Kashmir talks: Sharma's optimism only positive after round 1

Kashmir talks: Sharma's optimism only positive after round 1

The Centre's 'special representative' for Kashmir, Dineshwar Sharma, has had his first visit to the state in that capacity, where he was supposed to meet stakeholders to discuss their 'legitimate aspirations' in an attempt to bring peace to the troubled valley. During his five-day visit, the former director of Intelligence Bureau met various delegations and individuals but failed to start a conversation with the separatist leaders, business community and other important groups, who chose to keep away.

While separatists had already made their intentions of not meeting the former spy chief clear, the leaders of opposition parties National Conference, Congress and CPM didn't show any optimism despite meeting Sharma briefly in Srinagar. National Conference president and MP Farooq Abdullah even called the interlocutor's visit a "futile exercise." State Congress vice president G N Monga termed the interlocution process a half-hearted effort by New Delhi and advised Sharma to do proper homework about whom to meet and how to approach them.

Even before the dialogue started, Sharma's visit was marred by mistrust between New Delhi and Srinagar. Prime Minister Narendra Modi shot down any discussion of 
autonomy for the state, seeming to equate it with secession. Days after being named as special representative for Kashmir by the Centre on October 23, Sharma said his biggest challenge and top priority would be to de-radicalise Kashmiri youth and prevent it from turning into a Syria in India. And the statement of BJP minister Jitendra Singh on October 27 that there is "no such thing as the Kashmir issue" was another snub to the peace lobby in the Valley.

On the streets of Kashmir, common people have little or no hope that the fresh initiative can bring an immediate end to their decades-long misery. They have reason to be pessimistic. This is not the first time that the Government of India has appointed an interlocutor for Jammu and Kashmir. The first interlocutor was appointed in April 2001 and continued till 2002. It was led by K C Pant, the then deputy chairman of the erstwhile Planning Commission. The fate of his recommendations is known to everyone. It was followed by the appointment of the present J&K Governor N N Vohra in February 2003 and he continued till 2008.

After the summer unrest of 2010, the UPA-II government appointed a three-member team, which was entrusted with the job of holding 'sustained' dialogue and 'to understand people's problems and chart a course for the future.' In 2011, the interlocutors submitted their report to the government. Since then a lot has been said and written about this exercise which didn't bear any fruit.

But despite the controversies and the cold response, Sharma, before concluding the first tour of his 'Mission Kashmir', said that he was "very much satisfied" with his visit, and would try to make every effort to meet the Hurriyat leaders during his next visit, slated for the last week of November. He also said that he aims to talk to the younger generation in Kashmir to understand their problems and find a way of resolving them. Sharma's optimism is the only factor that gives people some hope that there is a possibility of a breakthrough being achieved in the coming months.

With the situation so hostile in Kashmir, there is remote possibility that the Hurriyat will come to the negotiation table in the near future. During and after the 2016 unrest, they adopted a hard stance, heightened ethnic activism and a pro-Pakistan approach, which indicates that the separatists are in no mood to enter into any sort of negotiations with Delhi. If for a moment it is assumed that they will come out and meet Sharma, it will be at a heavy cost for them, both to their ideological stance as well as public support. And unless Sharma offers them something concrete in return, there is little chance of any breakthrough.

While there is every possibility that the separatists won't meet him during his future visits either, Sharma will have to overcome the challenge to a certain extent by convincing civil society, business groups and especially the youth of Kashmir of the sincerity of Delhi's efforts.

Obviously, this is no easy task considering the prevailing security situation in the Valley, where militants are once again calling the shots. Sharma is not new to Kashmir as he has served here and is very much aware of the Valley's politics and situation. He doesn't need to do much groundwork as he knows the people who matter. That could really make a difference.

New Delhi can help him by elaborating what it wants to bring to the table on Kashmir. It needs to make clear what mandate Sharma has, as there are many ifs and buts on the issue. In recent months, the Government of India has adopted an ambiguous position on Kashmir's special status and repeatedly ruled out autonomy.

The next few rounds of Sharma's comings and goings should remain of much interest. Before holding talks the government would have to make the situation conducive. The prevailing insecurity and uncertainty need to end for any process to be successful.

If New Delhi is sincere in its talks offer, it needs to demonstrate it on the ground. It will have to demonstrate that it is serious and sincere about the idea of talks to resolve the issue. Some CBMs, like releasing political leaders and youth jailed in the last one year, handing over some power projects from NHPC to the J&K government, and a special employment package for youth could create conducive grounds for the talks.

Sharma's appointment came as a surprise since the Narendra Modi government had been averse to taking this route to address the problems in and of Kashmir. However, it is welcome that after three years of delay, New Delhi realised that the solution to the seething anger on the streets of Kashmir has to be political, not military.

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