Remember how Vajpayee government touched hearts with a similar move
Several prominent citizens from different walks of life have called for a declaration of ceasefire in Kashmir during the month of Ramzan, beginning on Friday. Their appeal needs to be immediately heeded, both by the Centre and the state government.
Those who have appealed for a ceasefire include Yashwant Sinha of the NDA who recently led a citizens’ team to J&K to make a bid for the restoration of peace. The other eminent people include Air Marshal Kapil Kak (retd.), Wajahat Habibullah, Justice A.P. Shah, Salman Haider, J.F. Riberio, A.S. Dulat, Aruna Roy, Syeda Hameed, Zoya Hasan, Prem Shankar Jha and Bharat Bhushan.
The appeal has been addressed to the Centre and the PDP-BJP government in the state to take a lead in declaring that the security forces will resort to shooting only in extreme situations and in self-defence. "Let there be no violence in Kashmir during Ramzan,” their statement says. Several members of the concerned group have, during the last many months, been taking the initiative for a dialogue between the authorities and different sections of society in J&K, so that peace can be restored in the troubled Valley.
Their efforts have not succeeded so far, mainly because neither the trouble-makers, nor the government has given up fighting each other. The plea for a unilateral ceasefire by the government and the end of violence by the trouble-makers in the Valley can provide respite from the daily killings and bloodshed.
A unilateral declaration of ceasefire in the middle of a conflict is not a new idea. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee unilaterally declared a ceasefire on the eve of Ramzan and found that the impact on the situation, on the ground and on public morale in the Valley, was tremendous. Security forces were told not to fire unless absolutely needed and only in self-defence. The people in the Valley responded by welcoming this, and militants suspended violence during Ramzan.
As a media adviser to Prime Minister Vajpayee, I noticed that he was not sure till the last moment how his unilateral declaration would be received in the Valley. But the next morning, he felt reassured that the response was positive. Not only during Ramzan, peace prevailed for some more time afterwards.
Much later, when the Pahalgam episode occurred, in which over 25 people were killed by militants, Vajpayee decided to go to Pahalgam. On the way back, at the airport, he addressed a press conference organised by the then-chief minister, Farooq Abdullah.
Before the press conference, Vajpayee asked me what kinds of questions could be asked by the media. I said a tricky question was whether the talks he promised would be "within the framework of the Constitution or outside”. The PM and I thought of some options, but none were really satisfactory.
At the press conference, next to the helicopter hangar at the airport, he was questioned by newspersons — the fourth question was: "Prime Minister saheb, will the talks be within the framework of the Constitution or outside?” "Talks will be held insaaniyat ke dairay main (within the framework of humanity)”, he said. Vajpayee was speaking straight from the heart; the newspersons were stunned at his off-the-cuff reply.
This was Vajpayee’s inspirational moment for which he is still remembered in the Valley with great affection. It touched hearts and did not compromise on any national position. His approach, and the empathy with which he looked at the people of Kashmir, helped him win much support in the Valley.
The confidence Vajpayee gained with these two moves — the declaration of a unilateral ceasefire and making it clear that talks will be held within the framework of insaaniyat — helped him tackle the situation and restore peace for some time. It also allowed him to acquire space for starting a wider dialogue with different sections of society at different levels.
Vajpayee didn’t lose anything by his unilateral declaration of ceasefire or his statement about working within humanitarianism. In fact, he became more hopeful about creating peace in the Valley, which he thought would equip him to deal with Pakistan more effectively. Later, he widened the theme by adding Kashmiryat and jamhooriyat (democracy) to his insaaniyat theme, widening his appeal as a national leader.
Narendra Modi’s government has nothing to lose if it declares ceasefire on the eve of Ramzan, starting today. On the contrary, it will certainly widen its appeal in Kashmir. During the ceasefire, Pakistan may create some trouble on the LoC. Our army, which is keeping an effective vigil, knows how to stop mischief from across the border, both during the ceasefire and later.
A ceasefire is certainly not peace. But it provides a pause to think afresh on the Kashmir situation and how to tackle it without resorting to a tooth-for-tooth approach.
*The writer is a former editor-in-chief of ‘The Indian Express’ and a Rajya Sabha MP. Now, he is advisor, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi.