After Jail and then Cold Shoulder, Centre Plans All Party Meet to Reach Out to J&K Leaders

Top political sources told The Wire that the Prime Minister’s Office is believed to be piloting the ‘outreach’, and that the agenda will include a schedule for delimitation and assembly elections, as well as restoration of statehood.

Srinagar: New Delhi is planning to break the ice with the Kashmir-based political parties who have been on a war-path against the BJP-led Central government over the revocation of the erstwhile state’s special status.

Top political sources told The Wire that the Prime Minister’s Office is piloting an ‘outreach’ in which strong feelers have been sent to the constituent parties of the Gupkar alliance and other political outfits in Jammu and Kashmir.

Although the modalities for the ‘groundbreaking initiative’ are in the process of being finalised, sources said New Delhi is now inclined to resume political activities in Jammu and Kashmir, which will pave way for assembly elections. On the cards is an all-party meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi with the broad agenda of delimitation, assembly elections and restoration of statehood – stripped from J&K on August 5, 2019.

Asked by the The Wire about the latest developments, former Union minister and Member of Parliament, Dr Farooq Abdullah, who also heads the National Conference and the Gupkar alliance, refused to comment. “I have nothing to say,” he said and hung up the phone.

CPI(M) general secretary M.Y. Tarigami, who is the chief spokesperson of the alliance, told The Wire that the “onus of dialogue” with the political parties of Kashmir is on the Central government.

“Process of dialogue has been blocked (by the BJP’s Central government). We have been seeking audience with the prime minister since the day (August 4, 2019) the Gupkar Declaration was signed,” Tarigami said.

“Instead of allowing the meeting, we were put into jails. PAGD (Gupkar alliance) favours dialogue with those who matter in the Government of India,” he added.

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The alliance met at the Srinagar residence of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) chief Mehbooba Mufti on Wednesday, June 9, after a gap of more than six months. Farooq later told the media the door for negotiations with the Centre has not been shut.

“If they (Central government) want to meet us, we will take a decision at that time. We have not shut our doors,” he had said.

The erstwhile state was bifurcated and downgraded into two Union territories on August 5, 2019, a decision that put the parties like the National Conference and the PDP on a collision course with the Centre.

In the aftermath of the August 2019 move, the political uncertainty in Jammu and Kashmir has been accompanied by a sweeping crackdown on the activities of political parties, including raids against their leadership by the central investigative agencies.

NC president Farooq and PDP chief Mehbooba among others have been questioned in different cases by the Enforcement Directorate and other agencies. The external affairs ministry has also refused to renew Mehbooba’s passport, citing security reasons.

A senior National Conference leader said there is a “talk” in the party about the restoration of Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood. “But they say it will likely happen after the assembly elections are held,” he said, adding that the party is “preparing the ground for elections” which they hope the Centre will agree to hold by the end of this year.

Sources said the National Conference, which has been holding a flurry of meetings chaired by  Farooq Abdullah in the past couple of weeks, is also likely to join the proceedings of the Delimitation Commission set up last year to redraw the assembly constituencies as per the J&K Reorganisation Act 2019.

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The commission, headed by retired Supreme Court judge Ranjana Prakash Desai who got a one-year extension in March this year, has been tasked to increase the number of elected representatives in Jammu and Kashmir from 107 to 114.

There are fears that the delimitation exercise is an attempt to alter the internal demographic balance in Muslim-majority J&K to favour the Hindu-majority Jammu region, prompting the National Conference (NC) to boycott the commission’s proceedings so far.

“There has been a ‘change of heart’. Something is happening,” said a senior NC leader, who didn’t want to be named, “I believe the backchannel (with the Central government) is open, otherwise why would we host so many meetings in a row after lying in dormancy for months.”

According to the programme, the details of which have not been finalised yet, the NC leaders are likely to participate in the proceedings of the delimitation commission now. The commission will “expedite” its work for redrawing the constituencies and submit its report to the central government “at the earliest”.

Sources said once the delimitation commission has submitted its report and it is approved by the Centre, the Election Commission will announce the schedule for holding assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir, mostly likely by the end of this year or early next year.

“The elected lawmakers will then decide on the restoration of statehood for Jammu and Kashmir and other issues that have triggered fears of demographic change among the people,” said a source.

Speaking with The Wire, business tycoon turned politician Syed Altaf Bukhari said he has been seeking the restoration of statehood for Jammu and Kashmir since the inception of his Jammu Kashmir Apni Party last year.

“These parties (NC and PDP) have wasted the time of people of Jammu and Kashmir by selling them false dreams. It is time they realise their folly and wake up to the new reality,” Bukhari said.

Ghulam Hassan Mir, who recently joined Apni Party, said the prime minister will “definitely respond” if the political parties in J&K join hands for the restoration of statehood for Jammu and Kashmir.

“I hope good sense has prevailed on NC and PDP and the Central government will have to acknowledge that,” Mir, a former J&K minister and founding member of the PDP, said.

Former chief minister Omar Abdullah’s visit to the national capital earlier this month has added fuel to the speculations that the Central government might be preparing the ground for its announcement on J&K.

Omar, who is camping in the national capital, denied the rumours. “I am here for a cardio checkup,” he told The Wire. “Besides, my sister recently recovered from COVID-19 and I want to spend some time with her.”

Mir said there is a possibility of a meeting of the leadership of all political parties of Jammu and Kashmir with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “That can be one option but there are various possibilities,” he said.