As about-turns in the three-year-old BJP government go, this must be among the shortest and most important tweets issued by any BJP leader. And although Prime Minister Modi spent Diwali with soldiers in Gurez less than a week ago, it was left to Home minister Rajnath Singh to announce a major policy shift on Jammu & Kashmir at 4 pm on Monday afternoon.
“As a Representative of GOI Shri Sharma will initiate a sustained interaction and dialogue to understand legitimate aspirations of people in J&K : HM,” the tweet said, reiterating the message of Rajnath’s hurriedly called press conference.
In one fell blow the Narendra Modi government was acknowledging the fact that the barrel of the gun could never successfully mediate a solution in the troubled state, that the salve of human dialogue was an essential and fundamental modicum of behavior between leaders and those they led.
So let’s be honest and call out the winner of this eyeball-to-eyeball contest between The People of Jammu & Kashmir Vs the Narendra Modi-led government. Since the BJP became one-half of the PDP-led coalition that has ruled the state since elections were held in December 2014, it has insisted that it will brook no dilution of its Security First policies. So security forces were given a free hand to arrest all “anti-nationals”, those belonging to the Hurriyat as well as other commoners. Pellet guns were used to disperse crowds, causing irreversible blindness and other grievous injuries to young and old, although these were never used in any other part of the country. Even funeral processions were broken up and funeral-goers roughed up just in case terrorists were taking cover amidst sympathisers and civilians.
But it’s clear today that The People have won. Delhi’s muscular policy on J&K has been thrown into the dustbin of history. Home minister Rajnath Singh’s announcement that former Intelligence Bureau director Dineshwar Sharma will be the Centre’s pointperson for a dialogue with all Kashmiris shows that the will of the Kashmiris cannot be broken by the barrel of a gun, but that you have to meet them half-way, as equals, if you seek a face-saving formula for victory.
Truth is, for a people that have lost so much since the troubles of the late 1980s, who have been fighting for justice these intervening decades, there isn’t much left to lose. This Heaven on Earth became an army camp long years ago. Trigger-happy security forces have undertaken encounter killings, forced disappearances, raped innocent women and fine-tuned torture chambers.
To be sure, The People’s hands have not been washed with milk. They have used and allowed themselves to be used by Pakistani infiltrators and Pakistani minders to seed the land with competitive anarchy. Instead of milk and honey, the rivers of the land began to flow with blood and tears.
The BJP’s decision to appoint someone to start a dialogue with the people of J&K will surely be welcomed by all the people of J&K – even if they’ve seen this particular movie before. Former prime minister P V Narasimha Rao said the “sky (was) the limit” for dialogue, former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2003 said he was open to talks that were circumscribed by humanity (“insaaniyat ke daayre mein”), while former prime minister Manmohan Singh in 2005 visited Srinagar and announced several Round Tables, including one on “autonomy.”
Except when the J&K Assembly passed a resolution proposing that self-same autonomy, the Congress party roundly condemned it. Still, the second UPA government appointed a three-member team to write up a report on the troubles in J&K and answer questions as old as Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, such as “What is to be done?”
To be sure, Dineshwar Sharma, a former intelligence chief, will probably think about the J&K problem in much the same parameters as his predecessor and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. Now Mr Sharma probably understands the nature of the problem well, especially the fact that this has always been a political issue, since 1947, which not only involves a relationship with Delhi but also with Islamabad.
Dr Altaf Hussain, paediatrician and civil society activist in Srinagar pointed out that it will be important to see the terms of reference of Mr Dineshwar Sharma’s appointment. Meaning, will he report to Prime Minister Modi, or a lowly bureaucrat in the Home ministry? Presumably, he will have access to Home minister Rajnath Singh, who not only announced his appointment today but during a visit to Srinagar a few weeks ago, announced the need for such a political dialogue.
So does this appointment mean that Rajnath Singh is taking charge of Kashmir? After all, it has been BJP general secretary Ram Madhav who has been calling the shots so far, and through him, the PM. So does today’s announcement mean that something is changing in the power profile in Delhi and that Rajnath Singh may actually be asserting himself?
Of course, it is too early to tell. Perhaps Mr Singh complained that he didn’t have enough real work so he has been handled a bauble. Perhaps the real power will still reside in the hands of Messrs Ram Madhav and his boss, the PM.
As for The People of J&K, they will wait for Delhi to create the “right atmosphere,” as Dr Hussain pointed out, including a cessation of hostilities against the civilian population. “You can’t use pellets in the morning and do dialogue in the afternoon,” Dr Hussain added.
Importantly, the decision to have an interlocutor in J&K has been taken on the eve of the visit of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to India and Pakistan (and the rest of the region). Perhaps the prime minister wants to show the Americans that he is amenable and has no problem reaching out to his own people in Jammu & Kashmir, in order to avert US pressure to “do something” and tone down hostilities in this part of the world.
Of course, the J&K question will sooner than later run into the “dialogue with Pakistan” question, which the PM doesn’t want to answer just right now. Since time immemorial, prime ministers in Delhi have tried to shun any linkage between the political problem in J&K and the bilateral relationship with Pakistan. Modi himself has taken a tough line on talking to his troublesome neighbor, insisting that cross-border terrorism must first come to an end.
But is the Kashmir initiative a precursor to reopening dialogue with Pakistan as well ?
With only two years left to go for the 2019 election, prime minister Modi may be running out of options on how to stabilize India’s northern-most state. The appointment of an interlocutor is welcome, but only if he is able to tell the truth to the face of his mai-baap sarkar in Delhi.
Can Dineshwar Sharma do that? Can he persuade Delhi to keep a sharp eye out for Pakistani mischief along the LoC, but open its heart-strings for the people?
Certainly, Mr Modi is playing his biggest gamble yet. The PM has a lot of aces up his sleeve, starting with chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, who still has the capacity to turn things around, even if she has been forced by her coalition partner, the BJP, to lose face these recent several months.
Two months after his famous Independence Day speech (“na goli se, na gaali se Kashmir ki samasya hal hogi,”), the PM has taken the first step at addressing the Kashmir problem. Certainly, the country, as well as the region will be watching this space.