced by key players: the Indian leaders Vajpayee, Advani and Jaswant Singh, and the Pakistani leaders President Musharraf and Abdul Sattar. He is critical of the tactical mistakes made by the Pakistani leaders and the Indian leaders’ own clumsiness and un-statesmanlike conduct. Abdul Sattar noted the sticking point as arising on July 15 2001 when the Foreign Ministers of India and Pakistan exchanged notes on the problems each faced with the other’s draft declaration. Basically, while President Musharraf laid stress on Kashmir, the Indians were preoccupied with tackling terror. The talks collapsed inevitably. President Musharraf left in a huff without visiting Ajmer Sharif as he had wanted to do.

Scholars differ. Author Achin Vanaik has pointed out that Vajpayee’s Lahore visit in February 1999 was no more than a diplomatic trip necessitated by the Indo-Pak nuclear explosions earlier in May 1998. Further, Vajpayee’s visit to Lahore did not prevent the Kargil conflict from taking place later in 1999. AG Noorani, on the other hand, has noted that the Indian Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani had made misplaced interventions during the talks between the two heads of state and then during the talks between the two foreign ministers. According to him this was the cause of the collapse of the proposed Agra Declaration of July 16, 2001. Prime Minister Vajpayee admitted in Parliament later on that his one-to-one meeting with Musharraf had gone on for an “unusually for a long time,” which had led Advani to lose his cool and send a messenger to find out what was happening. The Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh’s talks with the Pakistani Foreign Minister too had similarly been disturbed by intrusive phone from Advani. Musharraf was reportedly denied facilities to hold a press conference. Noorani opines that the Indian Prime Minister should have invited the Pakistani President to stay a day longer, visit Ajmer Sharif and then to resume his talks with the Indians to resolve differences. This did not happen and a great opportunity was lost.

A closely related issue is the predominant and not always positive role of the Indian intelligence agencies, the IB and the R&AW, which together with the similar role of the Pakistani agencies, has contributed to making Kashmir one of the most militarised zones in India not excluding the Northeast of the country. The IB has always been central to government of India’s control over Kashmir. Both the IB and the R&AW then headed by Dulat, are top-secret and work without a legal framework or charter of duties. The reform recommendations of the LP Singh Committee (1981) were never accepted. Why should a top intelligence officer be entrusted with the task of supervising the peaceful conduct of the critical State Assembly elections of 2002 in place of the State Election Commission? Further, the free access to funds of the IB available to Dulat to buy up politicians and militants in order to get them involved in electoral processes raises questions. Dulat justifies such expenditure saying that such things happen all over the world. Is this not an admission of the subversion of the legitimate democratic electoral processes in a conflict-affected state disputed between two major South Asian nations?  The inference that money has always played a big role in political manipulation in Kashmir is damaging India’s political reputation. While one must appreciate Dulat’s candour and his opposition to extrajudicial executions his book does raise complicated questions about the accountability of his actions and his scrupulousness.

The author raises interesting counter-factual questions: What would have happened in Kashmir if Sheikh Abdullah had not been illegally arrested and kept in prison for over 20 years? What would have happened if Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah had not been dismissed in 1984? What would have happened if Shabir Shah, a talented separatist leader had participated in the 1996 J&K Assembly elections? And what would have happened if Prime Minister Vajpayee had not lost the 2014 Parliament elections.

It may be understandable if an officer who has been given a post-retirement assignment by the Prime Minister admires his benefactor. But did the Prime Minister and his National Security Advisor act wisely in entrusting the officer with an assignment knowing that he could potentially use it to generate an avoidable controversy?

Kadayam Subramanian was Director General of Police in Northeast India.


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