Delhi’s history of engagement and estrangement with Kashmir’s parties

When Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi sits down for a high stakes all-party meeting with political leaders from Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) on Thursday, he may want to go back to a speech he delivered on Independence Day in his fourth year in power.

“The Kashmir issue cannot be resolved by bullets or abuse (na goli se, na gaali se) but by embracing the Kashmiris,” he had said then. His words had given rise to hope, but since that famous speech in 2017, a lot has changed in J&K.

The all-party meeting on Thursday comes in the backdrop of dramatic and sweeping changes that have altered the history and geography of the state. In one fell swoop on August 5, 2019, the government revoked the state’s special status guaranteed under Article 370, did away with Article 35-A that disallowed non-state residents from acquiring land, and also stripped J&K of statehood and split it into two Union Territories (UTs). J&K witnessed a crackdown on political activity, communication networks and its political leaders were arrested, though, to be sure, restrictions have eased over the last two years.

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J&K’s leaders have accepted the invitation to the meeting with the PM, but both sides would be acutely conscious of the fact that the region has seen several initiatives, through direct political dialogue or the appointment of interlocutors and working groups, and yet any real resolution has been elusive.

Since militancy surfaced in 1989, all governments at the Centre have reached out to stakeholders in different ways. Each move was aimed at breaking the cycle of violence that has waned and peaked over the last three decades. The context is arguably far more challenging now, given the trust deficit between Delhi and Srinagar, but for Modi to succeed, perhaps there are lessons from the past experiences.

The Vajpayee years

Intent and innovation are two words that best describe Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s outreach to J&K. If there is one PM that Kashmiris warmed up to, it was Vajpayee. He was recalled fondly by the people even after the state was robbed of its special status in August 2019 as a true leader and statesman who understood the pain of the Kashmiris.

His tenure was marked with creative political attempts, including a dialogue with the Pakistan-based terror organization, Hizbul Mujahidin (HM). In 2000, the Union home secretary, Kamal Pande flew to Srinagar to negotiate a ceasefire with the outlawed HM. The agreement did not fructify but the move, fraught with political risks, was sanctioned by Vajpayee.

Vajpayee’s government also opened dialogue with the separatists, who held several rounds of negotiations with home minister LK Advani. The only time the Hurriyat leaders walked the corridors of the PM’s office in South Block was during the Vajpayee years. The first interlocutor, KC Pant, was also appointed during the Vajpayee years. Defence minister George Fernandes too was tasked to reach out to the Kashmiris.

But there were several roadblocks in Vajpayee’s quest for a political resolution. Parliament was attacked in 2001 during his tenure and a few years earlier, in 1999, Vajpayee and his government were engaged in a sharp but short war over the heights of Kargil. Yet, Vajpayee persisted in the quest for peace, inviting the man considered the architect of Kargil, Pervez Musharraf, for a dialogue to Agra.

No breakthrough agreements were reached with the separatists but Vajpayee’s vision for resolving Kashmir within the ambit of “Insaniyat (humanity), Kashmiriyat and Jhamooriyat (democracy)” continues to be broad framework that could determine the way forward in J&K.

The Manmohan Singh years

The Congress too, over the years, has reached out to Kashmiri stakeholders. Apart from the accords between Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Abdullah and then between Rajiv Gandhi and Farooq Abdullah, PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh’s Prime Ministership too were marked by various efforts to engage both the state’s leaders as well as Pakistan. Rao is remembered for his famous “the sky is the limit” promise to J&K but little came of the statement. This was a time when the demand for greater autonomy had great currency in the Valley, violence had become an everyday norm, and Pakistan was pushing in trained terrorists across the Line of Control (LoC).

In the ten years that Manmohan Singh was PM, heading the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, several initiatives were taken. In 2006, Singh appointed working groups to recommend the way forward in J&K. Some of the crucial recommendations of the Working Group on Confidence Building Measures, headed by Mohammad Hamid Ansari who was to go on to become the vice president, suggested that the State Human Rights Commission be provided with a special investigations wing to take care of several human rights abuses and excesses by the security forces. The group also recommended the setting up of a special cell for getting complete data on the conditions of widows and orphans of those killed in militancy related violence. It recommended that the wives and children of persons missing be covered under effective rehabilitation schemes. And as a goodwill measure, it suggested that the children of slain militants be included.

Similarly, the group on strengthening relations across the Line of Control (LoC), headed by former Foreign Secretary MK Rasgotra, suggested that eligibility for travel be expanded to people interested in going to Pakistan for tourism and for visits to places of religious interests. Earlier, the eligibility had remained restricted to members of divided families.

Significantly, a report of the PM’s working group recommending autonomy for J&K ran into political trouble. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rejected this report, and said “it diluted India’s position”.

The other recommendations were never fully implemented, giving rise to the oft-heard complaint that New Delhi only set up groups to as a fire-fighting measure and was not serious about taking steps to bring about a real change in J&K.

The government also set up a three-member interlocutors panel in 2010 when the Valley witnessed unrest and the killing of over 100 innocent youth, triggered by a fake encounter in north Kashmir when the army was accused of abducting and killing youth and passing them off as terrorists.

The three-member panel comprising Dileep Padgaonkar, Radha Khan and MM Ansari did a thorough job and met all stakeholders in Leh, Jammu and Srinagar. It submitted a report to the then home minister P Chidambaram. While it called for “further strengthening of Article 370”, it also recommended a partial dilution of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act and for steps to enable the rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits who were forced to flee their homes in 1990.

Apart from the report being uploaded on the home ministry’s website, no heed was paid to any of the recommendations. Chidambaram, in subsequent interviews, has said that the non-implementation is amongst his biggest “regrets.”

But the biggest initiative during the Singh years was actually a back channel dialogue between India and Pakistan (before Musharraf was ousted from power), with SK Lambah and Tariq Aziz, carefully drawing out a “non paper” or what came be known as a four-point formula on Kashmir. This was in line with the PM’s statement that he could not change borders but make it irrelevant. The proposal hinged on greater connectivity and linkages between J&K and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and greater autonomy, but the initiative collapsed with Musharraf’s exit from power.

The Modi years

Modi’s sweeping victory in May 2014 ushered hope that he would continue with Vajpayee’s legacy. Modi surprised many by inviting the leaders of South Asia for his swearing-in ceremony and Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif was amongst the prominent attendees. Sharif undertook the journey despite the reservations of Pakistan’s all-powerful army and ISI and there was hope that reconciliation will be the way forward.

It soon became clear that Modi was not a leader cast in the Vajpayee mould. In less than three months of Modi being sworn in as the Prime Minister, the foreign secretary called the Pakistan high commissioner Abdul Basit and told him to cancel his meetings with Hurriyat leaders or risk bilateral foreign secretary-level talks being put off. Shabir Shah, one of the separatists, was already seated in the waiting room and Basit went ahead with the meeting. The talks were called off, signalling a major change in policy, not only with Pakistan but also vis a vis Kashmir.

The BJP was also an alliance partner in the J&K government headed by Mehbooba Mufti but the 2016 protests — where the pellet gun became a symbol of repression in the eyes of Kashmiris — eroded the government’s already diminished credibility. The experiment ended when the BJP walked out of the alliance, leaving Mufti politically stranded for she had risked her credibility within the valley by sticking to the coalition that her father had stitched together.

The government blamed Pakistan for the violence — and there is little doubt that Islamabad and Rawalpindi still have both the intent and capability and have been involved in violence in the valley during the past seven years, in different degrees. The fact that several initiatives, including Modi’s surprise Lahore visit, sparked terror attacks from elements within Pakistan who wanted to jeopardise peace also eroded the government’s willingness to engage with Pakistan. But it is also clear that since 2016, the number of local militants far outnumber the infiltrators from across the line of control in the valley. This indicates that the local discontent in J&K is perhaps far more palpable than the past.

Modi is also the author of two surgical strikes, one to avenge the killing of 18 soldiers in Uri in September 2016 and the second after 40 CRPF troopers were killed in a suicide attack in Pulwama in February 2019.

In between, the Modi government took some steps to reach out to the local population, but both were half-hearted. In October 2017, former Intelligence Bureau director Dineshwar Sharma was appointed interlocutor and his hands stayed largely tied. He did recommend the withdrawal of cases against first-time stone pelters and was also the one who pushed for the cessation of hostilities during the holy month of Ramzan. Home minister Rajnath Singh announced the decision in May 2018 but it was called off after one month.

The next year – 2019 – was to be momentous. Paramilitary forces were flown into the Valley in large numbers and all tourists evacuated. Concertina wires were rolled out, leaders incarcerated, telephone lines snapped and the internet blocked. The BJP’s electoral promise of removing Article 370 was carried out in letter and spirit.

The all-party meeting is the first outreach since then. While delimitation, elections and statehood are likely to be discussed, the mainstream leaders including Mufti and the Abdullahs have said they will push for the restoration of Article 370. As Modi meets Kashmir’s leaders on Thursday, the various phases of engagement and estrangement between Delhi and Srinagar will weigh heavily on all those in the room. Can 2021 provide the breakthrough Kashmir needs?

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