Leading parties in Jammu and Kashmir are all set to attend the meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, scheduled to be held in New Delhi on Thursday (June 24), but they refuse to abandon their demand for restoration of special status while keeping their expectations low from the “ice-breaking” interface.
The People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) — a grouping of six major political formations that seek restoration of statehood and Articles 370 and 35-A — on June 22 unanimously agreed to accept the offer for talks on Kashmir made by the BJP-led Union government.
After prolonged suspension of political activities in J&K since the BJP broke ties with its coalition partner, People’s Democratic Party (PDP), in June 2018, multiple factors are at play to make the fresh interface possible.
The widely reported backchannel talks between the intelligence and security officials of India and Pakistan, facilitated by the United Arab Emirates, playing the role of a mediator, is seen as one of the key factors. Political pundits also make a mention of the mounting international pressure — especially from the United States, key European member countries and also Beijing — on New Delhi to restore democratic process and electoral exercise in J&K.
Another factor, according to senior political analyst Riyaz Ahmad, is “the failure of the BJP to cultivate a new crop of leadership in J&K as an alternative to the regional political parties like the National Conference (NC), PDP and the Peoples’ Conference (PC) etc”.
As a result, there are signs of political engagement between the parties in Jammu and Kashmir and the BJP government after a yawning gap of over three years. In November 2020, Home Minister Amit Shah put out a strongly-worded tweet, disparaging the PAGD as “the Gupkar Gang” and accused the regional alliance of seeking intervention of foreign forces in Jammu and Kashmir.
“The Gupkar Gang is going global! They want foreign forces to intervene in Jammu and Kashmir. The Gupkar Gang also insults India’s Tricolour. Do Sonia Ji and Rahul Ji support such moves of the Gupkar Gang. They should make their stand crystal clear to the people of India.”
Meanwhile, many leaders are seeing the offer by the Centre as an “ice-breaker” while exercising caution and playing a waiting game.
Mehbooba Mufti, the former Chief Minister of J&K and President of the PDP, said that she did not have “very high expectations” from the new process but it was equally important to talk. Urging New Delhi to talk to Pakistan and other relevant stakeholders for a meaningful breakthrough on Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti also demanded unconditional release of all political prisoners as a Kashmir-centric “confidence-building measure”. “It may also lead to some confidence-building measures which are badly needed. Like release of political prisoners, relief in the stringent measures that are adopted here to suppress people and to control the situation. Then to start a debate and discussion on what was taken away illegally and unconstitutionally on the 5th of August, 2019, in the country,” she added.
The BJP, as expected, rejected her statement and maintained its stated position that the issue of Kashmir remained “India’s internal matter”.
“Dialogue is always important to resolve issues. So this meeting (with PM Narendra Modi on June 24) can be a starting point. Whatever may be our demands, but this country has to fulfil it,” Mehbooba told The Federal, adding that the engagement “may lead to some kind of ice-breaking between Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir to start with.”
Suhail Bukhari, chief spokesperson of the PDP and advisor to Mehbooba, said that engagement to resolve contentious issues was part of the party’s core agenda. “The PDP believes in engagements that are meaningful and result-oriented. We are attending the meeting with Prime Minister Modi in New Delhi where we will stick to our stances and demands,” Bukhari told The Federal.
On August 5, 2019, the BJP-led government revoked J&K’s special status and statehood in what the J&K-based parties saw a “unilateral decision”.
Politics in the region continues to remain in suspended animation since. With suspension of civil liberties, a record-breaking digital apartheid of 555 long days and unprecedented gag on media, the middle ground in J&K stands obliterated.
Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, chief spokesperson of the PAGD and Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader, told The Federal that the latest offer presented “an opportunity to talk after a long gap. To have big expectations from the process would be unrealistic at this stage. That said, some beginning to talk together is a welcome development”.
However, there are critical voices who want PAGD leaders to show some spine and make no compromises on their stated position.
Agha Ruhullah Mehdi, former cabinet minister and three-time legislator from the NC, asked some tough questions. “What are the aims and objectives of both sides in this engagement? That is what will define its nature, whether it is an opportunity or a trap!” Mehdi further told The Federal that “If the PAGD engages with the BJP-led Union government to put across its stand for restoration of Article 370 without ambiguity, the talks can turn into an opportunity.”
Alluding to international pressure on New Delhi, Mehdi said, “The BJP government can neither defend nor justify its illegal and unconstitutional abrogation of Article 370 before international democratic institutions and international fraternity unless it is given a lease of life or legitimacy by the political leadership of J&K. In the case of latter, that is if the PAGD settles for anything less than restoration of Articles 370 and 35-A as a result of this new engagement, it will be a trap for the PAGD and opportunity for the BJP.”
Ruhullah Mehdi said that his impression was that the parties of J&K have by and large “accepted the August 5 decision as fait accompli and are fighting and looking for their political relevance and a sense of achievement in restoration of statehood”.