The question, a pained Alice tells Humpty Dumpty during her travels through Wonderland, “is whether you can make a word mean so many things”. Ever since an all-party delegation passed a resolution on Wednesday, calling on “the Central and state governments to take steps for dialogue with all stakeholders”, there has been discussion on whether that term includes the All Parties Hurriyat Conference. Both common sense and wisdom should preclude semantic gamesmanship. Though the Central government, and many citizens, might suspect the Hurriyat’s politics, the fact is a not-insignificant section of the state’s people wish for “azaadi” from India. It does not follow that this demand has to be acceded to. However, this reality makes it imperative for New Delhi to show itself willing to engage with political leaders who speak for that constituency. This is something that the Indian state has long done, witness in states from Manipur to Punjab to Nagaland. Democracies are, at their core, processes for peoples with different views and interests to negotiate civic arrangements; riot police are a symptom of their breakdown, not a solution.
The path to engagement isn’t easy, or clear — not in the least because of the pusillanimity and equivocations of the Hurriyat itself. Its leaders met Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani in January and March 2004, but never brought an agenda for negotiation to the table. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held two more rounds of talks, in May and September 2005. This time, the Hurriyat promised mediators that they would participate in a multi-party dialogue organised by the prime minister — but backed off after threats from Pakistan. Further secret talks were held with Home Minister P. Chidambaram, which again went nowhere. Then came the crisis of 2008 and 2010, after which the Hurriyat, battered by challengers from the religious right-wing, has rejected engagement altogether. Subsequently, New Delhi focused its attentions on trying to secure a deal with Islamabad, only to find that process, too, ending in impasse.
This is, however, no reason for New Delhi to shut its doors to engagement. Indeed, the BJP expressly agreed to engage the Hurriyat when it allied with the PDP to form the coalition government in Jammu and Kashmir. New Delhi should push Kashmiri separatists to move beyond slogans, and spell out precisely what democratic rights they seek, so a conversation can begin on whether or not these can be met within the Indian Constitution. Engagement would also test the Hurriyat’s claims to speak for all Kashmiris, as well as its claims to reject violence. Having said that, it is probable, of course, that the Hurriyat will refuse to talk — but the burden of being unreasonable would then not lie at the Centre’s door.