It took 45 days of curfew, scores of killings and bloodied faces of young men, women and children—some maimed for life—for the Jammu and Kashmir unrest to hit home. This time, home was the prime minister's office. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his government's decision to initiate a dialogue with the people of Kashmir, to find a lasting solution to the "problem within", he chose to do it at a meeting chaired by him and attended by the leaders of opposition parties in J&K and the minister of state in PMO Jitender Singh, on August 22.
What raised eyebrows was the absence of Home Minister Rajnath Singh. During the two-and-a-half-hour-long meeting, he remained in his North Block office, monitoring flood relief to affected states.
Was it a procedural decision or a well thought-out strategy? Insiders attributed it to Modi's style of “functioning without fanfare”. They explained that the home minister had already met the opposition parties during his recent visit to Kashmir and would be doing so again. This meeting was mainly to apprise the prime minister of the concerns.
But while the Centre is earning praise for recognising the need to initiate talks, a lot may need to be done by New Delhi to instil confidence and make the right moves.
Just a day after the announcement of holding a dialogue, it was Singh who visited Jammu and Kashmir, making it his second visit to the Valley in little over a month, to act as the bridge between the Centre and the strife-torn state. Sources told THE WEEK that Singh was emerging as the quiet face of the NDA government and could steer the Central government towards resolving the Kashmir crisis. The home ministry has been doing a history rewind, referring back to the Atal Bihari Vajpayee era when BJP stalwart L.K. Advani was the home minister. Advani's hawkish image may well be different from a mild Rajnath Singh but the latter, who is known as a troubleshooter for his party, has the ability to take people along.
When the political parties from the Valley met the prime minister, they demanded an immediate ban on pellet guns used by the Central Reserve Police Force. The issue directly concerned the home ministry.
"It is the prime minister's prerogative to call the home minister. It is for Modi to answer why the home minister was not there at the meeting," CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, who met the J&K delegation in the capital, told THE WEEK. The meeting came a day after Finance Minister Arun Jaitley called stone-pelters “Pakistani stooges” and said there would be "no compromise" with those indulging in violence.
"What this government is doing is hunting with the hounds and running with the hare. If you see the PMO statement and Jaitley's remarks, this is exactly what the government is trying to do," Yechury said.
Clearly, developments in New Delhi are either a reflection of disconnect within the Centre on handling of the Kashmir crisis—which included lambasting Pakistan of human rights violations in Balochistan—or a deliberate strategy to keep the dialogue process "low key".
The message is clear that while the door is being thrown open for dialogue, the governement would only talk with those sections who do not indulge in violence, said a top government official.
While Modi's outreach has typically assuaged the elected representatives of the Kashmiri people, who also met President Pranab Mukherjee, the contours of the dialogue process are yet to be spelt out.
"Peace dialogues had been initiated twice before in 2008 and 2010 but the suggestions of the interlocutors were not acted upon. In a democracy, the only way forward is dialogue, so it is a very positive step,” Ghulam Hassan Mir, president of the J&K Democratic Party Nationalist who met the prime minister, told THE WEEK. “Once the process starts we will know whether it is a structured dialogue or not. But the prime minister has assured us that a process will be initiated for a lasting solution which means all shades of people will be involved,"
Cautioning against any kind of disconnect between the Centre and Kashmir, Mir said, "If we are weak, there are forces who will take advantage, so we need to focus on restoring peace in the Valley."
The home ministry does have not to look too far. In the cold winter mornings of 2004, North Block was buzzing with activity. Advani had met the Hurriyat leaders and talks were positive. This was the first time the Vajpayee government had initiated a dialogue with the Hurriyat. It wasn't the devil in the detail but the warm atmosphere that was important. Soon after the two-hour-long meeting, Hurriyat leader Abdul Ghani Bhat said, "Guns should be replaced by political talks."
More than a decade later, the NDA government will need to spell out its ''out of the box'' solutions. “The tried and tested formulation of dealing with the issue in Kashmir administratively, rather than politically, has further exacerbated the situation and created an unprecedented sense of disaffection and disenchantment, especially among the youth,” said the delegation in their memorandum to Modi.
Hakeem Mohammad Yaseen, president of the J&K People's Democratic Front, who was part of the delegation, told THE WEEK: "The anger of the people of J&K needs to be lessened. There are a lot of issues that repeatedly crop up. There has to be a permanent solution. Our people are suffering."
Ceasefire violations by Pakistan or the Hurriyat may not be the only sticking points when the government works towards a lasting solution. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the Delhi-Srinagar relationship, the Srinagar-Leh-Jammu relationships may all need a re-look.
For now, restoring peace in the Valley will be first step, for which all political parties have joined hands. As former J&K chief minister and National Conference president Omar Abdullah, who led the delegation to New Delhi, said, “It is not the time to indulge in politics and blame game.'' That could well be left for another time, for now.