Interlocuting Again

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Finally, Delhi has found a safe exit from Kashmir by appointing a former sleuth to talk to all the stakeholders. Khursheed Wani believes that even if it is the same old wine in the same old bottle, a sincere move can still trigger results.

Many call the appointment of Dineshwar Sharma, as Delhi’s new pointman for talks with all stakeholders in J&K,  a sudden development and a shift in Modi government’s Kashmir policy. On October 23, Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced that former Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief Sharma would hold talks with ‘legitimate stakeholders’ in the state. Warmly received by the ruling BJPDP coalition in Srinagar, the opposition welcomed it with riders on efficacy. Separatists chose to adopt a discreet silence.

The suddenness of the announcement was linked to US secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s swift arrival in Afghanistan followed by his scheduled stopovers in Islamabad and Delhi. Tillerson’s arrival may have decided the timing of the announcement but the development was not sudden and without ground-work. The vibes were coming from Delhi since Prime Minister’s August 15, speech when he declared, from the ramparts of Red Fort, that the solution to “problems in Kashmir” would emanate from embracing the people rather than treating them with bullets and abuses. A month later, Rajnath Singh spent four days in J&K. He engaged with a host of delegations and spelled out Center’s new mantra to find a ‘permanent solution’ based on five Cs—compassion, communication, coexistence, confidence-building and consistency.

Notwithstanding Rajnath’s C-basket, the security apparatus in Kashmir, in a coordinated effort, with full backing of the state government, continued an offensive against the separatist camp. From a massive offensive against militancy and crackdown on Hurriyat to the National Investigation Agency’s sustained operation to probe alleged terror funding, it shook the separatist castle. Sharma’s appointment coincided with the summoning of United Jehad Council (UJC) chief Syed Salahuddin’s son by the NIA in an old fund transfer case. He was arrested in Delhi, the following day. The stick remained on the vanguard before the carrot was put on display!

Sharma has joined a long list of interlocutors who were engaged to initiate dialogue in Kashmir over the past nearly three decades. From late Rajiv Gandhi- who led an all-party delegation (APD) in 1990 to assess and understand the situation in Kashmir and suggest possibilities—to journalist late Dileep Padgaonkar led three interlocutors who did an exhaustive interaction with people in every nook and cranny of the state in 2012, the interventions have been periodically done,  and sadly, without yielding any results.

The ground situation has not shown any substantive change as a result of these interventions. Even the outcome was dismal when the initiatives were taken at the highest political level in 2003 when Prime Minister AB Vajpayee authorised his powerful deputy LK Advani to engage with separatists. Subsequently, his successor Dr Manmohan Singh carried the process forward between 2004 and 2007. The exclusivity of the engagement was that Pakistan under Gen Musharraf’s rule was on board in the process. This period recorded visible improvement in the ground situation. The violence level lessened and common man’s quality of life arguably showed signs of improvement.

Sharma is preparing to arrive in Kashmir to initiate the authorised process with a prerogative to choose the stakeholders. He is hopeful of meeting everyone including the Hurriyat Conference. The mandate of the interlocutor has not been spelled out except that he will, in Rajnath Singh’s words, initiate a sustained interaction and dialogue to understand legitimate aspirations of people.

One view is that Sharma’s appointment heralds that the sustained campaign against militants, the political leaders of anti-India ideology and a large number of commoners in Kashmir who have been supporters of secessionist campaigns including protests and stone-pelting, has not fully worked. Christened as Doval Doctrine, after NSA Ajit Doval’s ‘formula’ to suppress, alienate and marginalise the separatists, the policy has been in vogue, more effectively after the explosive situation that arose in Kashmir after the killing of Burhan Wani on July 8, 2016.

 

Not arrested, the separatist leaders have their movement and visibility curtailed. The political activity is halted. Hundreds of people have been in and out of jails and police stations. A slight hint of separatist protest is dealt with pellets and bullets. Two days after Sharma’s appointment, Governor NN Vohra, himself a former interlocutor, promulgated an ordinance that empowers the law enforcing agencies to deal with protest organisers if their activities caused damage to private or public properties.

On the ground, the ubiquitous securitymen and their increased interface with the local population, through cordon and search operations, raids in pursuit of militants and handling other law and order issues, is continuously adding to the deep-rooted anti-India sentiment.

The first thing expected from the newest interlocution is a semblance of change on the ground situation that encourages the ‘stakeholders’ to breathe freely and think constructively.

The previous initiatives—Hizbul Mujahideen’s cease-fire offer and round of talks with the then Home Secretary led team in 2000, late KC Pant’s appointment as interlocutor in 2003, Ram Jethmalani’s unofficial Kashmir Committee in 2002, NN Vohra’s intervention in 2005, Manmohan Singh’s Round Table Conferences in 2006, constitution of five working groups and appointment of three interlocutors led by Padgaonkar in 2012–failed on many counts.

Firstly, the dissent element in Kashmir (read Hurriyat) was not on board in all these initiatives. Secondly, when a section of this tribe dared to engage, despite resentment within their own ranks, the process was not taken to the logical conclusion. Thirdly, the exhaustive exercises carried out by the interlocutors like Padgaonkar-led group, were not paid heed to and the reports were consigned to South Block record rooms.

The APD led by P Chidambaram in 2010 and Rajnath Singh in 2016 also met the same fate for the same reasons.

It is futile to engage with those who don’t ascribe to any political disagreement on the state’s accession with the India. The photo-ops and media management can paint a rosy picture of the initiatives, but the fact remains that such exercises have not altered, even an iota, the ground situation. The issue is primarily with the dissenters who support and perpetuate anti-India sentiment in Kashmir and claim to have a legal and legitimate basis and public support for it. If they are convinced to change their tack and engage in a sustainable dialogue, the ground situation is definitely going to show the signs of shift.

Going by the past experience, it is observed that the separatists’ engagement would be linked to Delhi’s approach towards Pakistan. In the past, when a group of separatist leaders engaged with Delhi, it was in a triangular context when Delhi and Islamabad were simultaneously engaging with the separatists and each other. Three years ago, this arrangement was buried completely when the foreign secretary level talks were called off by Delhi in the backdrop of a routine Pakistan engagement with Hurriyat leaders. Falling apart with Pakistan resulted into heightened border tension to the extent of going for so-called surgical strikes in response to Uri terror attack, increase in violence in Kashmir and breakdown of law and order situation. If the statistics are anything to go by, this year 169 militants were killed in Kashmir alone including a dozen top commanders and in return, security forces lost 66 men including 27 from the ranks of the state police. In the meantime, 94 youngsters joined the militant ranks, the highest number in 7 years. This is definitely a consequence of lack of engagement, internally as well as externally.

Despite its hard posturing, the Modi government has not succeeded in containing Pakistan. The ‘surgical strike’ did not prove to be a deterrent as infiltration and border skirmishes continued. The growing proximity with the US, too did not ‘contain’ Pakistan. The lukewarm response to Tillerson at Islamabad and summary rejection of India’s newest initiative in Kashmir exhibited Pakistan’s hardened stance.

Pakistan’s non-involvement in the process will surely discourage the separatist leaders to engage even as the separatist camp has an unprecedented composition at this point in time. It is for the first time, the three prominent separatist leaders—Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik are pursuing their politics together while other leaders have been put on back-burner. The militants still have a potential to sabotage a process. The re-emergence of Jaish-e-Muhammad in several parts of Kashmir is an indication to that.

There are questions being raised on the intelligence background of the representative. It is said that the choice reflects that the Centre has not given up looking at Kasahmir through security and intelligence prism.

Mehbooba Mufti, nevertheless, has a reason to smile on the initiative because this can give her an opportunity to rediscover her party’s bygone politics, reengage with the people and shift her focus on governance, which has been the biggest casualty over a longer period now. If the process is carried forward with sincerity of purpose and without being wrapped in conditions, the ground situation is definitely going to change for good. But there is many a slip between the cup and the lip.

(The author is a senior journalist)

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