The Only Answer to Kashmir is Dialogue, Not Aggression, Says Former RAW Chief

In an interview to The Wire, former R&AW chief A.S. Dulat talks about the need for communication and respect, the difference between Vajpayee and Modi's strategies, and more.

Kashmir has been under a state of curfew for more than a month now. Widespread protests in the Valley triggered by the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani highlight the anger many Kashmiris feel against the Indian state. While the Modi government’s ministers have only been pointing towards the role of Pakistan in fuelling the protests, the anguish in the Valley runs deep and carries historical baggage that New Delhi appears unwilling to acknowledge.

Although Kashmir has seen similar protests in 2008 and 2010, the intensity of the current resistance against the security forces can be gleaned by the fact that protests have unprecedentedly moved from city spaces to rural areas. Kashmiris across all ages and groups have voiced their support for the current protests, with children and teenagers leading from the front.

As the National Democratic Alliance is under attack from various opposition forces for its inability to understand and control the situation, the long-drawn curfew – now in its 50th day – and the resultant suspension of communication has not helped India’s case in Kashmir.

In this context, The Wire interviewed former Research and Analysis Wing chief A.S. Dulat to understand the crisis in Kashmir and possible resolutions. Dulat, who also was director of the Intelligence Bureau, has served in Kashmir for a long time. His most important tenure was between 2001 and 2004, when he was the advisor on Jammu and Kashmir in Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s office. Last year, his book Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, co-authored with senior journalist Aditya Sinha, created a lot of ripples as he became one of the few members of the Indian security and intelligence community to advocate a reduced military presence in Kashmir and to argue the need for India to build confidence amongst Kashmiris through humanitarian measures.

In this conversation, Dulat, while emphasising that Pakistan’s role is not the only catalyst for the crisis, talks about the need for the Indian government to start talking to separatist leaders in the Hurriyat Conference, Pakistan, and other important political players. He talks about how Vajpayee’s and Narendra Modi’s strategies on Kashmir are poles apart and elaborates on why Kashmiris warmed to Vajpayee. He stresses that India should engage in principled dialogue with people in the Valley instead of taking a naïve, aggressive line.

Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashta: Kashmir has been on the boil for the last few days, following the encounter death of Hizbul militant, Burhan Wani. This is not the first time that Kashmir is going through such a crisis, such unrest. How do you perceive these last few days of unrest and stone-pelting in Kashmir? There has been a lot of debate on pellet guns and the Indian government’s stand.

A.S. Dulat: See, unfortunately it’s not the last few days, it has been 45 or 46 days now and it’s been a very terrible time. There has been endless hartal on one side, a call given by the separatists, endless curfews as well. For the common people, it’s very bad. It’s like this, you know. This whole thing started with Burhan Wani’s killing. That was the catalyst but there was something under the surface waiting to happen and, as very often happens in Kashmir, everything changed overnight. It can change anytime and it changed with Wani’s killing and it took everybody by surprise. Even the J&K police was taken by surprise. They were not prepared for it and therefore, now, stories are being put up that it was an accident, it was not an operation, whatever it was. Whichever way, a militant is a militant and if he had to be killed, he was killed.

But the problem has been there for a while. Under the surface, there has been a lot of anger, hatred, alienation. Never before has it seemed so much in the open. Now, you have slogans put up: ‘Indian Dogs Go Back!’ It’s bad and the common Kashmiri is suffering. Now, I will relate all this, unfortunately, to this alliance, the BJP-PDP alliance. In the 2014 elections, the result was such that this was the only alliance which could work. It was a natural alliance, and [PDP leader] Mufti [Mohammed Sayeed] sahab, therefore, opted for it. As he said, it is an alliance between the North Pole and the South Pole. Everyone hoped that it would bring Jammu and Kashmir together.

What has happened in reality is that it has torn Jammu and Kashmir apart because the Kashmiris have been very apprehensive that the BJP and the RSS are gradually sneaking into the Valley. They are very sensitive to that because with that comes fears of the repeal of Article 370, that there may be a change in the demographic pattern of Kashmir and so on. So as long as Mufti sahab was there, he sort of managed it. He was an unhappy man because, I think, Delhi didn’t understand what was happening. And so he died an unhappy man.

Therefore, Mehbooba took three months before she could come on board. Now, Mehbooba is finding it much more difficult because Mufti sahab, all said and done, had seen the rough end of politics. He’d been through it, he knew how to deal with it. Mehbooba is finding it extremely tough and she is in a hole. 

You know, whenever anything goes wrong in Kashmir, Delhi is the first to be blamed and then come Delhi’s stooges, and today, Mehbooba’s the stooge. So, actually the PDP is losing ground; Mehbooba, I am sorry to say, is almost finished. There is a lot of rift within the PDP also, that’s one side of it. 

The other part has, of course, been Burhan Wani’s killing. That has been kind of this ding-dong battle, with whole villages and a whole lot of youngsters coming out. And the security forces. These boys come out, start pelting stones, how much can the security forces also take? So, there has been retaliation. And, maybe, at times, you know, it is very difficult to measure force and at times, excessive force has probably been used. When you kill 70 people and you injure 3,000, 300 of whom are blinded, you know, it’s not a good scene. So, that’s the way we are there in Kashmir.

The positive part of it is, Mehbooba said today that 95% of Kashmiris are against violence. I don’t know if it is 95%, but I will say that the overwhelming majority is against violence. The Kashmiri [mass] wants out, it wants peace. And really, along with Mehbooba, the Kashmiris find themselves in a hole, that, you know, look what’s happening to us. So, sometimes, out of extremely bad situations, like we are in today, there are huge opportunities. When Mehbooba came [to Delhi] last, a couple of weeks back, she suggested to the prime minister – that this may be an opportunity for starting a new wave in Kashmir. And I think the prime minister finally realised that [on August 22], when he met the opposition leaders from Kashmir, because he said we are prepared to talk to everybody. So, that’s where it stands.

As far as Vajpayee goes, you know, Vajpayee has become revered in the Valley. He has become a symbol of peace and understanding, and that’s what the Kashmiri looks for. When Modiji became prime minister, the Kashmiris were happy because it was the same party. The Mirwaiz actually congratulated Modiji and he said that we hope that the new NDA will follow the old NDA’s path. And Mufti sahab was on record, he said it repeatedly… during the last assembly elections, he said that, “The new government needs to follow Vajpayee’s way,” and he said that there is no other way, which meant dialogue. Now dialogue hasn’t happened.

Too long, we have been quite content with status quo. The status quo never helps us because all it requires is a little setback and then Pakistan is all over us. Pakistan has always been ready to fish in the troubled waters of Kashmir. Now, we have provided them an opportunity; so, what is happening is that Lashkar and Jaish are calling the shots. Even in protests organised by villagers or boys, there are Lashkar and Jaish militants leading the way. So, it’s a sad, sorry spectacle and South Kashmir looks particularly bad, at times it looks like it is a liberated zone. Even the army is not very comfortable going in there.

Now, a couple of days back, the army commander made what I thought was a extremely sensible and reasonable statement, he said we all need to get together and see how we can retrieve peace in Kashmir, and he included the separatists. And there was an  immediate and positive response from the Mirwaiz. He said that the government of India should hear what the army commander has said and he went on to say that if the Army can find a solution to Kashmir, we are prepared to talk to the army. Which means that even the Kashmiri separatists are ready to talk. And this is my belief, that the Kashmiris are always ready to talk, always willing to talk. So why are we not talking ?

AAM: South Kashmir has been the central ground for protest, which is also the support base of the PDP. So do you think that the PDP is losing ground during this unrest?

Dulat: Of course, of course. It’s losing ground. Let me try and explain. It comes back to the same thesis of mine that it is this BJP-PDP alliance which has angered the Kashmiris. And it has angered the Kashmiris most of all in the PDP’s heartland, because they blamed the PDP for it, they held Mufti sahab responsible. For Mufti sahab’s funeral, the turnout was very thin, considering that, in his own way, he was a big leader and Mehbooba… it took her a long time to get over that shock. She won the last by election by a very comfortable majority and, now this is what is happening in South Kashmir.

Let me just add because today I read the RSS guru or chief’s statement in which he again referred to Vajpayee. The interesting thing that I find is that the BJP and now even the RSS reverts to Vajpayee whenever convenient but they don’t actually follow Vajpayee’s way. That is the catch. Even Modiji has evoked Vajpayee from time to time. He did so after Mehbooba came here and somewhere in Madhya Pradesh, he said that yes, we have to follow Vajpayee. So Vajpayee comes out, but he’s not followed, unfortunately. And I think, we need to follow… he had shown a way and we need to follow that. That was followed by Dr. Manmohan Singh who, as he said when he was demitting office, he had almost reached a solution with Pakistan. So, we need to go back to that. Unfortunately, Vajpayeeji is in very, very poor health, but Manmohan Singh is around and he should be consulted and talked to, you know. He’s been through it all and likewise, Kashmiri leaders need to be, all the time, kept engaged. I would never stop talking to someone like Dr Farooq Abdullah. He’s been chief minister there three times. He’s the tallest of the Kashmiri leaders and, by far, the most nationalist. So, what is the problem?

AAM: The general impression in Delhi is that the BJP is not consistent with it’s position on Kashmir.

Dulat: Yes, let’s talk about consistency. Consistency…let me try and explain this slightly differently. All this while, when Pakistan was messing about in Kashmir, we used to say, let’s not talk about how many boys come in and how many boys go out… these infiltration figures, beyond a point, are quite meaningless. Aap bataein aapki niyat kya hai? What are your intentions? Now, today, we are in such a sad situation that the Kashmiris are asking: Delhi ki niyat kya hai? (What are Delhi’s intentions?) So, I think, that is where some explanation is required. And am glad that the prime minister said yesterday that we are prepared to talk to everybody. The army commander has said this 2-3 days ago and yestertday, the prime minister has said it. So, let’s hope they follow up on this.

AAM: Talking to everybody who was involved mean talking to different groups which are also pro-Pakistan and Rajnath Singh has also said in Parliament that they won’t talk to Pakistan unless and until they talk on terror in Kashmir, so, in that case, despite Mr. Modi saying…

Dulat: See, first of all, this label of pro-Pakistan…when things are bad, everyone becomes pro-Pakistan. The Hurriyat is pro-Pakistan. The BJP has a very short memory. The same Hurriyat when it was talking to the government of India was labelled in Kashmir as Advani Hurriyat. Now, you call them as pro-Pakistan, so where is the connect ? This comes out of our lack of confidence. We have to talk to Pakistan. We have raised Balochistan now, fine, talk Balochistan if you want to. But the problem lies in Kashmir, when we have to talk Kashmir with Pakistan.

AAM: Outside Kashmir, the impression that the present dispensation is giving is that the unrest is all because of Pakistan and that Pakistan is sponsoring most of these youth, the unrest. What do you think about that?

Dulat: I already told you that this whole thing was totally indigenous. It started that way and Pakistan will always take advantage.

AAM: So, from here, how do you expect Modi government to move forward?

Dulat: I think what Modiji has said yesterday, that they are prepared to talk to everybody.

AAM: What should be the immediate steps?

Dulat: If you want to follow the Vajpayee way, you should make an announcement that we are ready to talk to, let’s say, the Hurriyat, and assign the job to Rajnath Singh, as Vajpayee did to Advani. So, let Rajnath Singh talk to the separatists.

You know, there’s something very interesting that has happened yesterday after a long time, Mehbooba has broken her maun vrat. She wasn’t uttering a word and you know what’s it been provoked by? It’s been provoked by the opposition coming here and meeting the prime minister, and you know, getting some satisfaction out of that meeting. So, then she also starts talking. I think the process is already on of talking. We need to carry that forward.

AAM: How do you see India-Pakistan relations moving on from here?

Dulat: See, India-Pakistan relations are always on-off, off-on. My own gut feeling says that there will be talks with Pakistan. I am not talking here about Kashmir. Let’s leave Kashmir apart for a moment. I am sure talks with Pakistan will be resumed, maybe we are already talking to Pakistan. I had suggested the other day also that I think the best way…of course the foreign secretaries need to meet because that is the open way, but there is a back channel that has been going on and it’s been a good back channel, an effective back channel, between the NSAs (national security advisors). I think they still talk. If you recall, after the Pathankot happened, the Pakistan NSA supplied information to our NSA about some militants coming in here via Gujarat and some of those militants were also nabbed. So, there is so much scope for corporation once we start cooperating.

AAM: Vajpayee is a revered figure and you also talked in detail about how Vajpayee felt about it. What are the differences you see between the present Modi regime and the Vajpayee government? Could you point out a few strategic factors?

Dulat: See, what Vajpayee said, I don’t expect anyone to say now in a hurry. But you know when he was asked this question, very provocative question as he was leaving the Srinagar airport once, suddenly an impromptu press conference was arranged for him by the chief minister and one of the questions was that, you are talking about talks but will this be within the constitution? And he said “Hum constitutions ki baat kyun karte hain? Hum insaniyat ke daayre mein baat karte hain” (Why do we talk about constitutions? We talk within the bounds humanity). And that floored the Kashmiris. Every Kashmiri knows, now that you have raised this point, every Kashmiri knows that when you are talking to the government of india, can it be outside the constitution? Would the home minister or prime minister of India talk outside the constitution? But why do we have to rub that in? Why do we have to say it? Because it is offensive to the Kashmiris, why do we have to say it?

So that is where Vajpayee found the way out… insaniyat ke daayre mein baat karte haininsaniyat, jamuriyat, kashmiriyat. And then when he went back in 2003, which made the Kashmiris even more happy, at this public meeting he said, I have tried engagement with Pakistan twice and Pakistan has let me down twice. Kargil happened and then the attack on parliament happened in between his efforts to talk. But he said I have not given up hope, I am going to try once more. And that is what took Prime Minister Vajpayee to Islamabad for the SAARC Summit. The Kashmiris went delirious with joy, because to the Kashmiris, and that is where the India-Pakistan talks are crucial, they feel that if India and Pakistan are talking, then we won’t get hammered. Because they feel that the are hammered from both sides. And today, they hate India as much as they hate Pakistan, or vice-versa.

AAM: So, with this diplomatic narrative between India and Pakistan, there is a constant push for the azadi voice.

Dulat: See, the most provocative thing from Delhi’s point of view is the Pakistani flag which is coming in. Now, these are not boys who want to go to Pakistan. This comes out of frustration, anger, hopelessness. So, why do we want to make the Kashmiris feel hopeless? And then you find these youngsters saying we want to become suicide bombers.

And this question of azadi…let’s go back to 1947, for instance, like Mr Chidambaram suggested recently that it’s necessary we go back to 1947. We have come such a long way forward. Although the Kashmiri talks of (19)53, he knows nobody is going to go back to 53. The Musharraf four point formula which was acceptable to all the Kashmiris, including the separatists was this. It was peace on the line of control, with going and coming and open borders and more interaction between the two Kashmirs, trade, armies pulled back. That’s what the four point formula was. Where is the azadi in that? And the Kashmiris were very happy with it, the separatists were very happy with it. Even today they say, Woh theek hai (That is fine). So I say for engaging with Pakistan, although Pakistan has disowned Musharraf and the four point formula, but realities can’t be disowned. I still maintain that the best way to engage with Pakistan on Kashmir, if Pakistan is serious…let’s open that chapter and go back again. Dr. Manmohan Singh will tell you everything about it.

AAM: But both the states do not address the azadi question there at all…

Dulat: There is no azadi question to my mind… the azadi question only comes up in the street.

AAM: And what about the call from political players?

Dulat: As I said, when the Hurriyat….it’s out of anger, please. Today, the Kashmiri wants only azadi, the boys on the street, the streets want azadi today. There is so much anger there and as Omar Abdullah said a few days ago, anger is only alive because we are not addressing the anger, and it will stay alive. That’s what he said.

AAM: You have to build confidence among Kashmiris…

Dulat: Please, please, please let’s start talking.

AAM: So how do we do that? Especially after using excessive military force, as you said.

Dulat: I am not saying excessive force always, I am saying there are times when force becomes excessive. You know, when you get surrounded by a whole mob or something and somebody let’s fly. 

Dulat: Right now, has the situation come when India can pull out a bit of military forces there?

Dulat: That is the question of AFSPA, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. You know that Omar had asked that AFSPA should be removed from a district and half, and the UPA government thought about it but didn’t do it. Now, my question is that this is not the…you can hardly expect that when things are so bad that the army can pull back, but in due course, why not.

AAM: How do you see the future of the PDP-BJP alliance?

Dulat: There is no option at this point of time, like there was no option in March 2015, there is no option today also. You have to go with Mehbooba but please support her, support her fully and listen to her voice. Not what you want her to say but what she actually feels.

AAM: In terms of building confidence, how do you see Kashmiris relying on the Modi government when his party outside Kashmir is constantly talking of the withdrawal of Article 370?

Dulat: See, 370 is a lot of rubbish you know, because there is nothing very much left in 370, just a fig leaf. So why would we want to do that?

AAM: But, outside Kashmir, people are not aware of it.

Dulat: Bottom line is we don’t touch 370. Please don’t. And please don’t give Kashmiris the impression that you want to meddle with their special status. Leave it.

AAM: Immediately, how do you see the crisis diffused?

Dulat: I told you, I told you…Let the home minister invite the Hurriyat for talks.

AAM: Only the Hurriyat?

Dulat: I would start with the Hurriyat. It will give the impression that we are prepared to talk to everyone. The prime minister has just spoken to the opposition, now let’s talk to the Hurriyat.

AAM: And that is what will give strength to India?

Dulat: It’s a way of starting. My way of starting.

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