Last fortnight, I spent some time in Kashmir, trying to sample opinion on the Centre’s new effort to open dialogue.
Dineshwar Sharma landed here last week as a text message. A couple of days before New Delhi’s newest emissary to Kashmir presented his person to the Valley, telephones of local notables began to simultaneously ping – mainstream and separatist politicians, opinion leaders in the media, academia and the bar, hand-picked retired civil servants, all from a list of numbers that Sharma had been handed. ‘Could we meet? Want to talk? I’m coming,’ is how Sharma was sounding out his target audience.
The response he received was, to put it mildly, lukewarm, especially insufficient in dropping early winter temperatures. Separatists rejected the overture out of hand; mainstream entities like Omar Abdullah of the National Conference showed little eagerness, settling down for a ‘private call on’ only because Sharma had gone knocking his door; among others in the intelligentsia, few obliged, opting to sense the depth and drift of Sharma’s enterprise before they revealed their minds. Those that arrived at his heavily secured VVIP perch at Hari Niwas – many dozen delegations, authentic and adulterated – had mostly been herded and nudged to Sharma’s presence by administrative fiat. On the eve of Sharma’s arrival, the office of Divisional Commissioner Basheer Khan, occupied itself shooting off directives to any outfit worth the name to present themselves to Sharma – Bakerwal and Gujjar tribesmen, boatmen, tour operators, hoteliers, motley sets of tillers, women’s and youth groups, government-funded NGOs, even a dubious crew of young journalists nobody seemed to know existed. As Sharma laboured on in his exclusive bungalow, trying to shore up respectable numbers of the interested, The Telegraph spoke to a cross-section of those not on his telephone log – young unaligned professionals who remain invested in Kashmir and count among stakeholders as any other. This is what they had to say on New Delhi’s latest venture:
Rashid Rather, Sociologist: Kashmiris love talking, we’ve been talking since 1947. The issue is what about. To me the problem here is not about how to deal with separatists, it is how Delhi has dealt with mainstream parties, right from Sheikh Abdullah to Farooq Abdullah to the present generation of leaders. They have been pressed to the wall. Delhi has failed the Kashmiri mainstream consistently, it was made to fail before the Kashmiri people to a point that it had no credibility left. From Indira Gandhi to Rajiv to P.V. Narasimha Rao to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, everybody made promises and turned on them. That is what has created the space for separatists. There were always separatist pockets here, but they were pockets. New Delhi-inspired failures of the mainstream have expanded the separatist constituency. My message to New Delhi is: don’t be bothered about separatists, look at how you have treated the mainstream, how you have manipulated and emaciated it. But they are not prepared to learn any lessons, they are going on repeating the same mistakes. They have played with the mainstream leadership. Such a record inspires no confidence in us. The new emissary has met many so-called delegations, nearly 40 in two days, but is this a railway platform? What is he trying to do meeting so many delegations in such a short time? Are we to take this seriously? It has become a joke. Please do not come to Kashmir without examining your own record, it will serve no purpose. Go back, introspect and if you realise you’ve made mistakes, a start can probably be made.
Haroon Lone, Blogger: This is a nonsense effort, an insult to Kashmiris. It makes no sense to open doors to Dineshwar Sharma when so many previous interlocutor efforts have come to nothing. Only collaborators of the Indian state will meet him and that will serve no purpose. India is not interested in addressing the core issue of Kashmiri self-determination. And then they send a man with an IB background to talk. How can we trust him, open ourselves to such a man? The IB and Indian security agencies are tormentors of Kashmiri people. Indians fought and secured freedom from the British, but they are not prepared to countenance if Kashmiris are waging the same struggle for themselves. The Indian state has crushed us, Indian civil society has betrayed us by not standing by what is the democratic right of any people: the right to decide their own fate. You aren’t prepared to grant us autonomy when we want something fundamentally greater. What’s the point of such an exercise? You crush and humiliate us daily, then you send a policeman and want us to talk to him? This is insult on injury. How do you expect me to talk to my oppressor on his terms? I have an aspiration and I well know that if I express it to you, I will be punished in the harshest manner.
Shahbaz Sikandar Mir, Lawyer: Our past experience with interlocutors holds out no hope. Were I to tell Dineshwar Sharma one thing, it would be this: Don’t sit in a secured bungalow and ask for people to present themselves, strike out and meet Kashmiris on the ground, show heart and confidence in the people you call your own. There is a dangerous vacuum in Kashmir, any effort has to infuse the sense in people that someone is truly trying in their interest. There is no point if conversations do not go to the ground, to the villages and hamlets, to far districts, to disturbed pockets. The young in Kashmir are more alienated than ever before, they are angry too. I would even say that at the moment, the situation here is not ripe enough for an outreach of the kind I want to happen. Sometimes, I feel there is no hope left, that the gulf between governments and the people is too huge to bridge. That is not an unreasonable feeling. Leaders cannot step into their own villages and constituencies; that’s cause for alarm, this fracture in communication. If New Delhi is at all serious, and I seriously doubt it is, it must attempt fundamental corrections in the way it treats the people of Kashmir. It must inspire confidence. Instead, the opposite seems to be happening. If you want to create a debate on Article 370 and 35A, if the very mention of autonomy irritates you, it’s a bad sign. This is just how to lose the confidence of Kashmiris even more completely.
Nausheen Fatima, Doctoral scholar: This isn’t the first representative that New Delhi has sent to Kashmir, and it is a matter of disappointment to us that previous efforts, good, bad, indifferent, have come to nothing. I cannot say this effort inspires any confidence in me. But even so, I am one of those who would like to engage. I say this because if we refuse to talk we will be guilty of not pursuing our own goals. If we are a democracy, we cannot refuse dialogue. If Kashmir is a dispute, we are a party to it, the onus is on us to participate in any exercise aimed at resolutions. We represent the will of the people, the government has a responsibility towards us. We need to tell New Delhi it has to respect the Constitution, it has to assure us on fundamentals like Article 370 and 35A, it has to look at autonomy seriously. It is what our contract says. Violence will take us nowhere, not talking is not an option. We have to be pragmatic and firm about what our rights and aspirations are and continue telling New Delhi that we are unhappy to have been denied what we were promised.
Ejaz Ashraf Wani, Political Scientist: We have seen enough. Talking is important, but with who and what about? You cannot be skirting around core issues and key people all the time. Talking to show the world you are talking makes no sense. I cannot make a difference to the problems here because I am of little consequence to public opinion. But some people can, I mean the Hurriyat and separatist sections. They need to be somehow involved if this has to have any meaning. Issuing a general invitation is not good enough. Efforts have to be made to get people who have a problem with India to the negotiating table. For that New Delhi has to demonstrate genuine intent. If New Delhi isn’t prepared to talk to Pakistan, to separatists, to all stakeholders, we will get nowhere. The very point of negotiating is that there will be counter-voices, New Delhi has to be prepared to hear them out. Dineshwar Sharma has been meeting delegations of tradesmen and tribes and tourist operators. But Kashmir is not a municipal problem, it is a political problem. What is Sharma’s brief? There is an elected government here which should be looking after the issues of traders and tourist operators. Theoretically, he is only undermining the government if he is meeting these delegations. Sharma has not come with any proposals, what are we to talk about? Frankly, I do not see any genuine effort, this is only more reason for us to remain pessimistic. That’s sad.
Shahana, Sports writer, Entrepreneur: I am not into big words and big solutions. I advocate small but meaningful steps that will make a difference to the lives of people. But that’s not happening. What’s happening is words like azaadi and autonomy are being tossed about, which have no real import on our lives. Why is there not the smallest effort to speak to militants, persuade them to another life, rehabilitate them honourably in society? Why does nobody speak to their parents and assure them a good deal from the government? Why does nobody in the government reach out to young stone-pelters and counsel them? Over the years, we have become a deeply injured and brutalised people, we need a patient ear, we need sympathy, we need concrete alternatives for the future that we can be interested in. Is there such a plan with anyone? I cannot see it. I only see political games and slogan-mongering which will come to nothing.