Does The Modi Government Have A Policy On Kashmir?

4 May 2015
Radha Kumar

New Delhi: Since the new BJP-PDP coalition government of Jammu and Kashmir assumed charge on March 1, 2015, there has been an unending uproar in Srinagar. First, there was the issue of removing Article 370, raised unwisely by MOS Jitendra Singh almost a year earlier in May 2014, but revived with the formation of the coalition nine months later. Then there was the issue of the return of Kashmiri Pandits, over which a tussle between the coalition partners, Members of the Legislative Assembly and the state and central government has continued for two months. And finally there was the issue of the Hurriyat factions and their relationship to Pakistan, which, too, has been ongoing since May 2014. Most of these issues have been dealt with in the Common Minimum Programme that was painfully negotiated by the BJP and PDP over a period of two months. Under the CMP Article 370 will remain untouched though a dialogue over it will be encouraged, the Pandits' return will be facilitated, and efforts will be made to involve the Hurriyat and allied groups in peace talks. As a result of the iteration of the CMP, the unrest over Article 370 has fortunately died down. The other two issues, however, refuse to die down despite the efforts of the state government to cool tempers. Why do they keep recurring as issues of anxiety, ideology and debate? One major reason is that these are outstanding issues that have been on diverse agendas for decades. The return of Kashmiri Pandits has been an issue since their 'ethnic cleansing' in the 1990s. Most Kashmiris agree that those that wish to return should be enabled to do so. The opposition to the Pandits' return comes chiefly from communal groups - including outsiders such as the government of Pakistan - who stand to lose if Kashmir regains the pluralist culture of Kashmiriyat, and those that have seized Pandit lands. The state and central governments have played into the hands of these groups by allowing the Pandits' return to be clouded by the issue of 'separate' townships. That new homes would have to be built for the many Pandits who lost their original homes is undeniable. The state government has clarified that the new townships, if built, will not be exclusively Pandit but will be 'composite'. However, they have done little to explain their plans and the central government has done even less; they do not seem to have reviewed how previous plans for the Pandits' return have fared, and after one short initiative to encourage civil society outreach to welcome the Pandits back, they have failed to begin a dialogue with local communities in the valley on how to reintegrate the Pandits. It is these failures that have allowed agitators to prolong unrest over the issue. Its unfortunate result will be to make return more, rather than less, difficult. Ironically, the Pakistani Foreign Office's latest idiotic statement, that they oppose 'demographic change' by the return of the Pandits to Kashmir, will rebound on Pakistan. First, it shines the spotlight on the very considerable demographic change that it has already engineered in parts of Pakistani-held Kashmir such as Gilgit-Baltistan, starting from the 1980s and comprising resettlement of Punjabis and Pathans there. This was one of the sparks of the Shia-Sunni conflict that dogged the region for decades. Second, it shows it to be opposed to the internationally recognised principle of the right to return of refugees and the internally displaced. As to saying that the Pandits' return is a violation of UN resolutions, I hope the UN will contradict the Pakistani government flatly and definitively; indeed the UN should also perhaps point out that the demographic change that Pakistan has actually imposed in Gilgit-Baltistan should be reversed. Third, and perhaps even more important, the statement puts the Pakistani government at loggerheads with the people of the state. Every political organisation, even the two Hurriyat factions and groups like the JKLF, profess to support the Pandits' return. Will the Hurriyat speak out against the Pakistani government's statement? There are already voices in the Valley asking whether they have subjugated themselves to Pakistan; here is an opportunity for them to redeem themselves. Finally, the Pakistan government has also put the PDP on the backfoot. Mufti Sayeed was one of the architects of the Kashmir segment of the India-Pakistan peace process of 2002-7 and at his insistence peacemaking with Pakistan was included in the CMP. This item may now have sunk to the bottom of the CMP agenda. Pakistan apart, however, the past two months have shown that despite agreeing the CMP the BJP and PDP have found it difficult to reconcile their approach. If the issue of the Pandits' return has starkly underlined one coalition problem, the question of talks with the Hurriyat has reduced the coalition to bathos. The central government first took offence at Hurriyat meetings with Pakistani officials and now looks the other way; the state government embarked on an ambitious programme of prisoner releases to pave the way for government-Hurriyat talks, but was stopped short when the first man to be released, Masarat Alam, promptly organised a demonstration with slogans of 'Kashmir banega Pakistan.' So does the Modi government have a Kashmir policy? Taking the charitable view, what's described above may just be teething problems. Compared to a month ago, when the coalition partners were talking at each other through the media, matters have improved though not sufficiently so. Despite agreeing to the CMP, the BJP does not appear to be working with the PDP to ensure its smooth implementation. For their part the PDP could smooth ruffled feathers in the BJP constituency by paying more evident attention to Jammu and Ladakh. In his budget speech the Jammu and Kashmir finance minister spoke of using his budget to 'enlarge the constituency for peace' in the state and bring its inhabitants a peace dividend. The best way to do so would be for the coalition to focus on repairing the divides within the state instead of allowing the divides to widen further, especially when so vital a humanitarian issue as the Pandits' return is concerned. The author is Director-General of the Delhi Policy Group