Yashwant Sinha, a former BJP leader who has joined the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) has been heading the Concerned Citizens Group on Kashmir for the last few years. He talked to Yawar Hussain after his recent Kashmir visit. Excerpts from the interview.
KASHMIR LIFE (KL): Your Concerned Citizens Group (CCG) started the Kashmir journey in 2016. In your view, what has changed since then in Kashmir?
YASHWANT SINHA (YS): The geography has changed. The government of India has used geography as a weapon and split the erstwhile state. From a state, we have seen Jammu and Kashmir become a union territory without Ladakh. It is for the first time in history that a state has been downgraded to a UT.
KL: After your eighth visit, how do you see the security scenario?
YS: Firstly, the militancy still continues. There are almost daily reports of engagements and clashes between forces and militants. There is no let-up in militancy. Secondly, we found this time also that even while the business is normal and people are going around their day-to-day lives, deep down in the psyche of the people there is a great deal of disappointment. That is growing by the day. They may not show it. I appreciate the people of Kashmir for being patient and not getting themselves killed as some people might want them to.
KL: In your recent report, you said, “Every action of the Centre, therefore, is being viewed as diminishing the Kashmiris as political entities and shrinking their democratic political space.” How do you see the recent outreach by the centre?
YS: What happened in that outreach? I talked to the people who attended that meet. Initially, I had also thought that the resumption of dialogue was good because in our reports we had also pointed out that the Government of India needs to reach out to all stakeholders. A dialogue even with Hurriyat leaders was what Atal Behari Vajpayee asked Lal Krishan Advani to do. But in the recent meeting, nothing came out. They didn’t even decide that they will meet again. But yet it is a good beginning because both sides engaged for the first time.
KL: In your view, what led to the meeting?
YS: The geopolitical situation in our region is changing and changing very fast. I am sorry to say this but Kashmir could soon become the melting pot if we aren’t careful. Much worse than it is now. This might be one of the reasons that the government of India decided to reach out to the politicians in Jammu and Kashmir. But still, that isn’t enough. The government of India needs to reach out to all stakeholders and not just politicians.
KL: Your report talks about anger, hurt and unhappiness among Kashmiri people. How can that be addressed?
YS: From all our visits to date, we have noticed that there is a trust deficit between the government of India and the common person of Jammu and Kashmir. It has been there for decades. This is an issue that needs to be resolved. If the government of India really wants to reach out then that trust deficit needs to be removed. Sincere dialogue with all stakeholders is needed.
KL: How do you see the unionist politics and unionist politicians post-August 5 in Jammu and Kashmir?
YS: I will refrain from passing a judgement on these politicians. They have been there for decades. They have earned the trust of the people and succeeded in elections. Therefore, these politicians have an important role to play. Whenever elections are held, it is these politicians who are going to contest.
KL: Are the unionists pushed to a wall post-August 5?
YS: I didn’t get that impression. They have come out clearly with their views barring a few sycophants of the government of India. Most of the mainstream politicians have opposed the August 5 move.
KL: How do you see the Peoples’ Alliance For Gupkar Declaration (PAGD)?
YS: After talking to the PAGD leaders, I believe that they are holding firm. I hope they hold firm. It isn’t an electoral alliance but a joint effort for the restoration of the pre-August 5 status of Jammu and Kashmir. They are all united on that.
KL: You met a lot of stakeholders recently in J&K. How do they view the PAGD?
YS: That wasn’t really our mandate. We hadn’t gone to check their popularity but nobody out rightly came forward to criticise them.
KL: Restoration of statehood is being presented as the mother of all ills. Is it enough for Jammu and Kashmir?
YS: Sometime back, I had tweeted in the context of Jammu and Kashmir that if you (GoI) take back 100 per cent and return just 50 per cent then you (GoI) are a winner but that is a bad public policy. This policy won’t be acceptable to the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Of course, there should be the restoration of statehood but that is not enough. That is only restoring the status quo ante. We need to go beyond that to win the trust of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.
KL: Former chief minister and PAGD Vice President Mehbooba Mufti recently said a wedge has been created between Jammu and Kashmir regions. Have you felt that?
YS: I was a little surprised at the speed at which the delimitation is being carried out in Jammu and Kashmir. Earlier, they said that Assam and J&K would both witness it but then the latter was singled out. Why? Why could this not wait till delimitation took place in the whole of the country? After all, Jammu and Kashmir is a part of India. This singling out raises doubts about the intentions of the Government of India.
KL: How do the common people feel about the delimitation exercise?
YS: There is a suspicion among the common people about exercise. It is good that the political parties met the Commission. There was no point in not meeting them or boycotting them. They shouldn’t boycott future elections. They shouldn’t leave the path open for the BJP.
KL: Elections post delimitation are being talked about. What would they change in Jammu and Kashmir?
YS: The moot question here is still unanswered because we don’t know whether the statehood will be restored before the elections or afterwards. I appeal to all J&K parties to contest elections anyhow in order to stop the BJP from misrepresenting the facts. Show everyone where you stand on the ground as you did in the District Development Council elections.
KL: As a former Union Finance Minister, how do you see the current economic scenario post-August 5 in Jammu and Kashmir?
YS: The economic situation in Jammu and Kashmir since August 5 is in ruins. We met the members of the economic alliance and talked in detail about the state of the economy. The trade, industry, tourism and all other sectors have suffered immensely. People have lost jobs. There is a huge reduction in local demand. The economy isn’t picking up. The economy of Jammu and Kashmir has suffered without the people of the country knowing about it. They don’t know people of J&K are suffering. Nine out of ten people have become unemployed as a result of this deterioration. If something isn’t done immediately then the suffering will only increase.
KL: Development has been talked about pre and post-August 5. How do you see Jammu and Kashmir on that front?
YS: We asked the people about development post-August-5 and they said that there is no difference. There is nothing worth reporting. The two years have been wasted. The promises made directly to the people of Jammu and Kashmir by the government of India have not materialised. The Lieutenant Governor’s rule hasn’t helped either.
KL: In your report, you said that Kashmiri people feel alone in their “struggle”. In that light, how do you see the recent ceasefire between India and Pakistan?
YS: I separate Pakistan from the issue of Jammu and Kashmir. We have gone to Kashmir only to convince them that the government of India is not the people of India. We tell them (Kashmiri people) that people in the rest of the country are still concerned about them. I gave a talk on Jammu and Kashmir in Hyderabad because people are interested to know about the reality on the ground. I urge the people of Jammu and Kashmir that they shouldn’t feel alone because there are people in India who stand with them in their hour of trial.
KL: You didn’t answer the question on ceasefire. How do you view it?
YS: It is appreciable. It brings relief to people. In one of our trips along the International Border (IB) and the Line of Control (LoC), we saw with our own eyes how much damage is caused by the cross-border shelling. Obviously, at some level, a backchannel is working between India and Pakistan and the ceasefire is a result of that. Back in 2003, when I was external affairs minister in the Vajpayee government we had announced a ceasefire with Pakistan. It even extended to Siachen. We saved thousands of crores of rupees on both sides. This ceasefire is welcome from various angles.
KL: After the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, how do you see the region in general and Kashmir in particular?
YS: Well, history has repeated itself. We know the British had gone into Afghanistan and then withdrawn. We know about the USSR and now the US withdrawal after 20 years. I am concerned about the situation in Afghanistan and the fast pace at which the Taliban is conquering one territory after another. This doesn’t augur well for Afghanistan and the whole region unless the Taliban undergoes a radical change and gives some of the principles they hold dear to their heart.
KL: Vajpayee era has been often talked about in the context of the resolution of the Kashmir issue between Pakistan and India. You were privy to it. What was the formula?
YS: Atal Behari Vajpayee reached out to the people of Jammu and Kashmir under the umbrella of Insaniyat, Jamhooriyat and Kashmiryat. Militancy doesn’t represent the people of J&K in their historical context. Kashmiryat is a unique feature. He (Vajpayee) even talked to the Hurriyat leaders. On the other hand, we reached out to Pakistan and made a great deal of progress during the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Islamabad. We issued a joint statement which I still consider among the most important in India-Pakistan relationships. It is the first statement in which Pakistan admitted that it will stop violence from its territory against India. But unfortunately, we couldn’t make much headway and if we would have continued in government the issue of Jammu and Kashmir would have been resolved.
KL: What is the way forward in Jammu and Kashmir?
YS: To my mind, the solution is very complex but the government of India should reach out to the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Bifurcating the erstwhile state and playing ducks and drakes with its geography wouldn’t help in moving forward. A dialogue is to be initiated with all stakeholders and put in mechanisms for its timely completion. We should reach out to Pakistan also and strengthen the ceasefire along the IB and LoC.