‘I have little hope of a Kashmir solution during BJP rule’

  • Adil Bhat
  • Publish Date: Apr 8 2017 7:01PM
  • |
  • Updated Date: Apr 8 2017 7:01PM
‘I have little hope of a Kashmir solution during BJP rule’

Mani Shankar Aiyar is a rarity among Indian politicians. Remarkably outspoken for a centrist politician, refreshingly independent of thought for a loyal Congressman. These traits have often landed him in trouble. Notably, he was removed as the country’s petroleum minister in 2006, apparently for advocating the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline despite opposition from the United States, and then as sports minister in 2009 for raising questions about the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Not one to be disheartened by such setbacks, the former diplomat has carried on fighting for the causes closest to his heart – an independent foreign policy, peace with Pakistan, secularism. 

Reflecting on last summer’s uprising in Kashmir, Aiyar again calls for “uninterrupted and uninterruptable” talks with Pakistan to bring peace to South Asia. In this conversation with Kashmir Ink, he also analyses the rise of the Hindu right-wing forces in India and its implications for the region. 

Edited excerpts from the conversation:

Last year’s unrest was probably the worst of its kind, and it took place under the watch of the PDP-BJP government. Do you think there was a correlation between this alliance and the uprising? And what do you think such an alliance would deliver in the future?

There’s no doubt Kashmir has been harmed by the BJP’s presence in this alliance, and the PDP too has been harmed. The BJP has a visceral dislike of Kashmiris; it has no sympathetic understanding of what it is that is causing the unrest on such prolonged basis and in such a profound manner in the valley. I personally had placed great hope in Mehbooba Mufti after hearing her on the lecture circuit, the seminar circuit in Delhi before she became the chief minister. But it seems the compulsions of coalition politics have turned her into an agent of the BJP in the valley, instead of leading the coalition in the direction she indicated she would on the lecture circuit. I think she has harmed herself, she has harmed Kashmiris, and she has harmed the Kashmiri cause. She has only helped the BJP promote its notorious Hindutva agenda. 

Speaking in Delhi recently, Mehbooba Mufti said following the Atal Bihari Vajpayee line on Kashmir alone can bring peace to the valley as well as to the country. Do you think the Vajpayee Doctrine can be revived? 

There’s no doubt the Vajpayee Doctrine, as she calls it, has great value, but why does she forget the Manmohan Doctrine. Although Vajpayee was a master spinner of words, it was Manmohan Singh who brought an element of normalcy in the relations between different parts of Greater Kashmir. It was during his rule that there was real progress on finding common ground between India and Pakistan on Kashmir. The Kashmiri authorities were kept fully informed about what was happening and it did look that UPA-I was going to be climaxed by a major settlement of the Kashmir issue. Unfortunately, from this point of view, the Parvez Musharraf government first withered and then collapsed. So all the progress that had been made through the back channels was put on the back burner and, subsequently, there was not much progress. 

But I would say that a combination of the so called Vajpayee Doctrine with the kind of action that was taken by the Manmohan government is the way forward. What the Modi government ought to be doing and what Mehbooba ought to be urging the Modi government to do is to again look at the important documents related to the question of autonomy for Kashmir. 

Mani Shankar Aiyar and Pervez Musharraf exchange views at the Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri’s book launch in Pakistan in 2015 Courtesy: The Express Tribune Pakistan


First, there’s Narasimha Rao’s assurance that as far as autonomy for Kashmir was concerned, the sky would be the limit. I would say that before highlighting only the Vajpayee Doctrine, we should take the Rao Doctrine, the Vajpayee Doctrine and the actions of the Manmohan Singh government into account. The second key document is the resolution passed by the J&K assembly and sent to the government in response to Rao’s offer. Of course, Rao was no longer prime minister by then. It’s significant that it took several years after Farooq Abdullah won the election in 1998 to produce that conceptual document. That means it was not a knee-jerk reaction, but a considered document that got the unanimous approval of the J& assembly and, therefore, needs to be seriously taken into account as J&K’s response to Rao’s offer. 

Then, there was a series of round table discussions on sectoral matters relating to the India-Kashmir relations. They produced recommendations of pragmatic and practical nature, which are gathering dust. Also, many all party delegations have visited Kashmir and come up with recommendations. But, perhaps, most important is the three person delegation of interlocutors that was sent repeatedly to Kashmir to talk to as many sections of the political opinion as were ready to interact with them. Although the contents of their report remain secret, the Chairman of this delegation, Dilip Padgaonkar, and his two colleagues, Professor Radha Kumar and MM Ansari, have said enough in the public domain for us to be able to guess the general thrust of their recommendations. 

Put all these documents together and you have a vast body of carefully thought out recommendations, from among which Modi and Mehbooba could pick key elements on the basis of which negotiations may be held with those who are unhappy in the valley. I don’t believe that everyone in the valley is unhappy. In fact, I think a lot of people are happy as shown by their participation in democratic elections, though some of them see their participation as a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, like they have been kidnapped by India and have no alternative but to cooperate with it. 

And there are those who refuse to submit to the will of the people of Kashmir but claim to be speaking on their behalf; start with Syed Ali Geelani and go down the list of the entire Hurriyat leadership. They are all self-appointed, yet they could not be self-appointed unless separately and collectively they did not represent a significant portion of the Kashmiri opinion. 

Now if you don’t talk to any of them, all positions harden. Any negotiation results in some softening on both sides, otherwise a negotiation would never lead to a conclusion. There has to be a conclusion, but that conclusion can come only if the process of arriving at it begins. This entire winter of 2016-17 could have been availed of to conduct such a negotiation or at least start working towards it, but no initiative has been taken. 

I have just returned from a visit to a distant country, Colombia, where a fifty year insurgency was brought to an end by a very patient process of negotiation. It was for his persistence in the face of obstacles, hurdles and setbacks to find a solution that Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos received the Nobel Prize. I wrote an article after my return, arguing that if Modi wants a Nobel Prize he should follow Santos’ example. 

In the absence of any kind of contact with the dissident elements, even through the J&K government, it seems to me that the Modi government has embarked on a suicidal path, which is only aggravating the situation in the valley and not resolving it. 

The Congress oversaw the crackdown on the 2010 agitation that led to the killing of over 120 people. Last year, the BJP was at the helm of affairs and nearly 100 people were killed. Is the Congress just the BJP in disguise when it comes to Kashmir?

It’s certainly true that successive Congress governments haven’t found a solution. It is also true that they were taken unawares by the agitation on the streets and the action taken to curb the agitations aggravated the problem. But I would say this in favour of the Congress: at least they were constantly reaching out to the dissidents. There was no question of not talking at all. There was no question of ‘it’s my way or the highway’. I don’t think it is wise for the BJP government to repeat the mistakes of the Congress and to aggravate the situation in the manner that they are. I have little hope of any solution being found during the remaining two years of the BJP. 

I hope we have an opposition front that will defeat the BJP in 2019 and I hope its Common Minimum Programme includes a constructive commitment to dialogue with dissident elements in the valley. And on a parallel but different track, pledges to promote such relations with Pakistan as Manmohan Sigh and Musharraf were promoting, which would have definitely kept at least two-thirds of Kashmir in India but eased the situation, promoted democracy in the valley. On the other side of the Line of Control, it would have provided for a mechanism of coordination and supervision to bring all parts of the old Riyasat of Jammu and Kashmir on level in prosperity, which in itself would dilute some of the issues being raised. Of course, any settlement would have to take into account constitutional, legal, political and historical factors, in addition to economic and social factors. 

What do you make of the recent interactions of Yashwant Sinha’s delegation with Geelani and other separatist leaders? The delegation has submitted a report but there hasn’t been much change on the ground.

 Well, I share Yashwant Sinha’s general approach. I endorse almost all recommendations that he has made. He is, however, very anti-Pakistan, and I don’t think that helps the process. Yashwant encouraged me to join him in going across the border in 2009 and beginning a dialogue with the Pakistanis, especially the legislators there, under the aegis of an organisation called PILDAT, which stands for Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency. I have continued to work with PILDAT. I think we have had twenty dialogues between 2009 and 2017. But somewhere along the way Yashwant got angry with the Pakistanis and has been taking a stand which is very different from the one he had in 2009. Now that is his right, but I would say let’s get on with the dialogue with Kashmir. And let’s certainly discuss the matter with Pakistan before we arrive at a final settlement. Let’s engage in uninterrupted and uninterruptable dialogue with Pakistan as well as with dissident voices in the valley.

The former police intelligence chief SM Sahai advocated promoting Sufism to counter militancy while the former army commander of the valley Syed Ata Hasnain called for creating new role models. What do you make of their proposals?

When he says let us promote Sufism, I think it is a desirable objective. But I think it should be left to Kashmiris themselves to promote Sufism. If what Sahai means is that let’s try and respond to the extremist Islamist ideology, which celebrates terror and insists on the otherness of non-Muslims, through Sufism, then I agree with him because we know this ideology is not part of the tradition of Kashmiriyat. In the framework of Kashmiriyat, which is a word you like to use, the fundamental idea is that you had a tradition of tolerance that enabled a large Pandit community to live quite happily with you. But I think such a response should be Kashmiri-led. 

As for creating new models, I agree. Ata Hasnain himself is a model of an extremely successful Indian Muslim who had a remarkable tenure in Kashmir, where he actually succeeded in building bridges of confidence between the Indian army and the people of Kashmir. He occasionally contradicts himself, but I suppose all of us do. Basically, he seems to be aware of Kashmir, has some knowledge of Kashmir and Kashmiris and wants to build upon a personal experience which will generate goodwill in the valley. But I am not sure there is anything revolutionary about the idea of creating new models. The important thing is that such models have to be accepted by Kashmiri boys. 

It is wise to say if young people in Syria or Iraq or Xinjiang can get infected with the disease of extremism, there is a possibility that sane and sensible Kashmiri youth might get infected, too. So, you have to remind these youth of their traditions, the traditions of tolerance. Otherwise, you will have to say that what happened in your state in January of 1990 was the norm. I am trying to say that it (the Pandit exodus) was an aberration, which was aggravated by the actions of the then Governor Jagmohan. And I say this as someone who was with that all party delegation that included Rajiv Gandhi and that visited Kashmir in March 1990 when things were really spinning out of hand. We came to the conclusion that the governor was more than responsible for letting the situation spin out of control and I believe he was involved in making arrangements for the exodus, which resulted in a Kashmir that’s completely different from what it was. 

Certainly, the safe rehabilitation of as many members of the Pandit community as wish to return must be part of any settlement. But that is not in accord with the views of the extremists. So, there is something to what Sahai and Syed Ata Hasnain have said. But it would help if they could spell out what is in their minds at greater length. 

In 2015, you said Prime Minister Narendra Modi should be left out of the India-Pakistan dialogue for it to succeed. But do you think there’s another leader who could take forward the engagement in Modi’s stead given India’s current political reality?

Heard of a guy called Rahul Gandhi? 

In recent months, there has been much debate on ‘nationalism’. What do you have to say about this trend of pitting everything against a soldier on the border?

I think nationalism and patriotism should be built on the greatness of India’s civilization and not on the hatred of a community or country. The BJP is essentially anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan. They don’t like the idea of a composite India because they hate the Nehruvian and Gandhian tradition. Savarkar always regarded Gandhi as a major enemy, and Nehru. So, these people come from a tradition that rejects the idea of India that animated our freedom movement, greatly influenced Sheikh Abdullah and led to the integration of J&K with India through the state’s constitution, which unambiguously says that Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India. So it’s our strength that Kashmir is part and parcel of the evolution of India’s civilization. This is not some Mughal discovery of a paradise on earth. It is very much a part of Indian tradition; many Shaivite saints, Sufi saints who created the Kashmiri ethos. 

That is why I say trust the Kashmiri – he is a quintessential Indian. And by showing him that you are truly Indian, in the sense of being proud of the diversity of India, especially its religious diversity, you bring out the essential Kashmiriyat in the Kashmiri. 

Every time I meet Hurriyat leaders on the occasion of Pakistan National Day, they say very nice things about me and say, “Aapko Kashmir aana chahiye [You should come to Kashmir].” I say to them, “You call me, I will come.” Then I wait for another Pakistan Day. 

Gilgit-Baltistan looks likely to be merged as a province of Pakistan, a development that has alarmed Kashmiri separatists. Do you think this move would impact the larger politics in Kashmir?

It is very wrong of Pakistan to integrate a part of India into Pakistan. These areas were always outside Pakistan; what they call Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan were never part of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in the way as Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, Balochistan and Sindh. So the move is meant to, in a sense, make what they have done in Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir the new reality. We have to recognise it for what it is. There is not much we can do about it, but we hope the concern among Kashmiris over Pakistan’s move translates into a constructive dialogue on the question of the future of the entire riyasat.

Through ups and downs, Pakistan has remained relevant in Kashmir. In this context, how should India conduct its relations with Pakistan?

Pakistan has no business being in Kashmir. But India is obliged to discuss matters with Pakistan. The Simla Agreement clearly states that there has to be a final settlement of Jammu Kashmir. So while Pakistan has no business to be in J&K, it is India’s business to arrive at a final settlement through bilateral dialogue. What I am asking for is two sets of bilateral dialogue that should run parallel – one between New Delhi and Islamabad and another between New Delhi and Srinagar. If we move on these parallel tracks, I think we could make quick progress. Uninterrupted and uninterruptable dialogue is the key. 


There is an upsurge of the right-wing in the country. How do you think it would affect the political direction of India and Kashmir? 

Omar Abdullah’s reaction to the Uttar Pradesh election result was a panic reaction. But Farooq’s reaction holds an answer. He said let’s all get together and exploit the fact that we got more votes even if they got more seats. Our votes were divided so if you bring them together then 70 per cent of the Indian electorate didn’t vote for Modi in 2014 and 60 per cent of the UP electorate did not vote for Modi in 2017. I had already said on TV that we have to move towards a Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) before Omar’s tweet came. 

Mamata Banerjee has publicly expressed this view as have Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad, MK Stalin, Sharad Pawar, Farooq Abdullah. And a person has joined our ranks: Mohan Bhagwat, speaking at the recent RSS conference, told the BJP that you must work harder for the 2019 election because the opposition is going to get together. Thank you very much, Mohan Bhagwatji. That is exactly what we are going to do. 

The one person who hasn’t spoken up is Rahul Gandhi. I hope he does very soon. 

Farooq is absolutely right. The more we can get Kashmiris together, the more we can get Indians together. And the better we will be able to run Kashmir and the better we will be able to run the country.