March 2, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/Hurriyat Chairman Professor Abdul Gani Bhat
'In politics, rats marry snakes
and bulls chase lizards'

He thrusts. He parries. He ducks. He dodges.

At 64, All-Parties Hurriyat Conference chairman Professor Abdul Gani Bhat is as nimble as a teenager. found that out during an exclusive interview earlier this week.

The former professor of Persian, who heads the Muslim Conference, one of the APHC's seven major constituents, is now walking "a path strewn with thorns".

It isn't a fortnight since he escaped an attempt on his life. Under him the separatist forum faces attacks from hardliner colleagues. Trouble within emanates mainly from Jamaat-e-Islami leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who minces no words in criticising the Hurriyat's official stand.

In response, Professor Bhat had written to the Jamaat chief, asking him to replace Geelani in the APHC executive council. However, that party, the biggest constituent of the forum, refused.

Such differences, the chairman claims, will have no effect on the APHC. "You must remember it is a forum of parties, not individuals," he said.

He entered politics in 1986, with the Muslim United Front. Two years later, when the Muslim Conference was revived in the valley, he took over as its president. He became the APHC chairman last year.

Excerpts from a discussion with Assistant Editor Chindu Sreedharan wherein Professor Bhat was as cautious as he was rhetorical:

The cease-fire is into its third extension. How would you describe the last three months?

Extension or no extension, unless the dispute in Kashmir is addressed no peace can return. Peace cannot happen in vacuum. You can't have both simultaneously, cease-fire and the fire. Therefore, when you discuss cease-fire, particularly a unilateral cease-fire, it has to be understood with reference to the basic issue. Which is, the future dispensation of Jammu and Kashmir.

When the prime minister of India announced the unilateral cease-fire, even then I said a unilateral cease-fire is no cease-fire. That can happen only when you win a war. If you don't win a war and you call a cease-fire it cannot hold.

During the last three months, we have had bloodshed, we have had custodial killings, we have had indiscriminate firings, unjustified crackdowns and humiliating searches... all this and all that. Subjecting people to all sorts of indignities under the cover of a unilateral cease-fire! This is how it was implemented in Kashmir.

Where do you see this truce offer going now?

Well, I am not a pessimist. I can see a ray of hope around. In the people's words, in the people's thoughts, and even, to an extent, in the people's deeds. I see a ray of light across the tunnel too. A ray which we shall have to make grow, a ray which we shall have to preserve, a ray which I know will light up. It will brighten our future.

India, Pakistan and the APHC have absolutely no alternative other than talking. Talking sensibly, talking with a deep sense of responsibility, talking with imagination and, above everything else, talking with boldness and courage. There is no other alternative. Who sees this opportunity first, you or me or they, that person will go down in the annals of history as the first peacemaker in the South-Asian region.

In a recent interview you had said, 'There are saboteurs on all sides'. Could you clarify that statement?

I don't have to. I don't need to. For reasons I needn't explain. There are saboteurs around, and they are so irresponsible that I don't have to locate them [for you]. You know them, I know them, all sensible people know them. There are saboteurs here, there, everywhere.

Does that mean they are within the APHC too?

I don't say APHC, or National Conference, or the Government of India or Pakistan, or any political party. No. But I dare say there are people in India, in Pakistan, in Kashmir, who knows who these saboteurs are.

If I were to say that is an oblique way of saying there are saboteurs in the APHC..?

There can be no saboteurs in the APHC. If there are any, they cannot belong to it. You cannot be a saboteur and a freedom-lover too.

How do you see Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's statement on February 24 indicating the APHC visit to Pakistan would be facilitated?

A leap forward in the peace process is the APHC's travel to Pakistan. Therefore, if Mr Vajpayee says we are considering that, he is responding to the writing on the wall, probably hearing the beating of our hearts. Yes, it is a positive move.

The Kashmiris seem to expect an overnight solution to the dispute. As the APHC itself points out, it is a "53-year-old dispute". Is it reasonable to expect a quick solution -- people are disappointed that the cease-fire months haven't brought any dramatic results -- to such a longstanding problem?

Russia broke in a day's time. It didn't take years. The Americans grew dramatically rather than methodically.

Yes, Kashmiris understand that this is a different situation. This is not 1971, when you break Pakistan into two. Bangladesh, you teach Pakistan a lesson in Bangladesh, you force Pakistan to break up!

This is not 1998 either. When you carried out an explosion, Pakistanis followed suit. You have the Agnis, you have the Trishuls, they have the Hataps, Shaheens and whatnots. So this maddening arms race in India and Pakistan has to be viewed with realism. If you do not, you will not be able to banish the ghosts of the atomic war in the region. We know you cannot afford a war. India cannot now ask Pakistanis to keep off. Because Pakistan is as powerful as India. You cannot afford to fight a war. But, remember, the hatred between the two countries is so deep-rooted that you cannot rule out a war either.

Therefore, to banish the ghosts of war, we will have to address Kashmir at a faster, faster, faster pace. You talk of months, I may probably choose to do it in weeks. The reason being, I am concerned. Not so much about the future of the people in Jammu and Kashmir, but the future of the people in India and Pakistan. Because if you fight a war, India and Pakistan will suffer now rather than the people of Jammu and Kashmir. It is a different thing now, it is not the 70s. I personally want the dispute to be addressed as quickly as possible. And peace is ensured as permanently as we expect.

You are committed to a plebiscite here. Why don't you do it? Why don't you punish the people who backed out? You made pledges on the soil of Kashmir, you made pledges on the floor of the Indian Parliament, you made pledges to international forums like the United Nations. You said the people of Jammu and Kashmir are the masters of their fate. That they can express themselves through an impartial plebiscite to be organised by the United Nations. Why don't you do it?

A precondition was that Pakistan releases the part of Kashmir under it.

Look, my friend, you are building your case in a vacuum. Unless the UN takes over control of Jammu and Kashmir, neither India nor Pakistan can withdraw. Can they? You tell Pakistan to withdraw! But first things first: The plebiscite administrator was to take over, which he never did. And you still say Pakistanis should withdraw? Why?

If the plebiscite administrator takes over tomorrow and asks Pakistan to withdraw and they don't, yes, of course, Pakistan is to blame. But you are putting the cart before the horse. This is not acceptable.

Will the APHC consider a visit to Pakistan without Mr Geelani?

We have not received any intimation from the Government of India about the passports. We do not know who's getting a passport and who's not. As and when we know that, we will meet and take a decision. It is for the executive council to decide.

There is a view that without Mr Geelani, the rest of the APHC leaders will not be so effective in Pakistan. Please comment.

If the impression is that there is only one holy cow, Geelani, let the holy cow only move to Pakistan and get things done. Finished! We are interested in putting the process on the right track. If you do it, I will feel delighted. I am interested in results. I don't agree with that impression, but I will be delighted if the results are there. I consider all the seven members of the executive council as equally important.

What precisely do you hope to achieve in Pakistan? Who all would you be meeting there?

We will talk to the government of Pakistan, exchange views with them. We will talk to the leadership from Azad Kashmir. We will interact, more importantly, with the mujahideen leadership. That is it. We have said that in clear terms.

Reports indicate that some members of the APHC general body feel left out. Are you sure they will support the parleys you have in Pakistan?

I hope and trust that the APHC represents the sentiments of the people, they enjoy the confidence of the people, that they command the respect of the people. The general body too belongs to the people.

One consequence of the cease-fire is that it has brought to the fore differences within the APHC. As chairman, how do you propose to address these?

There are bound to be differences between members of any political party, even [between members] in a household. When you consider a political forum like the APHC, the differences can take on a dimension that may engage the attention of the people. This is true. But the differences are not so material as to lead to a split, horizontal or vertical. Therefore I am not bothered about it. Maybe I feel a little concerned about certain friends making statements, which perhaps could have been avoided. But then, these are issues we will take up in our forthcoming executive council meeting.

As and when all members reach Srinagar, I will call a meeting. We will sit, discuss dispassionately everything concerning Hurriyat Conference. I hope and trust that we, the members of the executive, realises the responsibility he is to shoulder, understands the duty he is to discharge, the duty which he owes to his conscience and the people. Therefore, emotionalism, sentimentalism... are probably things we should avoid."

Who do you think was responsible for the grenade attempt on you? For what purpose?

Well, my person is involved. Therefore I don't want to discuss it.

Pakistan has now come out with a code of conduct for jihadi groups. How would you describe this development?

I have not seen the code of conduct as yet. As soon as I get a copy, I will discuss the whole issue with you if you like. Let me see it first then we will discuss.

Do you agree with Mr Lone's statement in Pakistan that it is time for talks and militants should withdraw to facilitate that?

Well, I don't want to run into any controversy. My job is to dispel doubts if there are any.

At this juncture, since you see a ray of hope, would you ask the militants to respond to the peace offer?

As and when we meet the mujahideen in Pakistan, I think we will have to talk straight, straight to their hearts. I hope we will be able to hear their heartbeats. We will reach an understanding, I trust, in about a week's time or so. We will be able to go along with each other. We have to. Because both of us, he who lays his life down and we who fight with arguments, serve the same cause.

But I am afraid if you expect a miracle to happen in a day's time, we may not be able to do it. We may take two days. We may take a week. We may have to undergo another travel. It doesn't matter. What matters is whether you go or not. If you go, your going, simple going, will be a positive development, not only in terms of the political situation obtained, but in terms of your future plan to build a healthy society in the subcontinent.

You sound optimistic about getting them to agree.

I have said what I said. I wish you could understand that the path we are out to pursue is strewn with thorns. The travel we are undertaking is hazardous. We are not on a pilgrimage, we are not on a visit to see historical places, we are not on a visit to see friends, no. We are on a hazardous mission. For god's sake, don't force me to come out as straight as you expect.

Mr Geelani's hardline stand, would you say it is obstructing the peace process?

Well, I don't want to draw lines between what you call hardliners and softliners and extremists and moderates and hawks and doves. Because I have seen with my own eyes doves turning into hawks and hawks becoming doves. In politics, rats marry snakes and bulls chase lizards. Anything can happen in politics. But, remember, the urge for peace is universally accepted as a force of history. You cannot go against it. Nobody can go against it.

Design: Lynette Menezes

'We have a role to play in the peace process and would like to play it'
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