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Dr Manmohan Singh extends healing touch to North-East and J&K

Rasheeda Bhagat


The Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, with the Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister, Mufti Mohammd Syed, and Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Mr Gulam Nabi Azad, at the Srinagar rally... Touching a chord in Kashmiri hearts.

THE Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, is slowly but surely gaining the respect of the nation and the trust of ordinary Indians for the dignity and grace with which he has conducted himself in the post that was thrust upon him.

It is commendable that within six months of coming to power, the Prime Minister took the decision to visit Jammu and Kashmir and the two trouble-torn North-East States of Manipur and Assam.

In all these strife-torn places, in the quiet and dignified style that has become his trademark, Dr Singh set about the task of "winning heart and minds" and called upon the youth to shun the path of violence and come forward to hold talks with the Government.

In Assam, where he made appeals to the ULFA and other separatist groups to shed violence, he played on the fact that he has been a Rajya Sabha MP for three consecutive terms from Assam since 1991, and told the youth: "You don't have to resort to the gun to achieve your objectives because you have a prime minister from Assam. Come, join me and help me ignite a new chapter in the long and tortuous history of Assam."

In Srinagar, of course, he spoke in chaste Urdu — remember those Urdu couplets that used to be the hallmark of his Budget speech for five years in the Narasimha Rao Ministry — and made an emotional appeal to the Kashmiris by recalling his humble background and the trials he had to face as a displaced person.

More important, he went to the people of Jammu and Kashmir with a package worth Rs 24,000 crore, and yet was sensitive to their sensitivities not to call it a package but a "reconstruction and development plan" for the State.

To Kashmiris, traumatised by long years of violence and bloodshed, any mention of "economic aid" angers them. "Aap log hamarey khoon ki keemat paise sey ada nahi kar saktey (You cannot put a price on the blood we have shed)," is their peeve.

Predictably, at the Srinagar meeting, there were orchestrated slogans asking the Prime Minister to lift the freeze on government recruitment.

Though Dr Singh chose not to take this up at the meeting, the very next day, during his visit to Jammu, he announced that his Government was, indeed, lifting this freeze on government jobs and would create 10,000 jobs each year — in the security forces and development projects — for the youth of J&K.

Before his visit to Jammu and Kashmir, the Centre had announced a reduction in the number of troops in the State, and the first batch left the Srinagar Cantonment even as Dr Singh arrived in the city. More than anything else, this will be welcomed by the Kashmiris, who have been caught in the cross-fire between the security forces and the militants.

Lest all this is interpreted as sops from a soft Prime Minister, the gentle economist showed his tough side too, when it came to resolving the Kashmir issue with Pakistan.

He said there was no question of altering the international boundary or "redrawing the State's boundaries" on the basis of religion. He added, significantly, that one Partition was enough in the sub-continent.

This statement was, of course, a snub to the Pakistan President, Gen Pervez Musharraf's suggestion that some of the Muslim majority districts of Jammu and Kashmir be carved out and, along with Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), form a single entity that could either become a UN protectorate or placed under the joint administration of India and Pakistan.

Particularly impressive was the Prime Minister's firm stance against "redrawing of boundaries", and his clear message to the Hurriyat leaders, particularly the separatist group, that he was prepared to talk to all Kashmiri groups, including those outside the political process, but they would have to come to the negotiating table without any pre-conditions. Want to go to Pakistan? Sure, you can go anywhere "as Indian citizens", was another unambiguous message to the Hurriyat.

As expected, across the border the General saw red, saying that if India continued to be "rigid and inflexible" on Kashmir, then he too would have no hesitation in harking back to the Pakistan demand for plebiscite in the Kashmir Valley.

The Pakistan Foreign Minister, Mr Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri, too made some sharp comments, but as the Pakistan Prime Minister, Mr Shaukat Aziz's visit to New Delhi was barely a few days away, both the sides did their bit in lowering the temperature.

The External Affairs Minister, Mr Natwar Singh, urged Pakistan to be "patient" as a problem as old as Kashmir could not be resolved in a few days.

Some damage-control was also done by Dr Singh, who made a telephone call to Mr Aziz on the first day of the latter's India visit; the Prime Minister he told his Pakistani counterpart that he hoped the Indo-Pak peace process could break down the "Berlin Wall" between the two countries.

Of course, the reference was symbolic, but one is not too sure how this imagery will go down with the hardliners in Pakistan, who have always been suspicious of the "Akhand Bharat" theory touted by the VHP and some other saffron organisations.

After all, the coming down of the Berlin Wall reunited the two Germanys, and surely neither Pakistan nor India, for that matter, aspires for any such `reunification'.

A visitor to Pakistan is always told, at least once, that the Partition of the sub-continent was a reality, and that India should not harbour any ambition of re-uniting the two countries, as Pakistan is a sovereign nation.

This sentiment was well understood by the former Prime Minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee who, during his famous bus yatra to Lahore, made it a point to visit the Minar-e-Pakistan, the monument that commemorates the Lahore Resolution of 1940, where the Muslim League demanded a separate homeland for Muslims.

By including a visit to the Minar in his itinerary, Mr Vajpayee had sent a clear signal to Pakistanis that India had no problems in respecting Pakistan as a separate, sovereign nation.

But if we have to keep in mind Pakistani sensitivities, the average Indian too is touchy about every Pakistani leader who visits India rooting for the Kashmir separatist leaders.

So, this time too, the Pakistan Prime Minister spent more than four hours with the two factions of the Hurriyat — the moderate leaders such as Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Mr Abdul Ghani Bhat as well as hardliners including Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

He also met the chief of the Democratic Freeedom Party, Mr Shabir Shah, and the JKLF leader, Mr Yasin Malik. At first, he met them separately and then hosted a joint dinner.

While from the Pakistan side the clear message to these leaders is that they should all come together to have better "bargaining power" with New Delhi, for the Hurriyat leaders who got no special concession from Dr Singh during his visit to Jammu and Kashmir, this meeting must surely come as a face-saver.

While for the time being and following a smooth visit by the Pakistan Prime Minister, the Indo-Pak peace process is back on track, it is in the North-Eastern States, particularly Manipur, that the Manmohan Singh Government needs to do much more. This nation cannot afford one more Kashmir.

Rising disenchantment and frustration over the limited economic opportunities in what is, in all senses of the term, a backward State, has led to a feeling of alienation, even desperation.

Much more than Jammu and Kashmir, which has hogged New Delhi's attention for 15 years now, the North-East requires a healing touch. Economic and employment opportunities have to be created there on a massive scale as allowing the disenchantment with the Indian State to seep deeper has already cost the country dear.

As for Indo-Pak relations, what better signal could there be that Pakistan continues to miss the Vajpayee touch, than Mr Aziz making it a point to call not only on the Leader of Opposition, Mr L. K. Advani, but going that extra mile to call on Mr Vajpayee too.

Winning the hearts of friends is easy; but winning the hearts of adversaries is something that sets a statesman apart.

(Response can be sent to rasheeda@thehindu.co.in)

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