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Vajpayee offers autonomy and huge economic package, Kashmiris refuse to bite the bait

Srinagar: On May 23, the third and last day of his visit to Kashmir, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee offered the beleaguered state a huge economic package and expressed the central government's willingness to consider the question of "autonomy" for Jammu and Kashmir. 

Only last year his government had vehemently rejected a resolution by the legislative assembly of Kashmir for autonomy. Earlier governments were ready to consider the issue in its broadest implications. The then prime minister Narasimha Rao had said in early 1990s that "sky is the limit for autonomy" while the current ruling party, BJP, has been all along bent to remove even the last vestiges of autonomy still enjoyed by Kashmir. The central government during the 1950s and 1960s robbed Kashmir of most of the autonomy given to the state when it joined India in 1948.

But now the prime minister said, "We had not set aside the resolution on autonomy without giving it a thought. We were ready for talks. We are ready for talks even now", he said addressing a press conference in Srinagar. 

Describing the situation on the border with Pakistan as serious, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee asserted that India could meet any challenge. "When asked about war clouds, I had looked up to the sky and said the sky is clear. But sometimes even when the sky is clear, there is lightning. We are confident that lightening will not fall," he said.

He also expressed the Centre's willingness to talk to the secessionist Hurriyat Conference but made it abundantly clear that there was no question of agreeing to the conglomerate's demand to include Pakistan in talks.

The Prime Minister announced a rupees 61650 million (US$ 1258 million) economic package for the development of Jammu and Kashmir and assured the Centre's full support for the development of the state. "People in the state want speedy development. They are fed up with unemployment," Vajpayee said.

The prime minister also promised that the forthcoming assembly elections next October will be "free, fair and impartial." It has been a major Kashmiri grievance that all elections held in post-Independence Kashmir have been rigged. In fact, the massive rigging of the 1987 elections was solely responsible for the eruption of the militancy in July next year. Young activists who took part in the elections as candidates or political agents of candidates said in the wake of the falsification of the mandate that the time of "sandooq" (ballot) is over and now it's the time of "bandooq" (gun). In order to ensure free and fair elections, Kashmiris have demanded foreign observers but New Delhi has rejected the idea so far.

As Vajpayee was making these announcements and gestures, the Valley of Kashmir was observing a complete general strike for the third day running. On the first day of Vajpayee's arrival in Kashmir there was a general strike in the memory of late Mirwaiz Muhammad Farooq (father of the current Mirwaiz Umar Faroorq) who was assassinated on that day in 1990. On the second day of his arrival in Kashmir there was a general strike in protest against his visit. On the third day of his visit there was a general strike in protest against the assassination of Abdul Ghani Lone.

The All-Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) rejected Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's offer for talks with the separatist amalgam, dismissing the move as an attempt to "fish in the desert". Hurriyat chairman Abdul Ghani Bhat, while rejecting Vajpayee's offer for talks, said "why indulge in fishing in a desert?" Bhat said the talks would lead to nowhere without Pakistan's involvement. "We don't want a dialogue for pleasure's sake," he added.

APHC, which represents 23 separatist organisations, also rejected the economic package announced by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and said it will not help in resolving the Kashmir issue . Jamaat-e-Islami leader and former chairman of APHC, Syed Ali Shah Geelani told the Indian official news agency, PTI, that "economic packages will not help in resolving Jammu and Kashmir dispute. Had it been a fight for economic packages, supreme sacrifices would not have been made by the people." 

Commenting on Vajpayee's rejection of involving Pakistan in a dialogue between separatist leaders and the Centre, Geelani said "it is an unrealistic attitude not to involve Islamabad in the talks." 

Another important Kashmiri leader, Shabbir Ahmad Shah who is known as the "Mandela of Kashmir" for spending most of his life in Indian jails, said that economic packages only help in reducing poverty but "do not provide a solution to the Kashmir issue." Shah, who is president of the Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Freedom Party, added that the economic package is going to benefit those in power. "They are the ones who will enjoy it." It is a general complaint of the Kashmiris that the much talked about Indian subsidies to Kashmir have only lined the pockets of the lackeys who ruled the state on behalf of Delhi all these fifty years..

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