The appointment of former IB director Dineshwar Sharma (a 1979-batch IPS officer) to initiate “sustained interaction and dialogue” in Jammu & Kashmir is being seen as an acknowledgement by the Centre that a political initiative is required in the state. This is the first move by the Modi government to initiate dialogue in Kashmir and comes more than two months after his Independence Day speech in which he said that a resolution in Kashmir would come not from ‘bullets’ but only from ‘an embrace’.

Expectedly, Pakistan dismissed the initiative as insincere and unrealistic.

CM Mehbooba Mufti calls it a “positive step”

The announcement was welcomed by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti as a “positive step”, as well as by former chief minister Omar Abdullah of the National Conference, who said it was “a defeat of those who could only see use of force as a solution”. Governor N N Vohra, who was himself appointed an interlocutor for J&K by the Vajpayee government in 2003, said: “It’s a step in the right direction, and I am hopeful that it will bear fruit”.

J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has said that by appointing a representative to hold talks in Kashmir, the central government has finally taken an important step towards reconciliation. “It is exactly what we always wanted’’ she said speaking to the Indian Express.

“This is the beginning of a political process. The Centre has finally taken a very serious step forward. There has been a lot of discussion within the government about it. There has been lot of preparation….

“Unlike most such processes earlier, Government of India has taken ownership of this initiative. Unlike the interlocutors sent here by UPA government, this interlocutor is the official representative of the Government of India. He has been given a Cabinet Secretary rank and, thus, the government is owning it up officially. Unlike the previous interlocutors (during UPA rule), he will speak on behalf of the Government of India and his report will be the government’s own report,’’ she said. “I have no doubt that he will speak to all stakeholders and will do everything so that this fresh dialogue process becomes the central theme.”

She said her party, the PDP, has always advocated that “engagement alone will help move forward in Kashmir… it has always been an article of faith for us and our entire politics has been revolving around this theme ever since our (PDP) inception. In fact, this principle is also at the centre of the Agenda of Alliance that brought us together with the BJP to form a coalition government here’’.

“I don’t say or think that every problem that we are facing today (in Kashmir) will go away now. But if our issues are resolved, if we want them to be resolved, then a process like this is the only way. We need to strengthen it… everyone, every stakeholder needs to strengthen it. My government will do everything to facilitate this dialogue process. Whatever requirement will be there, we will fulfil that. It will be our priority,’’ she said.

According to the Chief Minister, those who question whether this initiative will bring tangible results need to understand that there is no other way. “Every other way… every other thing has been used, tested again and again in Kashmir for the last three decades without any result. Instead, it has complicated things, it has brought more misery and pain and pushed more people away,’’ she said.

“Engagement, even if it is difficult and slow, is the only way. We cannot be in a state of war with our own people… that has never helped resolve anything and that will never help. We have a long experience of that. Killings, arrests, jail has never changed anything on the ground in Kashmir. It hasn’t anywhere,” she said.

She said that “reconciliation between people of two regions was the sole reason for our party to come together with the BJP and form a coalition”.

“You know how much criticism we had to face for doing this… it was termed a collective political suicide of PDP. But we went ahead with the alliance. We can’t give azadi to people who demand that… we have been very clear and candid about that. We can only work towards a political solution within the confines of the Indian Union… it’s our country and we firmly believe in that. And there isn’t an iota of doubt in my mind that the only way we can find that solution, that political solution will be through reconciliation… through dialogue, through engagement. Killings, arrests, iron fist may momentarily help but that doesn’t resolve issues,” she said.

The announcement is likely to take some political pressure off the Chief Minister and could lend more credibility to the PDP-BJP government in the State than it has had so far.

Big shift in the Centre’s own position if talks with Hurriyat

The Indian Express speculates that it remains to be seen if Sharma would indeed reach out to “all internal stakeholders”, including the Hurriyat, and if so, how this would gel with the NIA investigations against several members of the separatist organization.

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s tweet mentioned that “Dineshwar Sharma will initiate dialogue with elected representatives of J&K, political parties, different organisations and people”. But there are no two views that for Sharma to be seen as credible in the Valley, he has to reach out to the Hurriyat.

If Sharma does initiate talks with the Hurriyat it would be a big shift in the Centre’s own position that it will not speak to “proxies” of Pakistan. National Security Adviser Ajith Doval has said many times that he would rather engage directly with Pakistan than speak to the Hurriyat.

Dineshwar Sharma himself has stated “I am likely to visit Kashmir next week and speak to all the stakeholders. As the Union home minister has said, I will be talking to all the stakeholders, which means I will be talking to all Indian citizens living in Kashmir. It will also depend upon how things go once I visit Kashmir. The Hurriyat shares equal space.”

Reaction from PoK based United Jehad Council (UJC)

Incidentally, the United Jehad Council (UJC), a PoK-based conglomerate of militants, said Thursday that it will support Hurriyat on the dialogue process with New Delhi.

“They [the militants] are with the Kashmir leadership if they start a dialogue process. Since India is not sincere, we have decided to lay down three conditions,” UJC chief Syed Salahuddin told a press conference in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). The three conditions were that India should declare Jammu and Kashmir a disputed territory; acknowledge that there are three parties to the dispute; and accept that Kashmir issue will be resolved in the light of the United Nations resolutions in accordance with the aspirations of the Kashmiris.

He alleged that India, in the name of dialogue, had always committed fraud. “When there were no options, the youth of Kashmir took to arms. Under the present circumstances, armed struggle remains the only way out as India is eager to change the Muslim demography of J&K,” he said. The statement is significant as the Hurriyat is finding the going tough in the wake of the Centre appointing Dineshwar Sharma as its interlocutor’s for J&K.

Taking about about “legitimate aspirations”?

The next big question, according to the Indian Express, is what Sharma will talk about. If Rajnath’s tweets are anything to by, it will be about “legitimate aspirations”.

The timing is also significant. Kashmir itself had settled into a routine of killings of militants and of security forces personnel. J&K and the nation had more or less concluded that the Centre would use only a big stick in Kashmir, and no carrots would be handed out.

There are also questions about the logic of appointing a former intelligence head as the interlocutor for a political initiative instead of a high-profile politician. Some believe this robs the initiative of both legitimacy and gravitas. But in the words of one Kashmiri observer, “it amplifies the traditional role that the IB has always had in Kashmir, of reaching out to various actors; and the working relationship, and the comfort level with the IB that many leaders and others in Kashmir have grown accustomed to”.

In many ways, Sharma’s appointment mirrors the several intelligence-led processes in the Northeast, including the ongoing Naga peace process.

Sharma is the fourth interlocutor appointed by the Centre since 2002. Former Union minister K C Pant was the first. He was succeeded by present J&K governor Vohra. Both appointments were made by the Vajpayee government. The UPA government initiated wide-ranging “round table conferences” in Kashmir. Three such conferences were held from 2006 to 2007. In 2010, UPA II appointed a three-member interlocutors’ panel of academic Radha Kumar, the late journalist Dileep Padgaonkar, and former bureaucrat M M Ansari.

Time for politics

Significantly, the security forces have also been sending out the message that there needs to be a political initiative. Kashmir DGP S.P. Vaid has just spoken of the need to initiate political steps in the Kashmir Valley to wean the young away from militancy and radicalisation, that is widely taking place online, as unemployed youth are easy fodder for stimuli toward extremism being fanned from the Pakistani side.

Army Chief Gen. Bipin Rawat also spoke on 21 October of the need to check young people getting radicalised, in a process that’s being fanned through social media. Some time back he had also hinted at the need to start political steps in Kashmir to thwart the ambitions of separatists. But last Wednesday, the Army Chief General Bipin Rawat said: “The appointment (of a new interlocutor, former IB chief Dineshwar Sharma) will not affect Army operations. The government’s strategy on Kashmir has worked. The government is talking from a position of strength.”

However, for obvious reasons, there is a realisation that it is now time for politics to come into play.

First step at addressing the Kashmir problem

Jyoti Malhotra (journalist for several years, writing and commenting on the intersection of domestic Indian politics and foreign affairs) writes that by appointing Sharma, the “government was acknowledging the fact that the barrel of the gun could never successfully mediate a solution in the troubled state, that the salve of human dialogue was an essential and fundamental modicum of behavior between leaders and those they led.”

There is a noticeable dilution of the government’s “Security First policies” in which the security forces were given a free hand.

But Malhotra says at the same time, the “People’s hands have not been washed with milk. They have used and allowed themselves to be used by Pakistani infiltrators and Pakistani minders to seed the land with competitive anarchy. Instead of milk and honey, the rivers of the land began to flow with blood and tears.”

In the circumstances, the BJP’s decision to appoint someone to start a dialogue with the people of J&K will surely be welcomed by all the people of J&K. However, “Dineshwar Sharma, a former intelligence chief, will probably think about the J&K problem in much the same parameters as his predecessor and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval….”

And importantly, writes Malhotra “the decision to have an interlocutor in J&K has been taken on the eve of the visit of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to India and Pakistan (and the rest of the region). Perhaps the prime minister wants to show the Americans that he is amenable and has no problem reaching out to his own people in Jammu & Kashmir, in order to avert US pressure to “do something” and tone down hostilities in this part of the world.” Malhotra wonders “if the Kashmir initiative a precursor to reopening dialogue with Pakistan as well ?”

But it cannot be denied that the “PM has taken the first step at addressing the Kashmir problem. Certainly, the country, as well as the region will be watching this space.”

A political approach was the only way out

The Statesman writes: “At a time when the frenzied street violence is taking its toll, and political workers, including lawmakers, are facing life-threatening situation, a political approach was the only way out. In fact, the Army and the police leadership itself often talked of a political solution. India was under considerable international pressure to engage with the restive Kashmiri political opinion; the BJP’s own ally, the PDP was courting irrelevance because of New Delhi’s iron-fist approach. The futility of that approach was obvious but it seems that the Home Ministry had to get the Sangh Parivar (RSS family) on board before it could allow itself to be seen as going back to the original Atal Bihari Vajpayee line. Better late than never.”

A challenging task for the “special representative”

The Hindu writes that the appointment of Dineshwar Sharma as a “special representative” signals a willingness on the part of the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre to walk back from some of its hardened positions. But it ill be a challenging task. “For one, there needs to be more clarity from the Centre on the latitude available to Mr. Sharma to confer with individuals and groups in J&K. The recent raids by the National Investigation Agency, among many pro-active measures against separatists, could influence any outreach to Hurriyat leaders, for example. The Hurriyat, without doubt, stands very isolated, but the interlocutor will have to broadbase his schedule significantly to have any chance of winning the interest of civil society in the Valley.”

But “dialogue is vital. For it to be more than a headline-management exercise, the Central and State governments must rein in the hardliners to enable a genuinely conciliatory environment.”

Some tricky questions facing Sharma

The Statesman list some tricky questions facing Sharma: “Will he have the writ to deal with separatist elements? Will the locals cease providing militants the back-up on which they thrive? Will Mehbooba Mufti and her government prove capable of positively exploiting the “breather” now provided? Will the National Conference and Congress allow the “agenda for alliance” to succeed and lose their own political space? And will the “tough” BJP both in the state and at the Centre reconcile itself to any give-and take?”

K M Singh (currently Vice President, Policy Perspective Foundation) therefore, is right is stating that “Dineshwar Sharma has a formidable challenge before him, possibly the toughest in his entire illustrious professional career of nearly four decades. The complexity of situation in the J&K would warrant that he should interact with stakeholders in all the three regions of the state and also within each region, the stakeholders from different communities, profession and age group etc. Considering the huge dimension and magnitude of the task ahead, he would need whole hearted support from people within the state and outside, rising above personal prejudices. People in Kashmir have been in a nightmarish situation for the last 28 years. The place which was once known as ‘heaven on earth’ needs to be restored its pristine glory. The recent initiatives of the Centre show a ray of hope.”

The Congress view

While welcoming the appointment of Dineshwar Sharma, Saifuddin son (senior Congress leader and former Union minister) writes that “there is widespread cynicism in Kashmir on the outcome of a dialogue the government has set at a non-political level. Even then, many leaders in mainstream Kashmir have seen reason to welcome the initiation of the dialogue process as there is a feeling that something is better than nothing…..”

Sos himself is “not so sure that it is enough to enthuse Kashmiris, especially the Hurriyat Conference.”

He says “the widespread feeling of despair in the state is not totally misplaced….. Kashmiris are rightly asking why the Centre, that appointed working groups on Kashmir after 2006 — apparently in earnest — didn’t take any action on their recommendations…..”

Soz however, feels that the dialogue this time “will be more productive compared to the earlier ones. The Opposition led by the Congress seems to be becoming a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem. Such an atmosphere didn’t prevail when the UPA had to encounter constant opposition from the BJP.

“There is yet another favourable factor for the dialogue process. A host of serving military leaders and retired officers with considerable experience have been suggesting, for quite some time, that a political dispute can ultimately be resolved through political means only. Such thoughts have also been expressed by the leadership of the paramilitary forces and the Jammu and Kashmir Police. The atmosphere, therefore, seems conducive for the dialogue process.”

Sos strongly believes that the Hurriyat Conference is relevant because “in public perception in recent times, this group represents the anger of Kashmiris. So it has to be a necessary part of the dialogue process…”

Sos also supports bringing “Pakistan into the picture. I am convinced that India and Pakistan can’t live in perpetual animosity. Therefore, they must find the way for an “abiding friendship” that leads to peace and development in the region.”