A flicker of hope that talks between government and separatists would restart in Jammu and Kashmir seems to have been scotched by the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Over the last week, a convivial back and forth had evolved between Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik , who currently heads the state administration, and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, leader of the Hurriyat (M) faction of the separatist leadership. While Malik surmised that the separatist leadership was ready for talks, Farooq said his faction had always pushed for talks and would respond “positively” should “meaningful” dialogue be initiated.
But Avinash Rai Khanna, the Bharatiya Janata Party national vice president in charge of Jammu and Kashmir, said the government had left the “door open” for talks with the Hurriyat, provided the latter showed “faith in the Constitution” and worked to restore law and order. The party’s state unit echoed this position, adding, for good measure, that talks without preconditions would be a “retrograde step”. With these comments, the BJP has returned to the old stalemate between government and separatists.
Talks in Kashmir have an ignominious history. In the early 2000s, when the government made overtures to separatists, leaders of the Hurriyat (M) responded positively, often at great risk to themselves. Abdul Gani Lone, one of the most prominent leaders who backed talks, was assassinated in May 2002, just days before then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was to visit the Valley.
Successive government-appointed committees tried and failed to make headway on the terms of dialogue. After a Hurriyat delegation went to North Block on a visit that was more about “the atmospherics and not the specifics” in early 2004, high-level political initiatives faded away. Meanwhile, as talks grew discredited in the Valley, the separatist leaders who took part in them lost popular support and Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the leader who was set against dialogue, gained political cache.
In 2010, when deadly protests in the Kashmir Valley, a new moment of unity among various factions of the Hurriyat leadership emerged. Geelani, tacitly backed by Farooq and Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front leader Yasin Malik, put forward a five-point formula for dialogue. These were: recognise Kashmir as an international dispute, start the demilitarisation of the region, release political prisoners, punish security personnel involved in civilian killings, end killings and arrests. But Delhi, which insisted that Kashmir was an “internal matter”, wanted dialogue on the condition that any solution was to be within the ambit of the Constitution.
With the advent of Narendra Modi’s National Democratic Alliance government in 2014, this position was hardened, with Delhi treating Kashmir as a law and order problem that had to be tackled by force. In 2017, soon after a fresh round of civilian killings in the Valley, amid routine gunfights between militants and security forces and a National Investigation Agency crackdown on Hurriyat leaders, Delhi sent an interlocutor to the Valley to scope out the prospect for talks. The initiative was doomed from the start, with the Centre making it clear that not even greater “autonomy” under the Constitution was on the table, never mind “azadi”. Nearly two years later, that process, too, has faded from public view.
In spite of the odds, and the dispiriting record of the last two decades, Farooq had suggested that talks were the only way forward, that the new dispensation in Delhi should consider Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s offer of dialogue, that Modi should use his large mandate to resolve the Kashmir issue.
Indeed, if any government has the political heft to take on dialogue, it is Modi 2.0, which enjoys a massive majority and a vote of confidence in the prime minister. It could have started with small steps – releasing at least some political prisoners, allowing a conversation on autonomy. After years of bitter stalemate, it might have signalled to the Valley that Delhi was genuinely interested in dialogue. But the Centre seems more keen to use its might to clamp down on Kashmir through force than to find a roadmap to peace.
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