When Sartaj Madani speaks politics, fellow netas, administrators and people take special notice. For, it’s only rarely that the leader of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) interacts with the media. What’s more, his words are lapped up as the views of the government—to be precise, those of chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, his niece. Sartaj is considered as the main power centre in the PDP.
So, when he, as the vice-president of the ruling PDP, issued a statement a fortnight ago, the press in Jammu and Kashmir as well as outside got a heads-up. “I welcome the unconditional offer of dialogue from Government of India on Kashmir and expect that the same should evoke a positive response from all those interested in ending the stalemate,” he said. The note came on September 22, a day after BJP general secretary Ram Madhav, who is in charge of the saffron party’s affairs in the state, said the Centre was willing for unconditional talks with whosoever on the Kashmir issue.
That elated Sartaj, 63, unusually. He said the J&K people have been the “worst sufferers of uncertainty and instability arising out of contentious issues and confrontation”. Tacitly asking the Hurriyat Conference to grab the Madhav offer, he added, “Now is the time that reconciliatory gestures from New Delhi are not put to any doubt and all stakeholders extend a helping hand in restoring the process of dialogue for sustainable peace and conflict resolution.”
Madhav, during his latest J&K visit, told reporters that the NDA government led by his party had been stating that its door was open for all the stakeholders of the state. “We are ready to talk to whosoever wants to have a dialogue—without any preconditions,” he said. That invited immediate responses from separatist leaders. Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik announced that they were ready for a “sincere, meaningful and result-oriented dialogue” among the “three parties”: India, Pakistan and representatives of Kashmiris.
Earlier, on September 11, Union home minister Rajnath Singh had said the Narendra Modi administration will not go against the wishes of the J&K people on constitutional provisions that guarantee special privileges to the restive region. He was referring to widespread apprehensions in Kashmir that the Centre is against the vexed Articles 370 and 35A. While 370 (as a permanent feature of the Indian Constitution) confers J&K with a special autonomy status, 35A empowers the state legislature to define its ‘permanent residents’ (qualifying them for owning property and obtaining state government job). Rajnath, on his four-day J&K visit, rejected such concerns and described them as a “non-issue’’, suggesting to take his assurances as “the home minister of India”.
That way, the scene in the Valley looked set for major changes. The army added further credence to the prospect when on September 27 Major General B.S. Raju, head of the Victor Force that looks after South Kashmir, stated that time was ripe for a political initiative as “back of militancy has been broken”—and “anything under the Constitution is possible”.
Three days later, on September 30, the euphoria met with a spoiler when Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) sidelined all pro-dialogue voices within the BJP. Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat said “necessary constitutional amendments” will have to be made for the J&K people to be “completely assimilated” with the rest of the country. As the Valley was stunned, the PDP went into a shell. The separatist leaders, who were talking about the dialogue, hit back at Bhagwat. Geelani, for instance, said such statements indicate that India doesn’t want to resolve Kashmir through political means.
In his more-than-an-hour-long address on Vijayadashami, which is also the RSS’s foundation day, Bhagwat said old provisions will have to be changed in J&K. “Then and then only its residents can be completely assimilated with the rest of Bharat and their equal cooperation and share will be possible in the national progress,” he added.
A day later, J&K deputy chief minister Nirmal Singh added to the political storm by saying the Article 370 has caused more harm to the state. He called for its abrogation, saying that had the BJP got 44-plus seats (magic number) in the assembly, things would have been different.
Ram Madhav of BJP says the Centre is willing to hold talks on Kashmir with anyone unconditionally
A moderate, Mirwaiz says Kashmir is not a state-and-Centre issue. “It is not a law and order problem, Neither is it an administrative or security issue. It is a political issue and that has to be understood,” he tells Outlook. He, however, says Bhagwat’s statement and its endorsement by Nirmal show the “ambitions” of the RSS and BJP over Kashmir. “They want revocation of the Articles 370 and 35A and a complete assimilation. It is unacceptable. Such attempts would be resisted tooth and nail.”
Mirwaiz says the BJP needs to first clear its position on Kashmir before the RSS and then articulate it in public. “That party’s leadership has so many contradictory stands on Kashmir.”
The BJP’s state unit sees no contradiction in the RSS-BJP positions and that of the J&K government on the Article 35A. The Mehbooba government, of which the BJP is a part, has filed a long counter against the petitions filed for revocation of the Article 35A before the Supreme Court, points out Virendar Gupta, the party’s state spokesman. “As a national party, the BJP has a certain view about Kashmir—we are for the abrogation of the Articles 370 and 35A. All the same, if Nirmal Singh speaks that Article 370 should have been abrogated long ago, it should be seen as views of a party leader, not of the deputy chief minister.” Gupta says the party, in spite of being in alliance with the PDP, has right to express its views about the special status of J&K—and it will not abdicate it.
Dr Hina Bhat, the BJP’s face in Kashmir, has similar points about the special status, but prefers to express them in a different way. “What is there in the Article 370? The previous governments have rendered it toothless and now it is only a shell. Whether it remains or it goes, it doesn’t make any difference,” she tells Outlook. “The regional parties have been making people emotional and sentimental about the Article 370. My stand is that its presence or absence doesn’t make any difference to people. This should be communicated to masses.” Bhat chooses not to talk more about the Article 35A, “as it is in the SC”.
Such observations from the BJP leaders show the party is in no mood to keep quiet after Bhagwat’s speech. Observers say the voices against the special status for J&K will go shriller in the coming days till some union minister or top BJP leader calls for restraint, if at all.
The Congress sees no consistency in the BJP’s views on Kashmir. Tariq Karra, a senior leader of the grand old party, is the only Kashmiri leader in the state’s recent history to have resigned as an MP last year (then of the PDP), citing large-scale killings of the civilian protesters at the hands of security forces. That prompted him to join the Congress. Today, he recalls that much before Bhagwat’s Vijayadashami speech, Rajnath and Madhav had talked about reconciliation and talks in the Valley.
Madhav’s statement that the present NDA government is ready for an unconditional dialogue is, to 62-year-old Karra, a major policy shift. “The BJP did it all under pressure from the Congress’s Policy Group’s (recent) visit to the Valley,” the former finance minister claims. “But the Hurriyat Conference has not responded to their offer. That is why they have gone back to their earlier position.”
True, autumn is poised to set in the Valley, but J&K is unlikely to experience a cool weather when it comes to politics. Even into the winter, Kashmir may get embroiled in the issue, according to the state’s advocate-general Jehangir Iqbal Ganai, as there is a November 24 hearing of the three petitions against the Article 35A at the Supreme Court. Ganai says it was the registry of the apex court that decided to list the case for the hearing. “The state has nothing to do with the deferring of the case till November.”
However, critics, like Karra, say the J&K administration wanted the case to be heard in the winter months. “In case of any adverse order, the state government would be able to tackle the agitation in Kashmir,” he notes. “The ruling PDP-BJP combine is actually playing this melodrama in tandem.”
As Sartaj remains silent about the Bhagwat’s “assimilation” speech, the indication for many goes thus: the PDP is either shaken or is in sync with Bhagwat’s idea—as alleged by the Opposition National Conference. Only the PDP veteran can tell which side his party is now.
By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar