Now’s the time to talk about autonomy for Kashmir

While the much-awaited India-Pakistan dialogue has got stalled even before it could take off, the latest reports from across the Banihal do not promise early restoration of normality in the Kashmir valley either. The situation in Kashmir is tricky, and calls for an early initiative by the Manmohan Singh government to begin a dialogue with various political parties and other opinion-makers in the state.

Any delay in taking such an initiative can only help those in Pakistan who are in the business of whipping up trouble in Jammu & Kashmir. A few influential people at the Centre have often tended to believe that the route to a solution of the Kashmir question lies only through talks with Pakistan. Such thinking has time and again been proved erroneous and frustrating.

Pakistan is no longer seen as an attractive proposition by the silent majority in the valley. Talibanisation of Pakistan and daily reports of violence in the country cannot make separatists popular with the general public in the valley.

Ignoring the internal dimension of the Kashmir question has, over the years, led to the present mess, leaving hardly any scope for complacency or delay in taking fresh initiatives. Successive regimes at the Centre can be blamed for not following through the promises made for a new political settlement with the people of J&K.

The essence of these promises has been the Centre’s readiness to discuss greater autonomy for J&K than it enjoys under article 370 of the Constitution. Autonomy for J&K is not a new idea. Past explorations apart, in the 1990s, when militancy was at its worst,PV Narasimha Rao said (in a substantive interview with me) that the “sky is the limit” for autonomy for J&K. He later repeated the offer, of all the places in Burkhina Faso, far away in Africa.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, while in office, said he was ready for talks with various people of Kashmir within “a humanitarian framework”. This was in reply to a question whether the talks he was proposing would be within the framework of the Constitution, or otherwise.

Prime minister Manmohan Singh, on his part, has more than once expressed keenness for talks with anyone who gives up the path of violence. However, for some reason or the other, no serious talks have taken place.

The exercise of holding roundtables and working groups has led nowhere, while the valley has been going through recurring bouts of extremist violence encouraged from Pakistan. Manmohan Singh, in his first term, appointed NN Vohra as an interlocutor for preparing the ground for substantive talks with various parties and groups in the state. Following his appointment as governor of the state, no one has been appointed to pick up the threads where he had left off.

There is an urgent need now to appoint an interlocutor who could talk to various political parties, opinion leaders and even those who are critical of the Centre. There are several eminent personalities in the country who can take up the assignment for restoring the confidence of the people in the Centre’s intentions for a dialogue on the quantum of autonomy the state should have under a new relationship between the Centre and the state.

The fear that the BJP may make political capital out of any initiative by the Centre may be exaggerated. Wider consensus among all the parties can be evolved if the prime minister and the Congress president make a move for it.

A similar effort would need to be made in Kashmir even if the eeting convened by chief minister Omar Abdullah was boycotted by Mehbooba Mufti earlier this month. The PDP cannot be left out of the exercise.

It should not be difficult for the new interlocutor to ensure that both

Mufti Sayeed and his daughter become part of a larger political consensus in the valley. They would also know by now that supping with the separatists can give them mileage on TV channels, but the enterprise carries with it the risk of their becoming politically irrelevant.

A political consensus at the Centre — and also within the state — has to be accompanied by reaching out to various sections of the Hurriyat and the civil society for evolving a new dispensation which guarantees a greater degree of autonomy to Jammu & Kashmir.

To believe that no new political settlement with the people of J&K is possible is short-sighted and self-defeating. So is the notion that only security forces can resolve the Kashmir question. The security forces can tackle a law and order situation; they cannot find a solution to a chronic problem.

– DNA, July 30th, 2010