It's time for talks in Kashmir

Ending the impasse: Engaging with all stakeholders, including separatists, is the only way to restore normalcy

It's time for talks in Kashmir
We often tend to forget the primary reason for a particular civil disturbance when such upheavals go on for a long time. In due course, the situation gets aggravated when no efforts are made by the civil administration to talk to the protestors. As a result, the law and order authorities bear the brunt of public anger, though they are in no way responsible for mishandling of the situation. In that process, the police and the armed forces get demonised though they are faithfully carrying out their legal responsibility. Such situations emerge as a result of the ruling politicians’ abdication of their constitutional responsibility and transferring the “buck” to the security agencies.

This is precisely what is happening in Kashmir, where street protests have been going on since Burhan Wani was killed on July 8, 2016. In between, some clever government spokespersons tried to brand the protesters as paid mercenaries or Pakistani agents, claiming that disturbances had petered out due to lack of cash after the prime minister’s demonetisation drive. The hollowness of this argument is evident with the sharp deterioration of the situation now. To me, it seems very clear that the deep resentment in the Valley had started even earlier due to other reasons, and Wani’s killing was only a spark to trigger the explosion. To understand this we need to go back to the 2014 Assembly election which gave birth to the PDP-BJP coalition.

This was an unnatural oddity which came together for an ulterior motive. They knew that it was not meant for “development” as claimed by the BJP or for “demilitarisation of the Valley” as put across by the PDP. Even a child in the Valley knows that the BJP, the successor of the old “Praja Parishad” of Maharaja days, represents the hated Jammu domination. It was clear that in 2014, the BJP tried to use the fabled Trojan horse tactics of staying in government with a final aim of vanquishing its partner.

The PDP, which had used strident rhetoric against the BJP before the elections, joined the latter only for staying in power. Also, it is not a secret that the BJP leaders’ public outbursts against Muslims elsewhere had angered the youth in the Valley. In October 2015, there were protests over the petrol bomb attack on Zahid Ahmed, a Kashmiri trucker in Udhampur who was accused of carrying beef. There were clashes with the police at Anantnag during his funeral. The public also witnessed how Engineer Rashid, an Independent MLA, was publicly beaten up by the BJP cadres.

In April 2016, some Kashmiri students in Jodhpur complained that they were attacked by other students in retaliation to an alleged police assault on some non-Kashmiri students in the National Institute of Technology, Srinagar. In April 2017, some fringe elements, described as pro-BJP, were seen assaulting Kashmiri students in Rajasthan and other states in retaliation to stone pelting in the Valley, as though they are responsible. That the present BJP government at the Centre had no plans to attend to the Valley’s grievances was clear even last year.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s visit to Srinagar in August was more of a protocol affair than trying to find a solution to the problem. Similarly, the all-party delegation which visited Srinagar in September could not achieve much despite some meetings with the “separatists”. The jarring note at that time was BJP general secretary Ram Madhav’s description of their attempts as “romantic”. Since our Central government failed to take any initiative, a Citizens’ Group led by senior BJP leader Yashwant Sinha visited Srinagar in October for talks. They found that the people were extremely resentful of the government’s attitude in describing all protesters as “puppets of Pakistan”. The delegation warned New Delhi that “the sense of despair and desperation in Kashmir is increasing by the day”.

Strange apprehension

The group then made eight recommendations, but New Delhi does not seem to have taken any cognisance of this visit. The same Citizens’ Group made another visit in December and observed: “There is a strange apprehension among the Kashmiris that something untoward is going to happen once spring sets in. What happens in the period after April 2017 is expected to be much higher in magnitude and intensity”.

The group recommended: “A multi-dimensional dialogue for settling the Kashmir issue be started between India and Kashmiri leaders and between India and Pakistan...Besides institutionalising the process of interaction between civil society groups from the rest of India and Kashmiris by involving more opinion makers and concerned citizens.”

Sinha was forced to say this on April 11: “When the prime minister went to Jammu to inaugurate the new Chenani-Nashri tunnel, I had hoped that apart from opening a more convenient physical route to the Valley, he would also try to open a new and more convenient route to the hearts and minds of the people there. He did not do so - and his offer to the youth to choose between tourism and terrorism left them cold. The least that I expected him to announce on the occasion was the appointment of an interlocutor to engage the various stakeholders in Jammu and Kashmir in a dialogue process, as promised in the agenda for alliance between the PDP and the BJP before the coalition government in J&K was formed”.

It is quite amazing that there has been no response to this anguished comment despite Sinha being the most experienced leader in the BJP at present. None in the present Cabinet can match his varied experience in politics or government. It is a pity that his views are totally ignored. On the other hand, the local BJP is represented by leaders like Chander Prakash Ganga, who despite being in the coalition Cabinet, wanted all stone-pelters to be dealt with bullets. Though he later regretted making such a comment, the damage was already done.

The BJP’s stand that they would not hold talks with “separatists” is at variance with their ardent attitude towards the Naga rebels who have publicly said that they would not abide by our Constitution. Also, the Supreme Court had said on September 14, 2016, that none can be called “separatists-terrorists” unless that charge is proved. We cannot reject participation of “separatists” who live within our borders. If we do, we will be no better than Pakistan.

(The writer is a former special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, and member of High Level Committee of the Maharashtra government to probe the police response to 26/11 terror attack)

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