Suddenly, there is elation and expectation in Kashmir’s ruling circles. First came a message from the Centre that it won’t do anything that goes against the general sentiments in the restive Valley. Then, an exhortation from Pakistan’s army for political and diplomatic means to resolve the Kashmir issue.
India has not responded to Pakistan’s General Qamar Javed Bajwa, but militant outfits in the Valley are apprehensive about a secret track II between the two countries. Lashker-e-Toiba said on September 13—a day after Union home minister Rajnath Singh ended his four-day Jammu and Kashmir visit—that India must evacuate from Kashmir “be it track-2 or track-3”.
General Bajwa’s statement is “very important”, according to moderate separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. “We need to see what policy the government of India adopts now—whether the approach is military or political,” he tells Outlook. Previously, when the Hurriyat Conference was talking with the Atal Behari Vajpayee regime, there was also dialogue on between New Delhi and Islamabad, he recalls. “We had reached no solution level but a process was going on. That is missing this time.”
In contrast to Mirwaiz, who didn’t find any significance in the home minister’s visit, the pro-India political parties see the visit as new beginning and New Delhi’s approach towards Kashmir. PDP president and chief minister Mehbooba Mufti is happy about the reassurance from Rajnath. She believes his promise will be a balm for the people who were apprehending that the Narendra Modi regime will do away with the special status Jammu and Kashmir has been enjoying since 1952.
Till the other day, pro-India political parties in Kashmir were fearing that reported insistence by BJP hardliners along with the RSS could prompt the Centre to abrogate the vexed Article 370 of the Constitution that grants J&K a special autonomous status. Equally, there were talks about possible invalidation of Article 35A that gives the J&K administration the power to define the state’s ‘permanent residents’ and provide them exclusive rights. It was in the midst of unease over such speculations that Rajnath arrived in Srinagar on September 9. Two days later, it was with a note of cheer for the people that he left the Valley for Jammu to have discussion with political parties and local civil society groups.
An Agenda of Agreement (AoA) between the ruling PDP and the BJP took two months to draft, and features tricky issues like, say, the AFSPA, where the two parties have historically held a different view. Even today, they aren’t of the same opinion on the need for armed forces to enjoy special power in “disturbed areas”. The PDP had hoped that the BJP would facilitate the removal of any area in Kashmir or Jammu from the ‘disturbed area’ notice, making the law toothless. But now the discourse over the Articles 35(A) and 370 has so much dominated pro-Indian regional parties that the AFSPA was dropped from the agenda during their meetings with the home minister. “No one talked to me about the AFSPA removal this time,” an amused Rajnath says in response to a question by Outlook.
The CM, on her part, has made a turnaround in the administration’s views about the Centre. Today, Mehbooba says she has all along maintained that a lasting peace and prosperity for J&K lay in a positive outreach with all shades of opinion in the state, coupled with compassion, confidence-building and a spirit of coexistence. This is in contrast to her approach ahead of a one-on-one with Rajnath on September 9.
The CM emphasised the need to reach out to all sections of society, thus asking him to open dialogue with the separatists. “The AoA recognises the needs of the people of the state. Its implementation needs to be fast-paced,” she told Rajnath and sought timely implementation of the AoA that provides a “definite roadmap” to resolve the problems confronting the state. The AoA, which came after early 2015 talks between BJP general secretary Ram Madhav and senior PDP leader Haseeb Drabu, now the finance minister, mentions that Article 370 will be put in “deep freeze” during six years of the PDP-BJP rule.
The AoA has both parties agreeing that “the present position will be maintained on all the constitutional provisions pertaining to J&K, including the special status in the Constitution of India.” The PDP and BJP have also approved to follow Vajpayee’s “Insaaniyat, Kashmiriyat aur Jamhooriyat” approach towards Kashmir. It further says the government would facilitate and help initiate a “meaningful dialogue with all internal stakeholders, which would include all political groups”.
As for the AFSPA, the AoA also says the coalition government will examine the need for de-notifying the ‘disturbed areas, which would enable the Centre to take a final view on the continuation of Act in J&K. The AFSPA becomes applicable in any area only after it is declared disturbed under Section 3 of the Act, made applicable to J&K in 1990.
Protest after Eid prayer, Srinagar, September 2
However, in spite of what the PDP perceives as no movement on the AoA, the ruling party is euphoric about Rajnath’s assurances on the crucial Articles 35(A) and 370, his praise for the J&K Police and enhancing the prime minister’s package from Rs 80,000 crore in 2008 to Rs 1 lakh-crore in 2017. The party is also thrilled over the home minister’s willingness to talk to the separatists.
Rajnath has ruled out the need for apprehensions about the two Articles. “A non-issue (Articles 35A and 370) is being made an issue. The central government has not initiating anything about the issue. It has not gone to court,” he told reporters in Srinagar on September 11. “Our government will not do anything against sentiments of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. We will respect it.” He went on to dismiss differences between what other BJP leaders say about the Article 35A. “My view should be treated as ‘correct. I speak as the home minister of India.” That earned Rajnath praise from both the CM and Omar Abdullah of the Opposition National Conference.
Article 35A provides special rights to the state’s subjects in terms of acquiring land within its territory, employment and scholarship. A 2014 petition by ‘We The Citizens’ had the non-governmental organisation (widely believed to be affiliated with the RSS) arguing that the law is unconstitutional because it was added by a Presidential order, without Parliament’s approval. As the Supreme Court is hearing the case after Diwali, the PDP, with assurance from the home minister, is hopeful that the attorney general will side with the state on this crucial issue. Mehbooba had, in August, met PM Modi and conveyed her concern, as the attorney general has not filed the counter to the petitions filed against Article 35A.
Today, Rajnath’s visit has enthused the party to take a fresh view at many more things. “We see it in the context of the PM’s Independence Day declaration,” PDP senior leader Naeem Akhtar, also the government’s spokesperson, tells Outlook. “Earlier, Vajpayee had made a similar commitment from the same Red Fort (in Delhi). It resulted in a complete change in the political climate in South Asia, as the peace process was scripted from Srinagar when Vajpayee visited the Valley.”
Aktar now senses a déjà vu. “Rajnathji has used very appropriate words and phrases to address the sentiment of the state. This has laid the foundation of building of trust, in the absence of which no other measures can work to build a really an emotional bond between Kashmir and mainland,” he says, hoping the home minister’s emphasis on consistency would but bring changes on the ground as well.
However, Rajnath, who visited the Valley five times after July 8 last year, says he will come “50 times for peace and prosperity of the state”, yet has failed break any ice with the separatists. He has now thrown ball in the court of separatists, saying they should come forward to talk and a message should go that the government wants to talk to everyone.
The separatists are not ready to take the bait. Mirwaiz tells Outlook that the “Government of India only talks about talks, but doesn’t walk the talk”. Rajnath’s focus, he says, was law and order and internal security. “The Kashmir issue is not about law and order; it’s political.” Now, Bajwa’s statement should lead Delhi should also change its tact, he adds. “On the contrary, New Delhi seems to believe that Pakistan was issuing such statement under pressure. One thing is sure: at the international level, the focus is that India and Pakistan need to take a call on their issues themselves.” Another separatist leader says the home minister “had nothing to offer us”.
All the same, Rajnath says his permanent solution to Kashmir issue is based on five Cs: compassion, communication, coexistence, confidence building and consistency. “Our effort is that Kashmiris, along with peace, get honour and dignity. We will make all efforts in this direction.”
Ex-CM Omar, who launched a campaign as NC president across J&K to reiterate the benefits of the special status to the people of all three regions, describes the home minister’s statement as “very important”. “His assurance will go a long way towards silencing the noises against 35-A,” says Omar, who had led his party delegation on September 10 to meet Rajnath. “The Union government must now file a counter-affidavit in the Supreme Court to defend 35-A.” On September 12, NC’s Jammu region president Davinder Singh Rana told Rajnath that the attorney general must be asked to submit a forceful counter in the apex court to safeguard Article 35A which is an endorsement of the law enacted by Kashmir’s Maharaja Hari Singh 90 years ago.
Congress leader Tariq Hamid Karra, an ex-MP, says the home minister’s sudden visit and his assurance on special status have come after the Congress’s pressure and visit of the party’s policy group to the state. After what the NC’s Rana says, “scotching every apprehension” of pro-India regional parties and Congress, the home minister didn’t lose sight of Jammu and Kashmir police during the visit. He went to Anantnag a day after a policeman was killed and one was wounded in militant action. He praised the police force, which this year saw highest number of killings of its personnel by militants. Rajnath directed not to treat children below 18 years of age like criminals when caught during stone throwing. They must be sent to juvenile houses. He wants the CM to review cases of teenagers in jails.
The J&K Police was quick to respond. Inspector General of Police Muneer Ahmad Khan said incentive would be given to police and other security officials, who would ensure surrender of militants. Minister of State in the PMO Jitendra Singh tells Outlook that the Centre is in coordination with the state to enhance ex gratia in favour of next of kin policemen who get killed in J&K. “I think it should on par with the paramilitary forces. It should be Rs 1 crore,” he says.
By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar