A wildlife worker opens a bag of paddy to spread on the frozen surface of a wetland in Hokersar, north of Srinagar, Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)
News of an all-party meeting called by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 24 regarding Kashmir has triggered much speculation. It is being fuelled by a calibrated trickle of information from ‘official sources’. While observers have floated different theories on what is going to be discussed at the meeting — the first of its kind since the abrogation of Article 370 and declaration of President’s Rule in Jammu and Kashmir — the invited politicians have maintained a studied silence.
What is remarkable, however, is the amount of interest it has generated among the public in mainland India. Unlike in Pakistan — where Kashmir has always been at the centre of its national politics — in India it was a matter of concern mainly for the central government, the armed forces, the media and activists. Of course, it was a living reality for the Kashmiri Pandits who were forced out of the Valley in 1989-90 after they were targeted by arson, looting and murder. From time to time a number of documentaries and feature films were made on Kashmir, but they failed to capture the national imagination.
The average Indian was affected only by reports of insurgency. The real pain touched only the families whose wards and relatives were in the armed forces and became martyrs while maintaining peace in the Valley and defending the borders of the nation.
The situation changed after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power at the Centre in 2014, as the resolution of Kashmir was one of the core commitments of the party. During the first term of the Modi government there were a few political missteps by the BJP, including the brief dalliance with the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party. But, a few months after it was re-elected at the Centre, in August 2019 the BJP brought Kashmir to the centre stage, and this caught the attention of Indians at large. In this context, the widespread attention for the current developments is not surprising.
Though mixed news reports have been carried about the ground situation in Kashmir, first person accounts of people who have visited or are living in the Valley are that the situation has not been this peaceful in a long time. Development work is in full steam and its impact is visible. To quote a Pandit friend who was in Srinagar during the COVID-19 second wave, there is all round “wholesome and holistic” progress.
No doubt, there are voices of dissent, but they are fast losing credibility. Posturing by the Pakistani establishment will continue because Kashmir provides the raison d'être of its foreign policy which in turn determines the fortunes of its military and ruling political dispensation. But, of late the carping is a lot more muted.
The most significant barometer of change in the political climate of the Valley is the sobriety of the local leaders, who were released from house arrest in the last one year. The weakening of their hold at the grassroots has occurred in tandem with reduction in terrorist activities, without implying any empirical correlation between the two. There are also signs of new political leaderships emerging to replace the old power brokers, who have been a part — if not a major cause — of the problem.
Under these circumstances, it was expected that the Centre would push ahead with its agenda of delimitation of constituencies and also, possibly, lay the foundation for the bifurcation of Jammu & Kashmir before the political process was restarted in earnest. Therefore, this sudden flurry of activities is baffling many observers.
The common conjecture is there is a shift in gears due to international overtures that are euphemistically called ‘strategic imperatives’. As a logical extension, it is being clubbed with signs of de-escalation of tension at the border since the undeclared ceasefire of February. A former intelligence officer has astutely alluded to talks of resumption of cricket between India and Pakistan as laying the pitch for converting the Line of Control into an international boundary in the foreseeable future.
The question here is about the timing and speed of execution. Any undue rush is bound to dilute the gains achieved in the last two years. Besides, it would see the rehabilitation of the old players, who will go back to their time-worn script to keep Kashmir in a state of perpetual limbo. Thus, people are intrigued by what appears to be an extension of the ‘Chinar Leaf’ to the Gupkar alliance.
The optimists among the commentariat believe the meeting with the Prime Minister is to articulate the road map for restoration of statehood, which was always on the cards, but specifying the conditions of good conduct that go with it.
Modi should clear any ambiguity surrounding the reinstatement of Article 370 and/or Article 35A. But, any hint of the possibility to restore status-quo ante — no matter how elegantly packaged — will be a retrograde step beyond repair.(Sandip Ghose is a current affairs commentator. Twitter: @SandipGhose. Views are personal.)