Vajpayee persisted with a hostile Pakistan, which twice turned down his hand of friendship until they too were won over. Now it rues a missed opportunity
As developments unfold in the northern Indian territory of Jammu & Kashmir, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi could be remembering the tribute he paid to the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee on the fifth anniversary of the former PM’s death last month.
Pakistan and J&K were arguably the most characteristic success stories of Vajpayee’s tenure as the first PM for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In the late 1990s, he was PM for two brief terms of 13 days and 13 months and then served a full term between 1999 and 2004.
Few expected a stridently ‘saffron’ government, which championed the cause of India’s Hindu majority, to gain such traction in the troubled erstwhile state, which has since then been carved into two separate union territories since the abrogation of Article 370 of the constitution in 2019, and much less with a hostile Pakistan.
His determination to pursue dialogue disarmed the Kashmir Valley’s separatist leadership and a transactional approach brought even Pakistan’s external intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to discreet agreements. His distaste for using armed force against Indian citizens was rewarded with a marked downturn in militancy.
Vajpayee lacked neither will nor determination. He believed that the permanent confrontation with Pakistan had to end and we needed to move forward in Kashmir. As far back as March 1995, he told separatist leader Shabir Shah, when he called on Vajpayee in Parliament House, that the Kashmir impasse needed to be resolved. With his hands on Shah’s shoulder he said, “we need to resolve this problem” and his remark made a huge impact on the separatist leader.
Unfortunately, Vajpayee was short on time. If only he had been PM instead of Morarji Desai, when he was the foreign minister in 1977-78. Or, had the three years between the failure of the Agra Summit in 2001, when Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf walked out in a huff, and the 2004 summit in Islamabad of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) not been wasted, and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance did not lose the election later that summer. Who knows what might have happened?
Despite the difficult times and heartbreaks with Pakistan, Vajpayee never lost touch with Kashmir. His belief in humanism set him apart. As Kashmir’s former chief minister, Dr. Farooq Abdullah, said, Vajpayee’s vision of humanism, democracy and Kashimiriyat was a testimony to his “greatness”. He gave hope and confidence to Kashmiris, who always believed in him as one of their own. In the summer of 2003, Kashmiris would say Vajpayee could enter Parliament uncontested from the Srinagar constituency.
Notwithstanding the Kargil conflict with Pakistan in 1999, the hijacking of Air India flight IC-814 later that year, which led to the swap of three dreaded Pakistani militants in Kandahar, Afghanistan, under the watch of the Taliban regime and the 2001 Parliament attack, all the positivity in Kashmir between 1999 and 2004 reflected Vajpayee’s genius as a man of peace.
Consequently, Kashmiris rejected militancy because of his humanist approach and assurance that the state did not need force to hold it together. Love and affection were the binding factors that the Kashmiris reciprocated towards Vajpayee.
Once when the security forces were having problems in turfing out militants from the higher reaches of the mountains in Kashmir, Vajpayee refused to deploy helicopter gunships. He was opposed to the indiscriminate use of force against “our own people”. Instead, when the ceasefire with the homegrown militant group Hizbul Mujahideen collapsed in 2001, Vajpayee came up with an out-of-the-box solution. He offered an unconditional ceasefire during the Holy month of Ramzan for the state’s Muslim-majority population. This led to the ceasefire that came into effect in 2003 and was worked by the chiefs of ISI and India’s external intelligence agency Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW).
Such was the relationship between the espionage agencies of the two neighboring countries at that time that the ISI acknowledged a tip-off from the R&AW had saved General Musharraf’s life. The former Pakistani president, who passed away in Dubai earlier this year, was said to have been grateful.
If the 2002 Kashmir election was a success, it was largely because of Vajpayee, who had encouraged maximum participation. He had a soft corner for Dr. Abdullah’s son Omar whom he visualized as the future chief minister. The more Vajpayee saw of Omar, the more he liked him. Unfortunately, Omar lost the election and though his party, the National Conference (MC), had won 28 seats to emerge as the single-largest party in the 87-member assembly, he failed to form a government.
The Kashmiri separatists participated in an assembly election for the first time and the Jammu & Kashmir People’s Conference, known for its secessionist leanings, was represented in a coalition government formed by the Congress and the NC’s rival, People’s Democratic Party. It was also the beginning of the rise to prominence of Sajjad Lone of the Jammu & Kashmir People’s Conference. His father, Abdul Ghani Lone, the foremost among separatist leaders who was assassinated in 2002, had supported Vajpayee for a political solution to the Kashmir imbroglio.
As Mirwaiz Mohammad Umar Farooq of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of 26 political, social and religious organizations formed on March 9, 1993, as a united political front to raise the cause of Kashmiri separatism, said, “Vajpayee was a rare leader who had the humaneness to seek a solution to the festering problems of Kashmir.”
Vajpayee made sincere attempts to walk the talk by offering unconditional talks with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, whose leaders were overwhelmed when they met at his official residence in New Delhi in 2004.
Earlier in April 2003, while addressing a large public meeting in Srinagar, Vajpayee said he had held out a hand of friendship to Pakistan twice but had been let down both times, yet he was not willing to give up and would try once more. The Kashmiris were rapturous with joy.
At a time when we have stopped listening, Vajpayee should be a role model in finding a lasting solution to the Kashmir issue. He was a man of few words and he believed, like former US Secretary of State Dean Rusk, that “one of the best ways to persuade others is by listening to them”.
When news travelled to Srinagar that Vajpayee was critically ill and admitted to hospital in 2018, prayers were offered in mosques and homes for his speedy recovery. The members of All Parties Hurriyat Conference were downcast when he passed away. Professor Abdul Ghani Bhat, a senior Kashmiri separatist leader, had said, “What else could one think of him?” while referring to him as “a man of peace and a visionary leader, who skillfully blended pragmatism with large heartedness.”
Bhat believed that if Vajpayee had time on his hands, India and Pakistan would be moving together. Former ISI director-general General Asad Durrani once remarked, “what Pakistan could do with Vajpayee as the PM”. Can we still doubt that Vajpayee was the best way forward in Kashmir?
Vajpayee fulfilled Greek philosopher Plato’s notion in “The Republic”, an exposition on how kings should become philosophers or philosopher kings because they possess a special level of knowledge to run a modern-day republic successfully.