New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi Thursday took the initiative to reach out to mainstream parties in Jammu and Kashmir, in the first confidence building measure by the Centre after the erstwhile state’s special status was removed in August 2019.
The PM looked to set the tone for the start of the next level of political transition — assembly elections — in the Union territory, and seek support for the legitimacy of the delimitation process.
His move came as the government looked to break the ice after 22 months of trust deficit, allegations and counter-allegations, and over a year of house arrest of mainstream leaders in J&K.
In the meeting with all parties working in the state, including the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), a coalition of mainstream parties in J&K, the PM said the “distance between Delhi and dil (hearts of Kashmiri people) should end”.
Seeking support for the delimitation exercise in steps towards restoring J&K’s statehood, the PM said every election in J&K has so far been conducted peacefully and now it’s time for the early conduct of assembly elections.
But it needs the support of everyone for the delimitation process so that elections can be ensured as early as possible, said Modi, adding that bureaucracy can’t take the space of elected representatives.
In a pleasant surprise for the government, the demand for the restoration of Article 370 was subdued, limited to only two parties — National Conference and People’s Democratic Party, official sources said.
Moreover, the general consensus was that the elections should be held soon and statehood should be restored — both assured by the PM and Home Minister Amit Shah, they said.
All leaders from J&K also said they were committed to the territorial integrity of India and its constitution, the sources added.
Senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad said that the Congress never demanded a reversal of the 5 August 2019 decision to revoke the special status of J&K. He also praised the administration of L-G Manoj Sinha, saying he “has done a very good job”.
Further, PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti called for the rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits, saying “their exit was a blot on us”, the sources said.
What happened in the meeting
The three-hour-long high-level meeting Thursday was attended by Home Minister Amit Shah, J&K L-G Manoj Sinha, Jitendra Singh, a Union minister from J&K, National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval, besides four former CMs — Farooq Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti, Omar Abdullah, and Ghulam Nabi Azad.
Three former deputy CMs — Nirmal Singh, Kavinder Gupta and Muzzafar Hussain Baig — were also present among other leaders.
The meeting was held to set a roadmap for the completion of the delimitation process and holding elections in the UT.
Shah first presented the development work undertaken by the L-G administration in the last 22 months. He then assured the leaders that J&K’s statehood will be restored as soon as the delimitation process is completed, a top source said.
PM Modi said, “I was eager to meet Kashmir leaders but Covid delayed… But as soon as the Covid threat lowered, the first such meeting has been organised for Kashmir.”
The leaders the prime minister met included those of the Gupkar alliance, who were cornered in the last 22 months, amid the scrapping of Article 370 and the subsequent house arrest of prominent National Conference and PDP leaders for over a year.
The alliance leaders had also been accused of looting Kashmir, disturbing the political atmosphere, and toeing the Pakistan line.
Abdullah takes middle path, Mehbooba plays to her constituency
National Conference chief Farooq Abdullah, who is the most senior leader of the Gupkar alliance, chose the middle path of not annoying the Centre and took the government’s olive branch offer for restoration of political legitimacy.
Abdullah senior told the Centre that “our trust was destroyed on 5 August”.
We will fight a legal case in Supreme Court on the restoration of Article 370 but we demand full statehood to J&K, and the release of political prisoners, and early free and fair election, he said.
However, he raised questions over the “different yardsticks” employed for delimitation.
PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti raised two major issues — dialogue with Pakistan for permanent normalcy in J&K, and restoration of Article 370, which was “unconstitutionally scrapped”.
Mufti said the special status of J&K was the domicile given by India under the first PM, Jawaharlal Nehru after the Constitution was implemented. “The Centre has betrayed that trust,” she said.
On the issue of the scrapping of Article 370, Shah said it is pending in court.
“We should talk with Pakistan for trade and a permanent solution (to the Kashmir issue),” Mufti said.
She also raised the issue of how the J&K people have suffered in the last 22 months. “People were imprisoned… the internet was cut without taking people into confidence… The Centre has destroyed what the Constitution promised in early days after independence,” she said.
Congress’ Azad raised five demands — restoration of statehood, early elections, guarantees for employment of youth, Kashmiri Pandits’ rehabilitation, and release of political prisoners.
He said the statehood should be restored first, then the elections should be conducted.
“Most of the political parties raised the issue of restoration of statehood and early election, to which the Centre showed its willingness,” Baig told ThePrint.
Sending a message — globally
Key government sources told ThePrint that the meeting’s achievement for the Modi regime was that the ice was broken amid hostility in the Centre-J&K relationship after the scrapping of Article 370.
“We can’t expect results in one meeting. Through this meeting, the Centre has tried to send a message domestically and more importantly, globally, about its seriousness to expedite political transition in Jammu and Kashmir. Bringing normalcy in Kashmir is a complex issue, but we have moved one step ahead,” said a source.
“The Centre has promised some confidence building measures will be taken so that mainstream political leadership can address their lost credibility. It is a win-win proposition for them also to address their constituency,” added the source.
Why PM took the risk
According to sources, the move came as the PM didn’t achieve his goals earlier.
“The Centre’s effort to corner PDP and NC didn’t bring desired results in the DDC polls, where Gupkar alliance got respectable victory despite newly created Apni Party and BJP’s high decibel campaign to brand Farooq and Omar Abdullah as corrupt politicians, Mehbooba as a separatist toeing Pakistan’s line,” said a second source.
“Sajjad Lone and Altaf Bukhari of People’s Conference and Apni Party, respectively, will take time to mark their strength and they can’t be a replacement of NC and PDP,” the source added.
“The PM’s initiative is also a result of viewing the complex Kashmir situation through a different lens in the government as Manoj Sinha, a hardcore politician, was brought to initiate change and bring some level of trust at ground level though political process, and not through security establishment,” said a key government source.
“The NSA’s few backchannel talks and his briefing made up the PM’s mind to initiate dialogue. We can’t expect a big solution in one meeting, the whole process is a complex issue but the Centre has taken the first step in breaking the ice,” the source added.