Jammu & Kashmir

Mission without mandate

Print edition : January 19, 2018

Dineshwar Sharma (right), the Centre’s special representative to Jammu and Kashmir, meeting local people at Anantnag in south Kashmir on November 28, 2017. Photo: PTI

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, separatist leader. Photo: Nissar Ahmad

The funeral procession of Tanveer Ahmed, a militant killed in a gun battle with the troops at Batmurran Kellar village in Shopian on December 19, 2017. Photo: TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP

An activist of the Awami Ittihad Party detained during a protest against human rights abuses by government forces in Srinagar, on December 10, 2017. Photo: Mukhtar Khan/AP

The government’s current interlocutor for Jammu and Kashmir is unlikely to achieve much as he does not even have a mandate. New Delhi, which has a history of appointing such interlocutors and refusing to act on their reports, is yet to understand that the Kashmir conflict needs to be approached politically and not militarily.

THE appointment of Dineshwar Sharma, former Director of the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.), in October 2017 as the Government of India’s interlocutor for Jammu and Kashmir came at a time when hard power was a foregone conclusion as far as the government’s approach towards the State was concerned. Sharma’s appointment came as a pleasant surprise though it did not hold much promise for breaking the political deadlock. Nevertheless, many people in the State, particularly in Kashmir Valley, which is the centre of political dissent, responded positively to this “gesture”.

Sharma has made three visits to the State so far and talked to many people, including those who do not challenge the State’s accession to the Indian Union. They are leaders from mainstream parties such as the National Conference, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Besides his engagement with the “usual suspects”, Sharma travelled to south Kashmir, the hotbed of anti-India uprising, and met the youths.

His latest visit, which began on December 23, focussed on north Kashmir and Jammu. He repeatedly stated that he was open to talks with anyone and that he wished to bring back peace in the State.

The constant refrain of the people he met was that the daily grind of humiliation and intimidation should end. The other repeated demands were the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and an end to blatant misuse of the Public Safety Act (PSA). Sharma would have to take these sentiments into account in shaping the road map for peace in Kashmir.

When his name was announced as interlocutor for Jammu and Kashmir, Sharma sounded out of touch with reality although the I.B. he had headed knows the ins and outs of the State and is perceived to be largely responsible for the Kashmir mess. He talked about not allowing Kashmir to go the way of Syria and also preventing the youth from getting radicalised. To Kashmir watchers, this sounded amusing as there could be no comparison between Syria and Kashmir, given the government’s claim that there is normalcy in the valley.

Radicalisation of youths on the basis of religion is a much-hyped expression which immediately gives one the impression that Kashmir is a franchise of the Daesh, or the Islamic State. However, two months after his appointment, meetings with a cross section of people have perhaps convinced him not to focus on issues that do not have an international linkage.

After his meeting with the people of Pulwama, Sharma told reporters: “I met a lot of people and I am satisfied with my visit. I am sure I can call the visit a positive one.”

However, meeting delegations that raise issues for which the State government have to find a solution may not be a satisfying situation for him. What can be termed as a significant outcome of his visit thus far is the general amnesty granted to 4,500 youths. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti said the cases against the youths would be withdrawn under a general amnesty, which is seen as a recommendation by Sharma. In 2016, the police booked nearly 11,500 youths under different categories, following the six-month-long unrest which claimed 100 lives. The affected families see the decision to withdraw the cases as a positive step, but politicians from the separatist and mainstream camps do not think so. At the same time, people are sceptical about the implementation of the amnesty decision since the State’s credibility as an institution is at a low ebb. In 2010, Omar Abdullah’s National Conference government announced amnesty to arrested youths, but the decision was not implemented fully on the ground. The amnesty may give Sharma scope to further create the space to reach out to the people, but that space has been narrowed to such an extent that an individual who has baggage of the past may not be in a position to manoeuvre.

Sharma is conscious of his past association with the I.B. and that is why he told the Press Trust of India on November 5 that he would like to be judged by his actions.

“Nothing has changed since I was there for the first time. Kashmiriyat, which means compassion and brotherhood, has not changed even an iota. Therefore, I am hopeful that I will be at least able to contribute towards a new Kashmir, a peaceful valley where prosperity will be the order of the day,” he said, adding, “I do not have a magic wand, but my efforts must be judged with sincerity and not through the prism of the past.”

Notwithstanding the assertions of both Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Sharma that the interlocutor was free to meet anyone and as such there was no precondition, Sharma’s mandate is still missing. The terms of reference mentioned in the order issued by the President of India giving Sharma the rank of Cabinet Secretary are yet to come. Not only does his mandate lack clarity, but a section of the BJP leadership, including a vocal Minister in the Narendra Modi government, limited the scope of Sharma’s work by maintaining that there was no issue called Kashmir.

That is why the impression that gained ground was that the appointment of an interlocutor was yet another half-hearted initiative by the Government of India and that its timing was linked to United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to India. Since the U.S. has expressed concern over the deteriorating bilateral relations between India and Pakistan and sees Kashmir as a factor in this, the nudge to begin talks must have come from Washington. Otherwise, what was the hurry to appoint Sharma as interlocutor 24 hours before Tillerson’s visit?

A political analyst said: “It certainly was to ward off the pressure from the U.S. and send it a message that New Delhi was talking to the Kashmiris.” Since Modi had been facing pressures on the domestic front over demonetisation, Goods and Services Tax and much more, his government could not afford to have Kashmir as another front. Otherwise, the engagement with both the Hurriyat Conference and Pakistan is part of the Agenda of Alliance (AoA) the BJP agreed upon with the PDP in the State in 2014 and it should have started since then.

It is interesting to note that the exercise is aimed at understanding Kashmir and its problems. Even after 70 years of Independence and that too after the people of Kashmir have starkly demonstrated what they want, New Delhi is struggling to see what the problem is. New Delhi has failed to understand Kashmir as a conflict that needs to be approached politically with the aim of finding a solution. In the past three years of National Democratic Alliance (NDA) rule at the Centre, every effort has been made to make Kashmir look like a security problem that can be handled only by using military power. At one point of time, Kashmir certainly looked like it was caught in a war-like situation as the number of local militants continued to increase and encounter killings became a routine. Even now, there has not been any let-up in armed conflict although the government maintains that there are only 282 militants active in Kashmir. What is more alarming is the social sanction the armed struggle has received in the past few years, and this is evident from the fact that thousands of people attend the funerals of militants.

Although militancy is the ground reality, its political reason cannot be ignored. Continuous denial of this reality has exacerbated the interest of the young in militancy. Sharma’s appointment, irrespective of whatever the result, is an admission by New Delhi that hard power alone cannot work in dealing with Kashmir. Even if this realisation has been thrust upon it, there is no other way out. However, lack of serious efforts to reach out to the separatists has made this initiative somehow irrelevant. Asking them to come if they want to talk is not perhaps the way conflict resolution processes are dealt with the world over.

Engagement with the Hurriyat Conference, which represents the political dissent, is needed to lend credibility to such a process. But before that, the government unleashed a war on it by arresting most of its middle-rung leaders under the National Investigating Agency’s “war on terror funding”.

It looked as if the Government of India wanted to force them into submission and hold the dialogue under duress. When the NDA government in 2004 initiated dialogue with the Hurriyat Conference, it was under a framework and was not an open invitation. That dialogue also could not survive the vagaries of conflicts of interest, but the process looked dignified. In the present situation, the interlocutor has not devised any specific road map for dialogue with those who matter.

Certain quarters are advocating dialogue with even the United Jihad Council headed by Syed Salahuddin on the pattern of the process seen in Nagaland and Mizoram.

Hurriyat dilemma

If New Delhi lacks sincerity and seriousness in the political engagement, the Hurriyat Conference, led by the Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL) comprising Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik, too, lacks the acumen to deal with the situation.

The trio outrightly rejected dialogue although they talk about the need for it day in and day out. With no proper invitation to sit at the negotiating table, they rejected an appointment with Sharma. Kashmiris have been asking for dialogue, so representing the people in finding a solution should be the main task of the JRL and not indulging in rhetoric, which has been the case for long. Here, the influence of Pakistan is not ruled out.

Many believe that Islamabad holds the key to any decision taken by Hurriyat leaders. Although not verified, on the face of it there is hardly any doubt that Pakistan plays a role in Kashmir. It is a fact that New Delhi has not come out with a mature approach to Jammu and Kashmir’s political problem. The challenge for the Hurriyat Conference is how to fit itself in the process.

There are already fissures in the leadership as Prof. Abdul Gani Bhat, a former chairman of the Hurriyat Conference, has given the impression that he is interested in dialogue. A national daily reported he had met Sharma. Bhat denied this. But he faced ouster from the Muslim Conference, an ally of the Hurriyat Conference faction led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. Bhat’s “willingness” to hold talks makes a dent in the stand of the JRL on dialogue with New Delhi.

Another leader, Javid Mir, who was part of the Mirwaiz faction has quit the party. He did not cite the dialogue as a reason, but it is believed that he also wanted to test the waters. In case New Delhi moves forward by pushing measures such as amnesty to the arrested youths, it might help change the atmosphere.

The JRL would then have a difficult task on hand. If some sources are to be believed, at least two leaders in the group of three are willing to engage in dialogue but one holds the veto.

Broken promises

Why does Sharma not get a warm response from even those who strongly believe in the process of dialogue? An answer to this can be found in the history of New Delhi’s interlocution. Ever since 1947, New Delhi has appointed point men and made promises to Kashmir that have been only broken. The long list of broken promises and betrayals has disillusioned the people of Jammu and Kashmir so much that they hesitate to repose trust in the process.

When friction started between India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Jammu and Kashmir’s Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah in 1953, Nehru sent his Education Minister, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, to broker peace with Abdullah. But soon Sheikh Abdullah was dismissed and jailed.

In 1964, when the Holy Relic of the Prophet Muhammad was stolen from the Hazratbal shrine, Nehru sent Lal Bahadur Shastri and subsequently I.B. Director B.N. Mullick to defuse the crisis. In 1970, Indira Gandhi sent the diplomat G. Parathasarthy as her emissary to Sheikh Abdullah to broker the Indira-Abdullah Accord of 1975. Power was restored to Sheikh Abdullah, but nothing was done to restore the eroded political autonomy.

Again, in 1984, Indira Gandhi dismissed Farooq Abdullah as Chief Minister and replaced him with his brother-in-law G.M. Shah. It took J.D. Sethi to broker peace between Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Farooq Abdullah, bringing the latter back to power in 1986. After an armed rebellion broke out in 1989, Kashmir went into unprecedented turmoil. George Fernandes and Rajesh Pilot made forays to win over Kashmiris.

The A.B. Vajpayee government appointed K.C. Pant in 2001 and Arun Jaitley in 2002 as interlocutors for Jammu and Kashmir. Nothing came out of that exercise. They were followed by N.N. Vohra, the current Governor of the State, who established contact with various groups but no tangible movement was witnessed. During Vajpayee’s tenure, however, a breakthrough of bringing separatists to the negotiation table was achieved, with former Research and Analysis Wing chief A.S. Dulat as his point man. With India-Pakistan relations hitting a new low after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, whatever was “achieved” went down the drain.

What has, however, been questioned off and on is the implementation of the reports of the five working groups set up by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (2004-09 and 2009-14), which were aimed at addressing both the internal and external dimensions of the problem. Not a single recommendation of these was taken up. The last one was in 2010 when a three-member team of interlocutors, comprising Dileep Padgaonkar, Radha Kumar and M.M. Ansari, was set up. The team laboured to prepare a report, which has been consigned to some cupboard in the Home Ministry.

In fact, New Delhi has buried its credibility under a mound of reports and a long list of interlocutors without implementing any of their recommendations. Sharma has a stupendous task on hand as he carries this baggage. Without having a clear political mandate, he may not even reach the level of reporting on how the problem infests the situation. As of now, the initiative lacks political direction. That is why the refrain in Kashmir is do not do anything to fail Sharma because New Delhi is known for failing such processes in the past.