April 17, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/ Former J&K CM Syed Mir Qasim

'Inviting every Tom, Dick, Harry is useless'

Former Jammu & Kashmir chief minister Syed Mir Qasim returned from political oblivion when K C Pant, the government's negotiator for peace talks in the state, held consultations with him on Sunday. The octogenarian Qasim -- who is said to be close to some Hurriyat leaders -- is expected to play a significant role in the peace process.

Qasim's foray into politics began in 1943. Three years later, he was arrested during Sheikh Abdullah's Quit Kashmir movement. He went on to become a member of the Kashmir constituent assembly and state Congress president, before taking over as chief minister in 1971.

He played a key role in the Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Abdullah accord of 1975 and stepped down to make way for the Sheikh to become chief minister. After which, he moved to the Centre and served as minster of civil supplies in Indira Gandhi's Cabinet.

Then came 1989. The folk songs of Kashmir were lost in the sound of gunfire, and those who had lived there for ages left for safer havens.

But Syed Mir Qasim stayed on... in his home at Barzulla, Srinagar, then a hotbed of militancy. Apart from a stray attack, he was left untouched, even by hardcore militants.

Widely respected across party lines, Qasim is back in the public domain for a cause close to his heart -- bringing peace to Kashmir. The veteran leader spoke to Basharat Peer about his role in the peace talks.

As a man who has played a long innings in Kashmiri politics, who has lived in Kashmir during both war and peace, do you see lasting peace returning to Kashmir?

I do hope so. My hope has reason as well. The historical perspective of the problem, the present political realities and the economic compulsions all lead to one conclusion -- a solution must come out.

Unfortunately, when the process for peace was started in the past, the changes in the situation in India, Kashmir and Pakistan deleted all those attempts. The present prime minister has the necessary desire to do something in the interests of the country and the people of Jammu and Kashmir. So I do feel there is a chance for peace now.

In spite of the cease-fire, dead bodies have been piling up. How do you rate the current cease-fire?

The cease-fire has not solved the problem because everybody has not given up violence. The security forces retaliate to the violence committed by the militants, which adds to the death toll.

For the cease-fire to be a true success, we must get a response from the militants. It must be a two way effort. The way things are right now, innocents will keep losing lives, so shunning violence is very important.

Everywhere people are talking about 'peace talks.' The Government of India has now appointed Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission K C Pant as its chief negotiator in the latest offer of peace talks...

I believe it is a wise step. As Pantsahib has been the home and defence minister of India, he understands the problems of the country as well as those of the people of Kashmir. Further, a mediator has to be aware of both the bureaucratic and political approaches. Because at times the bureaucratic approach becomes a hurdle -- bureaucrats believe in formalities and in keeping within the limits of one's brief.

In a peace process you need to have a heart. Keeping all this in consideration, I believe it is the right decision.

There have been reports that you were involved in behind the scenes negotiations with the militants and Hurriyat leaders when the government started its peace initiative last year.

The prime minster asked me to help, so I agreed to give my suggestions based on my experience. But I have not been negotiating as such.

There are reports that you are close to Hurriyat leader Abdul Ghani Lone.

Lone was a minister in my cabinet when I was chief minister. He is not a stranger to me.

When Mr Pant was appointed chief negotiator, he did not send very clear signals about whom he was going to talk with. But now he seems more willing, more importantly, he has openly invited the Hurriyat Conference and Kashmiri militant organisations desirous of peace. Has this change come about due to your consultations with Mr Pant?

There is one change -- when the Hurriyat leaders said they wanted to go to Pakistan -- I said let them go. India is not sending them as its delegates. Why are they being refused passports? It is not for the government to divide the Hurriyat or decide their agenda. Whether Syed Ali Shah Geelani (the pro-Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islaami leader, a member of the Hurriyat Conference) goes or not, what difference does it make?

So if the Hurriyat says all our nominees want to go, they should be given passports. In my opinion, the Hurriyat leaders should talk to Pantsahib and their Pakistan visit should be considered.

But Hurriyat Conference Chairman Abdul Ghani Bhat recently said he was not ready to talk to a fish market (a large number of parties have been invited by Pant for talks). He further said some of these parties were conduits for the Government of India, so what do you expect to achieve?

I have said all along that consultation with all shades of opinions is important. The Hurriyat Conference is the most important group when it comes to talks. I have suggested we should invite those who are fighting on the ground, politically or militarily. Inviting every Tom, Dick and Harry is useless.

But you cannot let go of any opinion. And if you talk to the Hurriyat Conference, how can you ignore Shabir Shah (the Kashmiri separatist leader who heads the Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Freedom Party) or Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah who talks of autonomy for Kashmir?

As far as Pantsahib is concerned, he has said that 'trivial issues' will not be invoked and time will not be wasted.

What suggestions did you make to Mr Pant?

I gave him my opinion, on how this peace process can be consolidated by having a dialogue with the Hurriyat leaders, militants and other voices. I said it was important to avoid bureaucratic roadblocks and have a broad vision.

I told him that to get to the 'gem' of a final solution, we needed to go deep into the sea. We have to discuss the issues. As they say: Baat se baat nikalti hai Otherwise, if you do not discuss, then the option is war.

I told him I had a solution in my mind. But I will not reveal it now, because a better solution might come out of the dialogue.

The Hurriyat Conference also stresses on tripartite talks between India, Pakistan and the people of Kashmir.

First, let there be a conducive atmosphere. Let India and Kashmiris talk first, so that violence can be lessened. I do not believe in using expressions like -- 'bilateral or tripartite talks.' But India has not refused to talk to Pakistan, neither has (Pakistan Chief Executive Pervez) Musharraf refused to talk to India.

Pakistan calls Kashmir the core issue, Karan Singh (son of Maharaja Hari Singh, the last ruler of Kashmir who signed the instrument of accession of Kashmir to India) calls it a 'sore issue,' and the international community recognises it as an issue.

So what is important is to make a beginning towards a final solution.

You have been the negotiator from Sheikh Abdullah's side in the Delhi Agreement of 1952 and later played a key role in the 1975 Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Accord. Both agreements were not truly implemented by the Government of India. How would you mollify the fears of Kashmiris that if an agreement is reached this time, it would not meet the same fate?

Syed Mir Qasim I do remember the Delhi Agreement and the Indira-Sheikh Accord were observed more in the breach than in spirit by the Indian government. So this time once we come to an agreement, I will ensure that there is a mechanism which guarantees its sanctity and proper implementation. It will have to be ensured that whatever resolution is agreed upon will be guaranteed.

How long do you think it would take for these talks to reach a logical conclusion?

I cannot lay out a calendar. It depends on how much Pant can speed things up and what kind of response he receives.

You have lived in Kashmir even at the peak of militancy. Have observed Kashmiris through various phases of contemporary history, how different do you find the Kashmiris today from what they were in times of peace?

I don't think the Kashmiri has changed from being traditionally secular to a religious fanatic. Kashmiris are still the same for whom Gandhiji had said during the riots of 1947: "Kashmir is the light in the darkness."

Let this light not be extinguished and be a bridge of friendship between India and Pakistan, and not a cause for tension.

Kashmiris have always been a peace loving people. Even today there is a silent majority which is tired of the consequences of the gun.

They have a keen desire for peace. But Kashmiris have a proud history of honour and dignity. So do not rub them the wrong way by giving them the peace of a graveyard.

Syed Mir Qasim's photographs: Saab Press. Design: Dominic Xavier

The Cease-fire in J&K: The complete coverage

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