Talks about talks in the Kashmir Valley
There is a silver lining in the dark cloud of uncertainty looming over Jammu and Kashmir. An all-party delegation that recently visited the Kashmir Valley has called for talks with all stakeholders which may include the “separatist” All Parties Hurriyet Conference as well. Will the Modi government find such an extraordinary idea agreeable? Anyway, the federal government needs an out-of-the-box approach to resolve the Kashmir tangle.
A high profile visit by the Indian army chief General Dalbir Singh to the Kashmir Valley on Friday, fourth in a row in 7 weeks, highlights the gravity of the security situation in that region. Kashmir Valley has been in turmoil for two months following the killing by the security forces of a charismatic commander of the separatist militant organization, Hizbul Mujahideen in early July.
As many as 73 people have been killed so far in the violence and several thousand injured. Curfew had to be re-imposed in many parts of the capital Srinagar yesterday as “precautionary measure” in anticipation of violent protests after Friday prayers. There are severe restrictions on the movement and assembly of people in the rest of the Kashmir Valley as well.
Gen. Singh’s tour is being seen as signaling that “Indian Army will no longer remain on the sidelines”, as a security analyst Ajay Shukla wrote. In reality, though, the government directed the army to create conditions on the ground that would hopefully enable the return of paramilitary forces and police who have fled their posts and were forced to concede large tracts of territory to protestors.
This is a replay of 2010 when too the writ of the Indian state had ceased to exist following large-scale street protests across the Valley. Traditionally, Delhi’s modus operandi is to call in the Army when nothing else works, and forcefully establish “dominance” over disaffected people. The Army generally succeeds.
However, a major difference is that Pakistan-backed insurgency has been on the wane and cross-border infiltration is also relatively on a much smaller scale. This is despite direct incitement of anger in the Valley from Islamabad. In short, this time around, Army’s task is rather curious – namely, re-energize the police and paramilitary forces and restore their self-confidence, morale and operational viability.
It is an unpleasant task for any standing army – control unarmed crowds pelting stones and finesse an inchoate civil disobedience movement while also revive the demoralized police machinery and protect it from the wrath of the people. But being a disciplined force, Indian Army will carry out the orders of the civilian leadership in Delhi. Experts anticipate a “three-pronged strategy” by the Army:
- Making its presence (“footprint”) more visible by spreading out the deployments with a view to “reasserting dominance over the countryside”;
- Instilling confidence in the police and paramilitary by providing them security protection; and,
- Bringing into the Valley more paramilitary forces as reinforcement to handle the heavy “workload”.
Clearly, authorities are hard-pressed to re-impose the writ of the state, which has ceased to exist across the Valley. The earlier hopes of sitting out the protests have been dashed. The authorities fear “a dangerous momentum towards anarchy,” as Shukla put it.
Some wriggle room
This is a gambit insofar as it is essentially yet another attempt at cauterization of a bleeding wound. Indeed, the top army commander in Kashmir Lt. Gen. D. S. Hooda has gone on record that what is needed is political management rather than treating the situation as a security problem.
However, there could be a silver lining on the horizon.
On the face of it, an all-party delegation from Delhi comprising mainstream political parties, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which visited the Valley on September 4, failed to achieve anything tangible, but the initiative may turn out to be hugely consequential insofar as the delegation, which was led by India’s interior minister Rajnath Singh, has brought to the table an idea that was considered blasphemy up until this week – the imperative need to talk to “all stakeholders” (read the seemingly “separatist” All Parties Hurriyet Conference as well.)
The suggestion has come from India’s mainstream opposition parties, but the fact remains that Prime Minister Narendra Modi now gets some wriggle room, if he wishes to create such space, for re-calibrating the BJP’s stance that there could be no talks with “separatists”.
The good part is that the government cannot ignore an all-party consensus. Therefore, the statement issued by the all-party delegation after its return to Delhi on September 7 calling for talks with all stakeholders becomes something of a benchmark to measure the events in the coming weeks.
Suffice it to say, there is reason to hope that talks may begin with the so-called “separatists” in the Valley. There can be no two opinions that there will be overwhelming support in the Valley for such talks.
Of course, there have been so many false starts over the past six decades and the sense of betrayal in the Valley borders on despair. There have been “interlocutors” who were unaccountable; there have been “back channels” which led nowhere; and there have been the ubiquitous Track II. What is needed is an out-of-the-box approach.
Is the Modi government capable of new thinking? Indeed, faced with a comparable piquant situation exactly ten years ago, to encourage the political forces in Nepal to transition to democracy, the then prime minister Manmohan Singh had approached the leader of Communist Party of India (Marxist) Sitaram Yechury to use his influence and persuasive skill to bring the Maoists into the mainstream democratic process. That approach went a long way to eventually consolidate the democratic transformation in Nepal.
Interestingly, Yechury who was a member of the delegation from Delhi which visited the Kashmir Valley on Wednesday, has proposed that a committee of parliamentarians who are answerable to the Indian parliament and the Modi government could be constituted, comprising the ruling and opposition parties, who could be entrusted with the mission to engage all Kashmiri stakeholders in a concerted effort to find a lasting political solution.
Painted into a corner
Will the Modi government find such an extraordinary idea agreeable?
Yet another big question will be as regards Pakistan’s attitude. To be sure, Islamabad is making robust attempts to insert itself into the upheaval in the Kashmir Valley (although the mass protests are largely indigenous and spontaneous.)
This is where India needs to lower the rhetoric and re-engage Pakistan as well. The government’s harsh rhetoric against Pakistan has gone down well in the BJP’s core constituency of Hindu nationalists. But beyond that, it is unproductive – and even counter-productive.
Within the week of Modi demanding from the forums of the G20 summit in Hangzhou and the ASEAN summits in Vientiane the isolation of Pakistan by the international community and the sanctioning of that country for fostering terrorism, Washington has pointedly advised India and Pakistan to hold dialogue to lower tensions. The US state department spokesman Mark Toner said on Thursday,
- We strongly encourage in all of our dealings with either India and/or Pakistan stronger relations between the two countries. It’s clearly in the security interests of the region that they work to de-escalate tensions and that they have dialogue. And that’s something we constantly encourage for just that – or out of just that concern, which is that we don’t want to see tensions escalate, spiral out of control, and lead to some kind of incident. Again, it’s important for the two countries, the two governments to maintain strong, cordial, and productive relations.
Washington senses that Modi government has painted itself into a corner. No amount of anti-Pakistan rhetoric is helping an improvement in the ground situation in the Valley. A military crackdown will damage India’s reputation; it does not solve the problem, either. Political dialogue becomes unavoidable. Pakistan’s cooperation can help.
Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.