India is lucky that much of the world has lost interest in Kashmir. As much was evident when, talking of separatism, the Sikh leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, Jagmeet Singh, referred to Quebec, Catalan and Punjab – the state from which he emigrated – but not to Kashmir.
A possible reason for the world’s disinterest in the unresolved differences between India and Pakistan on Kashmir is that it has become something of a bore for the international community if only because the problem has been pending ever since the two countries became independent in 1947.
Since then, neither wars nor talks has led to a solution. For a considerable period of time, the US tried to coerce or cajole the two countries to reach a settlement, especially when Pakistan was its close ally during the cold war. But the Americans, too, lost interest when Pakistan’s importance in their eyes diminished after the Soviet Union’s demise.
Although Pakistan is still a frontline state for the US for battling terrorism, its patent unreliability in curbing the Islamic extremists has made the US wary of standing by Pakistan, as before, and court India’s displeasure when the latter is emerging as a major regional power.
But even if the US and the world have seemingly washed their hands of the Kashmir imbroglio, there is still a realization in India that it cannot allow the dispute to fester for two reasons.
One is that the continuing turmoil enables Pakistan to assist the jehadis to indulge in murder and mayhem on the pretext that they are freedom fighters. The other is that the unrest gives India a bad name where human rights are concerned.
It is to extricate the country from the “mess” which it has created in Kashmir, according to A.S. Dulat, a former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s intelligence agency, that New Delhi has decided to initiate a process of dialogue with the restive populace in Kashmir.
The step has followed Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech holding out an olive branch to the disgruntled elements in the state. The centre has appointed, therefore, a former intelligence official, Dineshwar Sharma, as an interlocutor in order to reach out to the irate people, many of whom have been chanting “azadi” (freedom) while throwing stones at the security forces and even trying disrupt the army’s anti-terrorist operations.
One of Sharma’s tasks will be to ascertain how serious are the demonstrators, who include teenagers, about breaking away from India. Or is the call for “azadi” just a sign of youthful exuberance, for no meaningful formula has been advanced to explain how Kashmir expects to survive on its own in the midst of India, Pakistan and China ?
If a credible plan about an independent Kashmir hasn’t been advanced, it is because no organized party with a discernible base has emerged to flesh out the idea.
There is, of course, the Hurriyat Conference, but it is a faction-ridden outfit whose leaders are occasionally entertained by the Pakistan embassy in New Delhi while enjoying the benefits of medical and other facilities provided by India.
Moreover, its proximity to Pakistan suggests that it is less interested in “azadi” than in being a client of India’s foremost enemy in the neighbourhood.
A way out of the uncertainties can be found in the Congress leader P. Chidambaram’s belief that “azadi” really means autonomy. The Congress’s one-time ally in Kashmir, the National Conference, agrees with him.
But sections in the BJP have thrown up their hands in horror at the mention of the “a”-word although autonomy has often been used by the Indian government to defuse a tense situation as in Darjeeling where the demands for a separate Gorkhaland were neutralized by granting considerable administrative and financial powers to the local authorities.
There are a number of other autonomous councils under the sixth schedule of the constitution such as those for Bodos in Assam or for the Garo hills areas in Meghalaya and so on. Even if these are regarded as no more than glorified municipalities, these palliatives have been used to satisfy many of the locals.
The BJP, however, equates autonomy in Kashmir with a quasi-independent status which can act as the thin end of a wedge to lead to a separate entity. This attitude of the ruling party in the centre, which is also in power in Jammu and Kashmir in alliance with the People’s Democratic Party, is not surprising because the BJP has always argued in favour of scrapping Article 370 of the constitution which gives J and K a special status.
Similarly, it is opposed to Article 35A which prohibits non-locals from buying and owning property in the state and favours “permanent residents” in the matter of public sector jobs, scholarships and public welfare measures.
The BJP has requested the Supreme Court to put off hearing the arguments for and against the Article for the time being lest the dialogue between the interlocutor and the others are affected.
But for its representative to succeed, the party will have to shed its reservations about Articles 370 and 35A, thereby showing that it does not want to snuff out the state’s distinctiveness.
This unique position was emphasized in the terms under which the state acceded to India which gave Srinagar the last word in all matters except those of defence, external affairs, finance and communications.
It may no longer be possible to revive that arrangement, but an effort can be made to reach a midway point where autonomy will mean more than being an empowered municipality but less than being in control of all administrative subjects except defence, external affairs, etc. That is the only way to sort out the “mess” in Kashmir.