Jammu & Kashmir and peace are not synonymous; they have not been for a few generations. That is why when one starts talking of peace in that region, people start to wonder. Peace building and furtherance of narratives by consensus seem to have been the purpose of the meeting without agenda called by the prime minister on 24 June 2021 to discuss issues related to the political future of J&K. Mainstream politicians from both segments of the Union territory were invited; some of them were those who had been incarcerated a few months ago. It’s the beauty of democracy and politics that these are things taken in the stride if one has to remain politically relevant.
Anyone who follows the situation in that region would realise that from 5 August 2019 onwards, the Government of India had a clear agenda and that was about ensuring full and final integration of J&K as part of India. Article 370 and related constitutional provisions were read down. The state was bifurcated into two Union territories with J&K remaining as one entity and Ladakh as the other. The security situation was managed through a series of proactive initiatives, reducing the footprint of terror. Recruitment of young local recruits reduced, after a surge. With the UT administration making strident efforts at enhancing the efficiency of governance and reducing corruption along with a genuine outreach to the citizens, fresh hopes of a better future seemed to develop in the people, although alienation was by no means overcome. Many became fence sitters and those actively involved in street agitation took a back seat since the security forces ensured effective clampdown and the separatist leaders were all detained as they continue to be even today. Internet mobile communication remained suspended for fairly long and this, although drawing the wrath of many human rights activists, also ensured that coordination, training, motivation and external communication with proxy masters across the LoC remained largely neutralised.
Despite the conduct of District Development Council (DDC) elections, the true political narratives that will carry the UT back to statehood status and enable Assembly elections were still missing due to two reasons. The first was of course the agony of the Covid pandemic and second the political mood and reality due to the changes brought on by the new constitutional status. The central leadership’s assessment of the internal situation in J&K and the dire need for new political initiatives appeared to have resonance. However, what must not escape attention is also the fact that the current international and regional security environment also appear to provide the right window of opportunity to further stabilise J&K. With the US hell-bent on pulling out all its troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban knocking at the doors of Kabul, the focus of Pakistan has largely shifted to its western neighbour. It is aware that any wrong moves by it could well see powers alien to its interests enhance their influence in a region that Pakistan perceives as its backyard. That could also lead to an impact on the internal security environment of Pakistan, which it had taken more than two to three years to stabilise with an out-of-proportion deployment of its security forces. A third front in J&K is not conducive to Pakistan’s interests and it cannot handle all three simultaneously. Sensing this situation, its own precarious economic condition and the FATF monitoring under which it yet remains, Pakistan chose a ceasefire along the LoC, a step back from active interference in J&K and even some back-channel contacts with India. However, by making bizarre demands such as immediate restoration of Article 370 in J&K for which it has no locus standi, it hopes to keep its influence alive.
Thus with J&K in far less international focus and reasonably outside Pakistan’s scope of active interference, the process of normalisation can proceed at a faster pace. With efforts towards creation of a new political community not having met the desired success, it is back to the old guard that had surprisingly displayed its ability to continue influencing the political discourse as it did with the DDC elections. The central leadership decided not to waste the opportunity and changed its political stance towards the old guard that has thus far come together on a platform of unity. Politics is all about flexibility and grabbing opportunities. By inviting the J&K politicians for talks, some of the venom of regional politics has been neutralised and the path towards more substantive issues appears to have been cleared. It’s also clear that the demand for restoration of Article 370, which is also sub judice, is a maximalist position taken by some of the J&K leaders in the hope that the compromise would mean at least restoration of statehood. It is only now that one is realising how the downgrading of J&K’s status to that of a UT is actually a trump card with which the central leadership played out a political ploy to keep the mainstream J&K political leadership under control. Statehood is becoming the bottom line, with special status receding into the background and eventually disappearing.
Although one was keenly looking out for political statements after the three-hour talks, it is only prudent not to expect any outcomes from what should be the first of many such meetings. What the central leadership clarified beyond any doubt is the fact that the nation and J&K need not stare at a political abyss much longer and that eventually delimitation would be completed and Assembly elections held. That will restore full democracy before which probably statehood too would be granted. None of the J&K politicians appeared to have any objection towards delimitation. To the uninitiated, delimitation may appear a dirty word, forgetting that the same also took place in J&K in 1963, 1975 and 1995 as per the constitutional requirement.
Prime Minister Modi’s coinage on ‘Dil ki Doori and Dilli ki Doori’ that need to be reduced, should give impetus to the age-old Indian Army concept of winning hearts and minds; it should now be done with a political backing too. Whatever the future outcomes of talks and consultations, having Delhi and Srinagar/Jammu on the same wavelength is an imperative to defeat anti-national trends and keep proxy influence out of reckoning in J&K. Hopefully this will just be the beginning of more consultation and opinion-sharing, both dire needs.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd), Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir (email@example.com)