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IDSA COMMENT

Need for Persevering with the Dialogue Process in Jammu & Kashmir

November 01, 2016

The latest process of dialogue with Kashmir Valley separatists initiated by the Yashwant Sinha-led five-member delegation is an interesting development. Notwithstanding Sinha’s claim that the delegation does not have an official status, the efforts of his team may be viewed as a Track-II internal dialogue process between the Government of India (GOI) and the Hurriyat group of Indian separatists and other stakeholders. The composition of the delegation seems to have been worked out carefully in consultation and with the blessings and support of the authorities. Wajahat Habibullah, a member of the delegation, was a former senior government functionary and has wide experience in the state’s administrative affairs. Air Vice Marshal (retd.) Kapil Kak and journalist Bharat Bhusan have an appreciation of Kashmir affairs, while Shushova Barve, a member of the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation, has experience working on civil society issues.

During their visit which began on October 25, the delegation interacted with most of the main Hurriyat leaders, the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce representatives, and held discussions with Governor N.N. Vohra and Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. It is significant that Vohra stressed on the need for a `sustained` dialogue with all stakeholders. It is appropriate that the dialogue process has resumed despite the continuing civil unrest in the aftermath of the death of Burhan Wani of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen in a counter-insurgency operation on July 8.

The scale of the present upsurge significantly differs from past spells of unrest in 2008 or in 2010. An entire generation of youth and civil society at large seems to be involved now, even beyond the influence and control of the Hurriyat, with hardcore Pakistan-engineered militants instigating the agitators at selective places. A multi-pronged intervention is therefore required on a long-term and planned basis, to impress upon the middle rung of Kashmiri society and particularly the youth about the bona fides of the Indian state to promote economic welfare without compromising their distinctive ethnicity and culture under norms of democratic governance.

It is noteworthy that the 26-member all-party parliamentary delegation headed by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, deputed to the Valley in early September 2016, failed to establish contact with the Hurriyat leaders as well as groups of protestors. It appears, in retrospect, that the temporary or one-time nature of the deputation without a clear long-term mandate did not elicit any positive response from the people of the Valley and the separatist leaders. The general impression in the Valley was that the delegation’s visit was more for optics and that the delegation was of a diffuse composition and not suitably empowered with a clear set of objectives to initiate a meaningful dialogue.

The Yashwant Sinha-led delegation has made a beginning on initiating preliminary discussions at least with some of the major stakeholders. The circumstances at the time of the parliamentary delegation`s visit to the Valley and those prevailing at present, after the recent cross-Line of Control (LoC) military action by India, are contextually different. With the military situation exacerbating along the LoC and also the International Boundary (IB) portion of the India-Pakistan border in J&K, the requirement for a political accommodation within the Valley needs no emphasis.

The response from the separatists though has been one of caution. Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, leader of one of the Hurriyat factions, has noted that, given that the whole valley is burning, measures limited to the security forces deciding not to use pellet guns for crowd control would not suffice. Another Hurriyat leader, Yaseen Malik, seems to have conveyed a more nuanced response by stating that dialogue is the only way forward for resolution of disputes. There should not be any illusion among those political elements in the Valley inclined towards separatism that involvement of Pakistan in the dialogue process as the third stakeholder will be totally unacceptable to India, at least at this stage and especially directly.

Only after first reaching some understanding on the basics of what constitutes the Kashmiri socio-political entity and how it can be protected within the Indian constitutional ambit or in juxtaposition to it by constitutionally secured guarantees could Pakistan be brought into the dialogue process. This of course would be contingent on an understanding between New Delhi and Islamabad about obviating cross-border infiltration into India under an agreed, verifiable or guaranteed process. These are all future scenarios, the evolution of which will depend on many factors including on how international pressure works in dissuading Islamabad from pushing infiltrators into the Valley or destabilizing the security situation on the border or elsewhere.

It is important, however, that the dialogue process that has been initiated continues, with the state government and the stakeholders of Jammu and Ladakh regions gradually brought into the loop. Parallel action is also needed to instill confidence among the youth of the Valley and their families. Some unique steps may have to be contemplated, including the possibility of extending examination schedules to enable the teaching of the curriculum of schools and colleges to be completed. This is on account of the time lost due to the recent agitations. Most importantly, a majority of those arrested may be released except for those directly involved in the killings of security personnel or in the snatching of weaponry from security personnel or other government sources. Special recuperative treatment under complete government care for those maimed by metallic pellets fired from special guns for crowd control would be another such measure.

An assurance for an eventual `Truth and Reconciliation Commission` on the pattern adopted in South Africa as a mutual atonement measure between the Indian state and the protesters may also be inescapable as a healing touch. Such measures are likely to instill confidence among the youth about the sincerity of governmental efforts to resolve the deep sense of alienation presently prevailing among the civil society in the Valley. Some symbolic action by the Union Government, say, restricting the territorial jurisdiction of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) to certain specified areas like vulnerable border zones, military establishments, sensitive installations, among others, is also likely to have a major positive impact towards perception management of the presently alienated populace. Without some concomitant measures as indicated above, it may not be possible to sustain the nascent dialogue process.

Finally, the state government would have to have a defined role in the dialogue process. Though the initiative in carrying forward the dialogue process would remain with the Track-II delegation with tacit support from the Union Government, the delegation cannot succeed unless some of the confidence building steps outlined above (and more) can be put in place on the law and order and socio-economic fronts. In these respects, supportive or complementary action by the state government would be of essence. The requisite political will and adoption of a long-term view by both the union and state governments is essential for the dialogue process to succeed in the interests of the people of India and of Jammu & Kashmir.

The author is a retired IDAS officer, who has served in senior positions of the Central Government and in Jammu & Kashmir.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.