After the storm, when Delhi and Kashmir meet
Both the Centre and Kashmiri mainstream politicians are chastened. Delhi knows it needs to work with the same elected politicians it derided. Kashmir’s leaders know that Article 370 isn’t coming back
What leaps out first from the photograph of Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi flanked by varied representatives of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), in the first such outreach since the effective abrogation of Article 370, is the sheer irony of it all.
In 2019, some of these very men and women were treated not just as political pariahs; they were regarded as dangerous to law and order and placed under prolonged detention. Today, the very fact of the three-hours plus discussion — one that someone present at the meeting described as “emotional and full of pain” — is an inevitable acknowledgment of the limitations of realpolitik and past failures of both the Centre and Kashmir Valley’s mainstream.
For the Modi government, the calls for a “Naya Kashmir” has paradoxically led them right back to old established political parties after a failed experiment at propping up an “alternative” regime in the form of the Apni Party and other such flirtations. This is not the first time that the imprint of intelligence agencies is seen on the political fabric of the Kashmir Valley. But after the dramatic developments of August 2019, the fact that the PM had to call this meeting is an admission that the government’s move to treat elected representatives as if they are criminals, apart from being morally questionable, brought no tangible gains at all. It has had to offer respect and legitimacy once again to the very politicians it dissed and dismissed.
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In this, the government must come to terms with the fact that its bluster and aggression eventually has to be tempered with softness.
For the Kashmiri politicians among the group — because the faultlines have been wrenched open in the Valley and not in Jammu — the decision to engage with those who humiliated them is not just an expression of pragmatism. It is also a tacit acknowledgment that irrespective of who leads the government in Delhi next, the special status of J&K is almost certainly never coming back.
To that extent, the BJP has been able to set the boundaries within which a new framework has to be found for dialogue. Despite the maximalist articulation of demanding the restoration of Article 370, these stakeholders are far too experienced to not recognise the inevitable outcome — the middle ground will be found in giving J&K full statehood again and possibly some exceptionalism with domicile rules similar to what a few other states enjoy. The mainstream will need to confront the fact that its arrests and the unfairness with which it was treated was not able to rally popular opinion.
Piecing together what was said behind closed doors, one now knows that the PM did reference the 2019-2020 detentions that lasted up to eight months, but within the larger context of the power of India’s democracy. According to those present at the meeting, Modi remarked that despite those arrests, here they all were, around the same table, talking again. This, he said, is what makes democracy so remarkable.
But what also makes democracy remarkable is that within J&K, thousands of political workers have risked their lives and often paid with it, just to participate in the electoral process. Unlike the rest of us for whom a streak of indelible ink on our fingers is material for a cliched selfie, for those in the mainstream of J&K’s politics, both voting and contesting can literally be a matter of life and death.
And so, among the leaders present in the room, Sajjad Lone, the first separatist to turn mainstream when he fielded proxy candidates in the watershed election of 2002, also the man who likened Modi to an elder brother, is reported to have underlined that words used by either side could be either enablers or obstacles. He is understood to have also underlined that even as the ideological quarrel over the Kashmir issue is not likely to get resolved in a hurry, other deliverables for the people of the erstwhile state should not stop.
This round of dialogue should be seen perhaps as a moment of chastening all around. It is a reminder that in the ferocious contestation of dogmas, a sledgehammer only goes so far and no further. The call by the Prime Minister to end “both Dil Ki Duri and Dilli Ki Duri” is also a testimony to how the more things change, the more they remain the same.
But above all, it is a calling out of the shamefully bigoted prime time hatemongers who never missed an opportunity to demonise the Kashmiri people and mainstream politicians. It is their stunned silence today that speaks volumes.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author
The views expressed are personal