There was something tentative and timid, something hesitant and cautious, in what Prime Minister Narendra Modi said about Kashmir in his Independence Day speech this morning. For sure, there was a kind of outreach to the people of Kashmir, who were perhaps keenly waiting to hear what the PM had to say about the highly troubled situation in the valley. But the outreach was not whole-hearted.
What he said was reassuring in the few lines he spoke. However, he did not leave much scope even for those eager to read between those inadequate lines and ferret out possible signals for a course correction and for a bold new move on his government’s past to solve the most enduring problem India has been grappling with since 1947.
What he said was this (my own translation from his Hindi speech):
“The development and progress of Jammu and Kashmir is the commitment of not only the government of Jammu and Kashmir but also of all the people of India. We are duty-bound to make it a heaven again. There is a lot of sloganeering, a lot of accusation and counter-accusation, each one is busy abusing the other. A small number of terrorists and separatists are adopting newer and newer tactics. There is no question of being soft on them. But I am clear in my mind as to how to win this battle. We cannot solve this problem either with gaalis (abuses) or with golis (bullets). We can solve this problem by embracing each and every Kashmiri. This is how this nation of 125 crore people has sustained itself and progressed. Which is why we are moving ahead with the commitment – ‘Na gaali se, na goli se, parivartan hoga gale lagakar ke’. (Neither with abuses, nor with bullets, but change will come about by embracing people.)”
Modi’s Words Lacks Clarity
All of us, including Kashmiris, should welcome the Prime Minister’s assurance that bullets (including the bullets and pellets of security forces) are not an answer to the Kashmir problem. We should also welcome his government’s stated commitment to “embrace” the people of Kashmir. By this he probably means that winning the hearts and minds of Kashmiris is the key to achieving a positive transformation in the disturbed situation in Kashmir.
However, Modi’s words suffer from a woeful lack of clarity. And lack of clarity can be easily interpreted, especially by Kashmiris, as lack of commitment to “embrace” them. After all, the Prime Minister has in the past reiterated the famous mantra ‘Kashmiriyat (Kashmir’s ethos of pluralism), Jamhuriyat (democracy), Insaaniyat (humanism)’, which was first uttered by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, one of his predecessors.
Vajpayee’s outreach to Kashmiris, and the innovative phrase in which he presented his promise of reconciliation, carried a fair degree of conviction. However, this has not been so with Modi. His first three years of premiership have not brought him closer to the hearts and minds of Kashmiris.
First, even though Modi’s government has been rightly uncompromising in dealing with terrorists and separatists, there has hardly been any humane or healing touch in the manner in which it has behaved with the common people of Kashmir. If anything, a majority of Modi’s supporters in the rest of the country – including, or rather, especially, the jingoistic contingent of the pro-Modi media – have not hesitated to paint all Kashmiri Muslims as gaddars (anti-nationals).
Neither Modi himself nor many of his senior colleagues in the government and the BJP (with the notable exception of Home Minister Rajnath Singh) have made timely or categorical interventions to stop this dangerous and daily maligning of ordinary Kashmiri Muslims. This being the case, how can Kashmiris easily believe that the Prime Minister and his government at the Centre have now undergone a change of heart and are willing to “embrace” them?
There is a second reason why Kashmiris are unlikely to believe in the prime minister’s attempt at outreach. What exactly does he mean by his willingness to “embrace each and every Kashmiri”? Does he mean his government is now willing to engage each and every Kashmiri opinion in a serious process of dialogue? But dialogue (“boli”) was an important word missing in Modi’s speech.
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An Independence Day address to the nation was the ideal occasion for him to assure Kashmiris, and all his countrymen in general: “The Kashmir problem can be solved na gaali se, na goli se, but boli se.” But Modi was hesitant or unwilling to use the word “dialogue”.
This begets a worrying question: If the Centre is hesitant or unwilling to talk to each and every section of Kashmiri opinion, then how can the people in the valley believe he is willing to “embrace” each and every Kashmiri? After all, “embracing” or wanting to win the hearts and minds of an alienated people ─ and let there be no doubt or illusion whatsoever that a wide gulf of alienation currently separates a majority of Kashmiris from India ─ would sound vacuous without willingness to have serious talks with them.
The prime minister alone can remove this uncertainty surrounding his welcome outreach. Let us hope that he makes his intent and resolve clear in the coming days by stating that the Centre is willing to have meaningful talks with all the stakeholders in Kashmir, including the separatists who have shunned the path of violence.
There is an immediate assurance Modi can, and should, give Kashmiris to carry conviction that he is indeed willing to “embrace” them. A majority of Kashmiris ─ and even the PDP, which heads the ruling coalition in J&K along with the BJP ─ are currently agitated over the attempt by a determined section of BJP’s supporters to get Article 35-A of the Constitution annulled. The said provision grants special status to the residents of J&K. J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has cautioned the Centre not to “tamper with Article 35-A, as there will be repercussions.”
Kashmiris Sceptical on BJP’s Stand on Article 370
Many Kashmiris believe that repeal of Article 35-A is simply a prelude to repeal of Article 370 of the Constitution, which has been one of the main and longstanding ideological commitments of the BJP.
However, this commitment runs counter to the Common Minimum Programme adopted by the PDP and BJP in March 2015 (when the two parties agreed to form a coalition government in the wake of a hung verdict in the assembly election). The CMP clearly states, with reference to Article 370: “The present position will be maintained on all constitutional provisions, including the special status.”
If Prime Minister Modi believes in Jamhuriyat and the concept of ‘Coalition Dharma’, and if he wants the J&K government to continue in office (his Independence Day speech does praise the state government as being committed to the development and progress of J&K), he must reassure the people of Kashmir that there will indeed be no change in the constitutional provisions relating to their state.
The absence of the word “boli” raises another salient question about Prime Minister Modi’s approach and policy towards the Kashmir problem. It should be obvious to one and all that a permanent and lasting solution to the Kashmir problem is only possible if both its internal and external dimensions are satisfactorily normalised.
Modi Forgot India and Pakistan’s Shared History
The external dimension of the Kashmir problem involves Pakistan, which is an undeniable stakeholder. Modi said nothing today about resumption of talks with Pakistan. Indeed, he did not even mention Pakistan in his Independence Day speech. Unfortunate, very unfortunate. After all, today also marks the 70th anniversary of Pakistan’s Independence too.
The regions that became Pakistan and (later) Bangladesh were integral to India’s Freedom Struggle. If our common past unites us, so does our future. More than performing a ritual of courtesy, Modi would have sent a positive message of goodwill to the people of Pakistan by wishing them well on the 70th anniversary of their country’s creation.
What an irony, indeed a troubling irony, that China sent its vice premier, Wang Yang, as a “special guest” to Islamabad to participate in the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of Pakistan’s Independence yesterday, whereas the Indian premier did not even acknowledge Pakistan in his speech. Equally worrisome is the fact that, on his part, Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi used yesterday’s occasion to slam India for its “expansionist designs” in South Asia.
As far as Pakistan is concerned, perhaps the one significant, and welcome, feature of Prime Minister Modi’s Independence Day speech was that he did not take the name of Balochistan. His mention of Balochistan in his 15 August speech last year was clearly provocative and moreover, unhelpful to India’s national interests. It had conveyed a message to Pakistanis that India did not quite wish their country to remain united.
Balochistan was out… but “boli” was not in. One hopes Prime Minister Modi, true to his words today, will put an end from all sides to both “gaali” and “goli” in Kashmir, and instead usher in a productive new era of honest and result-oriented “boli”.
(The article was published on The Quint by Mr. Sudheenra Kulkarni who was an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comments at [email protected])