The former chairman of a leading separatist organization in Indian Kashmir defended himself Wednesday after he was fired from his post for meeting a government official assigned to help end a decades-old insurgency in the disputed Himalayan region.
Prof. Abdul Gani Bhat was ousted as longtime chief of the Muslim Conference, two weeks after he engaged in a dialogue with Dineshwar Sharma, a former intelligence official who was appointed recently as the Indian government’s special representative to Kashmir to hold exploratory meetings with local leaders and stakeholders in an effort to pave the way for potential peace talks.
Bhat’s sacking came amid a raging controversy in the Muslim Conference over his talks with Sharma in Srinagar, the regional capital, on Nov. 27. On Tuesday, Bhat removed three Muslim Conference party members for “anti-party activities” after they objected to his meeting with the Indian envoy.
“We must understand [that] dialogue is the only way forward. Talking to Dineshwar Sharma does not mean I am a traitor,” Bhat told BenarNews.
Kashmiri separatists, who have been spearheading a violent rebellion against Indian rule since the late 1980s, have openly refused to engage in a dialogue with the government interlocutor until New Delhi accepts the Muslim-majority region as a disputed territory.
More than 70,000 people have been killed in a separatist insurgency in Kashmir, which is claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan and is divided between the two sides by a de facto border called the Line of Control (LoC).
“India must talk to Pakistan. Then the two countries should engage with Kashmiris to find a lasting solution to the issue that has proven to be a major source of discontent and hostility,” Bhat said.
Sharma, a former chief of India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB), was deputed as the Kashmir interlocutor by India’s Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in October. He traveled to Kashmir in early November for a series of interactions with students and local trade bodies but separatist groups refused to meet him then.
‘Not against a dialogue’
The Muslim Conference has elected Mohammad Sultan Magray as its interim president for six months, Magray confirmed to BenarNews.
“We are not against a dialogue with India. But his [Bhat’s] meeting with was against the principle stand taken by separatists – that a dialogue is only possible after India accepts Kashmir as a disputed territory,” Magray said, adding that Bhat was unanimously ousted.
The Muslim Conference is affiliated with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of 26 political, social and religious organizations that has been championing Kashmir’s independence since 1993.
Even as the Muslim Conference confirmed it had fired Bhat for talking to Sharma, experts said the controversial meeting could help break the ice between the Indian government and Kashmiri rebels.
“Some likeminded separatists may take a cue and come forward to engage in a dialogue at a later stage. Bhat is a moderate separatist leader who, by choosing to talk to Sharma, has lent some credence to the recent peace building move by the Indian government,” Noor Baba, a Srinagar-based political analyst, told BenarNews.
But the meeting could prove counter-productive, Ajai Sahni, a New Delhi-based counter-terrorism expert, warned.
“Certainly, talks between the government and the rebels have the potential to bring others to the negotiation table, opening the possibility for a resolution. But it can also evoke a backlash as extremists or anti-state elements may intensify violence to disrupt any peace moves,” Sahni said.
The BJP said Kashmiri separatists were isolating themselves internationally by refusing to engage in a dialogue with the government-appointed interlocutor.
“By not meeting Sharma, separatists only want to ensure that the violence continues. They don’t want it to stop, and for their own vested reasons. But the government is committed to restore peace using all legitimate options,” party leader Ramesh Arora told BenarNews.
“Bhat’s talk with the government representative is a good beginning and I hope his colleagues rethink their stance and join talks initiated by the government. They need to realize that further violence will only aggravate the problem,” he said.