Is a blood-splattered chapter in Kashmir’s recent history coming, after 20 long years, to an end? Maybe, maybe not, but at least one man believes change is coming: India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “I believe that a new chapter is opening in the peace process in the state and we are turning a corner," Singh told a news conference in Srinagar on Thursday.
Singh’s statement followed one by Home Minister P. Chidambaram in Srinagar on October 13. Chidambaram said, “Kashmir has a unique history and geography and needs a unique solution”. He also mentioned, “Any solution to the problem has to be acceptable to the vast majority of people…New Delhi will talk to all shades of opinion to address the political dimension of the problem”.
Prof Gul Wani of the Department of Political Science in the University of Kashmir in Srinagar hears in these words signs of a new seriousness in Delhi towards resolving the dispute in Kashmir. “Unlike the past statements made by political dignitaries where they would use words like reconciliation and peace process, Chidambaram used a completely different vocabulary”, Wani said.
According to Wani, these statements are an indication that Kashmir has moved from the conflict management phase to the conflict resolution phase. “It seems a lot of ground has been covered on back channels. Chidambaram’s statements are not only bold, but positive, probably preparing the ground to institutionalize a dialogue process”, he said.
Prof Radha Kumar, director of the Nelson Mandela Peace and Resolution Centre at Jamia Milia Islamia in Delhi, is among those in the know about the back-channel discussions on Kashmir. She sees elements of a dialogue process taking shape. “It's too early to say a dialogue process has started but I can see some semblance”, Kumar told HT. She added that no open invitation had gone to the Hurriyat Conference because it had earlier rejected such an invitation. “However I can tell you an invitation is already on the table”, she said.
The lack of trust is a problem in taking matters forward. “We were open when we entered into a dialogue with New Delhi in the past. All we demanded was that people on the ground should feel a change is taking place. We asked for confidence building measures like the release of political prisoners and repealing those laws that gave unbridled powers to soldiers, stopping human rights abuses, and troop withdrawal. But none of these demands were fulfilled”, said Mirwaiz Unar Farooq, chairman of the moderate faction of the Hurriyat Conference.
Kumar thinks confidence-building measures are a must to institutionalize the dialogue process. "India can start with withdrawal of Disturbed Area Act and allow rule of law to follow its course”, she said. Removal of the Act would mean the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gives soldiers the right to kill on mere suspicion, would no longer operate in Kashmir.
People who are associated with the peace process in and outside the government are wary of pushing up expectations from the dialogue process in the short term. “The attempt is to broaden the base of the people you are talking to… build a commonality of approach not just with you but amongst themselves so that when they have move forward, they do not have to worry of allegations of selling out,” an official said.
Nearly half a dozen interlocutors are already reported to be on this job, holding preliminary discussions with
the separatists to appreciate their positions, and share their assessment of the peace process with Pakistan that itself has been held hostage by home-grown terrorists.
Meanwhile, things in Srinagar are better than they have been in two decades.
On Wednesday, around 8 p.m., shikara owner Ghulam Qadir Dar (58), anchored his boat on the banks of the Dal Lake, 500 m from where the Prime Minister Singh was staying.
There are an awful lot of soldiers and paramilitary soldiers, about 3 lakh across Kashmir, India's most militarised state, to keep Singh safe, but for once, Dar wasn't stopped for one of those ubiquitous security checks that make Kashmiri men feel like prisoners in their own land.
“I have lost one of my sons during the militancy years," said the 58-year-old. I want my other son to live in peace now in a resolved Kashmir”.