On Monday, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced the launch of a “sustained dialogue” on Kashmir to address the legitimate demands of the state’s people. The minister – who made three trips to the Valley during the period of unrest last summer – also said former Intelligence Bureau chief Dineshwar Sharma would be the Centre’s interlocutor and would hold talks with all stakeholders.
In Kashmir, the announcement was met with scepticism by workers of both the separatist Hurriyat and mainstream political parties. And in South Kashmir, the stronghold of a growing local militancy where many residents lost family members in last year’s violent street protests, it was dismissed altogether.
An academic at Kashmir University in Srinagar who asked to remain unidentified rejected the initiative as “mere eyewash”, a tactic from the past that was being repeated. “They have never acted upon suggestions before,” he said. “The Hurriyat is in jail, the NIA [National Investigation Agency] is after them. More importantly, has the government of India even acknowledged that Kashmir is a dispute before starting a dialogue for resolution?”
He was referring to the National Investigation Agency’s inquiry into allegations that separatist leaders were receiving money from state and non-state actors in Pakistan to foment unrest in Kashmir. Several of these leaders have been arrested since May.
The cynicism about the proposed dialogue also stems from the fact that nothing resulted from a similar exercise in 2010, when the Congress-led government at the Centre had appointed three interlocutors after a summer of violence in Kashmir had left over 100 people dead. The academic said that this time too, the government would have “nothing concrete” to offer.
Besides, the situation on the ground has changed since then, the added. “Militancy is on the rise, how will an interlocutor contain that?” he asked. “Whom will he talk to? There is also an external factor and it will be a serious effort if they talk to Pakistan.”
He went on to add, “Demilitarisation or revocation of AFSPA [the Armed Forces Special Powers Act] is out of the question, or seems unlikely.”
The people of Kashmir have long demanded a scaling down of military presence in the state and the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gives security personnel sweeping powers to search, arrest and even kill.
The Centre has neither denied nor confirmed that the interlocutor will talk to the separatist leadership in Kashmir, though Rajnath Singh is understood to have told reporters that Dineshwar Sharma could speak with whoever he chose to.
However, Jammu and Kashmir Deputy Chief Minister Nirmal Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party suggested that the separatists may be involved in the exercise. Speaking with reporters in Srinagar on Monday, he said, “As far as dialogue is concerned, if it is felt that those people, even if they are behind bars, they can be consulted. There is no problem in that because it can happen. It happens everywhere.”
Singh also reportedly said that the National Investigation Agency’s case against Hurriyat leaders should not be linked with the dialogue initiative.
The Hurriyat leadership, for its part, has not issued an official statement yet. But its members have expressed reservations about the Centre’s initiative. “It is good that they have announced it but so far, it seems to be an insincere effort like before,” said a district leader of the Hurriyat from South Kashmir. “It will, in all likelihood, be futile.”
Former Hurriyat Conference chairman and founder of the Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen, Moulana Abbas Ansari, told reporters that a tripartite dialogue involving India, Pakistan and representatives from both sides of the Line of Control was the only way forward to find a solution acceptable to “all three parties: India, Pakistan, and Kashmiris”.
Mainstream not convinced
Following the announcement, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti of the Peoples Democratic Party and Opposition leader Omar Abdullah of the National Conference welcomed the move. But Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, a former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, doubted the Centre’s intent. “We are not opposing the decision of the government,” he said. “But at the fag end of their tenure, they have done this. This is only for publicity. This government has no Kashmir policy.”
The Peoples Democratic Party-BJP alliance came to power in the state after the 2014 Assembly elections.
Grassroots-level workers of these parties were also sceptical about the dialogue. Their cynicism may be grounded in what they call the “systematic erosion” of the credibility of the mainstream in Kashmir, and the perception that it is Delhi that runs the state. In recent months, workers associated with mainstream parties have come under attack and even been killed for their political affiliations, leading to a large number of resignations.
“The Centre must understand what credibility they have left us with,” an activist of the Peoples Democratic Party remarked. He suggested that the interlocutor could focus on the Hurriyat and “its instigated violence and stone-pelting”, but added that there should also be introspection in the Delhi leadership.
“The root of the problem is in India’s betrayal of the mainstream,” he asserted. “The state’s institutions have been repeatedly undermined by the Centre. It is important for us to regain our space. If any steps are to be taken in the immediate future, the mainstream must be given a significant role to play so that it restores confidence among the people to engage with us.”
‘A waste of time’
Police officials in the Valley believe that giving “some space to separatists” through the dialogue process will help bring down violence by militants as well as civilian mobs. “Terror groups cannot sustain violence unless people endorse it,” a senior police official said. “It [dialogue] may lead to a temporary escalation so that separatist stakeholders speak from a position of strength, but it would lead to de-escalation in the long run if pursued in the right direction.”
However, residents of South Kashmir – a region that witnesses gunfights between militants and security forces and search operations by the troops almost every day – held out no such hope. There was only bitterness and disbelief.
A man whose relative, a young boy, was killed in firing by security forces said there was little hope for a desirable outcome. “It is a waste of time to divert people’s attention and keep them busy for some time,” he said. “If they come out with something acceptable to all, including those across the border, then that will be progress.”
According to the angry young men on the streets, those who faced pellets and bullets when they went out to protest and now revere the new generation of militants, there is no need for a dialogue at all. “What is there to discuss?” asked a young man from Heff village in Shopian district. “They already know what we want. We want them to leave.”