Is a New Delhi-separatist dialogue on cards in Kashmir? Centre seems ready

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Ram madhavOn September 22 during his visit to the Kashmir Valley, BJP General Secretary and architect of the PDP-BJP coalition government Ram Madhav said the government was ready to talk to all stake-holders without any pre-conditions. This was the first time a senior BJP leader had come closest to inviting the separatist groups in the state for talks, albeit staying short of naming them.

“We have said from the beginning and we have maintained that our doors are open to all the stakeholders in the state, they are welcome to come and have a dialogue with the state government as well as whoever wants to talk to the Central government, we are open to a dialogue,” Madhav said when asked by reporters if the Centre would hold talks with separatists in Jammu and Kashmir.

Prior to him, Home Minister Rajnath Singh had during his visit to the state delivered the same message — though a little less explicitly. Addressing a press conference in Srinagar at the end of his two day visit to the Valley, Singh indicated the government’s willingness to talk to all stakeholders in the state to restore peace.

“I am willing to talk to anyone. I am inviting everyone who is willing to help us in resolving problems of Kashmir,” he said. “I don’t want to leave anybody. I have already said that all stakeholders are welcome and anybody ready to talk to us is welcome”. Singh too didn’t mention the Hurriyat by name.

Do the two statements between them constitute an offer of dialogue for the separatist groups? Vaguely so. For one, none of the leaders make a direct dialogue offer to separatists. On the contrary they throw the ball in the separatists’ court, offering themselves for talks should the separatists wish to engage with them.

“What is formal or informal?” said Singh when reporters asked whether the Centre will formally invite separatists for talks. “I request everybody’s help to restore peace and understand the Prime Minister’s good intentions”.

Despite the ambiguity of the statements, Kashmir is suddenly rife with the anticipation of talks between New Delhi and Hurriyat. This is largely due to some din created inadvertently by Singh and Madhav amid an ongoing all-out NIA investigation against some middle-level and top separatist leaders for being allegedly involved in funding the protests in Kashmir.

And this din is at variance with the Centre’s approach to talks with the separatist groups until a few months ago. In May, in its response to the Supreme Court’s query on the matter, the Centre had replied that it would only talk to the recognized political parties in the state once the situation returned to normal and not to the separatists who operated outside the political system. But now the top Central leaders say they are not averse to talking to the Hurriyat, should the latter choose to engage the Centre. What is more, the dialogue is sought to be “unconditional,” meaning there will be no obligation on the part of the separatists to talk within the ambit of the Constitution.

Further adding to the prospect of the engagement, the joint separatist leadership comprising Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik in a recent statement supported “a sincere, meaningful, and result-oriented dialogue”.

However, for the dialogue to come through, vague statements by top BJP leaders will hardly help. Such indirect signals will have little resonance with the separatists who are loath to be seen as the sundry stakeholders in Kashmir and consider themselves to be the sole representatives of the political aspirations of the people. Nor would a general and pro-forma offer of dialogue be sufficient for them to respond positively.

On the ground, things are much more complex than what the statements of Singh and Madhav would reveal. Much like the discourse in New Delhi about the futility of engaging with the Hurriyat, the separatists also have a longstanding narrative about the pointlessness of talking to the Centre in addition to a profound sense of grievance.

For them, the basic issue about the dialogue with New Delhi is also what the latter is ready to concede in terms of a political settlement and the impossibility of such a settlement without taking Pakistan on board.

So, they reckon that the BJP government in New Delhi does not possess the kind of open-mindedness such an engagement requires.

“We are not against talks. But is New Delhi for them? We don’t think so,” asked moderate Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz. “They have gone whole hog against us, trying to implicate us in false cases to undermine our legitimacy. But this will not succeed”.

Mirwaiz said they had received no feelers from the Centre for the talks, nor would they ask for any engagement in the absence of the “seriousness” that was needed for such a dialogue.

In the recent past civil society and political delegations have visited Kashmir to institute an engagement with the dissident voices and the Kashmiri civil society in the absence of a formal dialogue. The first to visit was the Concerned Citizens’ Group headed by former foreign minister Yashwant Sinha. It was followed by another group headed by Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyer. And recently, a Congress delegation headed by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in the Valley to hold consultations with the political and civil society groups.

Dr Singh chose to only listen and not issue any statement, nor talk to the media. He let senior member of the delegation and Kashmiri leader Ghulam Nabi Azad do the talking. But he struck a chord as a throwback to a time when New Delhi apparently tried to be sensitive if not accommodative towards the issues facing the state. The past three years of the NDA-led rule in New Delhi have kept Kashmir on the edge. The situation has gotten worse with the union government withholding any political outreach.

This has lent importance to the non-governmental delegations which are also believed to be working towards restoration of dialogue. In fact, on his recent visit to the state to attend a wedding, Mani Shankar Aiyer also met Mirwaiz and another top Hurriyat leader Prof Abdul Gani Bhat to apparently gauge their willingness to talk to the Centre. Aiyer acknowkedged this much to the media:

“I met Mirwaiz sahab and Bhat sahab. We discussed dialogue offer of Ram Madhav threadbare,” Aiyar told Greater Kashmir. However, he refused to reveal the response of the separatist leaders.

Mirwaiz, however, told Tehelka there was nothing substantive that was discussed. “It was an informal meeting,” Mirwaiz said. “We talked about many issues but not the talks. And please note that Mr Aiyer is in the Opposition”.
So is there no hope for dialogue? “No, there is,” Mirwaiz said. “But only when New Delhi talks for the resolution of Kashmir, not for the sake of it”.

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