Kashmir Needs Dialogue but is Modi Really up to the Task?

Kashmiris must see the rule of law prevail once more in India before they can start believing that it will also prevail in Kashmir.

Women leave a hospital in Srinagar. Credit: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton/Files

Women leave a hospital in Srinagar. Credit: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton/Files

On August 22, 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met a visiting delegation of Kashmiri opposition parties led by Omar Abdullah and unequivocally stated that dialogue was “a must” for bringing an end to the (then) weeks-long unrest. He added that “We need to find a permanent and lasting solution to the problem within the framework of the constitution”. It has taken the government eight months to even broach the subject again.

Even Rajnath Singh’s present concession is so grudging that few, in Kashmir or Delhi, are convinced of its sincerity. For when told by the Jammu and Kashmir governor N.N. Vohra that dismissing the PDP government and imposing governor’s rule will serve no purpose, all that he was able to concede was that the government would talk to the mainstream political parties first. A dialogue with the separatists could perhaps follow “at a later date”.

Who does the government think will believe in the sincerity of an offer so hedged with caveats? If a dialogue with mainstream parties is possible now, why was it not possible during the winter months, when a measure of calm had returned to the Valley? Why did Modi not utter a single word about his promise for eight long months? Why did Modi refuse even to meet former BJP foreign and finance minister Yashwant Sinha when he returned from a visit to the Valley in October?

When chief minister Mehbooba Mufti virtually begged him in writing to postpone the Srinagar and Anantnag by-elections, why did Modi not listen? When Mehbooba rushed to Delhi after the carnage in Srinagar to warn Modi and Singh that the government had at most two to three month to start a dialogue before Kashmir slid into another uprising, why did both of them dismiss her, saying that there was no question of holding any talks with the ‘separatists’?

The plain truth is that in eight long months, Modi has done nothing that will convince any Kashmiri that he intends to use anything but force to crush the Kashmiri demand for azadi, let alone meet it halfway.

This conviction has grown as Delhi has reneged on each and every commitment it made in its agenda for an alliance with the PDP and has been reinforced by the rank communalism of the Modi government’s rule in the past three years. At a time when Kashmiris are fighting to increase their political space within the Indian union, the BJP government has been squeezing the political space in India by relentlessly attacking its political opponents, using every means, fair or foul, to harass and intimidate them.

Kashmiris opted to belong to a secular India in 1947 and did not doubt the commitment of the Indian union to this ideal for two-thirds of a century. Today they see the RSS launching a systematic attack on Indian pluralism and secularism through a dozen shadow organisations, while Modi plays Nelson on the deck of a rapidly overheating India. They see gau rakshaks and a score of other vigilante groups attacking Muslim families, Muslim occupations and Muslim livelihoods. They see the law being bent and investigative procedures being abused to harass the BJP’s political opponents with false arrests, insults, torture and beatings during prolonged incarceration in police lock-ups, while the police either connive or look on.

And they see the perpetrators being allowed to go scot-free to create mayhem again. How can they possibly believe that this government, and in particular this prime minister, will do a 180-degree turn and start negotiating a new compact with Kashmiri Muslims now?

The unvarnished truth is that not a single Kashmiri has the slightest confidence in what Modi says. All of them firmly believe that he is using the promise of talks to stall for time, as he did last August. So the first task before the government, if it has finally woken up to the peril that it has put India in, is to rebuild confidence in India’s commitment to religious pluralism in Kashmir.

Kashmiris must see the rule of law prevail once more in India before they can start believing that it will also prevail in Kashmir. They must hear Modi condemn every vigilante action committed in the name of Hinduism and ask the states to prosecute the perpetrators with the maximum severity of the law. A good place to start would be to punish self-appointed protectors of the cow, of Hindu women against a so-called ‘love jihad’ and the half dozen other miserable excuses that the RSS has used to justify the lawlessness of its storm troopers in the past three years.

Steps in Kashmir

In Kashmir, the first essential step is to declare a unilateral ceasefire, similar to the one Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced in December 2000. This should be followed by releasing the hundreds of very young stone pelters who have been arrested and dropping all charges against those who have been arrested in the past so that they can live without fear once again.

But all this will only create the atmosphere in which talks can be resumed. For a meaningful dialogue, there must be a dialogue partner and clearly-defined issues to discuss. Finding the former will not be easy because, by publicly humiliating the Hurriyat in August 2014 and categorically refusing to talk with them after that, Modi has come very close to making them irrelevant.

This was made clear by the July uprising last year that was led by youth in their early teens who disobeyed and occasionally threatened their own parents and openly ridiculed the leaders of the Hurriyat as spineless old men. Despite this, by bringing the three main separatist leaders together, the police crackdown that followed did create a leadership that now enjoys a good measure of trust in the Valley.

If Delhi is serious, it will limit the dialogue to the people who have the capacity to deliver on the commitments they make at the conference table. Although badly tarnished by their subordination to Delhi, the PDP and National Conference also retain a substantial measure of support.

There are also respected individuals like Yusuf Tarigami and Engineer Rashid, whose influence does not lie in the numbers they command, but the courage and sanity they represent. These are the people Delhi should talk to if it wants to create a Kashmiri dialogue partner whom the people will listen to.

What Delhi must not do under any circumstances is to play the mainstream parties off against the separatists, as every government has done for the past 21 years. Nor must it drown their voices in those from parts of the state that are not affected by the insurgency and of interest groups like traders, houseboat owners, hoteliers and transporters, as has happened earlier.

Delhi will need to consult all stakeholders in the entire state, as indeed will the ‘separatists’. But trying to do this around a single table will reduce the dialogue to a babble of voices. Any attempt to do so in the name of inclusiveness will be seen as a sign of bad faith and scuttle the talks even before they begin.

Creating a dialogue partner is only one part of the challenge. Deciding what to talk about is the second. There have been discussions through both formal and back channels ever since the early days of the insurgency of the 1990s. But so far they have yielded nothing, because while Pakistan has terrorised Hurriyat into boycotting every election by assassinating its key leaders or close relatives, the National Conference has used its long association with Delhi to convince every government that the ‘separatists’ are only a small fringe in Kashmir and, being in the pay of Pakistan, do not, in any case, have minds of their own.

Kashmiri nationalists have therefore been caught between a rock and a hard place ever since the end of the insurgency of the 1990s. Today, no one will agree to a dialogue unless there is a prior offer from Delhi that no Kashmiri would want them to ignore. The only offer that can fit this bill is a public commitment by Delhi to renegotiate Kashmir’s relationship with Delhi on the basis of the Instrument of Accession and the Delhi Agreement of 1952.

Between them, these have integrated Jammu and Kashmir into India in defence, foreign policy, finance, communications, the economy, the market and the educational system. It is in the details of government that the creeping erosion of Kashmiri autonomy has taken place. The chief cause is the imposition of what is virtually police rule on the Valley by administrative fiat. That has happened mainly in the Valley because it is there that Delhi has been pressured by Pakistani propaganda and intervention into not trusting the Kashmiris.

Therefore, the core issue today, that only a dialogue can resolve, is how to create a political system within Jammu and Kashmir that entrusts the government of Kashmir to the Kashmiris and only the Kashmiris, without taking anything away from the people of Jammu and Ladakh. This is one that only the people of Jammu and Kashmir can resolve.

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  • Siddhartha

    Reasonable folks would agree with the author that dialogue and political will are the two necessary conditions for any step forward in resolving a complex issue like Kashmir, but are those sufficient conditions too. The real challenge today is in figuring out who are the credible stakeholders to sit around the negotiating table. Credibiity and responsibility is bestowed on those who take real ownership. The all party delegation who visited the Valley last year were shooed away by Hurriyat leaders whose interests they were representing in Delhi. Engineer Rashid, a “respected individual” according to the author inspires very little confidence as a regular in the shouting brigade, and typically contributes more heat than light. The PDP and NC are unable to align their views on a coherent vision for the future, and are more interested in undercutting each other. The Congress misses no opportunity to take potshots at the BJP, and accuses it of doing “Khoon ki Dalali”. Ram Madhav’s remark “everything is fair in love and war” is in poor taste given the inflamed situation. So the perpetual “Game of Thrones” continues while the Valley burns. Perhaps the author can be the mediator as he appears to have all the answers, and can put his theory to practice.