On August 22, 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met a visiting delegation of Kashmiri opposition parties led by Omar Abdullah and unequivocally stated that dialogue was “a must” for bringing an end to the (then) weeks-long unrest. He added that “We need to find a permanent and lasting solution to the problem within the framework of the constitution”. It has taken the government eight months to even broach the subject again.
When chief minister Mehbooba Mufti virtually begged him in writing to postpone the Srinagar and Anantnag by-elections, why did Modi not listen? When Mehbooba rushed to Delhi after the carnage in Srinagar to warn Modi and Singh that the government had at most two to three month to start a dialogue before Kashmir slid into another uprising, why did both of them dismiss her, saying that there was no question of holding any talks with the ‘separatists’?
The plain truth is that in eight long months, Modi has done nothing that will convince any Kashmiri that he intends to use anything but force to crush the Kashmiri demand for azadi, let alone meet it halfway.
Kashmiris opted to belong to a secular India in 1947 and did not doubt the commitment of the Indian union to this ideal for two-thirds of a century. Today they see the RSS launching a systematic attack on Indian pluralism and secularism through a dozen shadow organisations, while Modi plays Nelson on the deck of a rapidly overheating India. They see gau rakshaks and a score of other vigilante groups attacking Muslim families, Muslim occupations and Muslim livelihoods. They see the law being bent and investigative procedures being abused to harass the BJP’s political opponents with false arrests, insults, torture and beatings during prolonged incarceration in police lock-ups, while the police either connive or look on.
And they see the perpetrators being allowed to go scot-free to create mayhem again. How can they possibly believe that this government, and in particular this prime minister, will do a 180-degree turn and start negotiating a new compact with Kashmiri Muslims now?
The unvarnished truth is that not a single Kashmiri has the slightest confidence in what Modi says. All of them firmly believe that he is using the promise of talks to stall for time, as he did last August. So the first task before the government, if it has finally woken up to the peril that it has put India in, is to rebuild confidence in India’s commitment to religious pluralism in Kashmir.
Kashmiris must see the rule of law prevail once more in India before they can start believing that it will also prevail in Kashmir. They must hear Modi condemn every vigilante action committed in the name of Hinduism and ask the states to prosecute the perpetrators with the maximum severity of the law. A good place to start would be to punish self-appointed protectors of the cow, of Hindu women against a so-called ‘love jihad’ and the half dozen other miserable excuses that the RSS has used to justify the lawlessness of its storm troopers in the past three years.
In Kashmir, the first essential step is to declare a unilateral ceasefire, similar to the one Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced in December 2000. This should be followed by releasing the hundreds of very young stone pelters who have been arrested and dropping all charges against those who have been arrested in the past so that they can live without fear once again.
There are also respected individuals like Yusuf Tarigami and Engineer Rashid, whose influence does not lie in the numbers they command, but the courage and sanity they represent. These are the people Delhi should talk to if it wants to create a Kashmiri dialogue partner whom the people will listen to.
What Delhi must not do under any circumstances is to play the mainstream parties off against the separatists, as every government has done for the past 21 years. Nor must it drown their voices in those from parts of the state that are not affected by the insurgency and of interest groups like traders, houseboat owners, hoteliers and transporters, as has happened earlier.
Delhi will need to consult all stakeholders in the entire state, as indeed will the ‘separatists’. But trying to do this around a single table will reduce the dialogue to a babble of voices. Any attempt to do so in the name of inclusiveness will be seen as a sign of bad faith and scuttle the talks even before they begin.
Kashmiri nationalists have therefore been caught between a rock and a hard place ever since the end of the insurgency of the 1990s. Today, no one will agree to a dialogue unless there is a prior offer from Delhi that no Kashmiri would want them to ignore. The only offer that can fit this bill is a public commitment by Delhi to renegotiate Kashmir’s relationship with Delhi on the basis of the Instrument of Accession and the Delhi Agreement of 1952.