The appointment of former IB director Dineshwar Sharma to initiate “sustained interaction and dialogue” in Jammu & Kashmir is being seen as an acknowledgement by the Centre that a political initiative is required in the state. This is the first move by the Narendra Modi government to initiate dialogue in Kashmir and comes more than two months after his Independence Day speech in which he said that a resolution in Kashmir would come not from “goli aur gaali” (bullets and invective) but “galey milney sey” (only with an embrace).
The announcement was welcomed by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti on Twitter as a “positive step”, as well as by former chief minister Omar Abdullah of the National Conference, who said it was “a defeat of those who could only see use of force as a solution”.
Governor N N Vohra, who was himself appointed an interlocutor for J&K by the Vajpayee government in 2003, told The Indian Express: “It’s a step in the right direction, and I am hopeful that it will bear fruit”. Immediately, the announcement is likely to take some political pressure off the Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and could lend more credibility to the PDP-BJP government in the State than it has had so far.
One of the promises in the Agenda for Alliance between the two parties was that the coalition government “will facilitate and help initiate a sustained and meaningful dialogue with all internal stakeholders”. It is no secret that the absence of a political initiative over the last three years had weakened Mufti among her own constituencies. Monday’s announcement may give her more political breathing space.
The immediate question after Sharma’s appointment was if he would indeed reach out to “all internal stakeholders” — Kashmir-speak for the Hurriyat — and, if so, how this would gel with the NIA investigations against several members of the separatist organization. The specific terms of the mandate that Sharma, a 1979-batch IPS officer, has been given, are not fully clear.
The term “all internal stakeholders” was missing from Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s carefully constructed tweet that “Dineshwar Sharma will initiate dialogue with elected representatives of J&K, political parties, different organisations and people”. But there are no two views that for Sharma to be seen as credible in the Valley, he has to reach out to the Hurriyat. A top functionary in the state said: “Cases have been filed before and they have been withdrawn before. The NIA investigations are not an insurmountable obstacle. Both can even go on side by side, it has happened earlier”.
If Sharma does initiate talks with the Hurriyat it would be a big shift in the Centre’s own position that it will not speak to “proxies” of Pakistan. National Security Adviser Ajith Doval has said many times that he would rather engage directly with Pakistan than speak to the Hurriyat.
The next big question is what Sharma will talk about. If Rajnath’s tweets are anything to by, it will be about “legitimate aspirations”. On social media, many, including Omar Abdullah, asked who gets to decide what is “legitimate”. But a seasoned Kashmir hand at the Centre said: “Some things about the process will become clear only when it starts”.
The timing is also signficant. It is more than a year after the Valley was convulsed in protests over the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen militant leader Burhan Wani, and the Centre used force to regain control. There was pressure on the government to begin talks then but there was no sign that it would do that. At this juncture, there was no such pressure to make a conciliatory move.
Kashmir itself had settled into a routine of killings of militants and of security forces personnel. J&K and the nation had more or less concluded that the Centre would use only a big stick in Kashmir, and no carrots would be handed out.
The first sign of a rethink came with Modi’s August 15 speech. Rajnath Singh’s conciliatory visit to Kashmir in September also lent credence to the view that the wheels were moving. The Army and police, who have been at the frontlines of encounters with militants — in recent months, many Lashkar and Jaish commanders and footsoldiers have been killed in encounters — have also been sending out the message that aside from the body count, there needs to be a political initiative. Still, no one expected the BJP to make such a move ahead of important Assembly elections in Gujarat. The election process is already underway in Himachal.
The Yashwant Sinha-led Group of Concerned Citizens had last month recommended that the government initiate dialogue but the Centre gave no outward sign that it had heard this. Sinha included Kashmir as one of the big failures of the Modi government in his article in The Indian Express tearing into the government’s handling of the ecoonomy.
Cynicism aside, there are also questions about the logic of appointing a former intelligence head as the interlocutor for a political initiative instead of a high-profile politician. Some believe this robs the initiative of both legitimacy and gravitas. But in the words of one Kashmiri observer, “it amplifies the traditional role that the IB has always had in Kashmir, of reaching out to various actors; and the working relationship, and the comfort level with the IB that many leaders and others in Kashmir have grown accustomed to”.
In many ways, Sharma’s appointment mirrors the several intelligence-led processes in the Northeast, including the ongoing Naga peace process.
Sharma is the fourth interlocutor appointed by the Centre since 2002. Former Union minister K C Pant was the first. He was succeeded by present J&K governor Vohra. Both appointments were made by the Vajpayee government. The UPA government initiated wide-ranging “round table conferences” in Kashmir. Three such conferences were held from 2006 to 2007. In 2010, UPA II appointed a three-member interlocutors’ panel of academic Radha Kumar, the late journalist Dileep Padgaonkar, and former bureaucrat M M Ansari.