Has New Delhi’s latest interlocutor hit a dead end in Kashmir?
Last week, the Indian government sent Dineshwar Sharma, a former intelligence chief, to Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) state, ostensibly to open a dialogue with Kashmiri separatists. His five-day visit was a letdown.
It did not lessen the Kashmiri alienation from India. Instead it spawned suspicions about New Delhi’s true intentions: one, that the appointment’s sole purpose was to resurrect the beleaguered chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti; and two, that Sharma’s visit was caught in the middle (and neutralized by) a recurring rivalry in New Delhi’s corridors of power, between North Block (which houses the federal Home Ministry) and South Block (which houses the Prime Minister’s Office).
On October 23, Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced the appointment of former Intelligence Bureau (IB) director Dineshwar Sharma as the government of India’s special representative to J&K. It came after a string of successes in anti-terrorism operations: More than 175 militants have been killed so far this year, including the local heads of tanzeems (militant groups) such as the Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Hizbul Mujahideen. Sharma was to talk to “political parties, organizations and individuals.”
Such dialogues had been held several times before, most recently when a three-member team was appointed in 2010. For Kashmiris, such a dialogue only has meaning if it includes the separatist All Party Hurriyat Conference. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government abhors the Hurriyat, treating them as fifth columnists. Indeed, leave aside separatists, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has equated them with those seeking greater political autonomy with Pakistan. (India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir, and it has been considered a disputed territory by the United Nations since 1948.)
During his three days in Srinagar (in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley), Sharma did not even meet with the moderate Hurriyat leader (and Srinagar chief priest) Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. The Hurriyat called his appointment “a tactic by India to gain time.” He met with mainstream political parties such as the National Conference, whose leader (and former chief minister) Omar Abdullah advised Sharma not to wait for the Hurriyat to come and meet with him, and instead go and meet with them.
Sharma also met with odd groups like the “Fans of Rahul Gandhi Association”. During his two days in the winter capital, Jammu, he met with the chief minister and various organizations, including those of displaced Hindus. At the end, he called his visit “very fruitful.”
Mehbooba Mufti was reanimated by his visit. She leads a coalition of her Kashmir-based People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the BJP, whose strength is in the Hindu-majority Jammu plains. Her government is highly unpopular among her fellow Kashmiris, who see her as a Trojan horse for the BJP.
Jitender Singh asserted repeatedly on television that Sharma would not meet with any separatists, and he downgraded Sharma’s appointment as if it were a routine bureaucratic posting. This contradicted Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s stated intention of opening a political dialogue
They suspect that the right-wing party intends to change Kashmir’s demography; as if to prove them right, a BJP-aligned group has filed a petition in the Supreme Court against a constitutional article that protects Kashmir’s demography by allowing the state government to determine who can be a resident.
In fact, Mehbooba waited for three months after her father and former chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s death, in January 2016, to take over because of her electorate’s antipathy toward her coalition partner.
She had been a subdued chief minister until Dineshwar Sharma’s appointment, after which she was giving statements nearly daily. And while Sharma was in Jammu, local ministers told reporters that his itinerary and his appointments in Srinagar were fixed by the state government itself.
At the same time, Sharma, an old Kashmir hand and not a stranger to the Hurriyat leadership, was undermined by statements made by the minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), Jitender Singh, who is also a parliamentarian from Udhampur in the Jammu region. Jitender Singh asserted repeatedly on television that Sharma would not meet with any separatists, and he downgraded Sharma’s appointment as if it were a routine bureaucratic posting. This contradicted Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s stated intention of opening a political dialogue.
It is believed that Rajnath Singh, an ambitious senior BJP leader, has been hopeful of a major initiative from his ministry ever since he and Modi assumed office in May 2014. After consulting National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, often referred to as the second most powerful man in India, Singh launched this initiative; it is believed that Doval suggested Sharma’s name (both are police service officers of the Kerala cadre, and Doval ensured Sharma’s appointment as the IB chief).
Jitender Singh’s statements suggest, however, that the PMO was not fully on board with the home minister’s initiative. It echoes an earlier North Block-South Block divide during the BJP-led government of prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004), when a rivalry existed between the national security adviser at the time, Brajesh Mishra, and the then home minister, Lal Krishna Advani. Their disagreements on policies including on Pakistan and Kashmir were an open secret.
In any case, despite Sharma’s promise of more visits to Kashmir for talks, Kashmiris themselves have concluded that this initiative has reached a dead end.