Centre must continue reaching out to Kashmiris

Farooq Abdullah release just the first step, govt must continue reaching out to Kashmiris

If this decision is not backed up with further steps, it will remain a half-baked idea; right time now for Centre to unveil the 'package' it has in mind

National Conference patron Farooq Abdullah. (PTI Photo)

The sudden and unexpected release from custody last week of National Conference (NC) stalwart and former chief minister as well as union minister, Farooq Abdullah, carries the potential of heralding the 'return of politics' in the Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir more than eight months after it was banished from the now bifurcated former state. 

Yet, if this decision is not backed up with further steps, it will remain a half-baked idea, similar to many taken by this government whenever it embarked on untested paths without chalking out the entire plan.

The revocation of the veteran leader's detention under the J&K Public Safety Act, which allows for imprisonment for a period of up to two years without trial, was unanticipated. There was no prior indication of the government softening its stance of treating the situation in the Valley solely as a law and order matter. 

With Abdullah now free, the release of others under detention – most significantly the other two former chief ministers, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti – could be on the cards.

However, till this remains a mere possibility, it is difficult to comprehend how 'normalcy' can return to the region, especially given the disinclination on the government's part to explain why the harsh laws against Abdullah and the other political prisoners were invoked in the first place. 

Opening up political channels

Yet, with this unlikely turn of events, it appears that the Centre has warmed up to the idea of opening up political channels with the political leadership that existed prior to the abrogation of Article 370. This is a surprising development because it is just days since the new party launched by former People's Democratic Party (PDP) leader, Altaf Bukhari led a two-dozen strong delegation to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi

When this meeting was planned, it was seen as part of the Centre's policy of encouraging formation of 'friendly' parties in the Union territory with the idea of isolating the NC and PDP. Abdullah's dramatic release however, raises questions over the future and legitimacy of the J&K Apni Party. On March 8, when Bukhari along with 40 other members launched the 'Jammu Kashmir Apni Party', they accepted the 'undeniable reality' of scrapping Article 370 by the Centre. 

Instead of harping on the need to put the clock back, Bukhari stated his outfit will work towards the development and harmonious society. But, to avoid being seen as the Centre's lackeys, the new party demanded that mainstream Kashmiri leaders, including Bukhari's former chief, Mehbooba Mufti, be released from detention at the earliest.

Importance of Farooq Abdullah

Abdullah's release however, will not appear surprising if one frames it against the backdrop of rising international scrutiny of the post-August 2019 human rights record in the former state of J&K. The Centre has come under strain especially after the UN Commissioner for Human Rights decided to personally implead herself in the Apex court in an anti-CAA case. 

The surest way for the Centre to ease rising international isolation on issues that form the core of the Hindutva agenda, is by resuming conversation with internationally recognised political players. Abdullah certainly is the most recognisable and credible face.

It has helped that Farooq Abdullah too has seen the futility of embarking on a path of confrontation immediately. Although he is combating a host of medical issues and has to be doubly careful in the times of the coronavirus pandemic, Abdullah is also a seasoned politician who possibly knows deep down the possibility of restoration of Article 370 as it was previously operational is remote. Given that the majority of political parties in India backed the government move on Kashmir, Abdullah possibly sees the need to 'move on' to some extent.

Former R&AW Chief, AS Dulat, who revealed details of his meeting with Abdullah some weeks prior to his release, has indicated that the veteran is aware that the Supreme Court is examining the decision and would await the verdict before planning a major political step. In any case, his moves would remain within the constitutional and legal framework.

For its part, the Centre has assured that the restoration of statehood for  J&K, is firmly on its agenda. Yet, it must be recognised that with the decision to constitute a delimitation commission to redraw constituencies (and reallocate seats between Jammu & Kashmir), the political topography of the restored state would be significantly different from what it was previously. 

While the government may be pleased with the fact that Kashmir has remained peaceful and violence has not touched levels that were feared, it cannot ignore the presence of sullen stillness among the people in the Valley. The Kashmir region cannot be kept under permanent lockdown because Modi is keen for international approval and continuing global embrace. Because there is a need for public acceptance, if not endorsement, of the dilution of Article 370, the Centre has to begin the process of conversing with people. This can best be done by initiating a dialogue with NC, undoubtedly the largest political party in Jammu and Kashmir.

Dialogue with other players

Yet, these will remain half measures unless the Centre reaches out to every section barring hardened militants and terrorists. Various governments, including the one headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, conversed with separatists in the past and it is time for the Centre to bridge the gulf it purposely widened since 2014. The problem however, is also the BJP's (Bharatiya Janata Party) political ambition. Part of the reason that relations between PDP and Centre deteriorated was due to the ruling party's political ambitions in the un-bifurcated state. The BJP has to forsake its ambition of installing a Hindu as chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, however large be its symbolic value in other parts of the country.

The BJP state leadership will be emboldened when statehood is restored and would want a greater share of power. If this becomes reality, it would increase the existing alienation of the Kashmiri people and hardly ensure peace and stability, essential for growth and development which remains still the best way to normalcy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a past-master at shifting goalposts. Multiple voices have spoken about restoration of statehood. But for the moment, this appears but ‘promised land’. For restored statehood to become the basis of Kashmir's peaceful coexistence with the Indian state, much has to be done after Abdullah's release. He has displayed maturity so far and it is time for the Centre to unveil the 'package' it has in mind.

(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based journalist and author. His latest book is RSS: Icons Of The Indian Right. He has also written Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times (2013)) 

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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