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Can Dineshwar Sharma end the violence in Kashmir?

November 06, 2017 10:36 IST

While the government interlocutor for J&K may be tasked with holding talks with 'all stakeholders', the central government is singing a very different tune in the Supreme Court, Aditi Phadnis points out.

Children pelt stones at the security forces in Srinagar May 2017. Photograph: Umar Ganie

In August this year, Prime Minister Narendra D Modi signalled a change in his thinking on Kashmir.

In his Red Fort address, along with the building of a 'New India', he said the problems ailing Kashmir would only be resolved by embracing Kashmiris, not through abusive language or bullets.

'Na goli se, na gaali se, Kashmir ki samasya suljhegi gale lagaane se (Not by bullets, not by abuse, Kashmir's problems will be solved by hugs),' the PM said.

 

Many -- including some outspoken critics of the government -- endorsed the prime minister's speech and suggested a way forward.

The Concerned Citizens Group, led by activist Sushobha Barve, which has former finance and foreign minister Yashwant Sinha as one of its members, said Indians and Kashmiris alike saw hope in the Bharatiya Janata Party's new positive policy towards Kashmiri citizens.

'While looking forward to a concrete follow up, we would like to suggest that in order to operationalise the well-intentioned statements that have so eloquently been made, it is now necessary for the government to clearly identify the stakeholders, announce the name of an authorised interlocutor, set a timeframe for the beginning and conduct of the dialogue process and start it as soon as possible...' a statement signed by Sinha, among others, said.

'Despite deep scepticism that has taken hold of their minds, the encouraging statements by the PM, home minister and others hold promise for the Kashmiris. The present opportunity should not be wasted,' the statement added

'And, therefore, it is our fervent appeal to the government to quickly act definitively on the sentiments expressed in a time-bound manner.'

After months of sterility at best and heavy-handed action at worst, the prime minister's statement was like a window opening in a dark room.

In the midst of a conversation between India and Kashmir, which seemed to consist chiefly of sounds of gunfire and doors slamming shut, the mood could be summed up in one word: Despair.

Top bureaucrat Wajahat Habibullah wrote: 'I am convinced, as I enter the twilight of my life, that my life's mission to win over the people of Kashmir for India is lost, irretrievably.'

Former home minister P Chidambaram said, without efforts at exculpation: 'Every government in J&K and every government at the Centre has responded to the challenge with more warnings, more troops and more laws. A muscular policy will not help -- tough talk by ministers, dire warnings by the army chief, deploying more troops or killing protesters...'

Former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh emerged from his status of an observer to lead a Congress team to Kashmir.

Soon after, Congressmen began saying that things were so bad in Kashmir that nothing short of central rule would control the slide.

Almost three months after the August 15 speech, an interlocutor has now been appointed.

Dineshwar Sharma, formerly of the Intelligence Bureau, has been tasked with 'sustained dialogue' with all stakeholders in Jammu and Kashmir -- and he is free to decide who the stakeholders are.

Once the embodiment of the muscular Indian State, Sharma is now retired. Maybe that makes him a little less muscular.

But there's no doubt that in the government there has been some re-thinking on what is working in Jammu and Kashmir and what isn't. This, in itself, has created some excitement.

That the average young Kashmiri can take or leave India and Indians -- but that he hates the Indian State with a passion -- is roughly what describes the mood in the state.

Politicians -- the practical ones, who have to win and lose elections, not the lynch mob variety who believe the only solution is to carpet bomb the valley, cleanse it and begin afresh -- say, cutting across party lines, that unless there is some evidence of retreat by the Indian State, there can be no change in Kashmir.

Retreat means the army and paramilitary forces have to vacate orchards and schools, the state government has to work to restore the morale and power of the state police, and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act has to be reviewed.

But is any of this really happening?

The army had, in the 1990s, occupied nearly 250 acres of land near Anantnag in south Kashmir, for example.

When the BJP-PDP (People's Democratic Party) government came to power in the state, then chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed negotiated with the Centre for the army's exit.

It did. But the land has not been returned to its owners, growers of fruit.

It is likely to be turned into a university campus. For local Kashmiris, who depended on the land for their livelihood, the net gain is zero.

When the Central Reserve Police Force was replaced by the Border Security Force in the state, several schools were occupied by the BSF as part of the transition.

It took sustained and strenuous protests by the school administration to get the paramilitary force to vacate the schools.

In the Supreme Court in September, the Centre submitted that it does not plan to hold talks with separatists, and that dialogue to restore normalcy was possible only with the legally recognised stakeholders or political parties.

The apex court was hearing an appeal filed by the Jammu and Kashmir high court bar association against a high court order seeking a stay on the use of pellet guns.

So while Sharma may be tasked with holding talks with 'all stakeholders', the central government is singing a very different tune in the Supreme Court.

There isn't even a hint of a review of AFSPA.

The tragedy is everyone knows what the problems are. M M Ansari, who was part of another set of interlocutors appointed in 2010 by the United Progressive Alliance government, said: "Our report was exhaustive and touched upon various aspects in Kashmir, but it is gathering dust as the government has failed to follow the recommendations."

"We had consensus from all political parties and also had the BJP and RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) on board. Nineteen parties, including the Hurriyat Conference, were consulted."

Ansari also believes that as Sharma is a former intelligence officer, he would be influenced by security factors whereas it is politics and society that must figure in the dialogue.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh was asked the same question. His answer was: 'What's wrong in that? He (Sharma) is an apolitical person having no political affiliation, which is his greatest advantage. Besides, he is well aware of the internal security situation of the country.'

The Indian Army is a crucial factor in the state. But Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat has said clearly that the army will continue its operations in the state as before, interlocutor or no interlocutor.

He made no observations about 'goli' or 'gaali'.

The National Investigation Agency is hot on the heels of separatist leaders. The target is the funding of terrorism.

National Conference leader Omar Abdullah referred to this aspect of the new approach to Kashmir. 'What does this mean for the NIA investigation in J&K? Will investigation be suspended to facilitate dialogue with detained Hurriyat leaders?' Abdullah asked.

Most Hurriyat leaders are either under house arrest or under detention pending NIA questioning.

Sharma has just started out and will talk to stakeholders in the state. But what Kashmiris are waiting for is the embrace the prime minister promised on August 15.

IMAGE: Children pelt stones at the security forces in Srinagar May 2017. Photograph: Umar Ganie

Aditi Phadnis
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