The mandate given to Dineshwar  Sharma has raised hopes in Jammu & Kashmir

Word For Peace

By Harish Khurana

The Narendra Modi government on Monday announced it would start a “sustained dialogue” process with all stakeholders, including separatists, and appointed former Intelligence Bureau director Dineshwar Sharma as its special representative.

Home minister Rajnath Singh said the move was to carry forward the “the conviction and consistency” in the government’s Kashmir policy. “We have decided that a sustained dialogue process should begin in Jammu and Kashmir”.

The home minister said Mr Sharma, who would hold the rank of a Cabinet Secretary, would have complete independence in deciding whom to hold talks with, indicating that talks with separatist leaders were also possible. He was replying to a question on whether Mr Sharma would hold discussions with the Hurriyat Conference.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had talked to all political parties as to what could be done to find a solution to the Kashmir problem. “People told us that the dialogue process should be started. We are doing this,” the home minister said, and recalled the Prime Minister’s August 15 speech, which said: “Neither by bullet, nor by abuses but by embracing the people we can solve the problems in Jammu and Kashmir.”

The measure is significant because the BJP government at the Centre had constantly maintained a tough line on opening peace talks with separatists in Kashmir, particularly after the 2016 unrest that left over 100 civilians dead. The Congress on Monday termed the development as an admission of a “blunder” by the Modi government and of the failure of its “muscular approach”.

Mr Sharma has his work cut out. The ink hadn’t even dried on the order appointing him when a political skirmish broke out between the Congress and the BJP. The core issue is an old one — autonomy.

The statement by a former Congress minister that many seeking azaadi or independence were actually seeking autonomy raised the hackles of the BJP which termed such utterances anti-national.

The National Conference, which hasn’t held a so-called delegates’ meeting in 15 years decided to do so and released a statement supporting more autonomy for Kashmir. Still the government’s response, which seems to suggest its opposition to calls for more autonomy, does have the potential to hobble Mr Sharma’s efforts. It would have perhaps done well to hold its counsel and watch Mr Sharma’s progress in engaging with all stakeholders.

The atmosphere has so far been conducive to Mr Sharma’s mission. Violence in the Valley has reduced (relatively at least) and the Army has been very successful in thwarting terrorists. And the home minister has made it clear that Mr Sharma is free to engage with whoever he wants to, indicating an openness to talk with hardline separatist groups.

Issues related to national and internal security are non-negotiable, but other issues, specially those related to the daily lives of various sections of Kashmiri society, are not.

Mr Sharma isn’t the first interlocutor appointed by a government keen on solving the Kashmir problem. The mandate given to Mr Sharma has raised fresh hopes that some progress can be made, despite the fact that reports of other interlocutors have remained largely unimplemented. Let’s hope the recent political slugfest hasn’t hurt them.

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