What is Behind New Delhi’s New Kashmir Push?

Date:

Kashmiri students throw stones during clashes with Indian government forces near a college in central Srinagar’s Lal Chowk. —AFP

For now, New Delhi’s talking mode opens a window of opportunity and there should be no harm engaging with this initiative imaginatively and creatively, despite the many ifs and buts. Too much of optimism must be blunted with a statutory warning. There is enough evidence to show that failure of this project would push the Valley into a far more dangerous vortex.

ANURADHA BHASIN JAMWAL

From its hardline militaristic approach in Kashmir, BJP has shifted into interlocution mode. This doesn’t quite come as a bolt from the blue. The otherwise ballistic rhetoric on Kashmir was already being toned down since August this year, starting with prime minister Narendra Modi’s one-liner of embracing Kashmiris instead of showering them with ‘golis and gallis’. Union home minister Rajnath Singh followed it up by removing the pre-conditions and showing openness to talks. But whether this would lead to something meaningful is difficult to predict with any precision. But the setting, timing and the nature of this move is intriguing.

The signals have all along been confusing and messy and even as an interlocutor has finally been named, several questions beg answers that are crucial in comprehending the significance of this move. Though the appointment of a man with an intelligence background raises many an eyebrow in Kashmir, where intelligence sleuths are known for their history of manipulations and for being catalysts in controlling the local politics and socio-economics, it is premature to judge the ability of former Intelligence Bureau chief Dineshwar Sharma with respect to his new assignment.

Whether or not he has the capacity to come out of the shadows of his role as an intelligence cop, what is more important are the questions of his brief on his new role and the terms of his engagement. This is still not clear. The new interlocutor has no political mandate but enjoys the legitimacy given to him by the government. Does he have the power to offer something to Kashmiris or is he simply the Centre’s points-man collating views and assessing the situation for reporting back to the Centre?

This prompts the necessary question of why New Delhi needed to start this exercise afresh when there are volumes of reports by interlocutors and points-men appointed by successive governments from time to time gathering dust for years. The narrative of Kashmir, since the last such exercise, has evolved differently, scripting new situational episodes.

This may be one plausible explanation but that does not explain the snub given to Yashwant Sinha led Concerned Citizens group which compiled its report in recent months and sent it to the government. Is it petty politics at play or does the government want to take full ownership of its own project? In all likelihood, as is the brief of interlocutors, Dineshwar Sharma will be expected to make his own assessment after meeting a cross-section of people.

So, who does he talk to and about what? The vital question being asked is whether separatists would be part of his itinerary. Any political engagement on Kashmir is rendered futile without the involvement of the Hurriyat leaders, the sole political outfit that mirrors the aspirations of a vast chunk of alienated masses of Kashmir. Their weaknesses, eroding base and their divided house is immaterial. Rajnath Singh, while announcing the new interlocutor, makes no conditionalities and maintains that it is up to him who he meets and talks to. Sharma himself has maintained that he would keep his doors open for all. While this may still sound ambiguous, voices within the BJP, both at the national and state level are already displaying their discomfort over any engagement with the separatists. A related question is whether the separatists would respond positively to this new initiative.

The seriousness and intent of this initiative depends on two things, even if it be presumed that there would be no pre-conditions on the content and subjects of engagement. One is the internal dimension of gaining legitimacy locally by talking to the most alienated sections of society including not just Hurriyat but also some victims and angry youth. The other is the external dimension for which Pakistan’s entry becomes imperative. Sharma’s brief certainly does not include roping in Pakistan but a simultaneous process of amicable negotiations started by the Centre alone could give a major fillip to the internal dimension. The initiative, even if stemming from utmost sincerity and pragmatism, can be rendered infructuous in case Pakistan is kept out of the loop, both on account of dependence of some stake holders on Pakistan and the mischievous ability of Pakistan’s intelligence units to compete with their Indian counterparts in muddying the waters of Kashmir.

The other vulnerability that the initiative is exposed to is the lack of an enabling atmosphere for the interlocution. The Centre should back up the announcement with some minor concessions, if not major decisions, like introducing some outreach programme and genuine confidence building measures to bolster the initiative. The hazards of the situation in the Valley, the transformation of anger into venomous hatred and descent of chaos and radicalization are too acute for even the best of listeners to ably handle.

The end result of such an initiative started with utmost lack of clarity, at this juncture, cannot be predicted. But it may well be worthwhile to ask what the Centre has in mind – what result would it like to see and what inspired it in the first place. It may not be just uncanny that the timing of the announcement coincides with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to South Asia. American interests in the region make India a significant partner both in the American ambitions with respect to Afghanistan and China. In both, Pakistan is automatically hyphenated. US would like to court both India and Pakistan.

While the Kashmir question is necessitated by strategic concerns that are related to both questions, a political opening of the dispute leverages Pakistan with the high moral ground it needs for its domestic constituency as it gears up to act tougher on the terrorists operating on its soil and its sponsorship of terror across its eastern and northern borders. The surprise element in the recent Doklam controversy with Modi’s act of flexing muscles ending up in unexpected compromise with Beijing incidently coincided with the toning down of rhetoric on Kashmir. The international push is unmistakable.

Strategic experts have been labouring hard to connect the Centre’s olive branch to the crushing blow to militancy, reasoning that the ideal time for a healing process is when the armed insurgency has been controlled and people are battered. Facts, however, belie such claims. Though the armed forces, fighting a tough battle in Kashmir, are tirelessly killing militants in encounters, there is no evidence to show that such a strategy is effective in dissuading more young men from picking up arms or in leading to fatigue.

The militants have been responsible for some of the bloodiest attacks in recent months, effecting massive casualties on the side of security forces. The streets present the usual picture of hartals, curfews and pitched battles, though much less in intensity as compared to last year’s flare up and overall the Valley is descending into deeper chaos where penetration of a peace process itself becomes an extremely difficult job. Valley has been craving for a healing touch for long and delays have only ended up making the path to peace more difficult.

The good thing about a push from international players is that it increases the possibility of Pakistan’s involvement. The bad thing is that this may not stem from a cherished desire for peace. It is too premature to predict where this would go or if the interlocutor would be able to go any far at all. But for now, New Delhi’s talking mode opens a window of opportunity and there should be no harm engaging with this initiative imaginatively and creatively, despite the many ifs and buts. Too much of optimism must be blunted with a statutory warning. There is enough evidence to show that failure of this project would push the Valley into a far more dangerous vortex.


Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal is a senior journalist and Executive Editor of Kashmir Times

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