It is too early to conclude whether the all-party meeting held at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s residence to reduce the trust deficit between New Delhi and the leaders of Jammu and Kashmir will succeed in building the foundations of a ‘Naya Jammu and Kashmir’. That the meeting was held, remarkably without rancor, does signal a new beginning after the momentous events of August 2019, which included the dilution of Article 370 and the preventive detention of many of the leaders who attended the all-party meeting .
There are also signals that a new minimal consensus could be forged between the mainstream of political leaders in Jammu and Kashmir and the central leadership that could lead to an early return of democratic governance and full Statehood. In its long and chequered history, there have been several and previous occasions during which federal relations have been rebooted and reset and this would not be the first time that a new, forward-looking political compact is executed.
Centre’s policies, the world
It is tempting, especially for out-of-work diplomats, to over-analyse New Delhi’s latest moves within a chessboard of a ‘great game’ being played out, reminiscent of 19th century British strategies in the region. Anyone who has studied New Delhi policies since the troubles of the 1990s will recognise that the Centre’s policies on Jammu and Kashmir rarely shift under international pressure, even while tactical gestures may be made to assuage the sentiments of what the establishment often describes as woolly-headed liberals.
In the hostile atmosphere of the early 1990s, when India was confronted with a full-blown insurgency in the Kashmir Valley and India’s staunchest ally, the Soviet Union had collapsed, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia (and Central Asia), Robin L. Raphel (with direct access to U.S. President Bill Clinton) questioned Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India. Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s fragile coalition, within an economically precarious India, refused to concede ground in any substantial measure. Surely, it is surreal to believe that the Modi government would do so under pressure from the Joe Biden administration or gratuitous advice from its Acting Assistant Secretary for South Asia, even while the photo opportunity presented by the all-party meeting would, of course, be flashed by the media czars of the Ministry of External Affairs across the globe.
Similarly, while the dangers to Afghanistan from the gradual takeover by the Taliban are real and present, it is difficult to find any evidence that the once-messianic students rooted in the madrassas of the Frontier will now turn their attention to Kashmir. Moreover, any backchannel that exists between India and Pakistan that led to a successful ceasefire on the Line of Control is reflective much more of Rawalpindi’s own internal fault lines and problems on multiple fronts, than any real concession toward India. To be sure, if Pakistan’s leadership wanted a face saver to stand down from its fierce reaction to the ‘Ides of August’, Mr. Modi has provided the very steps to down the ante.
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From a position of strength
Counterintuitively, the Modi government seems to have acted unilaterally precisely because there is a window of opportunity where it can speak and act from a position of almost absolute strength. Even while there are stray incidents of violence, terrorism and militancy are at their lowest levels in recent years; there is little popular disquiet that is finding expression in the streets of the towns and the cities of Kashmir; and the separatists are either in jail or are surprisingly silent. The popular press, once a source of anxiety for the establishment, has either been arm-twisted into projecting good news or found it pragmatic to do so given the scrutiny of central law enforcement agencies on almost every private institution of importance and influence in the Union Territory.
The mainstream of political parties, who had been derided by the Centre as the ‘Gupkar gang’ et al and detained for months, (who had taken an absolutist stand on the dilution of Article 370) seem to have found at least a modicum of accommodation with the Centre, at least good enough for all of them to respond positively to the Prime Minister’s invitation. In sum the employment of the entire spectrum of Kautilyan policies ( saam , daam , dand and bhed — persuade, purchase, punish, and exploit the weakness) have helped to create this new space; this is not to justify the Centre’s conduct, but merely find a convincing explanation for the remarkable degree of acquiescence to the Centre’s policies, admittedly within the convenient judicial cover provided by the Supreme Court of India having admitted but not heard the case on the legitimacy of the dilution of Article 370. As the Harvard trained legal ace, Muzaffar Beigh, apparently declared in the all-party meeting : any discussion on Article 370 could be tantamount to contempt of the Supreme Court given its sub judice status.
In turn, the Centre also seems to have realised that there are limits to which Chaplinesque ‘little dictators’ from the bureaucracy, and their minions can deliver in terms of better public services or investment opportunities despite the laudable intentions of the Lieutenant Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Manoj Sinha.
The state of delivery of public service has not improved significantly nor has promised investment from corporate groups translated into reality. The promise of Kashmir remains just that: the promise of Kashmir!
Need for a local connect
Moreover, the experience in Jammu and Kashmir has amplified the Sangh Parivar’s long-standing recognition that real leaders cannot be manufactured, but have to be connected organically to the grassroots and supported by a cadre of dedicated workers. The over-reliance on a new crop of shifty leaders, who were paraded into television studios or before visiting diplomats (and who zealously mouthed Bharat mata ki jai ) had the strong imprint of an intelligence operation, and was, in any case, counterproductive amongst even those already sympathetic to New Delhi’s narrative on Kashmir. The elections to the District Development Council demonstrated that the Bharatiya Janata Party, the National Conference, the Congress, Peoples Democratic Party, People’s Conference and the Apni Party — all of whom relied on the political leaders of the so-called Ancien Régime — still had a significant constituency amongst the voters of the State.
Federal relations are dynamic even in countries with almost inviolable rights of the States, including the United States. For most of the 20th century, even much before India’s Independence, New Delhi’s policies towards this border region have moved between tight central control and a gentler federal grip that provided space for autonomous self-governance. When the British sold Kashmir to the Dogra ruler, Gulab Singh, they wanted to secure the frontiers, but not be responsible for governance. But the British Empire too realised, especially within the reign of Pratap Singh, that they could not firewall security from governance.
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Use the bedrock of the young
Twenty-first century governance and empowerment requires a federal solution that is contemporary and built on best practices globally. The fresh consensus for a ‘Naya’ Jammu and Kashmir must capture the best practices of democratic governance globally, especially from a country such as Australia which I know best, and yet be reflective of the idea of India: a celebration of diversity in all its forms. The challenge before Jammu and Kashmir’s leaders, old and new, is to arrive at a compelling blueprint for good governance within a framework of healthy federal relations that will be rooted in a vision for peace, prosperity and real empowerment. The bedrock of such a vision must be the extraordinarily talented and gifted young people of the State, who have, despite the troubles, been able to carve out a niche for themselves across the world.
Amitabh Mattoo is Professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and Honorary Professor at the University of Melbourne