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Delhi’s new interlocutor Dineshwar Sharma’s frequent Kashmir visits have not moved even a notch beyond what the local unionists in government and opposition normally do, reports Shams Irfan

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On December 26, 2017, as Dineshwar Sharma, Delhi’s new envoy in Kashmir,  took time off for lunch at Baramulla’s Dak Bungalow, Azad, a media student and his three classmates waited outside impatiently. They were part of a ‘student’s delegation’ handpicked to meet Sharma during his daylong Baramulla visit. Sharma ended up meeting 18 such delegations that day.

As Azad and his friends went through pointers which they intended to discuss with Sharma, a tall man, whose expressionless face added an air of suspicion around him, reached them. After exchanging greetings, the tall man told Azad and his classmates that when they go inside to meet Sharma, they shouldn’t talk about Azaadi or Kashmir conflict. Sharma, he said, already knows everything about  Azadi and the conflict.

Then, with a hint of authority in his voice, he advised Azad that they should focus on academic side and ask for student exchange programmes, cultural exchanges, and scholarships. “He was trying his best not to sound authoritative and ordering, but he was,” recalls Azad.

In less than five minutes the tall man briefed these bemused students about what-to-say and what-not-to-say. “When we asked him who you are, he simply turned his face away and left,” recalls Azad. “But before he left he gave us a look that suggested, do as you are told.”

Once face-to-face,  the first thing Sharma asked them was, ‘kya kehrahe hain log yahan par! (What are people saying here?)’.

Without hesitation, a female student responded: “Azaadi”.

Sharma laughed and said, “I know.”

Then, after a brief silence, Sharma asked the students about their college life and their aspirations, and what they want to do in future?

“I told him plainly that we live in constant fear,” said Azad. “How can you expect to act like normal students when our colleges are stormed by government forces?”

Sharma listened keenly as students explained how it is to live in a highly militarized zone like Kashmir.

“He then asked if students are given an opportunity to go out and mingle with their counterparts in mainland India, will it help?” recalls Azad.

To this, the only female member of the group responded emotionally, ‘nothing will work unless larger issues are not addressed’.

But rather than addressing the larger issue, Sharma, who was on his third visit to Kashmir, chose to keep his meetings confined to political foot-soldiers, NGOs, students like Azad, and people who are handpicked to talk about bijli, pani and sadak (electricity, water and road) only.

“Had Government of India been serious then Sharma would have reached out to all stakeholders, especially to separatist,” feels Prof Gull Mohammad Wani, an analyst. “But unfortunately, he is not going beyond a certain list of people.”

Even the selection of people who met Sharma was marred in controversy as both Delhi and Srinagar pushed the ball into each other court. “Union Home Ministry says it is prerogative of State to select people who will meet Sharma, but State says they are following Delhi’s command!” said Prof Wani.

On January 9, 2018, former  Chief Minister and National Conference working President Omar Abdullah said in the State Legislative Assembly that he is still confused about Sharma’s role in Kashmir.

Taking a dig at his successor, Mehbooba Mufti, Omar asked, “What is the mission of the special representative? If he works as a super chief minister, as we hear, by meeting delegations to look into the problems with regard to power, water, non-availability of doctors at the hospital, unemployment issues. (But) It is your job.”

But Omar is not the only one seeking answers viz-a-viz Sharma’s visits to Kashmir. Sheikh Showkat, an analyst, feels the atmosphere is not favourable for any dialogue as the situation on the ground is completely hostile. “Before sending an interlocutor here, Delhi should have created a favourable atmosphere on the ground.”

Raja Muzaffar Bhat, a social activist, who met Sharma during his recent visit, feels any effort to talk without taking all stakeholders on board will be useless in the long run. “I have told him (Sharma) how Delhi is pushing Kashmiris to the wall by being selective about certain issues.”

Bhat told Sharma how army acquired 3800 kanals of land inside Srinagar’s airport, which was already under their occupation, by giving farmers just Rs 11 lakh per kanal. “The commercial rate of this prime land is over Rs 1 crore per kanal,” Bhat told  Sharma. “These things should have been taken care by the state government ideally.”

In October 2017, after Delhi appointed Sharma, former Director of the Intelligence Bureau, as its Kashmir interlocutor, it was presumed that the incarcerated separatists would be released and given a space to express themselves so that dialogue is possible. But, by the time Sharma made his first visit to Kashmir senior separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani had already spent 48 Fridays under house arrest. “Unless you don’t get separatists on board, nothing will change,” feels Prof Wani.

File image of Dineshwar Sharma

So far Sharma has made three visits to Kashmir where he met a number of delegations, mostly comprised of political workers from both PDP and NC. But experts feel that Sharma has failed to expand the size of the table as the entire separatist camp is left out. “Rather the table is not visible itself. He is just coming and going,” said Prof Wani.

Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami, a communist lawmaker who represents Kulgam constituency, feels that the lines of communication should always be open. But like Omar Abdullah, he too is unaware of Sharma’s mandate in Kashmir!  “It is not a question about Sharma; it is about Government of India. Do they really have a plan for Kashmir? I think they don’t have any. If they have any, it’s not sufficient as we can see.”

Tarigami believes Sharma should have met separatists too, as without taking them along no process of dialogue would be meaningful.

“We have been insisting that the process of dialogue should start else the whole burden of managing Kashmir will be on the security forces,” Tarigami said. “But unfortunately Modi government is relying on security forces to deal with Kashmir. Political uncertainty must be addressed by political means and not militarily.”

At the peak of 2010 unrest, after the killing of 112 civilians, Delhi appointed three interlocutors for Kashmir, mandated to hold “sustained dialogue with all stakeholders to understand their problems and chart a course for the future”. Almost a year later, and after meeting around 700 delegations across the state, Radha Kumar, M M Ansari, and Dilip Padgaonkar filed a detailed report which was “by and large ignored by the then UPA government”.

“Last time too interlocutors came and met delegations. What happened to that report? Did anyone bother to look at their recommendations, or what they have said,” asks Showkat.

For Showkat the entire exercise will be useless as no major separatist is coming forward to talk. “It is just political posturing on BJP’s part to keep people engaged in Kashmir.”

Months before Sharma landed in Kashmir promising an olive branch, all top Hurriyat leaders and workers are either under house arrest or in National Investigation Agency’s (NIA) custody in Delhi. “How can you expect any talks to happen in such a hostile atmosphere,” said mid-level Hurriyat activist.

“We (Joint Resistance Leadership) have made our stand clear viz-a-viz Sharma’s visit to Kashmir,” JKLF Chairman Mohammad Yasin Malik said. “I won’t say anything else on this issue.”

Apart from the top run leadership little-known separatists like Mushtaq ul Islam, Shakeel Bakshi, Azam Inqlabi, Tahir Mir, who were once the stars in their own way, are unable to fit themselves in the hierarchy in any way right now.

Before Azad and his classmates left Sharma asked them, ‘Do students in colleges known about me. Are they aware of my visits?’

Azad told him plainly, ‘They do. But they also know you are meeting people who are already with you. Ideally, you should meet those people who are on the streets.’

As they bid goodbye Sharma gave them his number and said they can talk to him anytime. “Stay in touch.

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