“Issues can be resolved if we move forward guided by the three principles of Insaniyat, Jamhooriyat and Kashmiriyat,” Vajpayee’s statement that most in valley still remember.
During the years researching for my book, one thing that always fascinated me in Kashmir was: the narrative about Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Anyone I met would say numerous critical things about the Indian state but always became softer on the subject of Vajpayee. A common narrative was: “He genuinely invested himself in solving the Kashmir dispute.” The more I talked to Kashmiris, I realized the political hope that Vajpayee created in the valley was unmatchable and no other Prime Minister till date has been able think out-of-the-box, leave alone Vajpayee putting his own government on stake at the cost of bettering relations with Pakistan.
“Vajpayee was a liberal softie in a hardline Hindu party, probably it was Vajpayee’s cleverly crafted public image,” said a senior Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leader during one of my visits to Srinagar a few months after abrogation of article 370, “Of course, he based his K- policies on Insaniyat, Jamhooriyat and Kashmiriyat but also never he shied away from breaking up with religious majoritarianism, though, making a case for it under the parliamentary constitutionalism.”
Vajpayee’s Prime Ministerial terms were always tested with the Kashmir issue. During his second stint as PM, he started the Delhi-Lahore bus service, and himself boarded the bus from Amritsar to attend a summit in Lahore (19th February, 1999). Just before nine months of opening this bus service, both India and Pakistan had successfully conducted nuclear tests. And just a few months after the bus started, both the countries fought the Kargil war (3rd May-26th July, 1999).
When Vajpayee returned as PM for the third time, just two months after the government was sworn in and a day before his 75th birthday, 24th December, 1999, an Indian Airlines flight IC- 814 traveling from Kathmandu to Delhi was hijacked by five armed men. Vajpayee himself was also mid-air returning to Delhi from an official tour and unfortunately the plane did not have a satellite phone. The hijackers demanded release of thirty six militants that were held in Indian jails and a ransom of 200 million dollars. Vajpayee came to know about the incident only after he touched Delhi. His government was put in the spot — if they agreed to the demands of hijackers they would be seen as gutless and soft and if they refused to release militants they would be seen as risking the lives of their own citizens and heartless.
By its design, it was very clear that the incident was crafted for revenge for Kargil, by Pakistan’s spy agency – Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).
Exhausted after a week of negotiations, Vajpayee finally decided to release three dreaded terrorists – Masood Azhar, Omar Sheikh and Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar. The decision was not well received by the then Deputy PM Lal Krishna Advani and the RSS, the said cultural wing of the BJP. “Release of terrorists projected India as a soft state.”
Vajpayee’s decision triggered a political paranoia among the Hindu nationalists and its supporters that — “Hindus were too weak to battle the more masculine and hard line Muslims.” After such a huge fallout and political friends and allies turning hostile, any Prime Minister would have chosen to stay away from Pakistan and Kashmir. But Vajpayee was different and visionary.
In November 2000, his government declared that Indian troops would not launch combat operations against militants both local and Pakistani, in Kashmir for the next six months. The announcement coincided with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
This is a gesture that the Kashmiris still remember, “Vajpayee knew how to diffuse the liberation movement without direct confrontation. We were also confused because it was very unpredictable,” recalled a former Hurriyat leader in a conversation in September 2019, “We would have doubted his intentions had he said something and done something like other governments but he was a leader constantly making efforts to build the trust of his government in the valley.”
Though Advani maintained a hard liner image, when he was invited by Vajpayee over dinner a few days before the ceasefire was to end, it was Advani who asked Vajpayee to invite the then President of Pakistan, General Musharraf to India. He convinced Vajpayee that his invitation would be welcomed as an act of statesmanship both within India and internationally. This culminated in the Agra Summit of 2001 and all the ground work was done by Advani. All this while, RSS was a divided house and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) openly called for canceling the summit. Unaffected by all these developments in the charged political environment, Vajpayee wittingly maintained, “Hum apne rishtedaron ko chun sakte hain, padosi ko nahin.”(We can choose our relatives, not our neighbours).
However, the Agra Summit miserably failed as both India and Pakistan failed to understand the centrality of Kashmir to each other’s narrative. Even this did not deter Vajpayee from his engagement in Kashmir.
Few months after the 9/11 attacks, on 13th December, 2001 Pakistan backed terrorists attacked the Indian Parliament. The Vajpayee government was taken aback. The political narrative was that the Vajpayee government was “too soft.” RSS pressured the government to cross the Line of Control (LoC) and attack the terror camps. Though Vajpayee ordered mobilization of 500000 troops along India’s western borders, the largest build up of troops in the subcontinent since the 1971 war yet he did not want the situation to escalate to war.
It was a very similar situation in 2019 when Indian PM Narendra Modi ordered warplanes to cross the Line of Control and the international border and bomb targets in Pakistan. But Vajpayee was not Modi.
“The generosity shown by the Vajpayee government was not respected by Pakistan and particularly General Musharraf. Even Kashmiri society was shocked when three Pakistanis crossed the Jammu borders and attacked the army base in Kaluchak killing thirty including soldiers, their wives and their children,” recalled Majid Dar, a 56 year old apple grower in Pulwama, in 2019.
For an already mobilized army, the Kaluchak attack was the last nail in the coffin. This time even the Army Chief requested the Prime Minister, “let me have a crack at it.” Though India asked Pakistan’s ambassador Ashraf Qazi to leave the country and deployed its superior navy in the Arabian Sea to blockade Pakistan’s port town of Karachi, Vajpayee kept calm and did not allow the passions to overcome the international agreements. He was a statesman of rare character, hard to find these days.
India finally drew down its troops in 2002. Again Vajpayee made sure the decision to withdraw troops coincided with his decision to hold elections in Kashmir. “We Kashmiris not only expected but a significant population was convinced that India would rig the elections, like it did in 1987,” says Shakeel Bhatt (changed name), a local businessman based in Srinagar, “But India then assured international observers were allowed free access in the valley and elections were largely free and fair.”
As I mentioned earlier Vajpayee was not Modi, he was no Rajiv Gandhi either. In the Spring of 2003, April, Vajpayee traveled to Kashmir- the first PM to visit the valley after the violence began in 1989. He addressed the public gathering at Sher-e-Kashmir cricket stadium in Srinagar without any prior written copy of the speech.
The government that had almost gone into a war like situation a few months back, here was the head of the government saying, “We are again extending a hand of friendship but hands should be extended from both sides. Both sides should decide to live together. Vajpayee also said something which none of the Indian PMs would even dare to say, “This is the time to change the map. We are busy in Delhi towards that and we need to work together.” The statement created uproar in the political spheres and Vajpayee had to explain in the Indian Parliament, he then made a significant and historical remark that each Kashmiri till date remembers, “Issues can be resolved if we move forward guided by the three principles of Insaniyat (Humanism), Jamhooriyat (Democracy) and Kashmiriyat.”
The statement in itself was reflective of Atal’s stature and the kind of statesman he was. “Atal ji shifted India’s decades long position on Kashmir and Pakistan, making it very clear that Kashmir was the central issue between both India and Pakistan and also that not only Kashmir, a piece of land mattered but also the human lives, the Kashmiris were central to the diplomatic relations,” said Farooq Abdullah, the former CM of Jammu & Kashmir in a personal conversation in September 2022.
Such the aura was of Vajpayee, hours before the abrogation of article 370, Former CM Mehbooba Mufti tweeted, “Vajpayee ji despite being a BJP leader empathized with Kashmiris & earned their love. Today we feel his absence the most.” Mufti has always stressed that the only way to move forward on Kashmir and to end hostilities with Pakistan is: ‘the Vajpayee way.’ That means dialogue, dialogue and dialogue.
When Narendra Modi was declared as the PM candidate by the BJP in 2013, the minorities across the country were disappointed, mainly because of Modi’s hardline hindutva leader image and the 2002 riots happened under his tenure as Gujarat Chief Minister; but for the muslims of Kashmir, Modi was the candidate of BJP and this gave hope to Kashmiris that he could be like only BJP Prime Minister India had seen so far: Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Chief priest of Jama Masjid and separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who also headed the moderate faction of Hurriyat, told reporters in April just before the general elections: “Modi is the best bet.” And again this hope emerged because of the forward movement that happened during Vajpayee’s tenure as PM. Mirwaiz’s hope also emerged because the years post-Vajpayee were the most disappointing, many termed it as the ‘lost decade.’ However, the hopes soon died down.
On a dull evening in February 2020, in a brief chit-chat with a few shopkeepers at Lal Chowk, a common view was: “Had Vajpayee been the PM, he would have never taken a unilateral decision of abrogation rather focused on winning the trust of Kashmiris.”
(Rohin Kumar is an Independent Journalist Based in Delhi)