It seems to be a U-turn that leaves scope for another U-turn. It signals a softened stand that allows for the reaffirmation of the status quo. That’s the quandary the statement on Kashmiri separatists in Parliament by VK Singh, minister of state for external affairs, puts analysts in. Replying to a question on the government’s views on the Hurriyat Conference and its confabulations with the Pakistan High Commission, Mr Singh said that “since the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of the Union of India, there is no bar on their meetings with representatives of any country in India”. He, nonetheless, stated that “India’s displeasure at Pakistan’s attempts to interfere in India’s internal affairs has been repeatedly conveyed to Pakistan”.
It is difficult to discern if this statement represents a change of government policy but one can speculate about its motivations. The Hurriyat leadership’s contact with the Pakistan High Commission was a red line for the Narendra Modi government. Bilateral talks have been stalled because both sides are insisting on privileging their areas of concern, with Islamabad focused on J&K and New Delhi on terrorism. Since curtailing political activity in Kashmir prompts frequent criticism, India may well be alert to the benefits of allowing separatists to interact with the Pakistani government. That way it allows Islamabad to claim that its “core issue” remains very much on the agenda while India can simultaneously express its displeasure at anything it construes as interference. Equally, this may just be an attempt to make bilateral contact this year less awkward, keeping in view the Heart of Asia conference in India and the SAARC summit at Islamabad. In effect, how Mr Singh’s statement translates into policy remains provisional at the moment. The minister’s point that the Hurriyat leaders can meet representatives of any country “in India” suggests that they are unlikely to head to Pakistan or anywhere else.
It will be interesting to see how the separatists react and how Islamabad manages contact with them. There are several moving parts in India-Pakistan dynamics. The near future will depend on India’s assessment of the power struggle between PM Nawaz Sharif and Gen. Raheel Sharif and New Delhi’s reading of the risks of avoiding a political process in Kashmir.