There has been no formal announcement, but it is now public knowledge that the Centre has called the mainstream Kashmiri political parties for talks in New Delhi on Thursday. According to reports, the all-party meeting on Kashmir will be chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and attended by Union home minister Amit Shah. Though the agenda of the meeting has not been announced, it is expected that the Modi government will discuss the restoration of statehood to the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, and fresh assembly elections.
Though these steps were anticipated as an outcome of the backchannel talks between India and Pakistan this year, it is a very significant move, after the Modi government read down Article 370 and bifurcated the erstwhile state on August 5, 2019. It also removed the demographic protection offered by Article 35A and imposed a harsh security and communications clampdown. All leaders of mainstream political parties were detained and concerted attacks were launched by the BJP top national leaders against the leaders of the National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party, claiming that they were corrupt, unpopular, supportive of terrorism and had no place in Modi’s vision of Kashmir.
That Modi and Shah’s plans for Kashmir had spectacularly failed was clear last year, as the Centre was unable to create an effective King’s Party to replace the two major Kashmiri parties. Top Kashmiri leaders were released and an attempt to bypass and marginalise these parties through hastily conjured up District Development Council elections failed. The parties chose to participate in the polls and performed creditably across all regions.
Other metrics of failure include the lack of progress in attracting the vast business investments that were promised, or ensuring the return of Kashmiri Pandits to the Valley. Militancy continues unabated. Internationally, China is back to espousing and raising the Kashmir issue at multilateral forums.
Hemmed in, the Modi government’s troubles in Kashmir were exacerbated by the pandemic and the Chinese ingress across the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh. Ostensibly under pressure from the newly elected Biden administration, the government lifted the communication clampdown on 4G mobile internet networks. Confronted by the spectre of a two-front collusive military threat from China and Pakistan, the Modi government opened backchannel talks with Pakistan in 2020, which resulted in a ceasefire on the Line of Control in March. It was soon evident that the UAE-brokered talks included some concessions from the Modi government on Kashmir, which were demanded by Pakistan to create an ‘enabling environment’.
According to Al Jazeera, these included: one, a permanent halt to demographic change in Kashmir; two, the release of political and other prisoners; three, the removal of blockades on communication and movement in Kashmir; four, the grant of full statehood rights to Jammu and Kashmir; and five, a reduction in Indian security forces’ deployment in Kashmir.
Dawn offered more information in a report, which observers believed was based on a briefing by Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa – that the backchannel talks were “being held between the intelligence leaderships of the two countries”. It said that Pakistan’s primary interest at this initial stage is that “Kashmir gets back its statehood and India agrees not to bring about any demographic changes”.
Meanwhile, US acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Dean Thompson, during a Congressional hearing on democracy in the Indo-Pacific (watch at 1:34:02 here) last Wednesday, was explicit: “Kashmir is one area where we have urged them [the Modi government] to return to normalcy as quickly as possible. We’ve seen some steps taken: the release of prisoners, the restoration of 4G access, things of that nature. There are other electoral steps we’d like to see them take and that we have encouraged them to do and will continue to do so.”
There is a definite bilateral and humanitarian context to Modi’s invitation to Kashmiri political leaders, but it is also happening in a geopolitical context ― US forces exit Afghanistan in September. Negotiations between the US and Pakistan for American bases on its soil are still ongoing. India’s border crisis in Ladakh with China remains unresolved, as the country has been battered by the pandemic and a severe economic downturn. The BJP has suffered a humiliating electoral loss in West Bengal and is facing internal revolts in multiple states. Modi’s ratings have taken a hit and Shah’s bluster of 2019 is replaced by silence.
The ruling party claimed three major achievements after its re-election in 2019. The first was the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which was introduced with much fanfare by Shah but has been kept on the back-burner, and rules have not been framed. The next was the Ram Temple, which was seen as Modi’s Hindutva trump card, but allegations of corruption have now surfaced. The third was Kashmir, where the ground has now been laid for a U-turn by Modi – it will start by seeking engagement with the very leaders that Shah had christened the ‘Gupkar Gang’.
That ‘Gang’ met on Tuesday and decided it will participate in the meeting. The spin unleashed by the BJP’s propaganda machinery apart, the public can clearly see that the “bold” steps taken by Modi – from demonetisation to surgical strikes to Kashmir – have only resulted in massively humiliating failures. And walk backs.
Sushant Singh is an award-winning journalist who has served in the Indian Army. He has taught political science at Yale University.