The meeting between the representatives of mainstream political parties in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and the central leadership on June 24 was at best a good beginning, and an indication of the shape of unilateral politics in J&K in the months ahead, at worst. More than a conflict resolution exercise, the agenda-less meeting was more about the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government setting the rules of politics in Kashmir and getting them accepted by the mainstream stakeholders in J&K. To that extent, the all-party meeting, a politically clever and a tactically sound half-measure by the BJP-led central government, was definitely not a climbdown by the BJP.
Clever political move
Organising the all-party meeting was a clever political move by the BJP government for a variety of reasons. For one, the narrative will now shift to how and when the Centre will (or not) concede to at least some of the demands made by the Kashmiri politicians from the more critical questions of whether the decision of 2019 has delivered on any of its declared objectives. Consider this. The two justifications made by the BJP government for the decisions of 2019 — ushering in a new era of development and prosperity in J&K, and rooting out terrorism from Kashmir — seem to have disappeared from public memory today. There has been little development in the now Union Territory since 2019; if anything, the security lockdown post-2019 and the subsequent COVID-19 lockdown have only worsened economic conditions in the Union Territory. What about terrorism and extremism? Until the India-Pakistan ceasefire of February this year, the security situation in the Kashmir Valley saw no significant improvement despite the double lockdown nor was there a major let-up in infiltration from across the Line of Control (LoC). As for home-grown insurgency, there is no way to measure anti-India sentiments in the Union Territory given the strict security clampdown and the subsequent double lockdown. In any case, brandishing the absence of violent protests during a double lockdown as a measure of success of the 2019 decisions is methodologically erroneous, at the least. In short, neither has the removal of special status improved the economic conditions of the general population nor has it been helpful in rooting out Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in the Valley or reducing anti-India feelings there.
Editorial | Future State: On Centre’s J&K outreach
BJP’s political gains
And yet, the BJP’s Kashmir grand strategy has hardly been a failure especially since the key objectives of its mission Kashmir were different from the stated ones. Look at it this way. By politically reaching out to Kashmir now, New Delhi has lost nothing given that both the Prime Minister and the Home Minister had stated several times in the past that Statehood would be returned to J&K at an ‘appropriate time’. Let me put the ongoing negotiations on the issue of Statehood in perspective: withdrawal of Statehood in 2019 was a clever negotiating ploy to eventually force a trade-off between the return of Statehood and a tacit acceptance of the removal of Article 370. Kashmiri political leaders would have little option but to accept this trade-off eventually even as they wait for the ‘appropriate time’ to arrive.
In other words, Statehood versus Article 370 was a carefully thought-out artificial choice made by the BJP government to gain advantage during future negotiations. The meeting on Thursday was the opening shot to judge the mood.
More crucially, if New Delhi manages to get the mainstream political parties in J&K to accept, out of sheer necessity, the offer of Statehood without the reunification of the State or return of special status, New Delhi would have laid down the rules of the game in Kashmir. Read this with the fact that the Jammu-based political parties, currently dominated by the BJP, will benefit from the ongoing delimitation of the Assembly seats in the Union Territory. So, the numerical advantage that the Valley had traditionally enjoyed over Jammu in the erstwhile State’s Assembly will diminish, thereby helping the BJP, as also other Jammu-based parties, to strengthen their hold in the politics of the Union Territory/State.
Let us view these political realities from the perspective of the political parties in J&K: they have everything to gain by getting J&K’s Statehood back, for politics without Statehood is an unattractive proposition. Politics, the Kashmiri political class knows only too well, is the art of the “possible”. For them, it is a choice between something or nothing, and they do realise that choosing nothing over something (i.e., Statehood) is not a practical solution. In politics, irrelevance comes quickly and sharply and the Kashmiri politicians know that more than anyone. In effect, therefore, the demands for the restoration of Statehood, and the well-timed and purposefully long drawn-out negotiations thereof, will bury the mainstream political demand for Article 370.
But, perhaps most importantly, the real gain for the BJP is ideological. The BJP, and the Jan Sangh before it, consistently argued for the removal of Article 370. They achieved that, albeit by questionable means, in 2019. The ongoing talks indicate that the Sangh Parivar’s ideological agenda is all set to triumph in J&K.
As for Pakistan, it had maintained ever since August 2019 that it would not engage in a dialogue process with India until New Delhi retracts the Kashmir decisions of 2019. Pakistan tried to internationalise what it called India’s “annexation” of Kashmir but garnered little support, and increased the heat on the LoC and inside Kashmir, again to no avail. Islamabad’s stated position has evidently changed with the February 2021 ceasefire agreement on the LoC and the backchannel talks preceding it. There is an emergent and strong opinion within Pakistan that if India were to restore Statehood in J&K, it might open doors for a dialogue process. Therefore, if New Delhi offers Statehood to J&K, a process that began on Thursday, Pakistan might be open to talks with India.
Put differently, by offering to return Statehood to Kashmir and politically burying the issue of J&K’s special status, New Delhi has won a tactical victory over Pakistan without making any real concessions. On the other hand, Pakistan would have to walk back from its preconditions for talks with India by agreeing to New Delhi’s half-measure on Kashmir. On the brighter side, however, this undoubtedly has the potential to bring the two sides to the negotiating table on various outstanding bilateral issues. New Delhi’s current advantage in Kashmir over Pakistan could also be read with the lessons from the Balakot stand-off in early 2019. By carrying out a strike against Pakistan in its Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, New Delhi created a new military normal between the two sides, i.e., counterterror strikes inside Pakistan could occur in case of a terror attack against India notwithstanding the Pakistani response, which as the ensuing air skirmish showed is likely to remain at the low conventional level. In other words, New Delhi has clearly signalled to Pakistan how far it will go on the Kashmir question and how far it will tolerate the menace of terrorism.
Whether or not the BJP’s political gain vis-à-vis the Kashmiri political parties, and tactical gain over Pakistan will help root out insurgency and terrorism from Kashmir is something we will have to wait and see. That the BJP government has not politically reached out to the Kashmiri dissidents is indicative of the fact that it will want to single-handedly dictate the contours of politics in Jammu and Kashmir — ceding limited space to the mainstream political parties, and little space for either the dissidents or Pakistan. Whether this policy will find success on the ground once Kashmir opens up and normal political activity resumes there is an important question. A cursory glance at Jammu and Kashmir’s history would show that New Delhi’s deals with Kashmir’s mainstream politicians routinely found little favour with either the ordinary Kashmiri or the agitating Kashmiri. In that sense, then, it is too early for New Delhi to claim victory in Kashmir.
Happymon Jacob teaches at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and is the founder of the Council for Strategic and Defense Research