Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invocation of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s famous Kashmir formula of ‘insaniyat, jamooriyat aur Kashmiriyat’ is not just too little, it could be too late as well. It’s too little because neither Modi nor Home Minister Rajnath Singh the next day in Parliament indicated that the government has a roadmap for a return to peace in troubled Valley. And it may well be too late because in the absence of a plan, the ground situation is tipping dangerously close to the point of no return.
Vajpayee is a tough act for Modi to follow and it is difficult to see him walking down the same road as his predecessor as he promised to do when he held up Vajpayee’s three-pronged formula as the only way forward. Shorn of tear-jerking emotions and chest-thumping nationalism, the Modi government’s Kashmir outreach reveals a staggering lack of understanding.
To begin with, it refuses to even acknowledge that there is a serious domestic and political problem in the state. Both Modi and Singh blamed the month-long violence, that has left 50 dead and many maimed for life, on Pakistan.
Modi took no names but dropped dark hints about “stones being handed” to innocent children who should be holding laptops, volleyballs, cricket bats and books. “This may suit the politics of some,” he said. Rajnath was more blunt. “Whatever is happening in Kashmir is Pakistan-sponsored,” he told the Rajya Sabha at the end of a day-long debate on the continuing violence in the Valley.
It is fatuous, even a tad insulting to Kashmiris, to pretend that Pakistan has the capacity to whip up a storm that has brought lakhs of young people out on the streets in villages and towns in the state. Anti-India agents from across the border can certainly add fuel to fire but the embers burning in the Valley were lit long ago, by years of neglect and failure to address the political issues that have led to a deep sense of alienation.
Any attempt at rapprochement has to start with an admission that the root of the problem lies here, in India. Pakistan is only a complicating factor. Vajpayee may not have said so directly but in coining his now-famous phrase, he implicitly conceded the importance of direct political engagement with the people of Kashmir.
Singh demolished another prong of Vajpayee’s peace formula when he firmly rejected talks with Pakistan on Kashmir. “If talks happen with Pakistan…..they will be about Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir,” he declared in Parliament.
Vajpayee had the maturity to not let himself get trapped in rhetoric. Without saying so, his government understood that there could be no resolution of a historic dispute unless India and Pakistan talked Kashmir. Despite two major snubs from Pakistan, one after his Lahore bus trip and the other at the failed Agra summit with Pervez Musharraf, Vajpayee kept the door open for dialogue. And in his historic 2003 speech in Srinagar, he publicly extended the ‘hand of peace’ to Pakistan.
Modi’s engagement with Pakistan has been coloured by a penchant for event management rather than serious dialogue. And with Rajnath firmly rejecting the idea of talks on Kashmir, it is unlikely that India and Pakistan will engage in any substantive manner in the near future.
Significantly, J&K chief minister Mehbooba Mufti had flagged the importance of re-engaging with Pakistan when she recently appealed for a Vajpayee touch to heal Kashmir.
Rajnath Singh did say that the government is willing to talk to parties in Kashmir. He referred to “mainstream political parties, moderates and other organisations” without clarifying what exactly the government has in mind. The confusion is understandable because today, the Modi government has no-one to talk to Kashmir.
The two leading mainstream parties, the NC and PDP, have lost credibility with the youth who feel that both have sold out to Delhi for power. It is interesting to note that the violence in 2010, when young people were out pelting stones at security forces, was concentrated mainly in strongholds of the NC which was in power at that time. Today, the violence is scarring PDP areas in a similar signal of no confidence.
Successive government cultivated the Hurriyat as a sort of safety valve whenever a dialogue became imperative. But the Modi government has cut off its nose to spite its face by shutting it out in the cold because its leaders met the Pakistani High Commissioner on the eve of the foreign secretary level talks in 2014 soon after Modi assumed office.
Vajpayee recognized its value and although he was reluctant to do so, he did give a green signal for formal talks with Hurriyat leaders as part of his Kashmir peace outreach. Significantly, his home minister LK Advani, a known hawk, held two rounds of talks with the Hurriyat. Plans were being made for a third round when the BJP lost the 2004 elections.
Modi has signalled that he wants to start afresh in Kashmir. As a first step, he has agreed to hold an all party meeting which he will also attend. This is an unusual move, because Modi prefers to stay away from such gatherings. But clearly, he understands the urgency of addressing the violence in the Valley. But if he really wants to follow in Vajpayee’s footsteps, he and his advisors will first have to concede that there is a problem, and it’s not necessarily Pakistan-created.