Talking Down

  • Siddiq Wahid
  • Publish Date: Nov 14 2017 8:52PM
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  • Updated Date: Nov 14 2017 9:06PM
Talking Down

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


The effort of government of India’s latest “special representative” for J&K, sent to address the latest impasse, is already floundering. That said, Dineshwar Sharma’s appointment did engender hope in even the most doubting segments of Kashmir. But today that hope has been replaced by a mocking skepticism. It’s what happens when the resolution of an anxiety is a visceral need that is belied, not a peripheral discourse to actualize an endgame.    

For the record, every demographic slice of the princely state, in its entirety, recognizes the urgency of resolving the conflicted dispute. Some are partisans of India. Some are partisans of Pakistan. Some are for an independent state, sovereign and peaceful. Aspirations may differ, but everyone wants the dispute resolved. It’s a fact that 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. New Delhi knows it. Islamabad knows it. The J&K State knows it. We know it best because of the catastrophe that the limbo has spelled for every shade of opinion or preference within the state.

The public skepticism in Kashmir, opinion columns that reflect that distrust and the non-response to the non-invitation to the Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL) are only the symptoms of the failure of this latest feint by the GoI.

The immediate cause is the language and optics that surrounded the announcement. Mr. Sharma arrived in Srinagar “to understand the legitimate aspirations” of the peoples of the state. If, after seventy years of willful mystification of the disputed conflict, the GoI does not “understand” the problem, the deficit is clearly more than something having to do with its attention span. The words “legitimate aspirations”, telegraph a childishly severe conditionality. The implied definition of legitimacy in Delhi’s meaning is recognized by every schoolchild in Kashmir.

A second reason for the abruptness of the flagging sail is Mr. Sharma’s own mien. To ensconce himself in a sixty-something room “guest house” and say that he will talk to “all Indian citizens living in Kashmir” strains already stressed credibility. It essentially demands that the other side of the table abdicate its seventy-year old argument. Regardless of polemics, the ultimatum shot the initiative in the foot. What is more, the recent statement of the Prime Minister of Pakistan, who unilaterally eliminated the option of independence in a statement to the media, will only serve to intensify skepticism – are deep state India and deep state Pakistan in tacit collusion? It would not be the first time they have done it.

Mr. Sharma’s ill luck may also have to do with the current winds of geopolitics. Bharat Bhushan has pointed out that in its perception, the government does not need a settlement; that it is India’s external and internal political compulsions that have propelled the interlocutor enterprise. That is: externally, there may have been a need for a show of moderation on Kashmir just before the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit; and domestically, the political dysfunctionality of the state government also needs a response. There are other factors that beg for some diversionary tactics: the steady tanking of the Indian economy – a three year low of 5.7 percent economic growth, the roll out effects of the GST regime and the demonetization scandal, for example.

Questions about human rights violations in Kashmir have also influenced the interlocutor’s arrival, although it has found little play in establishment media. A slew of visits to Kashmir from embassies in Delhi during the summer are testament 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 award 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 on the J&K conundrum only serve to feed pessimism and nudge it towards cynicism. The former results from our historical experience. The latter, which can kill hope itself, must fight back consciously and with specificity.

One way to do this is to understand, critique and push back against the raw governmentality that states deploy to cow its citizens. In this context, language matters. Language that is used to deceive and cheat. It must be identified, understood and critiqued as a key means of resistance. A new one on “legitimacy” has just been discussed above. Two other whatabouteries have a longer history; namely, the tropes of consulting “all stakeholders” and that of “whom do we talk to?”.

Both need responses that challenge their logic and intent.

The assurance to consult “all stakeholders” cannot mean “the rickshawalla”, not that a rickshawalla would not be able to hold his own. (Even if, incidentally, we had such in Kashmir.) Stakeholders, in a political negotiation, are determined by what they represent. After that, negotiations must begin at the beginning. Delhi must acknowledge the existence of the dispute. Islamabad must countenance that a settlement must include the future of all territories occupied, including those by it. And the peoples of the erstwhile J&K state must tolerate all shades of aspirations within it. If India’s irresponsibility is illustrated by the denial of the problem, Pakistan’s is betrayed by its selective and shifting definitions of the options it will tolerate. Ours is disclosed in the proclivity by different factions staking a claim to a monopoly to the truth of the solution. Another term of reference is the engagement of all relevant political entities, state and non-state – the latter represented by the leadership of the resistance. 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 New Delhi, the J&K State and Islamabad.

The whataboutery of “whom do we talk to?” divulges an intent: to claim 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 [the] Joint Resistance Leadership”. The political strength of this statement is that it shifts the focus from demographic representation to the representation of ideas, from regional localism to geopolitical concern for the future of and for our beleaguered state. In doing this it introduces a level playing field for all the parties to the dispute. In the realm of ideas – unlike in that of 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 government and the resistance in the past. The ones between the “moderate” faction of the Hurriyat and the Indian Home Minister, L.K. Advani, during the Vajpayee era were well publicized. But there are indications that there have also been unpublicized dialogues between other factions of the resistance and Delhi in the past. All these engagements have two things in common. First, they have been used to discredit those who participated. Second, the substance of these negotiations is not in the public domain. The ones with Mr. Advani yielded informal indications that both parties had verbal, but undocumented, demands of the other. Put otherwise, these engagements had a transparency deficit.

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

Unlike Delhi and, to some extent, Islamabad, we in J&K state need to use Mr. 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 not confused. It is defined by the difficulty, complexity and gravitas of the Kashmiri struggle. It is a fight against the technologies of rule, to use Huxley’s term, that plague the post-colonial nation-states 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”, “a composite society” and “mosaic of cultures” with which it has lulled itself to sleep for seventy years now.