Sunday, October 21, 2018 | 10:51 PM

The new point man on Kashmir

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Murtaza Shibli

The Indian government has finally appointed an ‘interlocutor’ on Kashmir. This is a slight departure of sorts as the BJP government has consistently refused any form of conciliatory engagement with Kashmiris. Instead, it has preferred bullets and batons as the only prescription to control the restive population.

In a hurriedly convened press conference this past Monday, Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced the appointment of Dineshwar Sharma – a former spy master who has worked in and on Kashmir in different roles – as New Delhi’s new point man to initiate a “sustained dialogue” to “understand the legitimate aspirations of people in Jammu and Kashmir”. The tone, tenor and the substance of Rajnath Singh’s announcement was quite extraordinary and patronising. It also lacked any clarity or purpose, as several Indian opposition leaders and commentators have also alluded to.

For the last 70 years, the Indian government has led dozens of ‘Kashmir missions’ in various guises and formations to ‘understand’ Kashmir in a bid to ‘solve’ the festering problem. From 1990 onwards, after the mass public rebellion and a large-scale pro-freedom insurgency gained ground, the Indian government led several official delegations and supported dozens of officially-sanctioned, non-official missions to engage Kashmiris at multiple levels.

In order to soften Pakistani claims, India even sent various delegations to Pakistan, including pro-India Kashmiri leaders – such as Sheikh Abdullah and Mirza Afzal Beg, among others – and, more recently, the Hurriyat leaders from the Mirwaiz faction during the Musharraf years. All these exercises share a common hallmark: they were designed to bide time and confuse and obfuscate the Kashmiri will in order to strengthen and entrench Indian control.

In 2010, following a mass public rebellion that led to more than 100 civilian deaths at the hands of the Indian forces, the Congress government, led by Manmohan Singh, set up a panel of ‘interlocutors’ that engaged almost everyone – including the Hurriyat leaders. The exercise, which spanned over two years, produced cumbersome reports. New Delhi shelved them with scant regard and ignored the recommendations with open disdain.

Even though India has ruled Kashmir with an iron hand and dealt with thousands of mini-rebellions since 1947, Rajnath Singh’s stated aim for his new point man to “understand the legitimate aspirations of people in Jammu and Kashmir” sounds condescending at best. Commenting on the development, Bharat Bhushan, a member of the BJP stalwart Yashwant Sinha-led Concerned Citizens Group on Kashmir wrote: “The fact is that there is nothing that the government doesn’t already know about the ground situation in Jammu and Kashmir. No interlocutor can make any new revelations after visiting the state”.

Omar Abdullah, the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, described “the legitimate aspirations of people” as an interesting formulation and wondered “who would define which of the demands are genuine”. Professor Radha Kumar, one of the ‘interlocutors’ from New Delhi’s 2010 Kashmir engagement, raised concerns that “Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s choice of words had put the dialogue process on precarious grounds”. 

The BJP is fielding its senior figures to create an impression that it is embarking on a well-thought-out Kashmir policy with effective prescriptions that will end the stalemate. Arun Jaitley, the Indian finance minister and an old Kashmir hawk within the party, claimed that the government had a “structured policy”. Jitendra Singh, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), asserted that the “government has institutionalised the dialogue process with the appointment of a special representative”.

On the surface, the only visible departure from the past is that the government has excised the term ‘interlocutor’, knowing the bad public reputation for the designation in Kashmir. Therefore, Dineshwar Sharma has been variously described as a “representative of the government of India” – as claimed by Rajnath Singh – or a “special representative” – as described by Jitendra Singh. Regardless, the media has preferred to use the clichéd title of an ‘interlocutor’, provoking tonnes of abuse and advance-pessimism from Kashmiri social media users.

Constitutionally, the governor is the representative of the Indian government in any given state. Incidentally, Narindra Nath Vohra, the current governor of Jammu and Kashmir, was a former ‘interlocutor’. He assumed office in June 2008 as the first civilian governor after two decades and amid much fanfare and unrealistic display of optimism. Contrary to people’s expectations, he has failed to bring about any material change on the ground. As a result, he has tried to resign from his current gubernatorial position on a couple of occasions, only to be told to continue in office. 

Dineshwar Sharma’s selection did not evoke any surprises in Kashmir. The appointment of a former Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief to engage in a political exercise merely reinforced the BJP government’s position that Kashmir was a law and order challenge with a military solution. Besides, the IB has a deep footprint in Kashmir and has been involved in actively derailing many previous political processes – including the famous ceasefire of the Hizbul Mujahideen in 2000. In addition, with a diffuse job description and no milestones or deadlines, Sharma’s remit seems to create nothing but a prolonged state of confusion – something that the IB has mastered in Kashmir for decades. Pravin Sawhney, a political commentator, called Sharma the most disempowered interlocutor with no political clout. “People should not take it seriously,” Sawhney said. He added that Indian Prime Minister Modi “has not shown any inclination that he is serious about the political issue in Kashmir”.

Any optimism that sprang from the announcement of the new interlocutor was short-lived. Barely minutes after Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s public announcement about Sharma’s appointment, Jitendra Singh ruled out any dialogue with the Hurriyat Conference. “How can you speak to people who indulge in violence and hawala transactions?” he asked. Besides, Dineshwar Sharma also seems to have restricted the scope of his remit even before it has started. He told a newspaper that he will “talk to all Indian citizens” in the state – a red herring for almost all the pro-freedom leadership and the public as they refuse to consider themselves Indian citizens.

Twitter: @murtaza_shibli

Source: The News