After months of hardline posturing on Kashmir, Delhi has decided to talk. On Monday, Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced that former Intelligence Bureau chief Dineshwar Sharma would represent the Indian government in a dialogue to address the “legitimate concerns” of people in Kashmir.
There is speculation about what qualifies as a “legitimate concern”, what the terms of the dialogue would be and whom it would include. Sharma has now said that he intends to speak to separatist leaders of the Hurriyat.
First, though, Delhi will have to fight its own legacy: a decade and a half of peace talks with various separatist groups that yielded no real changes on the ground. As a result, the dialogue process stands discredited in Kashmir, and so too do the leaders who took part in it.
Sharma is the latest in a long line of the Indian government’s interlocutors to Kashmir, going back to the early years of Independence. Over the last decade, however, Delhi seems to have renounced political ownership of the dialogue, leaving it to bureaucrats and that amorphous tribe of people known as eminent personalities.
The Nehru-Gandhi era
In the first decades after Independence, Delhi mostly negotiated with a restive state government, which strained against the Union and talked of autonomy. The early years saw political heavyweights landing in Srinagar to negotiate.
In 1953, as Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah raised the question of Jammu and Kashmir’s independence once again, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sent a powerful emissary, Union Education Minister Abul Kalam Azad, to talk with him. Months later, the Sheikh would be removed from power and imprisoned, charged with conspiracy against the state, and replaced with the more pliable Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad.
In 1964, as turmoil broke out in Kashmir over the disappearance of what is believed to be the Prophet’s hair from Srinagar’s Hazratbal shrine, Delhi sent two mediators. First, it deployed BN Mullik, director of the Intelligence Bureau, to defuse the crisis. After the relic was mysteriously restored, Nehru sent his trusted lieutenant and future prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, to negotiate with the agitators.
In the 1970s, as the demand for autonomy gained momentum, the Indira Gandhi government sent the diplomat G Parthasarathi to hammer out an agreement. The Indira-Abdullah Accord was signed in 1974, and the Sheikh returned to power in February 1975. It would prove politically costly for the Sheikh, who lost his immense popularity for bartering away Kashmir’s prospects of autonomy.
In 1984, Delhi dismissed the government of the Sheikh’s son and successor Farooq Abdullah and replaced him with his brother-in-law. It took JD Sethi to broker peace between Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Farooq Abdullah, bringing the latter back to power in 1986.
After the assembly election of 1987, widely believed to have been rigged, and the eruption of militancy, the goalposts changed. For six years, the state was under governor’s rule and by the time elections were held again in 1996, parties of the political mainstream had lost much ground. But even in those turbulent years, the Centre had political faces in Kashmir, with George Fernandes and Rajesh Pilot making periodic forays into the Valley, although not much came of their efforts.
The Vajpayee years
After the peak of the insurgency in the 1990s came an era of high-profile engagement with Kashmiri separatist groups. In 2000, the Centre even tried to reach out to leaders of the militant Hizbul Mujahideen, which ended in bloodshed. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government still made a public push for talks, with initiatives starting at the highest levels of the government. But Delhi seemed to believe the gesture itself was enough. Successive governments at the Centre set in motion a process for dialogue but then undermined it.
The first of these initiatives was the KC Pant committee, set up in 2001 and headed by the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission. It was briefed to talk to various groups in the Valley and recommend ways to ease tension between the Centre and the state. The powers granted to Pant were limited and the committee did not work to a well-defined time frame. It ended up talking to the ruling National Conference leaders, who were already allied with the Bharatiya Janata Party, and being cold-shouldered by separatist groups.
Yet, the Vajpayee government had not exhausted its appetite for discussion. A second venture, launched in 2002 and led by then Law Minister Arun Jaitley, explored the scope for “greater exclusivity” for Jammu and Kashmir, without much success. Another unofficial Kashmir Committee, headed by Ram Jethmalani, did manage to hold several rounds of talks with separatists, in order to persuade them to participate in the Assembly election of 2002. The committee recommended that the election be postponed, to give the separatists time to marshal their forces, and that they be held under governor’s rule. Both recommendations were rejected by the Centre.
NN Vohra, now governor of Jammu and Kashmir, succeeded Pant in 2003. He held discussions with a wide range of groups in Kashmir and submitted his report to then Home Minister LK Advani. It led to Advani hosting a Hurriyat delegation in North Block for the first time in January 2004. The occasion was suffused with bonhomie. Hurriyat leader Abdul Ghani Bhat emerged from the meeting saying “guns should be replaced by political talks” and peace would be arrived at “step by step”. But even then, reports noted that the meeting was about the “atmospherics and not the specifics”.
The Manmohan Singh years
The United Progressive Alliance, led by the Congress, started life willing to carry on with the NDA’s conciliatory stance, but with a crucial caveat – talks would be held with officials rather than the political establishment in Delhi, and they would have to be “within the framework of the Indian Constitution”. The Hurriyat rejected these conditions and refused talks, though covert meetings were rumoured to be held between the Prime Minister’s Office and top leaders of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front.
The next high-profile political initiative, the Round Table Conferences held by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and involving a range of political voices in Kashmir, saw scant participation from the separatist camp. Invitations had gone out to both Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Syed Ali Shah Geelani, heads, respectively of the Hurriyat’s moderate and hardline factions, but they refused.
The conferences ended with the same rousing speeches and endorsed the findings of the various working groups, which recommended confidence building measures, greater protection of human rights, more people to people contact across the Line of Control and the balanced economic development of Jammu and Kashmir. None of the specific measures suggested by the working groups were implemented.
By the time the interlocutor’s group was formed in 2010, the chill had set in. The group was crippled at inception. In the Valley, there was anger that the Centre had appointed three non-political faces to the group, academic Radha Kumar, journalist Dileep Padgaonkar and economist MM Ansari. It seemed to reiterate the fact that the Centre was not willing to engage politically with Kashmir’s issues. The group was also formed in the aftermath of the 2010 protests in which over a 100 people had been killed as security forces opened fire on stone-pelters. The 2010 agitation had seen Geelani return to prominence in the Valley, mobilising the crowds and urging them to rise against the government.
The interlocutors’ report tried to accommodate the concerns of the Hurriyat. It recommended a review of central laws in order to shore up Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, greater administrative powers for regional councils in the state, the release of political prisoners, the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and an investigation of the mass graves in Kashmir. It cut no ice on either side. Geelani said yet another report made little difference. The Centre did not even accept a report compiled by its own interlocutors.
Breaking the ice
As talks and reports over the years failed to translate into substantive changes, there was a growing perception that the government only wanted to “manage” the disaffections in Kashmir, that it had made the promise of dialogue in bad faith. Sections of the Hurriyat and the Liberation Front that did agree to talks lost political ground for their decision. Bhat, who had gone to North Block in 2004, was shot soon afterwards.
In Delhi, the politics of engagement was replaced by the politics of hardline posturing, especially after the Narendra Modi government came to power. When protests spread across the Valley last year, the government reacted with force and spoke the language of militant nationalism. Unofficial visits by BJP elder Yashwant Sinha did not break much ground.
As the months passed, the government allowed the Army to do the talking. When a civilian was tied to a jeep and used as a “human shield” by an officer, the Army rewarded the officer and the Centre supported it. Lately, the National Investigation Agency has cracked down on Hurriyat leaders, alleging that were involved in terror funding.
Already, the previous interlocutors’ group has expressed scepticism. Kumar saw a “red flag” in the phrase “legitimate aspirations”, saying it could be a limiting pre-condition. Ansari was more blunt, calling Sharma’s appointment an “eyewash”. The fact that a former Intelligence Bureau chief was marshalling talks indicated that Delhi still saw Kashmir through a security lens and not as a political problem, he said. Either way, after years of showing bad faith and a year of blatant aggression, shifting to a more conciliatory approach will not be easy for Delhi.
This is an updated version of an article that first appeared in August 2015.