The Political Fix: Why did Narendra Modi meet Kashmiri leaders after jailing them for months?

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Through much of 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government claimed the actions it took in the aftermath of its controversially, legally questionable effort to strip Jammu and Kashmir of autonomy were motivated by security concerns.

Yet anyone observing could tell that the suspension of civil liberties and jailing of mainstream political leaders – including the former chief minister who had been in an alliance with Modi’s own Bharatiya Janata Party just months before – was part of a political project. The Indian government did not want to permit the Kashmiri public to express opinions about the reading down of Article 370 and it hoped, by suppressing the political class, that it could create a ‘King’s Party’ in the vacuum.

As we wrote in December 2020, part of that project clearly failed. The BJP had sought to label the two major Kashmiri parties – the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party – as corrupt dynasties and the government insisted that the people of the Valley were desperate for fresh voices.

Instead, when District Development Council elections were suddenly announced, the mainstream political parties in the state decided to contest together – and handily beat the BJP, despite a hostile environment. In fact, the National Conference even made some headway in Jammu, where the BJP would have expected to sweep results.

This is the precursor to Modi’s surprise meeting on June 24, when he sat down with the top political leaders of Jammu and Kashmir, including those whom his government had put behind bars for months.

As the Indian Express reported,

“In his first direct engagement with leaders of Jammu and Kashmir in almost two years, many of whom were detained for long spells following the stripping of the erstwhile state’s special status and its division into two Union Territories, Prime Minister Narendra Modi assured them Thursday that his government was committed to reviving the democratic process through Assembly elections as early as possible and sought their participation in the delimitation exercise.

Former Chief Minister and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah later told The Indian Express that the meeting was “a first step in the right direction”.

A number of key points emerge from the meeting:

  • That it happened at all represented a U-turn for the BJP, which had jailed and demonised these leaders and hoped to completely alter the political set-up.
  • That the Kashmiri leaders turned up, however, also represented their need to work with Delhi if they are to have political futures.
  • While the meeting is a compromise for the BJP, it certainly hasn’t given up on all of its ambitions in the region – as the emphasis on delimitation before elections shows.

Two big questions emerge from this development. First, why now? What brought these politicians of various stripes to the negotiating table? And second, what next? Everyone is clearly not on the same page, yet Article 370 is unlikely to be restored. So how does this play out?

Let’s tackle each of these.

Why did the meeting happen now?

According to the Indian Expressreport of the meeting, “the Prime Minister told the leaders he wanted to meet them earlier, but could not do so due to the outbreak of Covid-19… The PM, sources said, underlined that he wanted to reduce both “Dil ki Doori” and “Dilli ki doori” – the distancing of hearts and the distancing from Delhi.”

Given all the political activity that the BJP has been willing to conduct amidst the pandemic, this claim can be dismissed as mostly posturing.

Part of the answer is simply that the BJP’s efforts to fully shake-up politics in Kashmir had failed. The King’s Party effort fell apart. The much-promised large-scale outside investment that would follow the Article 370 move has yet to materialise. And militancy remains a problem.

But, as many pointed out, there was a geopolitical element to Modi’s effort as well. Suhasini Haidar writes,

“The decision to engage the previous leadership, to discuss the restart of a political process and the reversal of the August 5 decision to downgrade the State to a Union Territory, comes not from domestic considerations alone. In the past few months, it has been made clear that a backchannel dialogue between India and Pakistan is discussing assurances on J&K that would enable a broader bilateral dialogue…

Compromises by hawkish establishments in Delhi and Islamabad (and Rawalpindi) do not come from an internal rethink by themselves, and it would seem obvious that external prompting from the US, keen to complete its Afghanistan pullout and its negotiations with the Taliban, as well as nudges from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, of the kind publicly referred to by the UAE envoy as “mediation”, have been at work as well. The recent disclosure by the Qatari special envoy that Indian officials have engaged the Taliban leadership in Doha is also part of that matrix.”

The US has clearly been more vocal. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Dean Thompson said at a congressional hearing in June that “Kashmir is one area where we have urged [the Modi government] to return to normalcy as quickly as possible. We’ve seen some steps taken: the release of prisoners, the restoration of 4G access, things of that nature. There are other electoral steps we’d like to see them take and that we have encouraged them to do and will continue to do so.”

The potential for instability in South Asia following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan – where analysts say a Taliban takeover is a matter of months – even as India’s border crisis with China in Ladakh remains unresolved, is likely to have also played a role in bringing Delhi to the negotiating table with the Kashmiri leadership.

On this, read also Vivek Katju, C Raja Mohan, Sushil Aaron and Sushant Singh.

What happens next?

But though politics in the neighbourhood may be forcing Modi’s hand, his government is not willing to roll-back all of its August 5, 2019 moves as it now changes tack.

Indeed, the Indian government had built a bargaining chip into its moves that year: In addition to unilaterally stripping Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy through legal contortions that have yet to be tested in the Supreme Court, it also bifurcated the state, and downgraded both resulting entities into union territories controlled by Delhi.

Soon after, it held out the promise that for Jammu and Kashmir, now without Ladakh, statehood could be restored – without compromising on the reading down of Article 370 .

As Happymon Jacob writes,

“Withdrawal of Statehood in 2019 was a clever negotiating ploy to eventually force a trade-off between the return of Statehood and a tacit acceptance of the removal of Article 370. Kashmiri political leaders would have little option but to accept this trade-off eventually even as they wait for the ‘appropriate time’ to arrive.

In other words, Statehood versus Article 370 was a carefully thought-out artificial choice made by the BJP government to gain advantage during future negotiations. The meeting on Thursday was the opening shot to judge the mood.

More crucially, if New Delhi manages to get the mainstream political parties in J&K to accept, out of sheer necessity, the offer of Statehood without the reunification of the State or return of special status, New Delhi would have laid down the rules of the game in Kashmir.”

This is the card it is now willing to play. But for the BJP’s aims to be realised, the sequence is key – as Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah acknowledged after the meeting.

New Delhi wants delimitation – the redrawing of political boundaries – to take place first. Then elections. And only after that is it promising a restoration of statehood.

In other words, it wants to set the rules that could influence political outcomes. Then it wants to see what those outcomes actually are. And only then will it consider handing power back to elected representatives in the state.

The delimitation question is complex and may end up even seeing participation from the Kashmiri parties, as Safwat Zargar explains here.

But these are the key bits: The Jammu and Kashmir state assembly had 111 seats, of which 46 were in Muslim-majority Kashmir, 37 in Hindu-majority Jammu and 4 in Ladakh. Another 24 were reserved for the people of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, but left vacant.

When the state was downgraded to a union territory and Ladakh carved out, the law gave Jammu and Kashmir seven more seats, to be allocated by a delimitation commission.

Although the population figures do not bear out any shifting of balance towards Jammu, Kashmiris fear that the delimitation process will be used to achieve exactly that and somehow give the new state a “Hindu” chief minister, as many in the BJP have hoped.

The sequencing is important even if this cannot be achieved. Kashmiri leaders have expressed concern that if statehood comes after elections – assuming the results are not to the BJP’s liking – they might be left with an ‘LG state’, meaning one in which a Delhi-appointed Lieutenant Governor has more power than elected officials, as in the national capital.

This is why the sequence is crucial, and why Kashmiri leaders are asking for statehood before delimitation and elections, even as they wait interminably for the Supreme Court to take up the constititutional challenge regarding the reading down of Article 370.

As former chief minister Omar Abdullah pointed out at the meeting, the delimitation commission was supposed to cover four North East states in addition to Jammu and Kashmir. Yet they were dropped from the commission’s remit, and elections were carried out in one – Assam – despite this. Why should the same not hold for Jammu and Kashmir?

On this, read also Nirupama Subramanian, Badri Raina and Bharat Bhushan.

Flotsam and Jetsam

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