India’s self created Kashmir nighmare

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The newly-appointed Central interlocutor will have his work cut out with Pakistan’s influence in the State, and yet the repeating script in Kashmir should make his job easier.

About a month ago, Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN, Maleeha Lodhi waved a picture of a young girl, her face pockmarked by burns. Ms Lodhi claimed that that picture was that of a victim of pellet wounds suffered in Jammu and Kashmir. Unfortunately for New Delhi, it was not the case. It was instead a picture of a Palestinian who had been injured during an Israeli airstrike on Gaza three years ago, in 2014.

It was unfortunate for New Delhi because it provided Indian diplomats the wherewithal to declare that Pakistan had stooped to presenting to the world the wrong picture of Jammu and Kashmir, accusing security forces of committing atrocities they had been thousands of miles away from. The effect it had was the opposite: the more the wrong picture did the rounds, the less the real pictures of Jammu and Kashmir’s pellet victims could be underplayed, the more the sense of alienation of Jammu and Kashmir was underlined to international audiences.

Pakistan must have made hay during this extra-long ‘spot the difference?’ moment. It was as if the Pakistani psy-ops department, by this perverse mix-up, had inadvertently staged a publicity coup.

The announcement of Dineshwar Sharma, a former Director of the Intelligence Bureau, as special representative to Jammu and Kashmir is a very belated genuflection to the larger reality that the situation in Jammu and Kashmir can no longer be projected as one that does not require any more political attention than what it has got. It says that all the administrative and elected mechanisms in place have been unable to put this particular Humpty Dumpty back together again, so far. It is also arguable that it is a direct fallout of the United States’ President’s intention to refashion the regional strategy where Pakistan, Afghanistan, and by extension, India is concerned. That policy has been a while in the making, and some of its contours are out in the public.

A precondition for America to effectively re-engage with the region with a new focus is a measure of stability between New Delhi and Islamabad. This precondition is not of American origin, and since New Delhi could not enforce it, even with the so called surgical strike, it isn’t of Indian origin; the impetus is, instead, Pakistani. It places Pakistan in a position where it has felt traditionally advantaged: to have the Americans telling New Delhi what to do, part of an old strategic scam that Pakistan has been able to rerun at will, like an old television serial.

America wants to bring Taliban in Afghanistan into some kind of political embrace. For this to happen, Pakistan seems to have insisted that conditions be created for them to move this American endeavour along. Since American President Donald Trump has put himself in a spot where he cannot pull out his troops from Afghanistan till there is some modicum of stability there. The U.S. has already hinted that India needs to hurry up and take steps to make this happen. To recap, here is what the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said: “The U.S. alone is not going to change this dynamic with Pakistan. India and Pakistan, they have their own issues that they have to continue to work through, but I think there are areas where perhaps even India can take some steps of rapprochement on issues with Pakistan to improve the stability within Pakistan and remove some of the reasons why they deal with these unstable elements inside their own country.”

From what is doing the rounds, our new interlocutor is willing to listen and not someone with easy fixes at the ready. If he has taken on the job it is best to assume that he has been given reasonable assurances that his path forward will not be paved with predictable failures.

The various statements and actions are making this evident as well, starting from our Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech, where he, in a blatant albeit very welcome change of heart and approach, placed a greater emphasis on hugs over bullets where Kashmir was concerned. This in political punditry is a process known as “applying the balm” which usually has the immediate effect of “improving the optics” of a given situation. Shortly thereafter, he dispatched his Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, with a loudhailer and he spent four days telling whoever cared to listen that he was prepared to meet anyone who wanted to meet him, a coy reference to separatist theologists of various affiliations residing in the Valley.

In September, the Pakistani Army chief General Qamar Jawed Bajwa, in his annual Defence Day speech, almost contrapuntally, signalled a thaw, calling for a dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir, an idea he threw in as garnishing amidst the usual military-type teeth-gnashing that happens on such occasions. Around the same time, the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Khwaja Mohammed Arif, sort of inadvertently let it slip that it is sort of true that Lashkars and Jaish had a free-ish run inside Pakistan and kind of admitted that Pakistan needed to get on top of that situation to demonstrate to the world that reality was not the other way around. So far, so good.

Now several things are implicit in Dineswhar Sharma’s appointment. The first is that he will have the services of the Intelligence Bureau to fall back on in order to finesse his task, whatever that is. Kashmiris have come to this pass several times before. Therefore they have a strong sense of déjà vu on these occurences. This is partly because the folks in the IB can choreograph some of these sequences in their sleep. It is an old Kashmiri saying. There is enough material which is the produce of previous such expeditions that could fill whole libraries, in terms of the way forward, roadmaps, so the newest ‘interlocutor’ will not  have to reinvent the wheel.

Having been in the intelligence services, he will know his way around the shadowy political byways of Jammu and Kashmir well enough to coax a few separatist theologists to meet the Home Minister at an appropriate time. By the end of it, Kashmir may become as familiar to him as the back of his hand, even if it is not at the moment. That may not be in question at the moment, though. From what is doing the rounds, our new interlocutor is willing to listen and not someone with easy fixes at the ready. If he has taken on the job it is best to assume that he has been given reasonable assurances that his path forward will not be paved with predictable failures. A hint of this comes from the Home Minister who has made it clear that the interlocutor can meet anyone he chooses to meet during Kashmir’s winter of discontent that lies ahead.

This brings us to the proverbial elephant in the Kashmir room, Pakistan and that major sahib across the border or the line of control, as the case may be. Can the new “interlocutor’s” mission succeed by ignoring the puppetmasters? New Delhi has so far not been able to demonstrate to the Kashmiris that the policymakers have anything politically alluring in mind, except stray comments that make prime-time television with nothing to back it up afterwards, making it all appear to be a string of empty words.

The level of cynicism on this cannot possibly go any higher. It is high time New Delhi began to suspect that it cannot shoot its way out to a solution in Srinagar. In the same way New Delhi cannot indefinitely ignore that Pakistan controls many levers in that State where we now officially need an interlocutor to talk to our own people, something that the Pakistani generals have consistently — though never gently — reminded us by their endless supply of terrorists, both foreign and foreign-trained, that replace the countless ‘commanders’ of various terrorist hues who keep getting eliminated from the game with such consistency that it may be even possible to posit a mathematical formula to future outcomes.

A measure of Pakistan’s success is evident from the fact that, according to intelligence estimates, the local adherents are growing in direct proportion to terrorist kills. Hardline military tactics may have served to unify various outfits in terms of both battlefield affinity and political solidarity. The minute our new interlocutor starts his work in his quiet way, Pakistan is going to enter the picture. A quiet search may have already begun for an olive branch of suitable proportions to extend. On that branch rest many things, starting from a much-needed ceasefire along the line of control to engendering a feeling, however brief, that New Delhi is capable of pulling out new lively rabbits from the same tired old hat.

By V. Sudarshan

THE HINDU

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