Kashmir clashes Photograph:( AFP )
In an important step forward to initiate dialogue with the Kashmiris, the Modi government has appointed former Director of Intelligence Bureau, Dineshwar Sharma, to facilitate talks on behalf of the government with various representatives of Kashmir. Sharma comes armed with experience and insight having served previously as an interlocutor for peace talks with Assam’s insurgent group, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).
While the appointment is promising, it is unclear if it merely represents a symbolic gesture or if New Delhi is seriously intent on engaging with the Kashmiris. While it is premature to assess Sharma’s ability to bring contesting parties to the negotiating table, there are several reasons why the job will be a highly challenging one and is unlikely to improve relations between the central government and Kashmiris.
A question most Indian administrations are reticent to discuss (including this one) is whether New Delhi is ultimately interested in seeking a political settlement to the Kashmir conflict. This means for a negotiated settlement to work, the facilitator of peace talks will need to address the political aspirations of those who seek an independent Kashmir.
Kashmir is deeply embedded in its idea of territorial integrity and sovereignty which has not been up for debate until now and is unlikely to change even with the appointment of an interlocutor.
This includes a variety of pro-secessionist groups, including the Hurriyat and the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). If Sharma comes to the negotiating table representing the primary political interests of the BJP and the Indian state, then a long-term settlement is unlikely to succeed. If, however, Sharma intends to exercise his agency independent of New Delhi and be willing to address the grievances of a variety of Kashmiri groups, he could be in a stronger position to influence change.
Note, this is not the first attempt to manage the conflict diplomatically. Even if efforts to influence Kashmiris yield a positive outcome internally, talks with Pakistan still remain on the agenda as the next necessary step. Several bilateral and diplomatic channels already exist between the two countries and yet the conflict remains unresolved with both states unwilling to compromise their respective territorial positions on Kashmir. For India, Kashmir is deeply embedded in its idea of territorial integrity and sovereignty which has not been up for debate until now and is unlikely to change even with the appointment of an interlocutor.
Second, the highly communal and polarised nature of the conflict will make it harder for the interlocutor to maintain a fair balance between opposing religious groups. Kashmiri Muslims are increasingly aware of the Modi government’s Hindu nationalist and majoritarian anti-Muslim, anti-minority rhetoric and will view any attempt at negotiations suspiciously. Kashmiri Hindus, on the other hand, will seek to aggressively push their interests having been purged from the Kashmir valley at the height of the Islamist insurgency in the 1990s. How successfully will Sharma be able to navigate these two opposing movements?
Third, the appointment raises the issue of whether it signals a gradual shift in India’s Kashmir strategy from that which has predominantly relied on military solutions to one that actively pursues diplomacy over the use of force. The current government in New Delhi has mostly been interested in maintaining the status quo and no one has articulated a clear political strategy. Sharma’s appointment also comes at a time when al-Qaeda and IS groups have made deep inroads into Kashmir, further damaging and undermining Indian security.
In July 2017, Zakir Musa, local commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen militant group, was appointed the head of al-Qaeda’s unit in Kashmir, leaving a major al-Qaeda footprint in Kashmir. As of today, in an alarming new development, IS has released a video announcing that Kashmiri fighters are ready to pledge their allegiance to the Islamic State.
The Indian government needs a strategy to prevent local Kashmiris from becoming further radicalised by militant groups.
At a time when the forces of Islamist extremism are deeply entrenched in Kashmir, the Indian government needs a strategy to prevent local Kashmiris from becoming further radicalised by militant groups. As a facilitator of dialogue, will Sharma seek to address de-radicalisation efforts and develop a series of counter-terrorism measures? Doing this, though, could introduce a contradiction in means and ends.
Faced with mounting threats and infiltration, it will be next to impossible for the Indian government to relinquish its military option. The next terrorist attack, the next border crisis with Pakistan, and the slightest provocation will stall or completely derail chances for dialogue. Again, external circumstances place severe limits on Sharma’s ability to facilitate peace.
Much of the success of the interlocutor will depend then on how the Kashmir issue is framed. A clear strategy with well-articulated goals and objectives will be a start and we need more information on what these strategies will be. Until then, creating such appointments will serve little purpose.