Cracks in the alliance?

Print edition : June 09, 2017

For the past few months the situation in Kashmir has intermittently turned ugly and the ongoing student unrest has given it a new dimension. Some of the leading colleges and schools in Srinagar remained shut for most of mid May because the moment they reopened trouble erupted and quelling it became a major challenge for the authorities. The local population has kept up its resistance to the Army’s operation against militants, said to number 88 in all, in south Kashmir. The operation, first launched on May 4, continued on May 17, though with fewer personnel.

Defence Minister Arun Jaitely and Chief of the Army Staff Gen. Bipin Rawat reviewed the situation in Srinagar on May 18 and 19. While, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre seems to be under pressure to go hard on Kashmir, its policy is dotted with security concerns rather than the exigencies of politics. Indeed, its handling of Kashmir is becoming crucial in the context of the 2019 general election and the ambition to “conquer” all the States where elections are due in the next two years. On the other hand, it is in coalition with a regional party, which until a few years back was seen peddling soft separatism and had a strong pro-Kashmir and pro-dialogue line. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, as head of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), ensured its growth by sympathising with not only civilian victims of state atrocities but also families of militants. Her father, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, was a strong votary of dialogue and reconciliation with both Pakistan and the Hurriyat. That is why when the alliance between the PDP and the BJP was stitched in 2015, it took two months to finalise the Agenda of Alliance (AoA), which clearly mentions dialogue.

However, provocations from the BJP and its ideological cohorts appeared to be driving the government’s Kashmir policy in 2016, which saw a summer of unrest as the pellet gun became the new tool against protesting youths. The government’s charge that Pakistan was fuelling the unrest had no effect as the people’s involvement in the agitation was complete. When the protests started dying down, it was hoped that New Delhi would reach out to the people through political representatives of all hues. Though a parliamentary delegation visited Kashmir in September 2016, the Joint Hurriyat Conference leadership of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik refused to meet it as long as they were in detention either in police stations or under house arrest.

Subsequently, an initiative by a citizen’s group led by former Foreign Minister and BJP leader Yashwant Sinha did break the ice when its members arrived in Srinagar on their own. Sinha was seen as a senior politician who would have the ear of the Prime Minister, so his visit was taken seriously and the Hurriyat leaders engaged with him.

Sadly, as Sinha himself said in an interview, he was not even granted an appointment by the Prime Minister. At the same time, the non-BJP parties have toyed with the idea of a Kashmir conclave in Delhi to invite attention of the rest of the country to the “real issue”. Sharad Yadav of the Janata Dal (United) is leading the initiative, but some BJP leaders have dismissed it as a move to “discredit Modi”.

The Congress, on its part, is struggling to be relevant by setting up a policy group on Kashmir led by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

As for the BJP government’s stand, its functionaries have made it clear that no engagement was possible with the Hurriyat. The Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, Jitendra Singh, claimed that the Hurriyat had no support and that the youth of Kashmir wanted to go with the development model of Narendra Modi.

Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has been batting for talks. On April 27, when she met Prime Minister Modi, she told the media: “Talks are the only option. How long can you have a confrontation? Talks with the Hurriyat [Conference] had taken place when Vajpayee ji was the Prime Minister and L.K. Advani ji was the Deputy Prime Minister. We need to start from where Vajpayee ji left. Talks are the only way out.”

However, New Delhi is unmoved. The past few weeks have seen the Army being moved and preparations are under way to flush out militants in a major operation. This could push Kashmir into a into a political crisis and a new phase of uncertainty in the event of collateral damage. Any imposition of President’s Rule as demanded by the opposition will come at a huge cost for the BJP, involving a loss of face locally and internationally because of the failure to bring back even a facade of democracy in Kashmir.

Shujaat Bukhari

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