Few political meetings have been interpreted as widely as the one held in Delhi between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and leaders of Jammu and Kashmir’s political parties. Analysis of the meeting has varied from one pole to another. To some, it was the ultimate sell-out, with the Centre calling the shots to a group of cornered politicians joined under the banner of People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration; to others, it was the reverse, with the former accused of ‘caving in’ to the demands of the latter due to foreign pressure among other factors. That is always a problem on anything to do with Kashmir.
The reality usually lies sedately in between, and concerns not just the politicians, but the various other actors in this drama. That requires a little peeling of the layers of talk and bluster to see what lies ahead.
Gupkar ‘gang’ and others vs Modi govt: Game one
By now, everyone has seen the photo-ops of the meeting between PM Modi and the eight political parties from Kashmir. These include the seven-party People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) whose leaders are more often at each other’s throats, but who came together on an apparently common platform of the Gupkar Declaration in August 2019. The PAGD stated its absolute opposition to the “modification, abrogation of Articles 35A, 370, unconstitutional delimitation or trifurcation of the State”. Their opposition led them to being detained in ‘subsidiary jails’ under the Public Safety Act, and kept there for more than a year. The arrest itself would have been a shock to many who saw themselves as almost inviolate. Neither would they have expected such a long detention. But the most unexpected of all would have been that life in Kashmir carried on as before; no crowds spilled on the streets demanding their release, and it seemed they were hardly missed.
That near irrelevance was somewhat saved by the strong showing of the PAGD in the Valley in District Development Council elections. But elections also showed a divided political landscape, a strong showing by independent candidates, and the first ingress of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) into the Valley. Not a great negotiating platform for the momentous meeting in Delhi. But New Delhi, for its part, does need a smattering of politicians for some kind of government. The question is what kind. Anxious Kashmiri politicos know full well that they cannot possibly survive going for elections under the present set-up. Statehood was always promised down the road, but the question is over the timing of it all. So far, it appears that the Prime Minister promised statehood first, some political consultation in the delimitation exercise, and elections thereafter. There’s a lot of bargaining ahead on the exact nature of that state, with the Centre holding most of the cards in deciding its exact powers, and just how the delimitation exercise will work out. In this round, it’s 2-all for the government, and a very doubtful one for the others.
Selling the idea: Game two
The next step for those who attended the meeting is to ‘sell’ this to their electorates. Delhi has one strong advantage. With Article 370 out, the whole separatist option is off the agenda. Every politician knows this, but has to harp on it for the benefit of their constituencies. Hence, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) president Mehbooba Mufti’s declaration that nothing short of a restoration of Article 370 will be acceptable, and that Pakistan has to be talked to. Her party is bleeding cadres, and a poor showing in the DDC elections made things worse.
But there’s another aspect. Mufti’s power base is in Jamaat-e Islami (JeI) areas, which, while banned, is far from inactive. Its influence has seeped into bureaucracy and local government and it has a powerful presence outside the country through alliances with well-funded Islamic groupings abroad, all of which is coordinated from Pakistan. Don’t forget that Hizbul is aligned to the JeI. But here’s the catch. Both will want her in power for their advantage. So she’s opted for a high moral ground to refuse to stand for elections while allowing her party to contest. The other option was to take to the streets, which is unwise with this government at the Centre.
The same calculation goes for the others. National Conference’s Omar Abdullah talks of a 70-year struggle, if necessary, but will save face by relying on the case in the Supreme Court and a fight for Article 35A, which determines the vital issue of who can own land in Kashmir. That is a legal minefield given that it’s linked to Article 370 itself, and is inserted into the J&K Constitution by a presidential order. It’s a great issue, since it will take years to decide, and not a lot will come of it since new domicile laws have already been promulgated.
The Congress is talking about the rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits, while Farooq Abdullah backed off on Mebooba’s Pakistan comment. Again, round two goes to the Centre. The Article 370 chapter is over, with not even a party dripping liberalism likely to roll it back. It’s simply politically unwinnable. But New Delhi would be wise to remember that all major bloodletting over centuries have been about land. And again, the issue is also a powder keg in Jammu where the new Ikk Jutt party is demanding complete statehood. A win, but proceed with caution.
Delivering on the ground: Game three
In the heat of the moment, the 2019 Gupkar Declaration had warned of ‘unwholesome consequences’ in Kashmir following the abrogation of Article 370. That didn’t really happen. Incidents of killing declined below the previous three years and stone pelting went down by 87 per cent in 2020; hardly surprising since among the 4,844 arrested, 4,062 were stone pelters, a class of persons usually paid well for this activity. Also arrested were the so-called ‘overground workers’ who ferry materials and messages for the militants.
Foreign media wondered why Kashmiris were not protesting, all of which was very well, except that a total internet shutdown received negative publicity in all major capitals, and was strangely bandied about as a human rights violation. On the downside, analysts note an uptick in recruitment on the back of a poisonous social media campaign, even as the Kashmir Committee in Pakistan is engaged in mulling a new strategy. Add to this a new terrorist strategy that involves hitting soft targets to sustain an atmosphere of fear, and the killing of elected representatives, like Rakesh Pandita in March, and earlier Block Development Officers and Sarpanches. In this battle, it’s an even 2-2. Both sides have to work hard to restore confidence in governance, and it requires a rare cooperation to ensure this. Politicians have to stop playing ducks and drakes with the development funds allotted to them. It’s not a bit of use saying corruption is everywhere in India. It is. But here, lives literally depend on it.
The outside factor: Game four
And finally there is the allegation that it was US pressure and Chinese aggression that motivated the meeting. This is wishful thinking. The truth is that Washington’s bureaucracy is entirely uninterested in Kashmir, so long as it doesn’t interfere with US interests. Afghanistan has been a US priority for the last decade, and it didn’t result in any backing off from Delhi on its position in Kashmir. On the contrary, the first indications of the US leaving Afghanistan led directly to the setting aside of Article 370. There are also other issues to consider. Pakistan wants nothing more than to include Gilgit Baltistan as a full-fledged province, but would infinitely prefer that India moves first on J&K’s statehood, so that it can cry ‘foul’ before it moves similarly.
Meanwhile, there is also strong US pressure on Pakistan on its terrorist policies, seen most recently in the continued gray listing by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which may account in part for the ending of covering fire on the Line of Control to push in terrorists. This is as good a time as any for India to do its thing. Also consider that Washington’s absolute priority is China. Interpret that, and it’s 2-all for the government and a complete zero for the others. None can expect any heavy lifting from the west. China is not about to ‘conquer’ Kashmir; nothing could be worse for its Xinjiang policy even if it were possible, which it is not. However, recent indications seem to indicate some tweaking of the cause internationally.
Adding up the total, New Delhi retains a very strong hand indeed. The politico’s have had their bluff called, and now have to deliver to all concerned, particularly to the people they represent. Delhi itself, however, does not gain from Kashmiris seeing their leaders as its puppets. As a pragmatist, the Prime Minister probably realises that; which explains the “Dilli ki duri and Dil ki duri’ in an echo of the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s own reach-out, which resonated hugely at the time in the Valley. That requires trust, which is easier to engender if the clear winner generously holds out his hand. That’s really the key. The rest is bluster.
The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, and former director, National Security Council Secretariat. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.