Interlocutor sans dialogue

  • Siddiq Wahid
  • Publish Date: Nov 14 2017 1:39AM
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  • Updated Date: Nov 14 2017 1:39AM
Interlocutor sans dialogue

                                                          Photo: Habib Naqash/KI

Why India’s latest interlocutor to address the impasse in Jammu and Kashmir looks doomed to fail


The sails of the Indian government’s “special representative” to address the latest impasse in Jammu and Kashmir have gone limp just weeks after he was appointed. That said, the interlocutor’s entry into the doldrums was preceded by hope from even the most doubting segments of the society. In Kashmir, that hope has given way to a mocking skepticism. That is what happens when the resolution of an anxiety is a visceral need, and not a peripheral discourse.

For the record, every demographic slice of the princely state, in its entirety, recognises the urgency of resolving the dispute. Some are partisans of India. Some are partisans of Pakistan. Some are for an independent, sovereign and peaceful state. But everyone wants the dispute resolved. This will be borne out by any unofficial poll, any formal referendum, any focus group discussion in any territorial, demographic and ideological segment of the state. Delhi knows it. Islamabad knows it. But most of all, we on both sides of the Line of Control know it, because of the catastrophe that the limbo has spelled for every shade of preference or opinion within the state.

The public skepticism in Kashmir, the opinion columns reflecting that civic distrust and the non-response of the Joint Resistance Leadership to the non-invitation are the symptoms of the failure of this latest feint by the Indian government.

The immediate cause is the language and optics that surrounded the announcement. Dineshwar Sharma arrived in Srinagar “to understand the legitimate aspirations” of the peoples of the state. If, after 70 years of willful mystification of the dispute, the Indian government does not “understand” the problem, the deficit clearly has something to do with its attention span. The words that follow – “legitimate aspirations” – telegraph a childishly severe conditionality. The implied definition of legitimacy that Delhi means is recognised by every schoolchild in Kashmir.

Another reason for the abruptness of the flagging sail is Sharma’s own mien. To ensconce himself in a 60-something-room “guest house” and say he will talk to “all Indian citizens living in Kashmir” strains the already stressed credibility of the initiative. It essentially demands that the other side of the table abdicate its 70-year-old argument. Regardless of polemics, the ultimatum shot the initiative in the foot. What is more, the recent statement by Pakistan’s prime minister, Shahid Khan Abbasi, unilaterally eliminating the option of independence for Kashmir will only serve to intensify skepticism – are deep state India and deep state Pakistan colluding? It would not be the first time they have done it.

Sharma’s ill luck may also have to do with the current winds of geopolitics. The veteran journalist Bharat Bhushan has argued that the Indian government does not need a settlement and that its external and internal political compulsions have propelled the interlocutor enterprise. There may have been a need for a show of moderation on Kashmir just before the United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit. On the domestic front, the political dysfunction of the state government also needs response. The steady tanking of the Indian economy – a three-year low of 5.7% GDP growth, the damage caused by demonetisation and the GST – also begged for some diversionary tactics.

Questions about human rights violations in Kashmir too have been an influence. It has found little play in the establishment media, but a slew of visits to Kashmir from embassies in Delhi during the summer speak to it. The spin in Delhi is to cite growing concern about puritanical, literalist and fundamentalist Islamist influences in Kashmir. But human rights violations were very much on the agenda, albeit softly treaded on. A stark indication of this concern is the conferring, a week ago, of the prestigious Rafto Prize for human rights activism to Kashmir’s own Praveena Ahangar and Pravez Imroz for their “long campaign to expose human rights violations, promote dialogue and seek peaceful solutions to the intractable conflict in Kashmir”.

Half-hearted and tangential initiatives to resolve the J&K conundrum only serve to feed pessimism and nudge it towards cynicism. The former results from our historical experience. The latter can kill hope itself in Kashmir. We must fight back consciously and with specificity.

One way to do this is to understand, critique and push back against raw governmentality that states deploy to cow citizens. In this context, language matters. Language used to deceive and cheat. It must be identified, understood and critiqued as a key means to resistance. Let us look at two whatabouteries that have a history of their own now. The tropes of consulting “all stakeholders” and the question of “whom do we talk to?”. Both need responses that challenge their logic and intent.

An assurance to consult “all stakeholders” cannot mean the rickshawalla, not that a rickshawalla (even if, incidentally, we had such in Kashmir) would not be able to hold his own. Any negotiation requires that it begin at the beginning. Delhi must acknowledge the existence of the dispute. Islamabad must countenance that a settlement includes the future of all territories occupied, including those by it. And the peoples of the erstwhile J&K state must be willing to accept all shades of aspirations within it. If India’s irresponsibility is illustrated by the denial of the problem, Pakistan’s is betrayed by selective and shifting definitions of the choices available to the citizens of the former princely state. This needs to be followed by agreeing on some other basic terms of reference. One such is the engagement of all relevant political entities, state and non-state. The latter means the leadership of resistance in J&K. And finally, the three parties need to pick up the dialogue (such as it is) from the point at which the parties were last seen and which point exists, with previous dialogues held between Delhi, the J&K state and Islamabad.

The whataboutery of “whom do we talk to?” divulges the intent of the argument: that the diversity of aspirations within the state legitimates the denial of the dispute and its mystification into a juvenile political koan. It is time to put a stop to it. A recent Joint Civil Society statement put it succinctly by concluding that “the engagement of the nominated representative of Government of India can only be meaningful if and when unconditional talks are held with Joint Resistance Leadership (sic)”. The political strength of this statement is that it shifts the focus from demographic representation to the representation of ideas for the future of and for our beleaguered state. It shifts the focus from the representation of geographic regions to representation of geopolitics. It introduces a level playing field. In the realm of ideas, rather than guns, territory and demography, the stakeholders become equals.

Another result of this shift is that it makes all who participate in the dialogue accountable to their respective constituencies. The accountability of negotiators is a necessary condition of negotiations. We know that there have been dialogues between the Indian government and the resistance in the past. The one between the “moderate faction” of the Hurriyat and LK Advani, then India’s home minister, during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee era were well publicised. But there are indications that there have also been unpublicised ones between other factions of the resistance and Delhi in the past. These engagements have two things in common. First, they have been used to discredit those who participated. Second, the contents of the negotiations are not in the public domain. The ones with Advani yielded informal indications that both parties spoke of certain verbal, but undocumented, demands of the other. But there was a transparency deficit in all these engagements.

What is the takeaway from this experience? The need to understand that in the business of statecraft, confidentiality may at times be a necessary evil, but secrecy is not. In the end, secrecy always ends up helping the status quo states and hurting the interests of the peoples of the non-state party. We need to remember that opacity helps Delhi and hurts us, the peoples of the J&K state in its entirety.

Unlike Delhi and, to some extent, Islamabad, we in J&K state need to use Sharma’s appointment as one more occasion to contemplate the complexity of the J&K conundrum and our own resilience. Delhi and Islamabad are confused by our seeming confusion. But our resistance is anything but confused. It is defined by the difficulty, complexity and worthiness of the Kashmiri struggle. It is a fight against the very technologies of rule, to use Aldous Huxley’s term, that plague the post-colonial countries that have manufactured governmentalities of recent and untried pedigree.

In the end, our struggle will help India to define itself and to emerge from the life-threatening contradictions facing the political vocabulary of the world’s bulkiest democracy. Terms like “secularism”, “unity in diversity” and “a mosaic of cultures” with which it has lulled itself to sleep for seventy years now.