Two different political statements recently brought Kashmir back into focus in public discussion, provoking heated exchanges between political parties, protests and even vandalism. First, as he addressed a press conference in early January, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh talked about a possible deal to resolve the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan, saying that “at one time it appeared that an important breakthrough was in sight”. Then, lawyer and leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, Prashant Bhushan, advocated a “referendum to decide whether or not the army should be deployed to deal with internal threats in Kashmir” and “whether people want AFSPA to continue in the Valley or not”.
PM Singh was only recalling a widely known fact. Bhushan’s idea of a referendum for decision-making on internal security is far more controversial, but the widespread opposition to large-scale army deployment and laws like AFSPA in Kashmir is no secret, and does not require a referendum to ascertain the public view. Yet, these statements touched off a similar, undifferentiated clamour. A look at the reactions to the two statements provides a context to understand the overwhelming feeling in Kashmir that New Delhi is not interested in resolving the conflict and wants to maintain the status quo at all costs.
The BJP asked Singh to make a “full disclosure” on the contours of this failed Kashmir deal, terming any change in the status quo a dilution of India’s sovereignty. BJP leader Arun Jaitley saw almost every shade of political opinion on Kashmir, from the Congress’s stand for separate status, the National Conference’s demand for pre-1953 status, the PDP’s talk of self-rule and the separatists’ demand of “azadi”, as intended “to dilute India’s sovereignty”. Senior Congress leader and former J&K Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad had to reiterate publicly that J&K is an integral part of India to downplay the controversy. The AAP distanced itself from Bhushan, who issued a clarification, asserting that he never questioned Kashmir’s status as an integral part of India.
It is evident that when it comes to the conflict in Kashmir or the questions surrounding it, all political parties converge to a single point from where they must raise the banner of Kashmir being an integral part of India. Under its shadow, all nuances are dropped and debate stifled. Whether the question is one of impunity and immunity to the army and paramilitary forces, or about demilitarisation, autonomy or plebiscite, whether the conversation is being held with Chief Minister Omar Abdullah or separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, there is no real debate on Kashmir. Irrespective of which political party is in power, New Delhi’s Kashmir policy has always been defined by delay and ambiguity. Every initiative has been a tactical move with an aim to keep the situation inside Kashmir within the manageable threshold.
The Kashmir deal that the PM had referred to is the framework of what was termed as a “non-territorial solution” arrived at between the two countries during Pervez Musharraf’s regime. Though the backchannel talks had started while Atal Bihari Vajpayee was at the helm, a broad agreement had been reached during the talks between 2004 and 2007.
According to this agreement, there would be no change in the territorial layout of Kashmir. Instead, there would be demilitarisation, creation of a softer border with a free flow of people and goods across the LoC, self-governance within both the Indian and Pakistani controlled parts of the state and a cross-LoC, jointly management mechanism with a membership consisting of Pakistanis, Indians and Kashmiris overseeing self-governance.
Those who read the fine print in this agreement had understood that it signalled an end to Pakistan’s covert or overt support to the demand for Kashmir’s independence. That is why a substantial separatist constituency within Kashmir vehemently opposed it. Although the agreement was never signed, the discussions surrounding this accord have only strengthened India’s position. On December 25, 2003, Musharraf announced that “we (Pakistan government) have left UN resolutions on plebiscite aside” to achieve an accord on Kashmir. This major policy shift was followed by several big changes in Pakistan’s K-policy by Musharraf till 2007. Musharraf had, for the first time, replaced self-determination with self-governance and ruled out complete independence, encouraged a direct dialogue between Kashmiri groups and New Delhi despite stiff opposition from a major section within Kashmir’s separatist movement. Musharraf had even accepted the LoC, if a “joint mechanism” was set up to monitor the self-governance on either side. The term used by both Musharraf and Singh was to make the LoC irrelevant.
Then Musharraf had completely sidelined the Hurriyat Conference led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani because of his opposition to his (Musharraf’s) “compromises” for a Kashmir accord. During this period, Islamabad had also opened up to the NC, PDP and even Congress leadership from Kashmir — otherwise considered political untouchables. The other major concession Musharraf had made was to discard religion as a criterion for a Kashmir solution.
Musharraf had taken other measures, too, which helped New Delhi to substantially curb the militant movement on the ground in Kashmir. He officially banned six militant outfits in Pakistan, including the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, publicly announced that he wouldn’t allow militant activities against India from Pakistani soil. It was the first time that a Pakistani ruler supported by his army had made such public moves against Islamabad’s core position on an issue that has always dictated its domestic politics and foreign policy.
On May 24, 2004, Singh had told journalist Jonathan Power, “short of secession, short of redrawing boundaries, the Indian establishment can live with anything”. This is exactly what Musharraf had agreed to. In half a dozen policy statements made by Singh in next two years, it was evident that there was a mutual understanding with Musharraf. Yet, this accord did not happen. And it was not because Musharraf lost power or the clout to deliver. It did not happen because New Delhi wasn’t genuinely committed to altering the status quo. It was only interested in strategic gains on the ground in Kashmir that were now possible because of Pakistan’s unprecedented willingness to publicly compromise its stated position at the highest level.
The fate of the various efforts initiated by New Delhi to resolve the Kashmir issue directly fall into a pattern marked by the unwillingness to follow through on initiatives. Singh’s round table dialogue and reports prepared by the working groups are two such examples. One of the questions, about the repeal of the AFSPA, that the AAP’s Bhushan wanted to raise in his proposed referendum, was examined by the working group led by Hamid Ansari. Ansari strongly recommended its repeal, saying it impinged upon fundamental rights of citizens. There was no follow-up to that report.
Omar Abdullah, too, has been making loud demands for AFSPA withdrawal. Here is how the army ridiculed the elected chief minister into silence. In November 2011, when the 15 Corps commander gave a presentation to J&K’s top security grid Unified Headquarters chaired by the chief minister, he told Abdullah that while people are demanding electricity, roads, water and other basic facilities, withdrawing the AFSPA and thus curtailing the role of the army in J&K are demands put forth by Pakistan, ISI, separatists and terrorists only.
The issue of demilitarisation is also not an exclusive demand of the separatists; it has been at the centre of the popular discourse of most of the parties engaged in electoral politics in Kashmir. This popular demand, too, has been flatly turned down.
The dismissive manner in which the autonomy resolution passed by the J&K legislative assembly, with a two-thirds majority, was rejected by the Centre more than a decade ago was proof enough that any change in the status quo is not acceptable to New Delhi. The latest example of this policy is the way the Central government dealt with the report submitted by its own interlocutors. It distanced itself from the report even though they had proposed a remedy for Kashmir strictly within boundaries of the Constitution. Once the report was made public, the home ministry inserted a caveat saying that the report reflected only the views of the interlocutors, ignoring the fact that they were government-appointed and their report was not the outcome of academic research.