Kashmir interlocutor: a lost cause?


New Delhi has once again appointed an interlocutor on Kashmir, this time retired Intelligence Bureau Director Dineshwar Sharma. Ironically, Sharma, essentially a security man, has been charged with renewing the Centre’s political engagement with Kashmir. After three years of an unstinted hardline security centric approach, the NDA Government has sought to give politics a try.

Sharma, according to Home Minister Rajnath Singh, will take the decision on who to hold talks with. In fact, though, Sharma is expected to hold talks not only with the Kashmiri separatists but also with other shades of political stakeholders in the state. And much like the previous such exercises, the new points person will not limit his meetings to Srinagar and Jammu only but also travel to the districts to interact with a cross-section of people. Sharma is most likely to visit Ladakh too.

Even though appointment of interlocutors on Kashmir and their exploits in the state is a story that has already played out twice in the past decade, this time around New Delhi has left so much more missing in the effort. A retired intelligence man is perceived in the Valley unequal and unsuitable to the onerous job of addressing the larger political questions about Kashmir.

The decision to appoint another interlocutor on Kashmir comes as part of the Centre’s efforts to address the ongoing troubled situation in the state. And the interlocutor is expected to create a steady channel of communication. The thinking in the government circles is that the break in contact creates a sense of political vacuum which in turn breeds deep alienation from India. An interlocutor is expected to reverse this process and also help set up a process of political dialogue which will sustain a hope for Kashmir solution.

However, while Sharma sets about his job, there is an entire baggage of his predecessors that will be ranged against him. There is an entire cast of interlocutors from New Delhi in the past decade who have ended up creating more problems rather than resolving any. The much hyped appointment of the former deputy chairman of planning commission K C Pant as the first interlocutor in 2001 made little difference to the prevailing situation in the Valley. Pant struggled even to make a contact with the Hurriyat leadership. His biggest success was his meeting with Shabir Shah who at the time operated outside the Hurriyat fold. Besides him, Pant could only meet the late chief minister Mir Qasim. And then there was no more forward movement. Pant’s mission was over in less than half a year.

It was left to the Kashmir Committee under reputed lawyer Ram Jethmalani to pick up the thread. The committee kept visiting Kashmir for several years, holding talks with senior Hurriyat leaders before winding up its mission. The present J&K Governor N N Vohra who followed them in 2003 similarly run a familiar gamut. Like his predecessor, Vohra also found it difficult to establish a contact with separatists, let alone put in place a credible process which could be built for a positive outcome. After Vohra, the Centre didn’t appoint any more interlocutors. The UPA government abandoned the practice of appointing points men on Kashmir and even gave up on NDA-initiated institutionalized dialogue with Hurriyat. Instead, the UPA launched a round table dialogue and once it fizzled out, started five working committees some of whose reports recommending concrete actions are now gathering dust.

This was followed in 2010 by the appointment of three interlocutors — noted journalist Dileep Padgaonkar, the then Information Commissioner Prof M.M. Ansari, and the trustee, Delhi Policy Group Prof Radha Kumar. They were mandated to hold sustained dialogue with all sections of the people in Jammu and Kashmir. Hurriyat boycotted the group saying the exercise downgraded them as one of the stakeholders. The interlocutors held meetings with the diverse political, social and cultural groups over one year and produced a report. However, the report has since been put into cold storage.

It is against this bleak backdrop that the Centre, looking for a viable political option in the wake of the current turmoil, has sought a recourse to the agency of an interlocutor. Once appointed, the new interlocutor will have to traverse a predictable path. Separatists have traditionally been loathe to engage with an interlocutor and instead have sought a direct dialogue with the Centre after the fulfilment of some prior conditions. Besides, a pointsperson which at best will have a mediatory role is not what will satisfy the Hurriyat whose political options have already been narrowed by the continuing turmoil that has seen them steadily losing the hold on the region’s narrative. The challenge for the new mediator will not only be to establish contact but also how to move beyond it to create hope and movement towards a solution. The Centre on the other hand needs to make the new initiative a genuine, institutionalized process rather than yet another merry go round.

But considering the statements that have accompanied the appointment of Sharma, the Centre seems to have drawn a narrow line around him. The pointsperson, Home Minister Singh said, will initiate the sustained interaction and dialogue “to understand legitimate aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir”. This puts engagement with separatist ideology beyond the pale of Sharma’s mandate. If the Centre means business it will have to widen the ambition of the exercise. The best thing that Sharma can do is to create a sustained engagement with the dissident political groups challenging New Delhi’s writ in the state and try and pursue the path of an engagement in which later on possibly Islamabad too will participate.

However, Sharma would be fully seized of the complexity of the task ahead. He is considered an old J&K hand having served in the state in the troubled early nineties and later on as the IB chief. Already Pakistan has rejected New Delhi’s Kashmir initiative as “insincere and unrealistic” and called for inclusion of Pakistan and Hurriyat for “a meaningful, result-oriented dialogue”. With Pakistan adopting such a stance Hurriyat is unlikely to come forward to talk now.

There is thus a need for the readjustment of the remit of the initiative which offers Hurriyat an incentive to join it. As of now there is no such indication from the Centre. But as Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has said, New Delhi’s fresh initiative is “just the beginning of the political process”, here is hoping that Sharma’s appointment is followed by efforts to restore talks with Pakistan, so that Kashmiri dissident groups also feel free to join an integrated dialogue process.