When on June 18 the Union Home Secretary invited mainstream political leaders of Jammu and Kashmir for a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his 7, Lok Kalyan Marg residence in New Delhi on June 24, it immediately produced frenzied and relentless speculation. The question on everyone’s mind was what prompted Modi to extend the proverbial olive branch to Gupkar leaders, especially when it would be at the expense of halting his Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) unfettered march of Hindutva into the Kashmir valley, a staple that powers and sustains his electoral appeal among different sections of Indians.
There is no denying that the geopolitical realignment at India’s eastern border, which some strategic affairs scholars say is not delinked from India’s unilateral action of August 5, 2019, has drastically reduced Modi’s reputation as a strong leader. The United States’ departure from Afghanistan also comes as a bad omen, India having invested two decades in that country’s infrastructure-building with the hope of making diplomatic and strategic gains. India needs to reach an understanding with the Taliban, which is sure to emerge as a formidable stakeholder there.
However, while addressing critical questions relating to the mystifying interplay that geopolitical players have with individual governments in the region and the consequent compromises that are made at back-room diplomatic channels, many political observers in Srinagar and New Delhi have been guided by optimism rather than realistic assessments of how geopolitics operates. There are widespread perceptions that attribute Modi’s mellowed approach to Kashmir to a rather generic “foreign pressure” (read U.S. pressure). This has also led to a magnified reading of what could be the takeaways for Kashmir and its people. At least until the meeting, while individual projections varied, there seemed to be consensus that Modi was set for a series of climbdowns on Kashmir that will eventually lead to an unhindered transfer of power to the principal contender, which for now, appears to be the Farooq Abdullah-led National Conference.
But to realistically measure how much meaningful accommodation Modi would be willing to make with the Gupkar leaders, it is imperative to assess how much “foreign pressure” is actually involved, if at all. Since August 2019, there has been relentless global scrutiny of Indian action in Kashmir, including U.S. Congressional Committee hearings and publication of adverse United Nations reports against India. But more seasoned scholars of international affairs are of the opinion that despite these jarring European and American voices, the driver of American action is the perceived need to broadly keep China in track. In that context, India is an indispensable ally to the U.S., and there is nothing to suggest the Joe Biden administration will upset that equation.
A highly placed source in Washington, who is tasked with monitoring the back-channel talks between India and Pakistan, suggested as much. During a half-an-hour-long, off-the-record interaction with this reporter over a virtual platform on June 23, this source refuted the notion of “foreign pressure”. This source said categorically, “There is no pressure.” According to this source, the Indian Prime Minister’s recalibration in Kashmir is a prudent choice anybody in his place would make.
“When the Pulwama terror attack took place and the Balakot strikes followed, the U.S. was keenly monitoring the situation. We wanted de-escalation then, we want stability [between India and Pakistan] now, as that is essential for a more conducive security environment in the region,” the source said, confirming that there is a U.S. interest in India-Pakistan dialogue, but cautioned against any sweeping inference that projects the U.S. as “interventionist” in Kashmir.
The source said that the U.S. considered Kashmir to be a “very sensitive topic” and that this was an area where its position did not fundamentally change. An interaction with some other sources in the diplomatic enclave of the capital also gave the sense that reading “foreign pressure” as a crucial factor in the ongoing interplay between geopolitical players and the Modi administration was not accurate.
A source said: “Modi miscalculated that he could settle Kashmir and Ladakh on his own terms. He did not adequately factor in that it would trouble the Chinese enough to build pressure on him and take a series of kinetic actions.” Siddiq Wahid, a noted historian focussing on Central Asia, agreed with that analysis. He said: “GoI’s August 5, 2019, action tends to dilute China’s claims on the Trans-Himalayan territories—Shaksgam, Siachen, and now, after May 2020, Galwan, Panggong Tso and other parts of the Trans-Himalaya that are a part of Ladakh, not to speak of the prominent Chinese presence in Gilgit-Baltistan. So there are indications that August 5 is impacting South Asian, and thereby global, geopolitics. To wit: the U.S. wants to stabilise the region by encouraging reconciliation between Delhi and Islamabad, beginning with their quarrel over Kashmir.” According to Siddiq Wahid, India-Pakistan reconciliation would seem antithetical to China’s interests because of its territorial claims in the region. He pointed out that the “immediate ramification” of any such effort could be to push China into the “South Asian theatre of great power rivalry, which will be problematic for the strategic partnership between the U.S. and India”.
Overall, Modi seems to be making a very opportunistic set of choices—sounding conciliatory on Kashmir and vis-a-vis Pakistan because he must keep Pakistan mollified in a situation where the issues with China are not resolved. In this context, three questions are of vital importance. Is the Modi government sincere about jettisoning its hard-fisted policy in Kashmir or is it merely setting the optics and buying time? Will the Gupkar leaders exude gritty determination while dealing with New Delhi or will they be content with a superficial gleam of democracy? How are they preparing to deal with the ominous shadow cast by a delimitation exercise that many suspect is aimed at carving out a disproportionate space for Hindu-majority Jammu in Jammu and Kashmir’s Legislative Assembly?
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After the meeting concluded, Home Minister Amit Shah tweeted: “The future of Jammu and Kashmir was discussed and the delimitation exercise and peaceful elections are important milestones in restoring statehood as promised in Parliament.” This rider of “election first, Statehood later” amply shows that Modi will be conceding little to the Gupkar allies.
Cracks in the Gupkar alliance
On the other hand, the veneer of unity among the Gupkar leaders has begun to peel off. Hours before the June 24 meeting, when Farooq Abdullah was asked to comment on People’s Democratic Party (PDP) leader Mehbooba Mufti’s insistence on including Pakistan in talks, he curtly remarked, “Mehbooba Mufti has her own agenda, we have our own agenda. We do not want to talk about Pakistan. We will talk to our own Prime Minister.” A day earlier, the PDP leader had opined, “If India can talk to Taliban, why can’t it talk to Pakistan?”
It is widely speculated that New Delhi has been in touch with Farooq Abdullah for quite some time now. This reporter learnt from impeccable sources that during one of National Conference’s internal meetings in May, Farooq Abdullah attempted to build consensus among his colleagues to participate in the delimitation exercise. His argument was that if the party took two steps forward, it would be received well by the other camp [New Delhi]. Omar Abdullah seconded his father and is learnt to have told leaders present in that meeting, “Dr. Saab [Farooq Abdullah] is aware of things that others come to learn much later.”
The National Conference was clear from the beginning that re-initiating an engagement with New Delhi is the only pragmatic option available to the mainstream parties. When Farooq and Omar Abdullah were released in February and March 2020, respectively, it was with this perception in mind that they did not engage in any provocation. “I will not speak on political matters until everyone else is released,” Farooq Abdullah told reporters at the time.
The dynamics changed after Mehbooba Mufti’s detention ended in October 2020. For Mehbooba Mufti, the challenge was bigger. Her party has shrunk in size and appeal, and she has been blamed for having paved the way for the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status by facilitating the BJP’s entry into Srinagar’s corridor of power. The road ahead for her was to mobilise people on the street, articulating their exasperation loudly, and strengthening her commitment to them with powerful expositions of Kashmiri aspiration, perhaps combined with religious fervour.
The seasoned Farooq Abdullah thwarted that move by co-opting Mehbooba Mufti within the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD). When the father and son turned up at her residence the night after she was released on October 13, 2020, and coined the idea of a collective front, their aim was essentially to prevent her from charting out an independent course that would be bound to create a contrast to the Abdullahs’ own acquiescent position.
Frontline reported at the time: “The copious media coverage, where the establishment and its various agencies joined hands to create a menacing anti-India figurehead out of her [Mehbooba], is what could resurrect her in the Kashmir Valley. This would come at the expense of the Abdullahs, however... So how would a sagacious adversary deal with her? He would co-opt her in order to neutralise her. In all probability, the N.C. co-opted Mehbooba Mufti into its politics in order to preclude her extreme politics” (“ PAGD rattles New Delhi ”, November 20, 2020).
The N.C.’s thrust remains the same: countering New Delhi incrementally. Senior leaders of the party told Frontline that Farooq and Omar Abdullah believe that a confrontationist position may jeopardise the chances of restoration of Statehood to Jammu and Kashmir. Sources in Omar Abdullah’s inner circle said that at least until the meeting on June 24 with the Prime Minister, he was somewhat confident that if the party worked on repairing ties with New Delhi, Statehood might be returned. According to N.C. insiders, that would settle most matters, chiefly the threat of an engineered demographic change and also end an unforgiving bureaucratic rule.
When Omar Abdullah addressed the press on the sidelines of the meeting on June 24, it was not hard to detect that he was making only ritualistic assertions about the N.C. not accepting the derogation of Article 370. In the meeting, Farooq Abdullah is known to have made a similar nuanced articulation. A Kashmir leader who attended the meeting told this reporter that though the N.C’s. patron expressed people’s dissatisfaction with the scrapping of Article 370 at length, “there was no hint of aggression in his tone”. The leader further said that Farooq Abdullah recounted to the Prime Minister how his party always stood for the national interest yet it was not being trusted. Sajad Lone, who broke away from the PAGD in January, reportedly at the behest of New Delhi, also made an emotional exhortation at the meeting. “A Kashmiri Muslim is always under the burden of proving his loyalty to India,” he told Modi, according to the source quoted above.
Overall, the trajectory of events in the last three months points to the probability of a pre-arranged broad understanding between Farooq Abdullah and New Delhi, perhaps not dissimilar to the one in 1996. However, the June 24 meeting seems to have surprised even the National Conference. This is what Omar Abdullah was indicating when he indicated his apprehension that the delimitation exercise would take place before the election.
Also read: BJP's game plan gone awry in the Valley
During an interaction with the press after the meeting with the Prime Minister, he pointedly said: “On the one hand the Centre claimed that the decision in August 2019 was taken [to facilitate] a complete merger of Jammu and Kashmir with the Union of India and, on the other hand, Jammu and Kashmir is [being] treated differently by bringing [in] a delimitation commission.”
But the real question here is: what is the plan of the N.C., or any of the other parties represented at the meeting, to thwart this manoeuvre? The relatively muted response to it thus far does not bode well for Jammu and Kashmir’s Muslim-majority population.
If the BJP succeeds in extracting the delimitation exercise as its price for allowing the mainstream parties to hope for power, the Muslims of Jammu and Kashmir will be stripped of their political voice irreparably.
It is their response to this game plan that should be the primary concern of the leaders of the Gupkar alliance.