The Government of India’s special representative Dineshwar Sharma’s close-door interactions with individuals, groups and organisations in Jammu and Kashmir are certainly not an icebreaker, a prelude to some bigger and more serious political initiative for resolving the dispute. What, then, is the purpose of his mission?
So far, he appears to be surveying the results of the BJP-led government’s iron-fisted policies on Kashmir. Previous such initiatives would be rolled out in sugar-coated rhetoric and to the accompaniment of visits by all-party delegations and confidence building measures. Even if those initiatives were no more than time-buying exercises, the mood used to be conciliatory.
In contrast, what preceded Sharma’s appointment and what is happening on the ground currently is perfectly in line with what has come to be known as the “Doval Doctrine”, which posits that under no circumstance should the state be seen as yielding, either tangibly or symbolically.
What preceded Sharma’s arrival was the army chief, Biping Rawat, warning civilians of “stern action” if they persisted in disrupting anti-militancy operations. Civilians have not stopped coming in between militants and government forces during encounters. Many have been shot dead and injured after Rawat’s warning. Also, major figures in the first and second-rung separatist leadership have been arrested in the crackdown by the National Investigation Agency. Ahead of no earlier engagement did New Delhi imprison those who have been named “stakeholders” in the Agenda for Alliance worked out by the PDP and BJP in the state in 2015. But Sharma ruled out the release of political prisoners during his second visit to the state last month.
Throughout his two trips to the Valley, there was no cessation of the cordon-and-search operations, which locals perceive is a euphemism for collective punishment. In military terms, what we have currently is “the softening of the target” and “area domination”, meaning subduing the other to an extent that one can dictate terms to it. In the wake of last year’s protests that spanned several months, as many as 1,100 youths have one or both their eyes impaired. About a thousand protesters and separatist activists are in jail even after the release of more than the 8,400 others who had been arrested during last year’s protests. A new law criminalising damage of property during protests that makes dissent even more difficult has been enacted.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi further truncated Sharma’s mission, even before his first trip, by likening P. Chidambaram’s call for the restoration of J&K’s autonomy to an “insult to the martyrs”.
Perceived to be India’s only assets in J&K, Kashmiri mainstream politicians too have been marginalised, so much so that they seem to be useless in effecting any change. Earlier, the National Conference (NC) and PDP would position themselves as facilitators, if not the drivers, of any dialogue. This time, apart from obligatory courtesies and welcome statements, they exuded no hope.
The BJP has kept its alliance partner, the PDP on a tight leash. On a wider plane, the Sangh has kept the PDP in a permanent state of anxiousness by mounting an assault on whatever is left of the autonomous character of the state through its affiliates. Chief minister Mehbooba Mufti had to warn New Delhi that “no one will hoist the tricolour in Kashmir” if the Article 35(A) or the Article 370 are abrogated.
During a discussion at The Indian Express Adda, Mehbooba pleaded for the return of power projects J&K calls its own from the NHPC. The government of India has repeatedly turned down the demand. Recently, the home ministry directed the state government to withdraw cases against first-time stone throwers, a measure apparently meant to provide Sharma’s endeavour a patina of rapprochement. But an embarrassed Mehbooba hurried to say that her government had planned to actually roll out the amnesty for stone-throwers in May last year. She was not even allowed to take credit for it.
Now, for international consumption probably, Sharma’s foray can be sold as some form of political engagement in a conflict region, emulating the Congress’s history of such elaborate exercises in futility.
“To understand the legitimate aspirations of people in Jammu and Kashmir” was how Home Minister Rajnath Singh spelt out the purpose of Sharma’s brief when he announced his appointment. History has made it abundantly clear that only New Delhi can define what a “legitimate aspiration” is, depending upon the situation. Thus the demand by the highest elected official in the state for power projects is fit for the purgatory.
Noted existentialist psychiatrist, R.D. Laing, once listed the ways in which a person can drive another crazy. One way is to expose a person simultaneously to stimulation and frustration. Something similar is being tried in Kashmir. The prime minister, in a rare moment of softening, said Kashmiris need embrace, not bullets. Recently, government forces pumped hundreds of pellets into the belly of a 16-year-old boy, damaging his internal organs. While the army has been sponsoring cricket tournaments, a few days ago, it also carried out a survey of the houses, marking them with numbers, a practice that has evoked sharp public criticism in the past. Sharma’s mission, therefore, inspires no hope.