Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Manmohan should get a new speechwriter on Kashmir

New Delhi’s deep-seated status-quo bias permeates its policy towards Kashmir which, in many ways, is the ‘ground zero’ of Indo-Pak relations. This status-quo bias has manifestly narrowed the Indian government’s understanding and approach to resolving the problem and has prevented India from taking any radical steps. Although it may ‘benefit’ the painfully slow-moving Indian political and bureaucratic apparatuses, this approach is not beneficial for a country desirous of becoming a great power in an age of fast-changing international politics. The routine manner with which New Delhi approaches Kashmir is disturbing. By not being willing to take radical steps, and granting the state typical bureaucratic treatment, New Delhi is failing the Kashmiris. The PM’s speech in Srinagar shows a lamentable bankruptcy of ideas. Maybe it’s time that Manmohan Singh got a new speechwriter on Kashmir.

Take, for example, the recent visit of the Prime Minister and the Congress Chief to the Kashmir Valley. With the top man in the central government in the lead, the most powerful politician in the country backing him, a friendly and forthcoming state government under Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, and even the major opposition party in J&K, the PDP, welcoming the delegation from New Delhi, what did the recent visit of the Indian Prime Minister and his delegation achieve? Nothing new, nothing substantial. The PM and his delegation made the usual promises, expressed hope (as they always do), claimed there is normalcy in the state (which they have been doing for a very long time), talked about the inclusive dialogue process (that occurred in the UPA’s first term and achieved nothing); and, yes, inaugurated the 12km-long Anantnag-Qazigund railway line. The PM’s speech in Kashmir was a grim reminder of how unimaginative the government has become about conflict resolution in the state. New Delhi’s seasonal theatrics in Kashmir have become all too familiar and predictable in recent years: It’s the same old wine, in the same old bottle.

Home Minister Chidambaram claimed that New Delhi is contemplating the “withdrawal of some paramilitary battalions and vacation of occupied houses and land by the army and paramilitary”. These are the right words, said with the right sentiment, but we have heard similar statements from previous ministers. How are we to believe that this time things will be different and the Kashmiris will get their houses, orchids and schools back? However at least Chidambaram is willing to make such a bold claim; the PM stuck to the tried-and-tested, unwilling to go beyond his speechwriter’s unimaginative rendering of the situation.

Manmohan Singh is credited with making a peace overture to Pakistan from Kashmir that has been hailed as statesmanlike, and as a potential way forward toward reconciliation between India and Pakistan. The essence of what the PM said is that if Pakistan shows good faith and addresses the issue of terrorism, India will not be found wanting in its response. What is so new, different, radical, or statesmanlike in that? Was he not repeating a line that New Delhi has been reiterating for the past 11 months, since the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai? It would have been path-breaking and a real peace overture had the PM made an unconditional offer to talk to Pakistan. I am willing to accept the argument made by many analysts that the PM is serious about restarting the dialogue with Pakistan, but that does not excuse him for his genuinely unsubstantial response to Kashmir.

For many commentators it is politically correct to say that the issue of Kashmir is an issue that is between India and Kashmir and that Pakistan has nothing to do with it. The recently initiated ‘silent diplomacy’ with Kashmiris at the behest of Mr. Chidambaram and the other measures by New Delhi seem to be pointing towards such a direction. What is forgotten here is that there are two important dimensions to the Kashmir problem: the problem of Kashmir and the problem in Kashmir. ‘Silent diplomacy’ will be useful in resolving the problem in Kashmir: poor governance, fear of violence, lack of development, and the army’s occupation of private property, but there is also the problem of Kashmir. The problem of Kashmir exists between India and Pakistan and must also be resolved in order to achieve stability between the two countries, as well as sustainable peace in J&K. Pakistan has in the recent past been reasonable in its declared approaches to the problem of Kashmir. India could legitimately, if cautiously, talk with its neighbour about the issue, rather than consistently trying to isolate Pakistan.

In all of this, one wonders about the exact role that Omar Abdullah has been playing. It looks as though he is increasingly playing second fiddle to the Congress government and that he is endorsing the latter’s peace initiatives. Kashmir’s history bears witness to the fact that J&K chief ministers who have become too close to New Delhi have not excelled in the state. Omar has a mind of his own and should therefore design his own peace initiatives; something he seems hesitant to do thus far. Omar had a vision for Kashmir when he was in opposition that appears to be lacking today. If Omar Abdullah, fired by the enthusiasm of his late thirties, cannot take radical steps now he will never be able to do so, and waiting for New Delhi to do so is proving fruitless.

(Happymon Jacob teaches at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

(Source: Greater Kashmir, November 3, 2009)

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