In 2000, the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly passed a resolution calling for restoring their pre-1953 status, but the resolution was rejected out of hand by the Delhi Union Cabinet. Ram [Jethmalani] found this frustrating, because the Assembly had shown itself open to talks about autonomy, and it was not advocating secession. He told Advani that this was an opportunity, but Advani was adamant, even though former Prime Minister Rao had said that if they only asked for autonomy “the sky is the limit”.
He just insisted they leave four areas of responsibility for India: defence, currency, foreign affairs, and communications. LK Advani told the press that there would be no talks with Pakistan unless it agreed to stop abetting cross-border terrorism.
Musharraf and Vajpayee did meet in 2001, but the talks produced little of substance, reportedly because of Advani’s “hawkish tendencies”. In April 2001, New Delhi appointed KC Pant as its first official interlocutor on Kashmir, but the Hurriyat refused to meet him. Pant was able to meet the separatist leader Shabir Shah and former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mir Qasim, but that was all.
In 2002, Ram approached the Kashmiri law student whom he had sponsored at the National Law School of Bangalore, and asked him to arrange a meeting with a group of Kashmiri separatists, the Hurriyat.
In June, Ram met with some 45 men, all armed to the teeth, in a room. First he asked each one to speak his mind for five minutes. After that he requested permission to speak. He spoke in Urdu, a language which he has rarely used since childhood, for over 45 minutes. One could have heard a pin drop. He pleaded with them not to boycott the coming elections, and finally, they promised to end their opposition. Some even promised to run for election. They all embraced him, one by one.
Ram remembers scratchy beards and the distinct odour of men who could use a bath. The meeting was a great success. Notably, they asked Ram if he knew other like-minded senior Indian figures willing to form a committee to continue the dialogue.
That was how the Ram Jethmalani Kashmir Committee began in August of 2002 as an unofficial, private effort. Ram was the chairman; other members were Vinod Grover, a retired Indian Foreign Service officer; eminent lawyers Ashok Bhan, Fali Nariman, and Shanti Bhushan; Jawaid Laiq from Amnesty International; Dileep Padgaonkar, editor of the Times of India and MJ Akbar, editor of Asian Age.
Searching for official interlocutors, the government had appointed Pant, and once briefly Arun Jaitley, to be a “point man for negotiating what has been termed as ‘devolution of powers’ to Jammu and Kashmir,” but there had been no result. Now it was the turn of a non-governmental effort.
In August, Ram announced that the Kashmir Committee would begin a three-day tour of Jammu and Kashmir to talk with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC).
One meeting was with Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Freedom Party chief Shabir Shah, lawyers, intellectuals, and journalists. The Kashmiris requested a promise that the government would stop custodial killings and release key political prisoners such as Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Yasin Malik. They also asked for the Disturbed Area Act and Armed Forces Special Powers Act to be withdrawn.
The meeting went well, but activists criticised it. Journalists reported that it ran into a setback as soon as Ram emphasised the government’s intention to proceed with the state Assembly elections that were scheduled for September and October.
By August 18, the Hurriyat had softened its position on the elections, and Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah muted his opposition to talks with the Kashmir Committee. He even offered to step down from his position if that would facilitate Hurriyat participation in the elections.
By now Ram was convinced that the polls should be postponed, but, believing that the Hurriyat’s refusal to participate was dictated by Pakistan, the Election Commission would not budge.
The Hindu reported that the Hurriyat and Shabir Shah had insisted that India must recognize Kashmir as a problem, any solution must involve Pakistan, and the purpose of the elections must be to elect representatives who could negotiate a solution to the Kashmir problem with the government.
In the ensuing days, Ram urged the government to postpone the elections, but they stood fast.
Ashok Bhan, the convener of the Kashmir Committee, invited Shabir Shah and Abdul Gani Bhat for further talks. After their first round of talks, and in anticipation of a second round in Delhi, the APHC announced they were “ready for a constructive and meaningful dialogue with the Govt. of India without any pre-conditions and for the permanent resolution of the issue.”
The reason they gave was that Prime Minister Vajpayee had made an encouraging speech at the Red Fort on August 15. Referencing past mistakes in Jammu and Kashmir, he “rekindled an otherwise dwindling hope in Kashmir”.
Significantly, the APHC said, “We are not against the principle of elections. We are ready to participate in an election if it can pave the way for a permanent settlement of the issue.”
By August 30, after a second round of talks, the Kashmir Committee and the Democratic Freedom Party released a joint statement saying, “It was agreed yet again that violence as a principle or as a strategy has no role in the resolution of any problem anywhere in the world including the Kashmir problem.” They also announced that “the DFP led by Mr Shabir Shah has in principle agreed to participate in the elections.”
They required certain confidence-building measures though, to include “release of those persons who have been illegally/unfairly jailed, honourable and dignified return of migrants, greater accountability of the Special Operations Group and other anti-insurgency groups, speedy trial of those jailed for petty offences, constitution of a commission to probe into custodial killings and disappearance of persons, facilitation of an intra-Kashmir dialogue.”
The APHC and the Kashmir Committee also released a joint statement which eschewed violence, emphasised that “all those who had been forced to migrate from the state should return and be fully rehabilitated, with full protection of their rights, [and] called on the governments of India and Pakistan to make all efforts at the earliest opportunity to create conditions for reducing tensions on the Indo-Pak border.”
The Kashmir Committee itself “indicated its readiness to meet the KC [Kashmir Committee] of Pakistan at a mutually convenient time and place.”
...Then “just on the day that leaders [of APHC] were persuaded to come to Delhi, the government insolently and unwisely shut its doors on them...The Home Minister [Advani] told Shanti Bhusan that he would not talk to them because they were in touch with Pakistan. In reality, they were, and they made no secret of it. When they offered to participate in the dialogue with Indian leaders, they were doing it with the concurrence of Pakistan. That made the talks all the more significant and eminently desirable.”
Ram says the government wilfully disregarded all the concessions the Kashmiris made to the Kashmir Committee. Furthermore, the Prime Minister’s speech at the Red Fort was statesmanlike, but it was not followed up by action. In February 2003, a member of the Rajya Sabha asked the government what actions it planned. Their response was to appoint NN Vohra to conduct more talks.
After their third round of meetings, two in Kashmir and one in Delhi, the Kashmir Committee and the APHC released another joint statement in which they again agreed to abjure violence, “rise above traditional positions”, “abandon extreme stands”, and “be firmly committed to democracy, protection of human rights, respect for ethnic, religious and linguistic pluralism”.
This was when Shabir Ahmed Shah told Sindhisshaan magazine that “Some elements in the central government as well as the state government are actively trying to sabotage the efforts of the Kashmir Committee led by Mr Ram Jethmalani. Former Law Minister Mr Jethmalani is like my elder brother and I have very high regards for him.”
He said several figures had spoken against the committee, “and also the Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani has said that government won’t talk, after initially having praised the efforts of the Kashmir Committee in the Parliament...” He referred to the Kashmir Committee as “a bridge between India and Pakistan, and between India (Government of India) and Kashmir (Kashmiri people).”
In the same interview, he said, “The talks cannot fail between me and the Kashmir Committee. The Kashmir Committee does not represent the government of India but the people of India.” Most poignantly, “The Kashmir Committee members have understood our views and agreed with us that the Kashmir issue should be resolved only through talks. And for such talks to begin a congenial atmosphere needs to be created. Those prisoners who are rotting in jails for twelve–twelve years without any cases or crimes proved against them should be released; in fact I myself have spent over 23 years of my life in prisons in detention. The Amnesty International has given me titles ‘Prisoner of Conscience’ and ‘Nelson Mandela of Kashmir’.”
The Times of India reported, ‘In a toughening of stand, Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani today virtually ruled out any talks with the Hurriyat or the imposition of governor’s rule or postponement of the Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir, asserting that the Centre would now talk only with elected representatives from the state. The statement given in an interview with a private television channel practically reverses a proposal to hold talks with the Hurriyat which has declined to participate in the coming elections.”
Advani had accused the Hurriyat of following the dictates of Pakistan, saying that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s August 14 address, in which he denounced the elections as “farcical”, gave a clear message to the Kashmiris not to participate.
Yet another problem held back the Hurriyat – the discouraging effect of Hurriyat leader Abdul Ghani Lone’s assassination.
Ram had encouraged the Law Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Abdul Ghani Lone, who was also the leader of the APHC, to take a more liberal stance and to participate in the upcoming elections. On May 21, 2002, after a speech in Dubai in which he proposed talks between the Hurriyat and the Indian government, unidentified gunmen assassinated him near Srinagar.
Both Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Tayiba and local Kashmiri militants claimed responsibility. Then on September 11, militants assassinated his brother, Mushtaq Ahmad Lone, the Indian Minister for Law and Parliamentary Affairs.
Ram went to Kashmir to pay a condolence call to his family. In retrospect, his contacts with the Lone brothers caused him trouble. As a report said, “Union Minister of State for External Affairs and National Conference President Omar Abdullah today said that his party had ‘decided to have no further contact or association’ with Mr Ram Jethmalani’s Kashmir Committee for it was a ‘Congress political committee’. In a statement here, Mr Abdullah said the ‘secret meeting’ of Mr Sajjad Lone of the Peoples’ Conference and Mr Saifuddin Soz of the Congress at the residence of Mr Jethmalani in the presence of other committee members had only gone to prove the misgivings of Dr Farooq Abdullah about the objective of the committee.”
The papers reported that Ram’s Kashmir Committee could not convince the Hurriyat to participate in the elections once they began to attach strings and preconditions.
The Kashmiris complained that the corrupt ministers Congress had imposed on Kashmir took their money. Ram responded that Kashmir should elect their own local leaders, challenging them to fight for free elections with equal rights for Muslims and Hindus, and with observers to monitor them. Ram told them that in a democracy there can be no secession; the best way is to hold elections.
The October 30, 2002 elections in Kashmir ended the reign of the National Conference (NC), and the Abdullah family.
We vividly remember sitting with Rani in her Delhi apartment that night, surrounded by her exquisite glass and silver, as Ram appeared on one TV programme after another, and it became clear that all the TV hosts gave Ram and his Kashmir Committee the credit for the dramatic success of these elections. We also remember that the last interviewer apologised for keeping Ram away so late from his evening Scotch.
Excerpted with permission from The Rebel: A biography of Ram Jethmalani, Susan Adelman, Penguin Books India.