New Delhi: A three-member team was set up by the Centre to talk to the Kashmiris back in 2010, when an unexpectedly huge unrest broke out in the Valley in which over a 100 people lost their lives.
“It was the first time the Indian government had appointed a group of people rather than a single interlocutor. It was also the first time that non-government people were appointed to such a mission,” noted historian Radha Kumar who was a member of that group states in her book on Kashmir – ‘Paradise at War: A Political History of Kashmir’
In the book, published by Aleph Book Company, Kumar looks back at the time she spent in the valley trying to understand it at a very crucial time – when the Centre is dealing with one of the worst spells of violent unrests in the Valley while it has sent its own emissary to Kashmir to do exactly what Kumar was sent to do almost eight years ago.
There are several interesting sections in the book, including one on Kashmiri Pandits in which Kumar says, “…difficult as these political issues were, the most painful and complex issue for us was the return of Kashmiri Pandits”.
However the most topical passage in her book arguably is placed in a latter chapter titled ‘2016 and After: Losing Kashmir?’ In the passage Kumar looks at the challenges for the current interlocutor to Kashmir, former Intelligence Bureau (IB) director Dineshwar Sharma, and excoriates almost every involved party in Kashmir. An excerpt.
The worsening situation in the Valley did prompt a partial rethink in the Narendra Modi administration. In his August 2017 Independence Day speech, the Prime Minister exhorted his countrymen to ‘embrace’ Kashmiris instead of fighting or demonizing them, adding ‘na goli se na gali se, baat banegi boli se (the solution will come through talks, not bullets or abuse)’. In October, Dineshwar Sharma, a former head of India’s Intelligence Bureau, was appointed Special Representative for Jammu and Kashmir. Sharma’s mandate was similar to the mandate we had had, insofar as he was empowered to hold talks with dissidents such as the Hurriyat. But it also appeared to be more restricted than ours, since his appointment letter specified he would discuss only the ‘legitimate aspirations’ of Kashmiris. What the Modi administration defined as legitimate was unclear. At the same time as his administration appointed an interlocutor, the prime minister likened the autonomy demand to the independence demand in his October 2017 Gujarat election campaign speeches, implying that even autonomy was off the table.
The Tehreek, Hurriyat and JKLF—who had recently banded together under the rubric of a ‘Joint Resistance Leadership’—immediately denounced Sharma’s appointment, announcing that they would not participate in talks with him. But their statement was par for the course. They had made similar statements on our appointment as well as those of previous interlocutors, but unofficially encouraged us to develop conditions on the ground that would permit a dialogue between them and the prime minister or home minister.
Sharma’s mission appeared to follow a similar structure and trajectory to ours. He began visiting districts and met the breakaway peacenik Ghani Bhatt. Just before his second visit to Jammu and Kashmir, the Home Ministry supported the state government in announcing an amnesty for first-time stone-throwers on 23 November 2017. The Mehbooba administration began to implement this policy more speedily than the Omar administration had, though the amnesty failed to give Sharma’s mission the boost it was intended to, since the army’s counter-insurgency campaign continued full tilt. Though we too were dogged by the AFSPA debate, which reopened in January 2018 following the deaths of three youths in army firing in Shopian during a stoning protest, Sharma had a harder task in relation to the army than we did. The chief of army staff during our mission, General V. K. Singh, was also sceptical of a peace process, but he was advised to allow his commanders on the ground to do more talking about Kashmir than he did, and they espoused a hearts-and-minds policy. Towards the end of his tenure, however, General Singh embroiled himself in ugly spats with the Singh administration, including over Kashmir. The chief of army staff since 2016, General Bipin Rawat, did far more talking on Kashmir than the commanders on the ground, and his often-unguarded remarks were negatively received. In early 2018, his criticism of the valley’s educational practice sparked a row with the state education minister, adding to valley hostility towards security forces.
As of late 2017, the Modi administration appeared to be pursuing a two-pronged strategy in the valley, reconciliation on one prong and counter-insurgency on the other. The two prongs sat uneasily together. While Sharma’s mission was reconciliation, the security forces’ counter-insurgency operations ratcheted up and widened to a crackdown on illegal funding for dissidence. Targeting the black economy was necessary for peacebuilding, but would carry more weight if all illegal financial transactions were targeted, including corruption and nepotism, not just dissident funds. There were also hard considerations to factor in—how could Sharma expect to talk to dissidents if they and their colleagues were arrested for illegal funding (which they also periodically received from Indian government agencies, mostly through slush funds)?
This was a dilemma that previous administrations faced and dealt with in different ways. The Vajpayee administration countenanced pay-offs, especially to surrendering militants and their mentors. Singh’s administration gradually terminated grants to former militants but did allow occasional pay-offs, for example, to wean away stone-throwers in 2010–11. Both administrations attempted to curb the flow of funds for militancy from Pakistan, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and the Pakistani or Kashmiri diaspora in Europe and the US. But they did so quietly, without linking Kashmiri grievances to funding or implying that Kashmiri protests occurred only because they were paid, both of which erroneous assumptions seemed to have become axioms for the Modi administration.
The space for peacemaking shrank so rapidly between 2014 and 2018 that it was difficult to imagine how, if at all, talks with Kashmiri dissidents would resume. The same conditions applied to talks with Pakistan.