Political outreach may not work in Kashmir

Press conference of Indian home minister and chief minister of J
Jammu and Kashmir CM Mehbooba Mufti with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh at a press conference in Srinagar

As the Centre mulls political engagement to address the deepening crisis in Kashmir, it will not find the political outreach to Kashmir easy at all. And even if the government chooses to engage separatist groups, it will find them unwilling to respond because of the unproductive nature of such engagements in the past and the new complications and factors in play which have drastically shrunk Hurriyat’s space for talks.

On 22 August, following a meeting with the J&K Opposition delegation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called a dialogue to “find a permanent and lasting solution to the problem in Jammu and Kashmir within the framework of the Constitution”. He also expressed “deep concern and pain” over the situation in Kashmir and agreed there was a need for a political engagement.

However, both Prime Minister and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh have stopped short of outlining the form that this outreach will take. On his second visit to the state in a month, Singh offered no talks to the separatists. Instead he sought to address the situation through some empathetic talk and assurances of administrative measures, like the early review of the use of pellet guns and the appointment of a nodal officer who would look into the complaints of Kashmiri youth studying or working in other parts of the country.

For now, the Centre has talked broadly and vaguely about the engagement: there is talk of a solution within the ambit of the Constitution but no word on its possible contours. In case of J&K, restoration of the state’s lost autonomy could be well within the constitutional framework. But the BJP, given its longstanding political position on the state, will hardly go the distance.

Similarly, the government has talked about dialogue without specifying who the government will talk to. It will hardly do if the government talks to the mainstream political parties, as they don’t question the political status quo and their politics doesn’t lead to frequent anti-New Delhi uprisings. By the same token, a stage-managed process of talking to obscure and generally unidentified delegations of people will hardly change anything. What will make a difference is not only an offer of a meaningful dialogue which not only promises staying the course but is also held with the right interlocutors. And in Kashmir, only separatist groups fit this bill.

But it is not so simple. For one, the kind of the open-mindedness such an engagement needs, the BJP government in New Delhi does not possess. The party champions an extreme integrationist view on Kashmir, one which includes abrogation of Article 370 which gives J&K its autonomous status — albeit drastically eroded — in Indian Union. And Hurriyat, which represents the separatist extreme in Kashmir politics, cannot be approached from an integrationist standpoint. It will kill the political raison d’etre of the separatist amalgam should they become part of such an engagement, especially when Pakistan is also being left out of the process.

Already, chairman of one Hurriyat faction Mirwaiz Umar Farooq has said that any dialogue on the state will have to include Pakistan. “A solution to larger Kashmir problem can’t be found out without Pakistan,” he said. “For a Kashmir dialogue to succeed and get to an acceptable solution, it should be ideally held
simultaneously among the three parties to the dispute — India, Pakistan and Kashmiris.”

But in the existing political scenario, there are fewer prospects for such advanced level of dialogue. More so, with relations with Pakistan already in tatters. The ties have sunk to a new low following  the acrimonious exchanges and the blame game over the prevailing turmoil in Kashmir. And with Islamabad out of the loop, Hurriyat will hardly find it politically tenable to be a part of the dialogue process with New Delhi, nor worth its while given such parleys by their very nature drastically circumscribe the scope of a political settlement and limit it to a little more than some local and minor political and administrative re-adjustment. Also, on past evidence, even such adjustments are unlikely to materialise and the Centre has often pulled out of the process at the first sign of normalcy.

For now, the Centre has talked broadly and vaguely about the engagement: there is talk of a solution within the ambit of the Constitution but no word on its possible contours

“We have a bitter experience of past engagements,” says Hurriyat leader Shahidul Islam. “We took a huge risk by engaging with New Delhi on the assurance of a permanent solution to Kashmir. But New Delhi unilaterally pulled out of them when it saw some normalcy return.”

Under the circumstances, New Delhi is left with no option but to try and use more force to suppress the uprising and hope that fatigue sets in and leads to normalcy. But that will leave Kashmir simmering until another mass outburst in near future.

New impediment

Another new complication that has crept in is the ad hoc unity among the separatist leadership. Syed Ali Shah, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik have come together to commandeer the current unrest. So, response to any invite for talks from the Centre will have to be jointly decided by them. In the past, the Centre only talked to the Hurriyat faction led by Mirwaiz, something that was vehemently opposed by the Geelani group as a sell-out to New Delhi.

Several rounds were held between the Mirwaiz-led delegation and the NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee which was called an “institutionalised dialogue”. The process was carried over into the succeeding UPA regime but was discontinued when the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sought to broaden the dialogue to include other “stakeholders” in the state. Hurriyat, which claims to be the sole representative of the anti-status quo political camp, refused to be “downgraded as one among many political stakeholders in Kashmir”.

This was followed up with a secret dialogue with the then home minister P Chidamabaram in 2009, which too was abandoned when it was exposed by a newspaper. Following this, a veteran member of the Mirwaiz faction Fazl-e-Haq Qureshi was shot at by unidentified gunmen. Qureshi hasn’t since completely
recovered. Earlier, suspected militants killed the uncle of Mirwaiz Molvi Mushtaq and burnt his family’s century-old Islamia School for talking to the Centre in defiance of the hardline separatist opposition.

“If there is an offer of talks from India, it will be duly considered by the united separatist leadership,” says Altaf Shah, a senior leader of the Hurriyat faction led by Geelani. “But the offer has to come in the light of Geelani Sahib’s four conditions for an engagement.”

The conditions are of impossible nature and include accepting the disputed nature of Jammu and Kashmir and announcing the acceptance of the people’s right to self-determination, announcing rapid demilitarisation process of population centres and repealing laws like AFSPA and Public Safety Act.

This hardly leaves a scope for any political engagement with Kashmir in the absence of a dialogue with Pakistan. Following failures of talks with moderate separatists, the thinking in New Delhi has been that the dialogue with Pakistan is synonymous with the talks with Hurriyat. And for the past some years this approach to Kashmir has served New Delhi well. But now relations with Islamabad have sunk to a new low.  And, meanwhile, the separatists are back on the ascendant following a renewed eruption in Valley. This has made things more complicated. There is no way to politically reach out to the separatist sentiment in Valley, except through the severely discredited mainstream parties. And this will hardly help the situation.