Now is the Time for Political Dialogue Towards a Lasting Solution in Kashmir

The government should hold multiple rounds of talks, engage with experts on the possible solutions already laid out and be ready to work with Pakistan.

Curfew in Kashmir. Credit: Shome Basu

Curfew in Kashmir. Credit: Shome Basu

Most commentators have dismissed the all-party delegation’s recent visit to Jammu and Kashmir as a damp squib. There is no doubt that it achieved less than hoped for. But given the agonisingly prolonged suffering caused by the current unrest and the terribly polarised climate in which it is taking place, even the modest beginning made by the delegation is something.

Though only five members of the delegation made an effort to meet the ‘united resistance’ – as the two Hurriyats and Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) are now named – they did meet four of the five dissident leaders they called upon. True, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Yasin Malik and Syed Ali Shah Geelani were in police custody at the time, and them as well as Abdul Gani Bhat said their groups had taken a joint decision not to engage in talks until the mandate of their interlocutors was clear. But, contrary to some media conclusions, that actually leaves the door open for talks, especially given the all-party delegation’s resolution on September 7 that calls on the government to initiate talks with ‘all stakeholders.’ Indeed, that there is some scope for talks was made clear by Bhat on September 8, in an interview given to The Tribune, “Given the political environment and economic developments around, we cannot afford to assume a harder attitude. We have to be flexible.”

There is no certainty as yet that the government will follow up on the suggestions. BJP spokespersons are vociferous that talks can only be held “in the ambit of the constitution,” while all groups of dissidents say they will not talk within such an ambit. In both cases the condition is meaningless, as Bhat also points out, since the ambit of the constitution is far wider than most appreciate and no government can make a lasting agreement that is not subsequently enshrined in the constitution, if necessary through an amendment (of which we have over 100 already).

Ironically, it is – or was – the BJP that wants to change the constitution by abrogating Article 370. Can we hope that their new insistence on talks ‘within’ the constitution indicates they would be willing to take Article 370 as the bottom line?

In any case, the delegation’s resolution does not lay down any preconditions for talks. When minister of state for prime minister’s office Jitendra Singh was pressed on the issue of talks with ‘separatists’ he simply said that ‘all stakeholders’ means all stakeholders. If past practice is anything to go by, the likelihood that the government will ignore an all-party resolution is low. We should therefore expect some efforts to get talks going with those dissident groups that may be willing, such as the Hurriyat M and JKLF, and have engaged in talks earlier.

Possible alternatives

Irrespective of whether they control the streets or not, if Hurriyat and/or JKLF leaders began talks with the government of India, there would be a positive impact in the Valley. There have already been edits and op-eds in Kashmiri papers following the delegation’s resolution and the five parliamentarians’ initiative, urging dissidents to respond to the parliamentarians’ offer for talks. An influential group of retired civil servants from Jammu and Kashmir has written to the president to “implore and beseech Your Excellency, to impress upon the government of India to initiate and announce direct, immediate, purposeful and result oriented dialogue with all the stakeholders especially those with whom such dialogue has been held in 2004 and 2007 for a lasting solution of ‘Kashmir Dispute’ within a reasonable time frame.”

Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti has welcomed the delegation’s September 7 resolution and called for an institutionalised mechanism for dialogue. What could such a mechanism comprise? The government could take the path well trodden, appoint an interlocutor or even a group of interlocutors such as ours was. But the interlocutor mechanism has lost much of its credibility, given the failure of government to deliver on recommendations. The government could instead appoint a serving officer for talks, as was done with the Nagas; though in that case, more than 17 years of continuous groundwork had already been done.

A third feasible alternative was proposed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), for the government to form a committee of parliamentarians who would engage with all the stakeholders with the purpose of arriving at a lasting political solution. Such a committee would be answerable both to the government and to parliament; it would have the advantage of ruling coalition as well as opposition members working together.

A great deal of work has already been done on possible political solutions, from the Justice Saghir report to our own exploration as interlocutors, which analysed existing proposals from the National Conference’s Autonomy Commission to the People’s Democratic Party’s self-rule, Sajjad Lone’s ‘achievable nationhood’, JKLF and Hurriyat statements, views from Jammu and Ladakh as well as sectoral and community concerns, and the framework that emerged from the Aziz-Lambah back channel. We found significant similarities between many of the proposals that can be built on, as well as significant differences that would require narrowing.

Our exercise, of course, was conducted six years ago and would require updating to the present situation, but a parliamentarians’ committee – or whichever mechanism is decided upon – would be able to start with an already existing base of work. It could be assisted by a group of constitutional experts, as suggested in our report.

Different types of dialogue needed

We need, however, to distinguish between two types of dialogue, both of which are urgently needed. The first is with the dissidents in the Valley, who have already suffered two months of violence and curfew. This would cover immediate confidence-building measures and trust building between the government and dissidents; it would also explore options for a lasting political solution.

When it comes to a lasting political solution, however, the stakeholders are a much wider group that includes representatives of all regions and political parties of the state, refugees and those in exile, as well as special interest groups such as SCs and STs, who would need to be on board with the solution. Again, some of the work in canvassing this range of views and concerns has already been done, both in our and earlier reports and at the Track II level, so a dialogue with them could again take forward the process.

Ideally the ‘all stakeholder’ dialogue should follow the dissidents’ dialogue, though the former will have to anchor the latter. Atal Behari Vajpayee began with dialogue with the Hurriyat, whereas we as interlocutors in 2010-11 spoke to all stakeholders except the Hurriyat. They were reluctant to agree to a dialogue at the time, even at the prime ministerial or ministerial level. I believed then and continue to believe that they made a costly mistake – by late 2011 a window had been created, with wide support on the ground for dialogue towards a lasting solution. The then home minister would have been glad to have had a direct dialogue with the Hurriyat, JKLF and other dissident leaders, but they hesitated and the window closed.

I am one of those who believe that no solution will be lasting until it applies to all parts of the former princely state. This involves talks with Pakistan, since that country controls a large part of what was Jammu and Kashmir, including a chunk of divided Jammu and Gilgit-Baltistan. In 2004-7, civil society in Pakistani-held Jammu and Kashmir played an important role in pushing the civil-military establishment to make progress in the back channel.

Unfortunately, there appear to be only a few sane voices in Pakistan today who advocate cooperation for peace or at least non-interference, such as Ayaz Amir or Ashraf Qazi. The Pakistan government is in absolute support, if not direct incitement of anger in the Valley; and our government is now in counter-offensive mode. Sooner or later, both know, they will have to find a means of working together if internal instability and cross-border terrorism are to end.

Realistically, alas, there are few reasons to believe this can happen soon. Despite reports that the Pakistan government were beginning to tackle Punjab-based radical groups, the initiative was limited. Hafiz Saeed is openly calling for jihad against India, again. International pressure could bring Pakistan off its high horse, but not if India is seen to drum it up. Are we up to the challenge?

While Pakistan may be essential to a lasting solution for the whole of the former princely state, there are immediate steps that we need to take in Jammu and Kashmir. Members of the all-party delegation asked that the government announce no more use of pellet guns, compensation and rehabilitation for victims of the past two months’ clashes and several other measures. The state government is creaking back to work. These tasks would be immensely eased if a political dialogue, towards a lasting solution, were to begin.

Radha Kumar is a writer and analyst who was one of the government of India’s group of interlocutors in 2010-11.

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