Interview: Yashwant Sinha

Yashwant Sinha: ‘Alienation of people in Kashmir at an all-time high’

Print edition : October 22, 2021

Yashwant Sinha, Trinamool Congress leader and former Minister for External Affairs (2002-2004). Photo: Atul Yadav/PTI

July 15, 2001: Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Agra. Also seen are External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, Commerce Minister Murasoli Maran, Home Minister L.K. Advani and Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Interview with Yashwant Sinha, Trinamool Congress leader and former Minister for External Affairs (2002-2004).

As more and more reports about crackdown on journalists and civil society members in Kashmir come to light, India’s former Minister of External Affairs, Yashwant Sinha, says that such coercion has pushed the people of Kashmir to an unprecedented alienation that could erupt violently despite the temporary calm. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

The Narendra Modi government’s policy on Kashmir relies chiefly on the use of force to stifle dissent, whereas the Atal Bihari Vajpayee model recognised the primacy of dialogue and negotiation. As a former Cabinet Minister in the Vajpayee government, why do you suppose Vajpayee’s was a workable model?

Vajpayee once famously said in Kashmir that his policy will rely on “insaniyat, Kashmiriyat and jamhuriyat” [humanitarianism, Kashmir’s inclusive culture and democracy], when he was asked whether a resolution of the issue of Jammu and Kashmir would be within the framework of the Indian Constitution. His policy had both an internal dimension and an external one. The internal dimension was to reach out to the people of Jammu and Kashmir and engage with all stakeholders. He even got Lal Krishna Advani to talk to the Hurriyat leaders, though what direction it would have taken remains unknown as we were voted out of power around that time.

The external facet of his policy focussed on dialogue with Pakistan. A very important document came out of Vajpayee’s travel to Islamabad for the SAARC [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation] summit in January 2004. He and the then Pakistan President, General [Pervez]Musharraf, issued a joint statement, in which Pakistan assured that it will not allow its territory to be used for terrorism and violence against India. Following this, India agreed for a composite dialogue process. If Vajpayee had returned to power in 2004, there would have been very significant developments on the Pakistan front and vis-a-vis Jammu and Kashmir.

A decade later, when Modi came to power in 2014, it was expected that he would at least follow the rudiments of the Vajpayee policy. Indeed, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) decided to form a coalition Government in Jammu and Kashmir with Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, they agreed on an agenda of governance that included dialogue with all stakeholders as well as with Pakistan, on the lines of the Vajpayee model. The BJP at the time did not see dialogue as any form of compromise with national security issues, and joined hands with votaries of dialogue, first with Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and then with Mehbooba Mufti, although the latter has now suddenly and inexplicably become an anti-national in its eyes.

In the later years the Modi government deviated from the Vajpayee model completely and opted for a coercive and direct control of the erstwhile State. A highly placed person in the Government of India, whom I met after the first visit of the Concerned Citizens’ Group to Jammu and Kashmir in October 2016, was riled at the very mention of dialogue and stated in no uncertain terms that “the doctrine of the state [Modi government] is to establish peace, if necessary by force; we will teach them [Kashmiris] a lesson and we will make sure that they fall in line”. The government is following that policy of force of arms.

Why do you think the government treads a hardline path, having shown acceptance of Vajpayee’s inclusive model?

Unfortunately, the narrative of Jammu and Kashmir became the centrepiece of our domestic policy and the thought within the government is that the more they suppress the people of Kashmir, the easier it will be for them to sell the idea of a strong leadership in the rest of the country. It is guided by electoral politics, their core Hindutva ideology, and the need to project a macho image of the Prime Minister, which have enabled them to control the discourse in elections.

How has Kashmir changed in the Modi years? The Modi government claims victory over militancy in Kashmir.

Alienation in Kashmir is at an all-time high as a direct consequence of the Modi government’s discriminatory policies and its use of coercion to deny people any platform to vent their grievances. During one of my visits to Kashmir in 2016, which was soon after the law and order breakdown in Haryana, people everywhere pointed out to me that when violent protests erupt anywhere else in India, the state refrains from using force, but its handling of Kashmir is so evidently different. They asked me how the state could deny them equal treatment and also claim them to be an integral part [of India]. The Modi government is fuelling more alienation as it carries on its discriminatory policies, the most recent and glaring example of which is the delimitation.

But street protests and stone pelting have disappeared. There is a sizeable footfall of tourists.

The policy of using force against an unarmed civilian population always succeeds in bringing a semblance of peace on a temporary basis. At this point of time, although the government of India is patting itself in the back for restoring peace and containing street protests, the calm could be deceptive. It is imperative to look at the history of a population when you are dealing with a population. There are episodes in Kashmir’s history when people have waited to get back at something they did not approve [of]. For the time being, they have realised that there is no point in getting killed, and so they are waiting. To decipher the absence of a civilian unrest as their resignation would be a terrible mistake.

The Taliban effect

There is general consensus that Pakistan, aided by China, is expected to control the important pillars of defence and foreign policy in the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. What does that translate into for India?

After the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the situation has considerably worsened for India. We are aware of the fact that Pakistan does not allow us transit facilities through its territory to Afghanistan. We use the strategic port in Chabahar to enter Afghanistan, and through it Zaransh, and ultimately Central Asia. The access to Central Asia is very important and the only access we have is via Iran and Afghanistan. If we have an unfriendly regime in Afghanistan then we may be denied that access and that will be detrimental for India strategically.

The Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, and its proximity with Pakistan and China, is the worst kind of news that India could have expected. But I’m counting on two things: one, the enormous goodwill that India enjoys among the people of Afghanistan; and two, we did an enormous amount of development work, especially during the Vajpayee years, which they still remember.

There is apprehension that the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed and other proxies, such as the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), could be deployed by the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] to step up terrorism in India.

The message emanating from the Taliban taking over Afghanistan is that they have defeated a superpower, that it is possible for a ramshackle armed group of rebels to defeat the mightiest army despite all their sophisticated equipment and intelligence. This is an example which will encourage armed struggle everywhere in the world. People might have forgotten Vietnam, but what happened in Kabul is before their eyes. This has set a dangerous precedent.

Do you see foreign fighters from Afghanistan and other countries pouring into Kashmir, as they did in the 1990s?

The signals relayed from Afghanistan after the Taliban’s takeover are mixed. They said they would not allow their territory to launch terror operations against India and recognised our contribution in the development of Afghanistan. But then the way a non-inclusive government was constituted, the way they have dealt with women and in containing law and order issues, raise doubts about their intentions. Importantly, the emirate of Afghanistan is completely different from our concept of a liberal regime in Afghanistan. India will have to very carefully watch the situation.

According to some, India betted on the wrong horse in Kabul and its decision to not engage with the Taliban was a strategic mistake. India so far has been circumspect about how it characterises the Taliban’s ascent to power. What, in your opinion, should be the contours of India’s engagement with the Taliban?

The Taliban is not a homogenous entity; the Doha Taliban which we are dealing with is different from the Haqqani Taliban. The recent events which have taken place, and the manner in which they have taken place, show that unless things improve, it would perhaps be difficult for India to lend any credence to this government. It is not an inclusive government.

Even if we are informally in touch with the Taliban, we should make a few things very clear to them: one, their territory should not be used for aggression against India; two, we must press for re-establishing democracy in Afghanistan and having an elected government there; three, equal rights for women; and four, respect for human rights. India should tell the Taliban clearly that if they want recognition and acceptability both internationally and from India, then they should strictly adhere to cherished values of democracy and human rights.

There are some in Kashmir who are of the opinion that the standoff at the Line of Actual Control was precipitated by India’s unilateral actions in Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019.

There would be a correlation. Clearly, neither Pakistan nor China liked the unilateral derogation of Articles 370 and 35A. While Pakistan does not have the military strength to take on India, China has, and it did that. The message is that if you disturb anything that is settled in this part, then you will have to bear the consequences.

Hindutva politics

Has the hardline Hindutva politics of the Modi government, especially its iron-fisted control of Muslim-majority Kashmir, impacted our bilateral ties with foreign powers?

Yes, of course. [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan of Turkey has now gone completely overboard. Why else would Turkey be raising the Jammu and Kashmir issue time and again in the United Nations? I remember we had a not-so-cordial relation with Turkey but it was not inimical either. Now it is clearly inimical. The relationship with many Islamic countries has deteriorated. Malaysia had always been a difficult country to deal with because of its latent Islamic tendencies, but such traditionally difficult countries have become more difficult to engage with as a fallout of the policies of the Modi government. This poses a challenge for India.

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