It achieved nothing, the cynics claim. But this week’s visit of an all-party delegation of Members of Parliament to Jammu and Kashmir could mark a paradigm shift in political India’s engagement with the troubled State. The MPs provided a graphic demonstration of what Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s administration and the State’s politicians ought to have been doing: reaching out to the victims of violence and giving a fair hearing to hostile voices. But the real gain is this. For decades, India’s major parties have had little real engagement with politics in J&K. Instead of developing a genuine political dialogue on Kashmir, successive regimes in New Delhi have relied on opaque deal-making. The Delhi Agreement of 1952, which endorsed the main elements of the State’s Constitution, was forged through negotiations between governments, not political engagement. The Accord of November 1974 was concluded between two individuals with no constitutional or democratic legitimacy. In more recent times, New Delhi has sought deals with Kashmiri secessionists, often through the dubious offices of the intelligence services, bureaucrats, or quasi-official envoys. In practice, this has created a dysfunctional political culture built around the twin poles of supplication before, and defiance of, New Delhi.
New forms of political engagement are desperately needed. The India-Pakistan crisis of 2001-02 brought home the potential costs of failing to arrive at a resolution of the six-decade old conflict. In secret meetings that began in 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s envoy, S.K. Lambah, and General Pervez Musharraf’s representative, Tariq Aziz, hammered out the contours of an agreement — demilitarising the Line of Control, allowing for free movement across it, ensuring autonomy for both sides, and creating joint administrative institutions. But the political gale that swept President Musharraf out of office caused significant shifts in Pakistan’s strategic thinking. The military decided that, at a time of grave internal crisis, it could not be seen to be making concessions to India. Now political India has taken the first, tentative steps forward. Secessionist leaders like Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik have endorsed the process by “asking not for unilateral political concessions but rather a joint commitment to a meaningful process.” Even Kashmir’s Islamist patriarch, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, met with MPs who visited his home — and that hours after he rejected calls for a formal dialogue. This fledgling dialogue did not aim to bring about a final resolution of the conflict. Nor will it automatically still the anger on Srinagar’s streets. The challenge now is to institutionalise these conversations and build a durable dialogue between political India — not just the government of the day — and the troubled State’s politicians.