The Narendra Modi government shifted the goal post by calling off the foreign secretary level talks between India and Pakistan. Less than three months ago Modi had surprised many by holding out an olive branch and inviting Nawaz Sharif to attend his swearing in.
The government chose to send a stern message to Sharif not over the issue of ceasefire violations but over Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit's meetings with leaders of the All Party Hurriyat Conference, a conglomerate of separatist voices. The message conveyed to Pakistan through foreign secretary Sujatha Singh and the rest of the world through MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin was: the neighbours interference in "India's internal affair" was unacceptable.
The important question that ensues is, is Kashmir purely an 'internal affair'? The fact of the matter is that both countries acknowledge Kashmir as a dispute between the two sides. The Simla agreement and the Lahore declaration that Akbaruddin mentioned also refer to Kashmir as an issue needing a final settlement.
The Modi government appeared to take exception to Basit's meetings with the Hurriyat leaders one week ahead of the scheduled talks in Islamabad on August 25 but such meetings have been common place since 1995.
If the government had chosen to draw the same red line if, say, there had been a repeat of the January 2013 provocation when an Indian soldier was beheaded on the line of control, the ‘no talks’ message would have been unambiguous. Again, if the same red line had been drawn after a Hira Nagar-like attack that took place in Jammu a day ahead of the meeting between Manmohan Singh and Sharif in New York in September last year, the message would have hit home. The message simply would have been – we will not tolerate terror being exported into India from Pakistani soil.
But since the talks have been suspended – and it is difficult to see how they can be resumed in the absence thus far of any back channel diplomacy – over a meeting between Basit and separatist leader Shabir Shah, there are consequences for Kashmir. It is not clear whether these consequences were factored into the decision to cancel talks.
Over the last decade, the Hurriyat has lost a lot of its bite. The last two elections in Jammu and Kashmir have seen a reasonable turnout and many in the Valley defied the Hurriyat boycott call and came out to vote. The government, however, has only infused some adrenaline into a body whose calls for constant hartals was being questioned. In fact, many in the Valley were questioning the visible wealth of the Hurriyat leaders and questioning why they gave supported stone pelters when their own sons were not part of the secessionist movement.
Fresh life has been infused into the Hurriyat just ahead of crucial assembly elections and the separatists will tom-tom the cancellation of talks to up the ante on a Modi-led government trying to whittle down Kashmir’s special status. The danger is that an already alienated population could buy into the Hurriyat argument.
Lastly, the divide between the two vastly different demographic regions of Jammu and Kashmir will only deepen. While the government’s argument of Kashmir being an ‘internal matter’ will have many takers in Jammu, an equal number will rise to reject it in the Valley. Another phase of rebellion and stone pelting ahead of elections is not what the state needs. In the end, it will also be New Delhi’s challenge.