//The Prime Minister's Semi-circular Table

The Prime Minister's Semi-circular Table

Saturday , May 27, 2006, Suhasini Haidar's Blog, CNN – IBN,

Spies, I was told by my father – are trained to eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom whenever they can. Because you never know when your next chance will be. Journalists need the same rules. I had just landed in Srinagar- and me and my colleagues were sitting down to lunch. The aroma of the rotis and the gushtaba (I may be a vegetarian- but am a sucker for Kashmiri curry) hit our table – just as shots rang out.

The waiter was startled by the sound of the bullets- but probably more startled by the sight of these three journalists leaping out of there- at a bullets pace. Needless to say- I should have listened to my father, as we didn't get a meal that entire day- that militants opened fire at a youth congress rally.

Residents of Srinagar also live at that hair-trigger state at all times. The past couple of months had reduced some of that fear- as the tourism business began to roar. Hundreds and hundreds of tourists have been pouring off the flights (a few years ago – only two airlines flew to Srinagar, now there are six, including the just launched Kingfisher airlines). The Dal gate boulevard resembled chowpatty on a balmy evening- with Gujaratis and Bengalis amongst other frequent Indian travelers booking every room, every houseboat, every guest house in the city.

The Prime Minister wasn't probably thinking about that when he decided to head for Srinagar in peak tourist season- but he should have. A jittery police shut off the entire Dal boulevard, put all tourists under house-arrest (or is that hotel-arrest) and a local population already weary of being treated as murder suspects – were subjected to hundred-fold ID checks.

One doesn't expect logic or humanity from militant groups- but they made sure that run-up to the Prime Minister's visit and his stay there was pure misery for everyone- the Gujjus, the Bongs, the Mallus, the Kashmiris all united in that. And the roundtable trip then ended in heart-rending tragedy for one Surat family.

I guess the question isn't why the nation's leader chose to unleash all the inconvenience on people- that is the nature of his job, and the very real security threat the man faces. I think the question is why he and his aides didn't ensure greater results for the huge costs of this trip. Why every revolutionary idea he seemed to have on the resolution of J&K going into roundtable 1 and 2- got diluted into a half-measure by the end of the conference?

So while the Prime Minister stuck his neck out by reaching out to the separatists- they were allowed to get away without attending. The fact that the Hurriyat decided to stay away may be a reflection of its leadership's confusion, it is as much a reflection of the failure of the PM's envoys to bring them to the roundtable at the last minute. Similiarly, the Prime Minister's office pointedly announced that autonomy was a major focus of the conference, but his concluding statement didn't even make a mention of the words 'autonomy' or 'self-rule'.

As a result, while his opening statement was a revelation in 'out of the box' thinking, brimming with ideas (that were given big coverage and high praise in the local language papers), his concluding statement was a 4-page exercise in stated positions and bureaucratese- almost predictably ending in the "setting up of sub-committees". And we all know that all sub-committees end in the setting up of a commission that tables reports that need a ministerial group to deliberate…..I need not go on.

But I think the biggest let-down, the greatest half-measure, the real semi-circle at the roundtable was the fact that the Prime Minister met NO ONE that he couldn't have met in New Delhi. The heightened security levels in Srinagar didn't just cage the tourists and locals, it also restricted the leader of the nation to his hotel- between the time he was choppered in and out of the Sher-E-Kashmir International Convention Centre, he ventured out once, to the governor's house for an official dinner. Could his advisors and the state government not have found one group of local Kashmiris' expecially the young, for the Prime Minister to speak to during his visit? After all, he meets the leaders of the National Conference and the PDP in parliament quite regularly, and didn't need to go up north for that.

I spoke to a bunch of kids between the ages of 15 and 25 for one of the stories I did- and I really think that the PM could do worse than put together a round-table with the Valley's next generation. Because the real anguish, the real pain, the real alienation- and possibly real solutions are all there. Without the coating of stated positions that we hear from both mainstream and seperatist politicians. So in all these half measures- all this talk going no where- and a rapidly closing window of opportunity in the valley- why should we feel a circle of hope?

Because these children- or young adults – are still thinking out of 'their' boxes.

So young Sehr Mufti, who wants a plebiscite says Kashmiri Pandits have a greater claim to the valley than she does- because they have been there longer.

And teenager Moin, who wants a Kashmir united across the LOC- hopes to stand for election someday.

And school-going Sehr Mushtaq, who wants the army out of Kashmiri towns, also wants to join the IAS.

And Rafiq- who has started a music group called the 'Valley Boys'- wants to be an "Indian Idol" someday