Strife and semantics ensnare autonomy mission

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 July, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 July, 2002, 12:00am

New Delhi's attempt to win Kashmiri goodwill by appointing a negotiator to discuss autonomy is mired in semantic hairsplitting and political wrangling.

Those who oppose more autonomy for India's only Muslim-majority state are downplaying its importance, saying it is merely a 'devolution of power'.

Supporters retort that people are free to call it what they will, but it is still autonomy.

Kashmir enjoyed autonomy in all areas except defence, finance and communications until 1953, when New Delhi started clipping the state's powers.

When the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power, it opposed more autonomy, as it feared that any concession would further fuel Kashmiri separatism. So when the ruling party in Kashmir, the National Conference, passed a resolution two years ago in the state legislature demanding a return to the pre-1953 position, the BJP rejected it outright, even though the National Conference is a close ally in its coalition government.

The government's latest turnaround has outraged members of the BJP and its affiliate, the right-wing National Volunteer Corps (RSS).

Though they know that a return to the pre-1953 status is impossible, the RSS and BJP are making sure that the negotiator, former law minister Arun Jaitley, does not go beyond what is tolerable.

At the other end of the spectrum, Kashmiri separatist groups view the Jaitley mission as a political gimmick.

'It's obvious the whole thing is a ploy to help the National Conference stand a better chance of winning the election [in October],' said a leader of separatist umbrella organisation the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference.

The Hurriyat believes the National Conference is nervous about facing the voters, given its poor performance and damaged credibility.

'It's clearly a sop to the National Conference to keep it happy and give it something to show voters,' said political commentator Mahesh Rangarajan.

'The BJP and the National Conference appear to have an election pact and Jaitley's appointment is a pointer in that direction,' said opposition People's Democratic Party chief Mufti Mohammed Sayeed.

However, National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah said the negotiations would be a step forward.