Monday, September 28, 2009

Resurrecting the Peace process

Yet another season of peace talks has arrived in Kashmir. The UPA’s Kashmir interlocutors have been discussing their resumption with the dissidents in Srinagar. These closed door meetings are expected to iron out the agenda and modus operandi of another peace process, following the abandonment of its precursor midway through 2005. Since then many things have changed in the region, in the state, in India and in Pakistan; the dynamics between all players have complicated and shifted. In this new environment it is necessary to ponder whether things have changed for better or worse. Does the contemporary political scenario lend itself more comprehensively towards a successful outcome this time? More importantly, has this latest process begun favourably, or are we headed for the fall already?

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the young, fiery yet sophisticated, moderate dissident is the flavour of the season. He is currently being courted by New Delhi to wade through the complexities of Kashmiri politics, and to preempt potential troubles in the Valley during the coming months. Essentially, this man of the moment is being courted to help revive the peace process - no small task. New Delhi understands that quiet in Kashmir is not necessarily indicative of contentment. The centre was caught off guard by the land transfer agitations and again vis-à-vis the Shopian rape-murder case. The Chief Priest of Kashmir has apparently responded positively despite these significant hiccups, saying that the “time to be anti-India is over.” This pragmatism is not a rejection of the rhetoric of dissent in favour of mainstream politics, but rather is an important reiteration of the need to talk peace.

Let us try and understand the regional context within which New Delhi and Srinagar are now operating. The regional environment has suffered overarching uneasiness between India and Pakistan since 26/11 and the two countries remain virtually isolated from one another, with what little contact there is notable for its awkwardness. The back-channel meetings that almost ‘finalized’ the fate of Kashmir just two years ago are a rapidly fading memory. In this new context what stands remarkable is the absence of Pakistan as a factor, directly or indirectly, in the peace process that is beginning to take shape between New Delhi and Srinagar. Also important is that Pakistan has been relatively silent on Kashmir in the recent past - the country seems to be too busy with itself.

This means, firstly, that at least some of the actors in the dissident camp who might look to Pakistan for broad political direction may find themselves without counsel. Secondly, pitching the J&K peace process as being unconnected from the larger India-Pakistan peace process may hamper the actors from reaching any ‘lasting’ or ‘final’ resolutions. Thirdly, and more importantly, the absence of Pakistan leaves India without the external political pressure required to motivate New Delhi to make worthwhile concessions. In other words, New Delhi would be speaking from a position of strength, unchallenged. The new dialogue may not, therefore, deliver many dividends.

What are the potential wildcards that may impact upon the process? I can see at least three in this dialogue that could take shape in the coming months. One, the hardliner Ali Shah Geelani and his Hurriyat faction may try to make the peace process appear as a meaningless exercise before the public. Yet it might not be possible for the other parties to include Geelani in the process since his preconditions may be unacceptable to them. Secondly, that the upcoming dialogue will likely be conducted without regard for Pakistan’s concerns, and without its involvement, means that it is unlikely to support whatever results may be achieved. Thirdly, it is widely believed that the ‘security establishment’ in New Delhi will not allow for any ‘radical’ solutions to Kashmir to be discussed. We may therefore be confronted with just another case of history repeating itself; reports suggest that New Delhi has added only a few limited soft issues as part of its peace offer this time around.

Of course, I concede that the idea of a dialogue between the conflicting parties is a good thing per se, and should be appreciated for that alone. However at the same time, initiating a dialogue without proper preparation and minus clear objectives and aims will surely make it a useless one, as we have seen in the past. More so, a dialogue that ends abruptly without concrete results not only creates bad blood among the parties concerned, but also increases the cynicism that exists among the people at large. I have, like many others, in the past underscored the need to look for and focus on any potential common positions among the various actors in J&K. There will be opportunities to revisit some of the aspects that have already been discovered if this dialogue goes ahead. New Delhi must also avoid limiting the dialogue to Mirwaiz Manzil alone as it prepares to talk afresh to the Kashmiri leadership. It should, for its own good, involve a cross section of Kashmiri moderate voices.

Now may not be the ideal season to resume the ever-precarious peace process if its outcome is to be positive. Yet too many seasons have already passed in Kashmir for that argument to hold water; perhaps it is not an ideal season that makes peace, but rather peace that makes the season ideal. The omens are no perfect, but then peace in Kashmir cannot wait for the arrival of perfect omens.

(Happymon Jacob teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi).

(Source: Greater Kashmir, 29 September, 2009. URL: )

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