Is India Getting Serious About Dialogue in Kashmir?

A Kashmiri Muslim girl at Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir. Photo: Getty Images.

Almost exactly 70 years ago, Indian troops arrived in Kashmir to support its ruler’s decision to accede to India. The subsequent division of Kashmir between India and Pakistan has sparked occasional conflict between the two countries, and since 1989 Indian Kashmir has suffered from an ongoing insurgency, reflecting both discontent among Indian Kashmiris at poor governance as well as meddling from Pakistan.

The grievances of Kashmiris are manifold – unemployment and corruption are major concerns – and over the years the state response to protests involved human rights abuses which have fed into the cycle of resentment. While successive Indian governments have recognized the need for a political dialogue – and some form of political settlement – they have been loath to start a dialogue while significant protests are taking place. Yet, when protests die down, governments have generally interpreted this as Kashmiri acquiescence towards the status quo, demonstrating that there is no need for dialogue.

Thus, the appointment of a former head of India’s intelligence agency as an interlocutor mandated to talk with ‘all parties’ in Kashmir is a positive development, and while scepticism of the outcome may be well-founded given historical precedents, the government does at least appear to have a plan.

Since June it has cracked down heavily on militants’ funding streams. The Indian government has understated the extent to which Kashmiris have legitimate grievances but even so, their crackdown on illicit funds does appear to have reduced levels of protest in recent months.

With levels of violence reduced, the door opens for a political dialogue within Kashmir. Given that such dialogue will be bound by being constitutionally acceptable, it is difficult to imagine that it would not come to similar conclusions as a previous process which concluded in 2012 that the constitutional protection provided to Kashmir should be preserved, that greater connectivity across the Line of Control be introduced and that economic development is paramount.

Whether the dialogue extends to Pakistan is far less certain. India has repeatedly called on Pakistan to crack down on anti-Indian militant groups, including individuals India claims were involved in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. The recently-concluded BRICS summit statement explicitly named a number of these groups as being of concern. Pakistan is increasingly beholden to China for support – the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor is becoming more and more important for the country as both the West and the Gulf states have turned more sceptical of it. If China followed through on the BRICS statement, its pressure would be difficult for Pakistan to ignore.

If Pakistan took action against militants this could open the door for a dialogue with India. With territorial swaps hard to envisage, any such process would likely conclude with relatively similar conclusions to the process between Manmohan Singh and General Musharraf which stalled in 2007 and was killed off by the Mumbai attacks the following year. The two similarly saw the Line of Control as a softer border and suggested some manner of policy alignment within Kashmir towards shared resources.

However, such a process is far from certain. The Indian government currently feels that adopting a hard line towards Pakistan is electorally beneficial, and with elections upcoming in Gujarat later this year, several states next year and a general election in 2019, hopes for cross-border dialogue are slim unless its viewpoint changes.

Similarly, the strident rhetoric towards protestors in Kashmir seems more aimed at attracting votes in India’s Hindi heartland than at reconciling with Kashmiris. Compounding the difficulties, radicalization in Kashmir is increasingly based on radical Islam, and disseminated by social media, this in a context in which roughly half of Kashmir’s population have been born since the conflict broke out.

The BJP is committed to maintaining Kashmir as an integral part of India, and in theory to abrogating its special status (Article 370 of the Indian constitution). Protests in Kashmir are primarily seen as a manifestation of Pakistan’s malign intent towards India. Indeed, it is Kashmir’s special status, in the BJP view, that causes distrust of India, separating Kashmiris from the national mainstream. Further, the same special status undermines its economic development, discouraging outside investment. Thus, they claim, Kashmir is trapped in a vicious cycle which needs to be broken by its greater integration with India.

It is unlikely that a sustained dialogue with all parties in Kashmir would conclude likewise. The 2012 report concluded that article 370 should be strengthened rather than removed. But the dialogue may enable a volte face: certainly, if the government were to satisfy Kashmiri demands and enable Kashmir to return to normality, this would be perhaps the greatest demonstration of India’s innate strength.

Dr Gareth Price, Senior Research Fellow, Asia Programme.

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