Why India maintains the old Kashmir-shaped silence

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Now that the ice over Pathankot has thawed, it’s business as usual for India and Pakistan. The foreign secretaries of the two countries met on Tuesday – the first formal meeting since bilateral talks were cancelled in January – on the sidelines of the Heart of Asia summit in Delhi. On the whole, both sides stuck to the old script. India spoke of terror; Pakistan spoke of Kashmir.
Pakistan has shown signs of cooperating in terror probes, recently sending a joint investigation team into Pathankot. But India continues to ignore the elephant in the room that is Kashmir. It is a silence that could prove costly at this juncture.

Everything but Kashmir
Even while the meeting between foreign secretary S. Jaishankar and his Pakistani counterpart Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry was in progress, a Pakistani spokesperson issued a statement saying, “Kashmir requires a just solution in accordance with the UN Security Council resolutions and the wishes of the Kashmiri people”. A Pakistani diplomatic source said that the dispute had been discussed, both sides had been frank and Pakistan had asserted that Kashmir was a core issue.
But a statement put out after the meeting by the external affairs ministry spokesperson, Vikas Swarup, carefully skirted the issue. It name-tagged Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar and spoke of the toll that terrorism was taking on bilateral ties, it asked for consular access to Kulbhushan Jadhav, the former naval officer allegedly “abducted and taken to Pakistan”, it mentioned humanitarian issues such as the exchange of prisoners, and it agreed to take the relationship forward. Everything but Kashmir.

Disquiet in the Valley
The Indian government’s silence seems particularly obdurate as the meeting took place in the wake of serious disquiet in the Valley. Earlier this month, the rumour that an Army man had molested a minor in Handwara sparked off widespread protests, in which five people were killed in firing by the Army and the police. While the facts of the alleged incident remain unclear, it evidently tapped into a ready anger that simmers in the Valley.
The protests in north Kashmir must be seen alongside developments in the south, which is witnessing a new wave of militancy. While a number local boys have taken up arms, crowds fill the streets every time a militant dies in an encounter, testimony to the growing support for militancy in the Valley.
Ground reports speak of a bitter gulf between Kashmiris and the state, accompanied by a growing tide of Kashmiri nationalism. The coalition between the Peoples Democratic Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which rules Jammu and Kashmir, has also made it vulnerable to upheavals in the national mainstream. Local voices now cite  Dadri, the Bharat Mata ki Jai campaign and the crackdown on Jawaharlal Nehru University as reasons for resentment.

Owning the conversation
These are realities that need a political response, and Delhi’s old tactic of speaking about development and distributing Central largesse has become grossly inadequate. Recently, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti urged India and Pakistan to “make a new start”, just like the United States and Iran, and Delhi must seriously consider the suggestion.
A politically astute response would be to redraw the limits of the current dialogue, agree to talk about Kashmir with Pakistan as well as revive the conversation with Kashmiri leaders. Instead, while Delhi maintains a stoic silence, Pakistan steps into the breach, projecting itself as the champion of Kashmiri interests, both in the region and in international forums. This is diplomatic ground that Delhi would not want to cede. 

 

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