Can India Jumpstart the Kashmir Peace Process?

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Can India Jumpstart the Kashmir Peace Process?

Kashmiris are skeptical about the appointment of a new interlocutor by the Indian government.

Can India Jumpstart the Kashmir Peace Process?

Kashmiri protesters run for cover amid tear gas smoke fired by Indian police men during a protest after the funeral of Kashmiri rebel Ashiq Ahmed Bhat, in Palhalan, Indian controlled Kashmir (Nov. 14, 2017).

Credit: AP Photo/Dar Yasin

On October 23, Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced the appointment of former Intelligence Bureau (IB) Director Dineshwar Sharma as the government of India’s special representative to Jammu and Kashmir to hold talks with Kashmiris. The announcement came after months’ long unrest in 2016, during which more than 100 people were killed and intense operations against militants in Kashmir this year.

Sharma is a 1979-batch officer from India’s elite police service and has served in various prominent positions in the government, including working with India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval when he headed the IB.

His appointment as a special representative for Kashmir is a significant development from the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP)-led central government, which after coming to power in 2014 had taken a hardline stand on the Kashmir issue. As a result of this stand, the government, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had consistently refused to talk to the separatists in Kashmir, asserting that the mainstream political parties are real representatives of people in the valley. However, Modi, in his Independence Day speech on August 15 this year, said that the “Kashmir problem cannot be resolved through goli ya gaali (bullets or abuses). It can be resolved by embracing all Kashmiris.” That was taken by many as an apparent change in the government’s policy. Sharma’s appointment also follows a statement made by S. P. Vaid, the state’s top police official, who said that despite killing many militants, Kashmir needs a “political initiative” to truly solve the issue. Vaid added that the central government should take steps to prevent “jobless” youth from being “influenced by a lot of unwanted and dangerous stuff.”

When it comes to the peace process in Kashmir, Sharma is the fourth interlocutor appointed by the government of India since 2002. The first was former Union Minister K. C. Pant, the second was N. N. Vohra (who is presently the governor of Jammu and Kashmir), and the third was a three-member panel comprising former bureaucrat M. M. Ansari, academician Radha Kumar, and late journalist Dileep Padgaonkar. The last three interlocutors were appointed at the time of the 2010 unrest to engage in talks with the Kashmiris. However, their recommendations, submitted as part of a report, were unceremoniously dumped by the government then led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

After his appointment as a special representative, Sharma traveled to the state on November 6, spending three days in the Kashmir Valley and two days in Jammu. During his Srinagar visit, however, Sharma couldn’t meet with the separatists as they refused to talk with him. Commenting on Sharma’s appointment, the joint secessionist leadership, comprising both factions of the Hurriyat and the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, remarked, “It is mere rhetoric and wastage of time and no section of Hurriyat or group will meet the designated interlocutor or participate in this futile exercise.” Hurriyat insists that the Indian government must acknowledge Kashmir as a disputed region.

Meanwhile in Jammu, Sharma met the state’s chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, and Kashmiri Pandits who have been living in exile for the last 25 years. He described his five-day visit as “fruitful.”

Even as Sharma visited the Valley and Jammu, there were many who expressed skepticism over his appointment, as all the interlocutors appointed by previous governments have been seen as failures.

Aware of the interlocutors’ past record, Sharma said, “I do not have a magic wand, but my efforts have to be judged with sincerity and not through the prism of the past.”

It’s not only separatists; some mainstream political leaders are also skeptical about Sharma’s appointment. Farooq Abdullah, former chief minister of the state, said that the central government’s new dialogue process to resolve issues in Kashmir would not succeed until India talks to Pakistan, as a part of the region belongs to it. “I can only tell that he [Sharma] indulged in dialogue here. But that won’t solve the issue because this is an issue between India and Pakistan,” Abdullah said.

People in the valley, particularly in south Kashmir, say that Sharma’s appointment broke no ice at the political level to bring peace or bridge the gap between the present ruling BJP and Kashmiris. “The appointments of interlocutors by the Indian state for Kashmir has not achieved anything in past nor will it bear any fruits in future,” Mohammad Ishaq, from south Kashmir, told The Diplomat.

Many see this appointment as a bid to buy time by the BJP government. “The Modi-led government’s appointment of an interlocutor is a ‘wait and watch’ policy, which has proved to be fatal in any conflict around the world,” Mohammad said.

Moreover, Sharma’s appointment comes at a time when the BJP has backed issues like the revocation of Article 370, which gives special status to the permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir, and efforts to settle the displaced Kashmiri Pandits (Hindus) in separate colonies in Kashmir, which has been looked as a plan to “alter the demography of Kashmir.”

“Appointing an interlocutor may be seen as a major development by many in the valley but the BJP is itself struggling to get some support here. It is aimed at ending the present impasse in Kashmir, but it will not even engender hope in the mainstream parties,” a journalist from Kashmir told The Diplomat.

Many locals also assert that dialogue and counterinsurgency operations can’t go on simultaneously. These security operations have gained pace in recent months. In June, “Operation all Out” was initiated by the security forces after militancy-related activities increased across the Kashmir Valley. Lieutenant General, J. S. Sandhu, head of the Srinagar-based 15 corps, the Indian Army command responsible for the Kashmir Valley, said on November 20 that they have eliminated 190 militants this year so far.

“The dispute can only be resolved by coming to the negotiating table and only if the interlocutors address the root cause of militancy in the valley. It can’t yield results unless the youth voice is taken into consideration,” Basharat Ahmad, a local from north Kashmir, told The Diplomat. 

But there are people who believe that a new beginning should be made. “I believe dialogue is the only way out and the appointment of an interlocutor means recognition of the fact that Kashmir is a political problem,” Irfan Hafiz Lone, a lawyer and an activist, told The Diplomat.

“I believe that Hurriyat should have met the interlocutor to convey its stand directly, which was the need of the hour,” he said.

Interestingly, just few days after the interlocutor concluded his visit, two young boys from South Kashmir left militancy within a span of a week to return to normal life, apparently after their parents and relatives appealed to them to return. One of these is Majid Khan, a footballer turned militant, who returned home on November 17. Three days after his return, another youth who had joined militant ranks about two months ago came back to his family in South Kashmir.

When Sharma wrapped his visit to the valley, he announced that he would come back for further talks in the peace process. But in the absence of larger enabling conditions for peace in the Valley and given the trust deficit between India and Kashmir, many doubt if Sharma will be successful in his endeavor.

Um-Roommana is a freelance journalist based in Kashmir.