Kashmiris Sees Modi's Invitation as Climbdown But Absence of Agenda Leaves Valley Leaders Wary

With Modi holding all cards, from delimitation to elections and restoration of statehood, the Valley's leaders, who want restoration of special constitutional status, wonder what the purpose of his interaction with them really is.

Srinagar: The lack of an agenda for the all-party meeting on Jammu and Kashmir to be chaired by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on June 24 has left mainstream parties and leaders in the Valley with a lot of guesswork to do.

Is the planned meeting just optics? Or is it aimed at appeasing the Biden administration, which this week publicly said that it has urged the Modi government to “return to normalcy as quickly as possible”? Does it represent an acknowledgment of the Centre’s lack of progress in delivering on all the promises it made in the wake of the scrapping of J&K’s autonomy and statehood? Or is it a trap to discredit the parties – which are finally beginning to find their political feet in the Valley’s new political terrain?

These are some of the questions swirling around in the wake of Modi’s invitation.

“It has been conveyed to us that the prime minister intends to chair an all-party meeting on J&K but we don’t know the agenda of the meeting yet,” said M.Y. Tarigami, spokesperson of the Gupkar alliance headed by Farooq Abdullah.

Abdullah had said earlier that the alliance has “not shut our doors” for talks with the Central government.

While informal feelers were sent out last week – The Wire broke the story about Modi’s initiative on June 11 – Union home secretary A.K. Bhalla has now reached out to the top leadership of 14 political parties in Jammu and Kashmir to invite them for next week’s meeting in the national capital.

The all-party meet is now set for 3 pm on Thursday at the prime minister’s Racecourse Road residence.

Tarigami said the Gupkar alliance, an amalgam of five to six political parties based in Kashmir who oppose the ending of J&K’s special constitutional status (via the reading down of Article 370 on August 5, 2019), will take a decision on participation after their own deliberations, the date for which has not been finalised yet.

“The first step is to discuss the offer within ourselves. We will evolve our approach and we expect that whatever wrong has been committed will be rectified,” Tarigami said.

Mehbooba Mufti, president of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which is a constituent of the Gupkar alliance, said that although she too has been invited, her party remains undecided on attending the meeting.

“We haven’t decided on the participation yet,” Mehbooba told The Wire. The PDP has called a meeting of its political affairs committee, the party’s highest decision making body, on Sunday, “The decision will be taken after the meeting,” a top PDP leader said.

Extending an olive branch towards the PDP, the J&K administration released Mehbooba’s uncle, Sartaj Madni, from custody, a day after the party’s youth president Waheed Parra was shifted from Srinagar to Jammu.

The PDP chief welcomed Madni’s release. “Relieved that PDPs Sartaj Madni has finally been released after 6 months of wrongful detention. Its high time that GOI releases political prisoners & other detainees rotting in jails in & outside J&K. A raging pandemic should’ve been reason enough to free them,” she tweeted.

“Absence of agenda”

A senior leader of the National Conference, who didn’t want to be named, said the absence of an agenda for the all-party meeting with Modi was “baffling”. He said speculation over the restoration of J&K’s statehood being one of the agenda items “doesn’t make sense”. Echoing this reading, another leader – a former minister who is today unaffiliated with any party – told The Wire: “It is imperative that the Government of India respect its own announcement made on the floor of parliament for giving J&K back its status as a state.” He added that political leaders had no role or say in the matter.

Reacting to speculation that the Centre was planning to hold assembly elections in J&K and that this was the reason the meeting has been called, the NC leader said the law doesn’t stop the Central government from finishing the delimitation exercise and announcing election dates.

“If we were not consulted when the District Development Council (DDC)  polls were held last year, why now?” he said.

“If the [all party meeting with Modi] is to discuss the holding of assembly elections in J&K then I don’t see this as a justification for it because of the fact that DDC elections have been conducted last year in which all political parties participated ,including the parties which are part of the Gupkar amalgam,  and people also came out to vote,” said the former minister. “Is an all-party meeting needed to hold assembly elections?”

The DDC polls, which concluded in December with the election of DDC chairpersons, saw the business tycoon Altaf Bukhari’s J&K Apni Party, a BJP ally, wresting control of Srinagar district.

Peoples Conference led by Sajad Lone won two key districts in north Kashmir. The polls were marred by charges of horse trading and threats being used for influencing the elected DDC members to change their political affiliations.

According to observers, the all-party meeting is an “admission” by the Modi government that it has “failed” in normalising the political situation in Kashmir in the aftermath of the de facto scrapping of Article 370.

“From a position where these parties were sidelined, it looks like an admission that they (the NC and PDP) are relevant and the plans (of the BJP government) may have possibly failed,” said Prof Noor A. Baba, political scientist and former dean of social sciences at Kashmir University.

Wide gap

Tarigami said the Gupkar alliance came into existence with the agenda of “undoing the injustice meted out to the people of Jammu and Kashmir”. He said there are “grave concerns about the plight of people in J&K including in Ladakh” which was part of the erstwhile state.

“It is the government of India which has to make the offer. We expect the sky but will they allow us to get there?” he said.

Prof Baba said there are “wide gaps in perspectives on Kashmir” between the mainstream political parties, most of whom want restoration of Article 370, and New Delhi for whom the August 2019 decision has been carved in stone.

“Is Delhi willing to negotiate its position? What are they going to concede? What will the National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party concede? The message so far is that there will be no repeal of the Article 370 abrogation,” he said.

Sheikh Showkat, a former law professor at the Central University of Kashmir, said that amid the economic crisis in India, the BJP-led centre is “desperate to normalise the political situation” in Jammu and Kashmir.

“The Article 370 move has not worked in accordance with the estimation of the BJP government. Kashmir has got internationalised and New Delhi has realised that those perceived as ‘future leaders’ are incapable of delivering on the ground,” he said.

“Strategic pressure”

After J&K lost its special status, the BJP’s central leaders, including the prime minister and the Union home minister, have been vilifying the NC and the PDP, the two main constituents of the Gupkar alliance, as “dynastic parties” involved in self-serving politics.

Both Farooq Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, along with other NC and PDP leaders, have been questioned by  Central agencies on charges of financial mismanagement. Earlier, they were detained for lengthy periods, along with dozens of mainstream political leaders, under the draconian Public Safety Act. Mufti was recently also  denied a passport on the grounds that issuing her a travel document would be “detrimental” to India’s security,

“Asking them to attend the all-party meeting on Jammu and Kashmir is an admission of defeat by the BJP,” said another political observer, who didn’t want to be named.

Showkat said the political uncertainty in J&K where the security situation continues to remain fragile, and the “hasty retreat” of the US troops from Afghanistan, has brought India under “international and strategic pressure”

“The Chinese threat along the Line of Actual Control is making the situation difficult for New Delhi,” Baba said.

“India requires the support of the West to keep China in check. But the western countries have their own terms and conditions for extending support to other states depending on their human rights record and the state of democracy,” he said.

“For strategic reasons, the West won’t want Pakistan to become completely wedded to China and this has put New Delhi in a bind,” Prof Baba added.

‘Significant’ move

Terming the all-party meeting as a positive development, Tarigami said New Delhi had lost contact with most leaders of J&K’s mainstream camp.

“We don’t know the agenda of the meeting but it is significant nevertheless. After a long lull, the Government of India is attempting to reach out to us,” he said.

“If the meeting is beyond statehood and (early) assembly elections, we will have to wait and see,” the National Conference leader quoted above said. “Our party continues to welcome and support any dialogue aimed for the betterment of Jammu and Kashmir,” he added.