Srinagar: Even before Union home minister Rajnath Singh’s arrival in Srinagar on Thursday morning, the Jammu and Kashmir government’s expectation that he would move ahead on the talks front with the Hurriyat leadership had accorded significance to his much awaited visit. Senior minister Naeem Akhtar had described the trip as a “bigger exercise” to build on the “peace process”. When Singh finally spoke to media in the evening, he too talked about the need for dialogue and the Centre’s firm conviction to resolve Kashmir.
But, with separatists demanding that the Centre first clarify the “ambiguity” over talks offer and the relationship with Pakistan still deeply fraught, it remains to be seen how much further New Delhi is prepared to go to have a meaningful dialogue on Kashmir, when general elections are less than a year away.
‘Being right-minded important for talks’
In a departure from the Centre’s statement that talks on Kashmir could be held only with like-minded individuals and groups, Singh tried to redefine the position. “You don’t need to be like-minded to talk but you do need to be right-minded,” he said soon after he chaired a meeting of top officials from the security grid to review security situation in the wake of a halt in anti-militancy operations in the Valley. He was not explicit but the new formulation is being seen here as an apparent reference to separatist leaders.
Though the word Hurriyat was missing from his 30-minute long press conference, the home minister reiterated his government’s readiness to hold a dialogue with “everyone” in Kashmir.
“We will definitely find a solution to Kashmir problem… we don’t keep issues lingering for a long time,” Singh responded to a question.
In a shift from the Centre’s Kashmir policy that has largely revolved around crushing dissent on one hand and going after the Hurriyat leadership and militant sympathisers on the other, the home minister on May 26 had announced that the government was willing to engage separatists if they were willing to talk, much to the surprise of Kashmir watchers.
The offer was, however, followed by a statement from foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, though mainly in the context of India-Pakistan relations, that “talks and terror can’t go together”, and BJP president Amit Shah saying that the ceasefire was for the people of Kashmir only and not militants.
On May 29, the separatist trio of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik responded to the Singh’s statement by saying they were ready for talks. The only rider they placed was that the government end the “ambiguity in its stand and speak in one language”.
On Thursday, while trying to address the concerns raised by the separatists, Singh made it clear that only statements from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and himself should be considered official policy “We are ready to hold dialogue with everyone,” he reiterated.
But when pressed to respond to whether the Centre will formally invite the Hurriyat for talks, Singh said he has already made a categorical statement about it and there was no need to repeat it. “Whosoever wants to talk, the dialogue can take place across the table only,” he said.
Without naming the separatists, however, Singh said they should stop misleading the youth towards violence and destruction. “Do these people want that children of the state should always play with fire and stone? Play whatever politics you want to but don’t play with the future of children… education for our own sons and stones in the hands of children of others. What kind of justice is this? What kind of humanity is this?” Singh asked.
All eyes on Hurriyat’s response
Though there was no immediate reaction from the Hurriyat to Singh’s remarks, a senior separatist leader regretted the fact that talk about the talks hadn’t moved beyond media statements.
“There is nothing concrete from their (Centre’s) side. We don’t know what they want to talk about. There is no clarity,” said the separatist leader.
He also referred to the May 29 statement of the three separatist leaders in which they had stated that no dialogue was possible without taking Pakistan on board. “As J&K is a divided territory and half of it is in Pakistan, this dispute has three stakeholders – India, Pakistan, and people of this land. Meaningful talks based on a clear agenda underlined by a sincerity of purpose among three stakeholders is an assured and peaceful way to resolve the conflict of Kashmir in all its forms and dimensions,” the statement had said.
It was in 2004 when the Hurriyat had for the first time entered into dialogue with the Central government then led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. That time, a Hurriyat delegation including Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Bilal Ghani Lone, Abdul Ghani Bhat, Moulana Abbas Ansari and Fazl-ul-Haq Qureshi held official talks with both Vajpayee and his deputy, L.K. Advani in New Delhi.
Thereafter, when the Congress-led UPA took over, the Hurriyat leaders held another round of talks with the then prime minister, Manmohan Singh. The Mirwaiz later reportedly met the then president of Pakistan, Parvez Musharraf, in New York in September 2005 and briefed him about the talks.
That was a time when there were continuous efforts from both India and Pakistan to take the bilateral dialogue process forwards, but the Lal Masjid siege in Islamabad and the lawyers’ movement, followed by the judiciary’s intervention, weakened Musharraf domestically and the entire process fell apart.
“The (process) can be repeated and taken forward if the government of India shows sincerity,” said the separatist leader.
Is time opportune for talks?
In his May 26 statement, the home minister had talked about the government’s willingness to restart dialogue with Pakistan as well, but with a rider that Islamabad “must stop promoting terrorism”.
At Thursday’s media interaction, Singh didn’t mention dialogue with Pakistan. But the question that analysts here are asking is whether the time is right for any sort of dialogue between the Centre and the separatists, as well as between India and Pakistan.
In Pakistan, general elections are set to take place in less than two months while the Lok Sabha elections in India are due by April-May 2019. In such a scenario, the Centre may not be left with adequate time to start the dialogue process even at the internal level. Election-eve political compulsions are an added complication – as the Bharatiya Janata Party may not want to be seen conceding anything on Kashmir.
Relations with Pakistan took a nose dive after Singh cut short his visit to Pakistan in 2006 when he had gone to attend a SAARC meeting. Since then, matters on the bilateral front have gone from bad to worse with the latest escalation on the border adding to the bitterness.
Asked whether the impending general election in India was a constraint, Singh said an election was not a barrier to holding holding talks (at the internal level). “We will contest the elections and return to take the process forward,” he responded.
But much will depend on how the Hurriyat leaders respond to the home minister’s latest initiative. “This offer for talks (from the Centre) is as real this time as we want it to be. The need (for separatist) is now to show statesmanship to help take J&K out sufferings,” said Naeem Akhtar, echoing the line of his party, the People’s Democratic Party.