Jammu and Kashmir: On course for the political process
by Jaibans Singh on 29 Jun 2021 3 Comments

The Government of India invited political leaders of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) for a meeting in Delhi chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on June 24, 2021. The centre gave no agenda for the meeting and placed no time restrictions. By doing so, it opened the forum for the participants to say what they wished and for as long as they wished. Fourteen prominent leaders from J&K including representatives of the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) attended. Also present were Union Home Minister Amit Shah, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Lt Governor Manoj Sinha.


The meeting was significant for several reasons. It was the first such initiative by the centre since the constitutional changes brought about in August 2019 that led to abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A of the Constitution and bifurcation of the state into two Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh. Many of the leaders who attended the meeting were under detention for different periods post the constitutional changes. No invitation was given to any separatist organisation.


It was apparent that the central government was serious in engaging the legitimate stakeholders in J&K with an open mind. There was an apprehension that some local parties would insist upon attending such a meeting only after restoration of Article 370 or grant of statehood to the region. That they attended the meeting reflects their desire to engage with the centre with an open mind, a sharp departure from the rigid stands taken earlier, suggesting that the leaders have realised that they can remain relevant only if they engage in any process that will decide the future of the region.


The meeting lasted for three and a half hours, with the Prime Minister giving a patient hearing to all attendees. Dr. Farooq Abdullah, being senior most, was invited to speak first, but he passed the baton to Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad. The latter presented five points of which the main was early grant of statehood followed by the holding of elections. The centre reiterated its commitment to hold elections as soon as the delimitation process is completed but said that it preferred to hold polls before addressing the question of statehood. This is bound to create political divergence and debate in the future.


On the issue of release of political persons who continue to be under detention, the centre asked Lt. Gov. Manoj Sinha to set up a committee to review the cases and identify those to be released.


Interestingly, restoration of Article 370 did not generate much discussion, though leaders like Mehbooba Mufti did raise the issue. Statehood and elections thus emerged as the larger issues on the agenda of the political parties.


Later, interacting with the media, the participants expressed satisfaction with the meeting: Omar Abdullah called it a “step in the right direction”. Sajjad Lone observed that the meeting created a “sense of optimism” and indicated a “new phase of reconciliation in J&K.” Even Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad was optimistic about the meeting, stating that it was held in a very cordial atmosphere. The Prime Minister stuck an emotive chord, saying he wanted to reduce both “dil ki doori” (distance from the heart) and “Dilli ki doori” (distance from the capital).


Pakistan’s role in the development deserves notice. A few days before the meeting, Pakistan issued a “warning” that it would oppose any move by India to divide or change the demography of Kashmir. Later, Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi criticised the meeting as a drama and a public relations exercise, indicating the frustration of the neighbouring country with regard to the improving situation in J&K.


Pakistan is desperate to somehow become a party to the so-called Kashmir dispute. It has a loyal following within and outside India that lobbies energetically for this goal by chanting that a solution is not feasible without taking Pakistan on board. Pakistan has demanded restoration of the pre-August 2019 situation for resumption of talks, knowing full well that India will not agree. This obtuse diplomacy leaves no window open for resumption of talks. In fact, Islamabad is annoying its powerful allies like the US and Saudi Arabia, but it is unperturbed. The situation in Kashmir has gone far beyond Pakistan’s postures and the country has simply run out of ideas. Ignoring Pakistan and moving on is the only option left and all stakeholders understand this.


On many earlier occasions, the security forces had created an environment of peace in J&K whereby the political process could be initiated. All such opportunities were frittered away. Seen in this context, the recent meeting assumes great significance; while no major decision was taken, it definitely out the political process on track. It was well received in world capitals, especially by the west. The takeaway is that the political parties will join the process of delimitation, after which elections will be held, followed by grant of full statehood to the Union Territory. The centre needs to ensure now that nothing is allowed to derail this consensus.


(The author is a geo-political analyst and columnist) 

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