Why can’t Delhi get its Kashmir policy straight?

Ipsita Chakravarty  

Delhi has a real talent for playing spoilsport when it comes to Kashmir. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and his Pakistani counterpart, Sartaj Aziz, are scheduled to meet on Sunday, resuming a crucial bilateral dialogue after a year of stony silence. But when it was revealed that Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit had also invited Kashmiri separatist leaders to call on Aziz, Delhi suddenly looked stormy. The talks seemed uncertain. And now the meeting is being described as an operational exercise with only terror on the table, not a wide ranging diplomatic engagement.

August 2014 seems to be playing loop with a few plot changes. Back then, Delhi had called off foreign secretary level talks altogether when it learnt that Basit had rendezvoused with separatist leaders of the Hurriyat. The Centre had warned of the “red line” that should not be crossed. This year, security experts in the capital called the invitation to Hurriyat leaders an “irritant” to talks. Then on Thursday, the government took the mystifying decision to place Hurriyat leaders under house arrest for a few hours.

Through its flip-flop, Delhi has succeeded in elevating a “routine” engagement between Pakistan and Kashmiri separatists, ignored by successive Central governments since 1993, to a significant exchange. It also ceded political ground to Pakistan, which claims to champion Kashmiri concerns. Recently, Pakistan suggested bilateral talks with Delhi on Kashmir and brought up the dispute again at the United Nations Security Council. In his speech on August 14, Pakistan’s independence day, Basit vowed not to abandon Kashmiris in their “legitimate struggle”.

Strong and silent Delhi

Delhi will have to pay the price of not engaging with a broader spectrum of political opinion in Kashmir. Already, resentments against the Indian establishment have started building again in the Valley, as the coalition between the People’s Democratic Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party begins to wear thin and the rhetoric of militancy gains ground. Delhi does not help its case. It comes across as a government intolerant of dissent, bent on silencing Hurriyat leaders instead of creating a space for political dialogue.

This dialogue would, of course, be circumscribed by limitations. The hardline, pro-Pakistan faction of the Hurriyat, led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, has always insisted on tripartite talks involving representatives from Delhi, Islamabad and Kashmir. Over the years, Geelani has acquired considerable political capital in the Valley as the only leader who did not soften towards the Centre and agree to participate in talks. That faction is unlikely to relinquish the dividends of saying no to Delhi.

But why did the Centre stop trying to persuade other constituencies, like the moderate faction of the Hurriyat, led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, and the pro-Azadi Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, led by Yasin Malik, groups which have been willing to talk earlier? Of course, Delhi will have to fight its own legacy first – over a decade of peace talks with various separatist groups and no real changes on the ground. As the dialogue process was discredited, so were those who took part in it.

The Vajpayee years

After the peak of the insurgency in the 1990s and a disastrous attempt to reach out to militants of the Hizbul Mujahideen in 2000, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee administration made a public push to engage with separatists politically, with initiatives starting at the highest levels of 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 K.C. 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 tensions 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 National Conference leaders, who were already allied with the BJP, and being cold-shouldered by separatist groups.

Yet the National Democratic Alliance under Vajpayee 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 join the J&K assembly elections of 2002. The committee recommended that the elections 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 succeeded Pant in 2003, 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 UPA years

The United Progressive Alliance 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 there were rumoured to be covert meetings between the prime minister’s office and top leaders of the JKLF.

The next high-profile political initiative, the Round Table Conferences held by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and involving a large swathe of political voices in Kashmir, saw scant participation from the separatist camp. Invitations had gone out to both Mirwaiz and Geelani, but they refused. The conferences had ended with the same rousing speeches and endorsed the findings of the various working groups, which had made recommendations for confidence building measures across all sections of society, 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 Dilip 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 Kashmir, where over a 100 people had been killed as security forces opened fire on stone pelters. It saw Geelani return to prominence in the Valley, mobilising the crowds and urging them to rise against the government. The politics of protests had eclipsed the politics of discussion.

The interlocutors’ report tried to accommodate the concerns of the Hurriyat, even of the hardline faction. It recommended a review of Central laws in order to shore up Jammu and Kashmir’s special, greater administrative powers for regional councils in the state, the release of prisoners, the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and an investigation of the mass graves of Kashmir. It was no use. Geelani said yet another report made little difference. The Centre didn’t even accept a report compiled by its own interlocutors.

Once more, in better faith

As talks and reports failed to translate into substantive changes, there was a growing perception that the government only wanted to “manage” the disaffections of Kashmir, that it had made the promise of dialogue in bad faith. Sections of the Hurriyat and the JKLF that did agree to talks lost political ground for their decision.

After the overtures of 2010, the alienation between government and separatists seemed complete. With the pretence of talks abandoned, the government set about trying to delegitimise separatist politics through house arrests and preventive detentions. This is a far cry from the Centre which tried to talk to separatists in 2001 in order to undermine the Hizbul Mujahideen.

Most shortsightedly, the current government has made Pakistan’s interactions with the Hurriyat a reason for jeopardising bilateral talks. A bullying, insensitive Delhi cannot compare well with a sympathetic Pakistan in the Valley. Separate politics cannot be wished away by suppressing its expression in the public sphere or by wiping it out of bilateral discussions. If Delhi wants to steer the conversation away from Pakistan, it needs to start talking to separatist groups first. Before that it will have to clear years of  distrust and convince separatist groups of the benefits of talking to the Centre.

So once more, in better faith?


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