Does Modi’s Meeting With Jammu and Kashmir Parties Signal a Thaw or a Trap?

Beyond the atmospherics, there appears to have been little to welcome. The prime minister stressed the urgency of completing the delimitation exercise and holding elections but did not agree to return J&K to statehood first.

Finally, the ice has been broken. The first meeting – since August 2019 – between the Modi administration and political leaders from Jammu and Kashmir took place on June 24. All attendees agreed that it was a cordial meeting and each participant spoke his or her mind.

A thaw, then? Well, that is not so clear. Beyond the atmospherics, there appears to have been little to welcome. The prime minister stressed the urgency of completing the delimitation exercise and holding elections but did not agree to return Jammu and Kashmir to statehood first. In other words, the six parties that comprise the People’s Alliance for the Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) will have to accept Union Territory (UT) status and participate in elections for an assembly with severely restricted legislative rights. And, if they win the elections, they must form a government with very limited authority.

By laying out these first two steps, the Modi administration has put the PAGD in a cleft stick. Two of the parties in the PAGD, the National Conference and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), are in the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the 2019 reorganisation Act that nullified Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood and created two UTs. If they accept the prime minister’s roadmap, they will be abandoning their position, and their credibility will be further shredded. If they reject it, they leave the field open for the BJP and its allied parties’ candidates to be elected unopposed.

In fact, the People’s Conference too has challenged the Act. Whether the party will now downplay the challenge is unclear, but seems likely judging from party president Sajad Lone’s guarded comments after the meeting.

Having demanded the restoration of statehood, the Congress will also face the dilemma of whether to participate in UT elections. But it is not so grave an issue for them since those in Jammu and Kashmir who vote for the Congress do not do so on regional issues, but because they see it as the most acceptable national party.

What do the PAGD and similar parties get in return? The rather vague promise of statehood to follow. But there is no timeline for statehood, unlike the first two steps. Delimitation, Modi said, should be completed soon, and elections will be held after that. That could mean later this year, or spring next year. There is no such assurance about statehood, which, according to home minister Amit Shah, will be restored in “due course”. That is a statement he has repeated periodically over the past year and more, ‘due course’ always translating into a negative evaluation of the volatile security situation.

According to the Army spokesmen, however, the security situation has much improved since the Indian and Pakistani directors-general of military operations announced a ceasefire along the Jammu and Kashmir borders on February 25, 2021. Statehood before elections would be a major confidence-builder that would incentivise Pakistan to maintain the ceasefire and control infiltration. This would, in turn, allow for the security situation to keep improving. There is, thus, good reason to start negotiating statehood with the Jammu and Kashmir parties on a priority footing. And there is no reason why these negotiations cannot be in parallel to the delimitation commission’s work.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with J&K leaders and other senior leaders at an all-party meeting, in New Delhi, on June 24, 2021. Photo: Twitter@PMOIndia

A guideline has already been given by some participants, such as Omar Abdullah and Ghulam Nabi Azad, that the structure and powers of statehood must be the same as those of any other state in India, including restoration of the state cadre. Whether Abdullah spoke for his party is not clear, since it would mean giving up the Jammu and Kashmir constitution, at least temporarily.

The issue of the Jammu and Kashmir constitution relates to Article 370, which the prime minister and members of his administration said could not be discussed since the issue was sub-judice. (Full disclosure: I am one of the petitioners challenging the August 2019 actions in the Supreme Court.) But how can it be sub-judice to discuss policies that are being challenged in court, and that too behind closed doors? Surely, the Supreme Court judges hearing the petitions would be happy to learn that they can shelve the hearings for another year or so while the government negotiates, and indeed might not need to hear the petitions at all?

What makes the argument particularly suspect is its context. Despite the petitions pending in court, the Modi administration has continued to implement the Presidential orders and Reorganization Act in Jammu and Kashmir. True, the court did not stay implementation. But they did not stay discussion of, or indeed protest against, the orders and Act either.

What’s next?

So what comes next? There are two possible scenarios. The first is that most of the participants at the meeting go along with elections to a UT assembly, with only the vague promise of statehood in the future. If some parties hold out, that will strengthen them and weaken the others. If all go along, there is a high risk that they will all decline, leaving even greater disaffection in the Valley and possibly in Jammu too, where civil service raj has created its own problems. The vacuum will not be filled by BJP-promoted parties, because the same disaffection will extend to them, multiplied. Militancy might, probably will, rise.

The second scenario is a more hopeful one, that the Modi administration will work on two parallel tracks: one, the ongoing talks between National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and his Pakistani counterpart along with the Pakistani intelligence head. The other, the just begun talks with political leaders from Jammu and Kashmir, that are the result of back-channel outreach. In that case, far more may already have been discussed than is in the public domain, including an actual timeline for statehood.

Much depends on whether the Modi administration treats this meeting as an initial discussion to be followed by a series of meetings negotiating the issues raised at it, with the goal of assessing whether statehood can be restored before elections. By implicitly agreeing to delink the return of Article 370 from statehood, most of the Kashmiri parties have already yielded a great deal. By contrast, the Modi administration has only yielded to the extent of agreeing to hold assembly elections soon.

This may seem like a large concession for a government that seemed willing to extend direct rule indefinitely. There is, after all, no guarantee that a Mehbooba Mufti, when elected, will not push for speedy statehood and Article 370 – or an India-Pakistan peace process, for which she is currently being vilified! But dissent is an asset, not a risk, for any democracy. It cannot be compared with the sacrifice demanded of Kashmiri political leaders and their constituencies.

No peace or reconciliation process is sustainable without both sides conceding ground. For one side to imagine it can dictate an unpopular solution because it is in a position of strength is costly bravado. Forcing Jammu and Kashmir into UT elections will increase public anger, certainly in the Valley if less so in Jammu, with the threat of cross-border militancy and a continuing toll on our security forces. That will be a net loss for all of India.

Radha Kumar is a policy analyst and author of Paradise at War: A Political History of Kashmir(2018).