A delegation of 27 representatives of all political parties will visit Kashmir on Sunday, nearly two months after the Valley erupted in anger over the killing of the Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani. For most of these two months, while 70 more people got killed and over 600 were maimed in action by security forces as they tried to disperse protestors, which in turn aggravated the situation, the Indian political establishment did not have a credible response. Sunday’s visit has been too long in coming. But despite naysayers on both sides, it is a step in the right direction. It provides the first opportunity to create a neutral political space in the Valley. To be sure, the path ahead is rocky. A key challenge for the delegation is deciding who in the Valley they should meet who can be broadly described as representative.
In Kashmir’s unique context, when it comes to the bigger political questions, the elected government has never been seen as representative. This is not just in the case of the present PDP-led government, but even governments before it. When Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh visited Srinagar in July, associations of fruit sellers, hotel owners, tour operators and government employees were the only people who could be persuaded to go and meet him. They asked him to hold talks with all “stakeholders”. Ambiguous though these words may sound, there is only one immediate translation — talk to the separatists.
Syed Ali Geelani, for one, has already ruled out a meeting with the all-party delegation, saying he does not want to be part of a photo opportunity. But he has said, too, that “things are settled only through dialogue”. He knows that this is what Kashmiris by and large prefer over a continuing bloodbath on the streets. It is now up to the Centre and the political parties to demonstrate to the Valley that their outreach is not just a ritual exercise as were previous such visits during earlier periods of turmoil. They must demonstrate that they understand the anger of the Kashmiris and will address it in a meaningful way. Much rides on the ability of this team to begin a thaw in the Valley, to start a process that could convince the youngsters on the streets that politics is still their best bet.
How best can this delegation go about this task? As they ponder this question, here is a suggestion: Make an unqualified apology to the Kashmiri people for the loss of life, limb and property caused to them in the last eight weeks. Apologise, too, for the failure to resolve the problem over the years, despite the several opportunities to do so and the hundreds of pages of recommendations making it plain what needs to be done. Such an expression of regret will require moral and political courage. But it may be necessary, if Kashmir is to be pulled back from its downhill journey.