Talking to Kashmiris

Kashmir’s 2016 uprising that left nearly hundred dead, thousands injured and scores blinded failed to move the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government in Delhi to even acknowledge that political discontent existed on the ground. The contempt with which the outpouring was dismissed as “psychological captivation” and the handiwork of five percent population supported by Pakistan further explained the policy to deal with Kashmir. The political leadership in Delhi did not go beyond the bureaucratic script that has been guiding the Kashmir policy in north and south blocks (housing the PMO and Home Ministry) for last so many decades. Prime Minister Narendra Modi who had been giving an impression that he was the master of policies and nothing would move without his nod. But in case of Kashmir either he has failed to comprehend the ground situation or he chooses to ignore or he simply goes by the advice of the security and bureaucratic grid. If the political grapevine is to be taken seriously, there is a division of opinion on handling Kashmir, with Home Minister thinking of an out of box approach and the PMO going by a doctrine of tiring the people out and taking advantage from the fatigue that apparently took over the agitation.

Notwithstanding the fact that the level of protests declined, people complained of the problems set in by unending shutdowns forcing the joint Hurriyat to call them off, the reality that exists on ground is that the anger and frustration has not gone off. People might have started going back to normality but the simmering discontent is alive and could trigger anything, may be not in near future. Government’s approach of ignoring Kashmir in 2016 may not help in looking at a calmer Kashmir in 2017. This continued absence of political engagement is vindicating those who believe in hard-line approach and also exposes Delhi’s intentions vis-à-vis Kashmir’s embroiling situation that pushes us ten steps back when looking at the prospects of a peaceful atmosphere. Development is something that is not lacking, tourism has flourished in past over one decade, bridges and hospitals have come up but political instability has pushed the prospects of prosperity back and has also made a huge dent to the “democratically elected governments” that have been running under the cover of veiled support to separatists. If it is National Conference today, it was Peoples Democratic Party yesterday.

Even as the majority of public opinion in India seems to be going against Kashmiris, there are initiatives at civil society level that have recognized not only the political questioning by the people but also their pain and suffering. With Modi government sending a strong message that Kashmir could only be dealt with force and the security management, a former foreign minister Yashwant Sinha led a group of people to talk to and understand this pain. A co architect of the peace process that began between India, Pakistan and Kashmir from 2003 onwards, Sinha chose to call himself a private citizen though he has not severed his ties with BJP. He is leading the initiative with credible faces such as Wajahat Habibullah, Air Vice Marshal (retd) Kapil Kak, Bharat Bhushan and Sushobha Barve and they succeeded in breaking the ice.

If the joint Hurriyat leadership comprising Syed Ali Geelani and Mirwaiz Farooq refused to speak to or engage with the parliamentarians who knocked at their doors in September, they said yes to Sinha delegation. Sinha and his group repeatedly maintained that they were not representing the government nor could they offer anything but wanted sustained engagement that would help them to understand Kashmir’s renewed struggle and that they could inform the larger public opinion. So far they have made two visits and have expanded their area of discussion by visiting South and North Kashmir and talking to people from all hues. They are non-committal but they have made their intention of continuing with this public engagement clear. Besides them, a former minister Kamal Morarka and senior journalist Santosh Bhartiya, whose open letter to Modi on Kashmir created a stir in public circles, also met the leaders and the public. Bhartiya’s account narrated the painful story of Kashmir and could move even a stone but failed to do so in case of BJP government.

In some sections of civil society there is cynicism vis-à-vis the Sinha and other initiatives. That feeling is genuine given the background of engagements of past and in an atmosphere where the governments are not ready to listen, suspicion about such meetings is bound to increase. But one thing that is important to note that despite a history of betrayals and deceit Kashmir has gone through, people still believe in talking. The joint Hurriyat, the civil society, the Bar Association, media or any other section of the society have gained a point while responding to the initiatives taken by someone in Delhi. In one meeting with Sinha even the members told him to become their ambassador in talking to rest of India and that makes it clear that Kashmiris have not lost faith in the institution of dialogue, whether official or unofficial.

It is important to further strengthen the transition from violence to non-violence and have a moral victory against those who do not respect the dialogue as a way to find solutions to the problem. Sinha and company may not deliver but those who engaged with them showed faith in the institution, which is the only tool left to get the people out of this morass. This has certainly pushed the government to the wall whether they are ready or accept or not. And the way Sinha or Morarka have described the situation in Kashmir during their visits also throws weight behind the common voice of Kashmiris. This is what Morarka said at the end of his visit: “I was shocked during my stay in Kashmir. There is no democracy, no civil rights for common people. You can’t hold a peaceful demonstration while disproportionate force is used by the government to muzzle the voice of the people. Despite enjoying special status, Kashmir has become a hell due to wrong approach of the State and Central Governments”. The government may ignore it but the voices have started echoing what Kashmiris have been shouting about.

While the Sinha-led group should not fail the people the way governments have done in the past, both governments in Delhi and Srinagar should see this changing situation as an opportunity to reach out to the people and start a meaningful engagement in case they want to see 2016 as past, though the wounds will take long time to heal. Onus lies surely on Delhi.