A little over a month after Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced that the government would seek a permanent solution to the Kashmir problem by following a policy of 5Cs – compassion, communication, coexistence, confidence-building, and consistency – he appointed former Intelligence Bureau director Dineshwar Sharma on Monday as a pointsman to start a dialogue with all stakeholders in Jammu and Kashmir. This is the first time since the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government came to power in 2014 that an official has been designated exclusively to deal with the crisis in the state.
On the face of it, Sharma’s appointment is an extension of the bureaucratic experiment successive governments have attempted with Jammu and Kashmir. However, it could also be seen as realisation by the Centre that the hard power it has used in the state in general and in Kashmir in the last three years has not yielded any results. Fighting militants is part of security management, but using the same mechanism to deal with public anger on the streets had blurred the lines. Using bullets and pellets against civilians to contain unrest and then justifying it had not only given a clear indication that the BJP government was in no mood to talk but had also pushed its ally in the state, the Peoples Democratic Party, against the wall. The government had avoided addressing the internal dimensions of the problem, despite the fact that Singh seemed keen on an outreach when he visited Kashmir last year during the peak of the summer unrest – which was set off by the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani.
So, what led to this change of stance? Is it the international attention Kashmir has been receiving that prompted the BJP to want to let the world community know that it has a softer face? Or is it a strategy to divert attention from the challenges the Narendra Modi government is facing within the country on account of an economic slowdown and glitches in the implementation of the new Goods and Services Tax, among others?
A start, but there must be more
Whatever may be the reason, Sharma’s appointment is a welcome start and leaving the hard policy behind will certainly pave the way for dialogue to take off. Though the contours of Sharma’s mandate are not yet known, Rajnath Singh kept it open by saying, “As a representative of the government of India, former director of IB, Dineshwar Sharma, will initiate a sustained interaction and dialogue to understand legitimate aspirations of people in Jammu and Kashmir.” Why the Centre is still not aware of the legitimate aspirations of the state’s people in the last 70 years is not a question for today. But there must be greater clarity on the roadmap ahead.
If the interlocutor only engages with mainstream parties such as the National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party, Congress and BJP, then it would be yet another routine process, a time-buying exercise. The mainstream parties do not challenge the state’s accession to the Union, so the talks will have to be with those who see India as an occupier. In the past, whenever interlocutors engaged with political parties, their hands were tied as the condition was that they would hold talks within the Indian Constitution. That is why there was no progress.
The Union government might have tightened the noose around the Hurriyat through the National Investigation Agency – which earlier this year registered a case against members of the separatist group on charges of terror funding – but no dialogue can be productive without engaging with them. And obviously, conditions on both sides must be put off. In 2004, a section of the Hurriyat leadership did talk to Prime Minister AB Vajpayee and his deputy LK Advani, and later with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government because there were no set conditions. That model is needed if Delhi is serious about an engagement with Kashmir. Of course, the Hurriyat leadership in Kashmir is equally responsible that it respond to the Centre’s initiative in a mature fashion. It has sought time to respond.
Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has raised certain questions about the government’s initiative, asking whether the National Investigation Agency inquiry will now be put on hold. In a series of tweets, the National Conference leader also maintained that for the exercise to succeed, there can be no pre-conditions.
Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, whose Peoples Democratic Party has been on the back foot since the unrest last year, welcomed the initiative:
Though Sharma is a hawk, his mandate must overcome that thinking. And if his strings are pulled from where he comes, then it might be another damp squib exercise.
Another important factor is to address the external dimension. The past 27 years (since militancy erupted in Kashmir) have shown that without taking Pakistan on board (though there are problems on their side), stability in Kashmir will continue to be a dream. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s meeting with the newly appointed Pakistan High Commissioner in Delhi Sohail Mahmood on Saturday may not be an indicator, but there is no substitute to that engagement. Both processes, internal and external, compliment and supplement each other.
But the key to the success of such an exercise is that it must be without conditions. Delhi’s reputation in Jammu and Kashmir is badly dented. Similar initiatives in the past are a grim reminder of delaying tactics. This is the time to restore trust and confidence in such a process.
Shujaat Bukhari is Editor-in-Chief of Rising Kashmir.