New hope in Valley
Toeing expected lines, since Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced that the government would seek a permanent solution to the Kashmir issue by adopting a policy of 5Cs – compassion, communication, coexistence, confidence-building, and consistency – the government duly appointed former Intelligence Bureau director, Dineshwar Sharma, as the interlocutor to initiate a dialogue with all stakeholders in the valley. It is obvious that Sharma's appointment is an extension of the bureaucratic experiment that successive governments have attempted with the state of Jammu and Kashmir. However, it could also be seen as the only option left for the Centre, since its tougher stands in the last three years have virtually failed to yield any positive result. Surprisingly, Sharma is a good example of an over-burdened pointsman. While this past June, he had been named the new Central interlocutor for the ongoing peace talks with the Arabinda Rajkhowa-led faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) in Assam for a year's term, on August 9, he had also been named interlocutor for the ongoing talks with the United Peoples Front (UPF) and Kuki Nationalist Organisation (KNO) from Manipur by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).
Tackling militancy with hard hands might be a part of the ongoing security management, but the same mechanism cannot be implied while dealing with public anger. The application of bullets and pellets against civilians with some 'headless' justification had virtually pushed the state government against the wall. Now, the million-dollar question is: What led to this change of stance? Perhaps, the Centre has projected its softer face as the international attention on Kashmir appears to be accelerating by the day. Not only that, this move can divert the attention of the people from the debated side-effects of demonetisation and GST. Interestingly, there are many similarities between the two NDA governments in the appointment of an interlocutor for Kashmir. Sharma's appointment appears to be driven by the precedent of present Jammu and Kashmir Governor and former Home Secretary, NN Vohra, who was appointed as an interlocutor by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. Incidentally, before the appointment of both, the Prime Ministers of the NDA-1 and NDA-2 governments had outlined a similar approach – not to deal with Kashmir with the firing of bullets.
Even the political conditions are similar. While the People's Democratic Party under Mufti Mohammed Sayeed (father of present CM Mehbooba Mufti) had come to power for the first time in 2002 in alliance with the Congress, always advocating for a more healthy dialogue with Centre; Mehbooba Mufti – like her father – has always asked the Centre to initiate a dialogue to regain some confidence. Since Sharma has won accolades for his administrative acumen, he would be considered a non-partisan candidate without any political dispensation. The focus for this famous hawk would now be to address the issue of radicalisation among the youth. Political causes apart, Sharma's appointment is a welcome start, leaving the hard policy behind that will certainly pave the way for dialogue to emerge. As a representative of the government of India, he would certainly initiate a sustained interaction and dialogue to understand the legitimate aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. But talking with the mainstream parties would not be more than eyewash.
And, since an interlocutor does not have any extra-constitutional authority, he would have no option but to reject the claims of smaller political parties – who often challenge the state's accession to the Union. But, without engaging with the separatist groups like the Hurriyat, no dialogue can be productive. The Hurriyat leadership in Kashmir is equally responsible for responding to the Centre's initiative with maturity. Even while welcoming the development, the National Conference had said that some pertinent questions needed to be answered by the Union government. The party had also questioned the much-hyped 'legitimate aspirations' of the Centre. Its leaders had also asked the government to clear its stand on whether it is going to include the detained Hurriyat leaders in the talks. Since Sharma is a hard hawk, his mandate – under the ambit of the Indian Constitution – must overcome that thinking. If his strings are pulled from where he comes, then it might be another damp squib exercise. Another important task before Sharma is to address the external dimension. As Pakistan had always preferred to avoid dialogue on the Kashmir issue, stability has remained a mirage in the valley. The internal and external processes need to complement and supplement each other. Remember, Delhi does not have a good reputation in J&K, restoring the lost trust and confidence needs some liberal open space. Though the decision has come as a boost for the state government, imposing heavy restrictions – the pointsman can do nothing more than reminding the old delaying tactics. It would be interesting to see how much time Sharma would have for the valley as he is also leading three other peace talks as the Central interlocutor – all situated in the Northeast.