Dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir seems to be derailing even before it could take off. If at all it was aimed at reaching out to those who challenge Indian rule in Kashmir—and their views have been echoed by a majority of people in recent years—then it is not achieving what it could. The joint Hurriyat leadership comprising Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar and Yasin Malik have rejected dialogue with former Intelligence Bureau director Dineshwar Sharma who has been appointed a representative by the Government of India.
Sharma’s appointment came as a surprise since the Narendra Modi-led government at the centre had been averse to taking this route to address the problems in and of Kashmir. For three years it pursued a hard line and gave the military and paramilitary forces a free hand to deal with the situation. Even the use of pellets that blinded scores of young boys and girls was justified in the name of maintaining law and order. However, the groundswell has been clear; there has to be a political resolution to the problem.
BJP’s own handling
The announcement that Sharma was chosen as the representative of the government of India, mandated to talk to all the parties and stakeholders, was received with cautious optimism. But at the same time the initiative was discredited by members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) themselves. Junior minister in Prime Minister’s Office Dr Jitendra Singh tried to muddle the waters by saying that Sharma was not an interlocutor but a representative and that there was no issue called Kashmir.
Sharma himself failed to create a space that would attract people towards him. When Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced on October 23 that New Delhi would start sustained dialogue he made it clear that Sharma was free to engage with anyone. “Dineshwar Sharma will have the right to engage whatever parties he wishes to. Apart from engaging in talks with all shareholders, as a representative of the government, Dineshwar Sharma will initiate sustained dialogue to understand the legitimate aspirations of people in Jammu & Kashmir,” he said.
Soon many BJP leaders started to discredit him by repeatedly flagging contentious issues such as Article 370. Some of them even named the Hurriyat Conference by saying that no talks could be held with them. Though Deputy Chief Minister Nirmal Singh acknowledged that the Hurriyat was a stakeholder, repeated statements from certain quarters gave the impression that Sharma’s appointment was just an appointment and nothing beyond that. Much before he would arrive in Srinagar none other than Prime Minister Modi himself joined the fray by rebutting former home minister P. Chidambaram who had equated “Azadi” with “autonomy”. He called his statement “shameless and insensitive”. This did not make his case clear but the impression that was given was that New Delhi was in no mood to engage with those who represented dissent and there was no space for discussing anything that revolved around political settlement.
Sharma’s own statements made it difficult to understand whether the process he was undertaking was to find a political solution to the problem or not. He talked about his job of deradicalizing young people and weaning them away from a path that would turn Kashmir into another Syria but this just indicated he was talking out of place. Was he tasked to come in as a new avatar while maintaining his previous role? Before coming to Srinagar, he made certain statements that did not make any sense as an interlocutor who would work towards reconciliation.
While one of its senior leaders, P. Chidambaram, talked about autonomy, Congress immediately distanced itself from his views. In the past few years Congress has been caught in a situation in which it has attempted to keep both narratives together. In Jammu and Kashmir it is a political force, eyeing a return to power in 2021. But in the rest of the country it is working hard to stay in the nationalism boat that has been rocking.
When Chidambaram was rebutted by the PM, the Congress spokesman disowned his statement. Ironically this was the same Congress that disowned the report of three interlocutors it had appointed in 2010. It is competing with the BJP on being “nationalistic” but by distancing itself from what Chidambaram said, its members disowned their own leaders Jawahar Lal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi who entered into agreements in 1952, 1975 and 1986.
Congress is behaving like the BJP’s B-team by taking a line that is against dialogue and resolution. Instead of echoing what the BJP says, it needs to align with liberal and progressive forces. When it came to power in 2004, it did not do so by challenging the BJP. In the case of Jammu and Kashmir it is the tainted legacy of Congress and if it does not take a firm and pro-people stand on the political issue it will be failing itself. In view of its response to Chidamabaram’s statement, it also needs to explain the rationale behind setting up a policy group on Jammu and Kashmir headed by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The statement issued by the joint resistance leadership of Geelani, Mirwaiz and Malik seems to indicate that on the face of it nothing seems to be out of sync if one goes by the contradictory statements that have come from BJP functionaries.
Calling it an exercise in futility the leadership said, “This clearly indicates that the hyped up appointment of Mr. Dineshwar Sharma by the Govt of India as its interlocutor for J&K is nothing more than a tactic to buy time adopted under international pressures and regional compulsions and due to the abysmal failure of the state policy of military repression upon the people of Kashmir.”
The leadership’s response is based on some reality. But at the same time the leaders should have undertaken an exercise of consultation with sections of society as they did during the long spell of strikes in 2016. The leadership took a week to come up with a response and then it did come as a surprise to many. It could have waited for a response till they were formally invited for dialogue.
The way Sharma and the BJP conducted themselves shows that there is no clarity in the initiative but given this the joint Hurriyat leadership could have taken a different stand by appointing a group from within its ranks to present a charter of demands and send the ball into Sharma’s court. This would be a test of this initiative and would make it clear whether the government of India really wanted to buy time and divert from what was happening on the ground. Perhaps the leadership has just given its usual response, which is piecing together the routine press releases. Since Sharma is left with only meeting mainstream parties it won’t help change the situation. Closing the door on dialogue is against the need of the time. Who is to be blamed remains to be seen.