‘Another chapter of playbook’: Will Centre break Kashmir’s political freeze?

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After remaining dormant for half a year, the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) made its presence felt in a sudden meeting on 9 June. The event coincided with rumours of possible talks between the alliance and the Government of India.

Within days, the GoI invited Kashmir-based unionists, those that New Delhi had earlier derided as the “Gupkar gang”, for a meeting — whose agenda is, at least officially, undisclosed — with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 24 June. 

The PAGD met today to make a formal announcement on whether or not they would be accepting the invitation to the first major political outreach by GoI since its unilateral actions on 5 August 2019. They decided that Farooq Abdullah of the NC, Mehbooba Mufti of the PDP and Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami of the CPIM will attend the meeting in New Delhi.

Ghulam Ahmad Mir of the Congress, among the fourteen leaders invited, said that this was the first turnaround in the nearly decade-long tenure of Modi prompted by “International weather” and the upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh.

Mir said that there was no clarity on the agenda of the meeting but his party would be onboard “if it is an initiative in opening the road for democratic process in Jammu and Kashmir” and that it wouldn’t go into the “nitty-gritties”, alluding that the party would steer clear of the PAGD’s stated demand for restoration of J-K’s limited-autonomy.

“But there are doubts and rumours that the 24 June meeting will be deferred,” he said.

The Modi government is once again under international scrutiny for its Covid-19 failures and continued authoritarian measures. Dean Thompson, a US government official had stated during a Congressional hearing: “Kashmir is one area where we have urged them [the Modi government] to return to normalcy as quickly as possible… There are other electoral steps we’d like to see them take and that we have encouraged them to do and will continue to do so.”

While the Kashmir-based leadership contends that the Hindu nationalist Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party has finally buckled under pressure, is New Delhi really the first to blink in the political stalemate that has persisted for nearly two years now?

“I think it could be seen as a sort of big brother gesture [on part of GoI],” said Srinagar-based political scientist Aijaz Ashraf Wani. “It was always up to the Centre, to not only restart the political process but when to do and what to do. Even the political parties realised that and that is why they often made statements that New Delhi has to reach out.”

Even as there was ambiguity on the agenda of the 24 June meeting, the rumoured agenda of restoration of statehood and delimitation were really part of the plan all along, said Wani. “Statehood is something the central government has never denied, stating that it will restore it when the time is right,” he said. “There is nothing that the mainstream has to fight for in that.”

Even as the PAGD has taken an “extreme stand, at least rhetorically” on the issue of the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s limited-autonomy, the BJP is clear that it “can’t be undone”, Wani pointed out. “The question is what can be discussed and what is beyond discussion,” he said. “What can they make compromises over?”

Formed in October 2020, the PAGD had maintained a conspicuous silence after it was caught off guard with the sudden announcement of the District Development Council elections, results of which were announced in December 2020.

In February 2021, India and Pakistan suddenly jointly announced a ceasefire deal that later reports suggested was the outcome of sustained back channel diplomacy and New Delhi’s concerns of a two-front war involving Pakistan and China.

The PAGD had been largely silent all through this, restricted to issuing occasional statements of condemnation or commendations. “The June 24 event is as unilateral as 5 August 2019 was”, argues Jammu-based editor and policy analyst Zafar Choudhary, who has been part of an uninterrupted India-Pakistan Track II dialogue since 2009. “What have the Kashmiri mainstream parties done to feel excited about the All Party Meeting. It is just another chapter out of the Center’s playbook.”

While the 24 June meeting is being made out to be a surprise, Choudhary said that it is “clearly the outcome of months of backchannel” talks. “It is mainly about getting NC and PDP on the table,” he said. “The two parties also appear to have cooperated in creating space for dialogue, look at their statements over a couple of months which talk more about governance and reconciliation.”

Modi inviting J-K’s leadership “is an essential ice breaking moment which appears to have been delayed due to the second wave” of pandemic, said Choudhary. “June 24 appears to be a treatment moment for the new start but my worry is about the summit level”, he said. “What if conversations fail to break ice? You are then not left with any next level”.

If the intentions behind the talks is merely delimitation and holding of elections, the firebrand former legislator of the National Conference Ruhulla Mehdi said that “this may be an olive branch for those who seek their existence and relevance in New Delhi but largely speaking for the people of Jammu and Kashmir, it’s not an olive branch, its an insult.”

Instead of engaging with the BJP, Mehdi said that the regional leadership should engage sections of the country that have stood against the Modi government’s regressive policies. “If we want to engage, there is an India outside BJP’s extremist regime,” he said. “There is an India in the farmers, in those who protested against the CAA, in West Bengal… who are favourable and believe in an idea of India in which Kashmiris also have an equal right and opportunity and are entitled to constitutional guarantees.”

International scrutiny and the domestic polity in India “turning against Modi and his extremist regime”, Mehdi said, had placed the odds in J-K’s favour. “India is at the weakest at this time,” he said, and “Kashmiris couldn’t have gotten a [better] opportunity to turn the odds in its favour.” 

Mehdi advised the leadership that any engagement with the GoI should be “on your terms, on the terms guaranteed by the Constitution of India, which is not separatism or something that isn’t rightfully yours.”

History teaches us that every engagement that the ‘mainstream’ has had with New Delhi until now, only Delhi has been the beneficiary,” he said. “We need to learn lessons from history and correct our course and bounce back.”

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