The Modi government on Monday rowed back on its three-year-old pledge to never talk to the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, as Home Minister Rajnath Singh named a new interlocutor with a brief to consult all stakeholders, including the separatists, in India-held Kashmir.
In a clear indication that the right-wing Hindu revivalist government was willing to reboot its Kashmir policy, ex-intelligence chief Dineshwar Sharma was named as interlocutor for Jammu and Kashmir with “complete freedom” to talk to “all groups and individuals”, including the Hurriyat, the group New Delhi sees as an agent of Pakistan.
“There is no bar on him to talk to one group and not another… We want to understand aspirations of people of Jammu and Kashmir,” Mr Singh said, announcing the government initiative at a hurriedly-convened media conference. The move follows a rare meeting between Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj last week with Pakistan’s High Commissioner Sohail Mahmood.
Local reports said Ms Swaraj discussed the current state of affairs in bilateral relations with Mr Mahmood, who officially took charge as Pakistan’s envoy to India only last month. The minister also touched upon India’s concerns over alleged cross-border terrorism and asked Islamabad to quickly bring to book the accused in Mumbai and Pathankot terror attacks.
Reports said the meeting with Mr Mahmood took place on Monday last week after her office was approached by the Pakistani envoy. Ms Swaraj reportedly mentioned the need for Pakistan to review its position on Kulbhushan Jadhav, the alleged Indian spy who remains in Pakistan’s custody.
It remains to be seen if the fresh and sudden move on held Kashmir too is linked with the suggested overall improvement in the ties. The decision to hold talks with the Hurriyat leaders after their meeting with the Pakistani envoy three years ago set off a new low in bilateral ties is also being seen as a response to the Trump administration’s signals on a new South Asia policy.
“As a representative of the government of India, Dineshwar Sharma will initiate a sustained interaction and dialogue to understand legitimate aspirations of people in Jammu and Kashmir,” Mr Singh said.
A third-generation police officer, Mr Sharma, 63, retired in December 2016 after leading the domestic spy agency, the Intelligence Bureau, for two years.
This is the first conciliatory initiative by the Modi government in three years to reach out to Kashmiris and comes after a long period of heightened standoff between Kashmiri militants fighting Indian rule and the security forces.
Reports said Mr Singh’s outreach indicates a shift in the central government’s approach to handle the Kashmir issue from the prism of security operations without a matching political overture from the other side. It has been welcomed by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. “Dialogue is a necessity of the hour and the only way to go forward,” she said.
Former chief minister Omar Abdullah, however, said he would “keep an open mind and wait to see results of the dialogue process”.
In a series of tweets, Mr Abdullah said the dialogue process started by the centre was “a resounding defeat of those who could only see use of force as a solution”, a swipe at BJP leaders seen as loud advocates of a hardline policy on disturbances in the occupied valley.
Explaining why the government had appointed the interlocutor, Mr Singh said there had been suggestions from across the political spectrum that the government should hold dialogue with all stakeholders in held Kashmir.
Mr Singh also called the move a follow-up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day address in August where he had stressed that “Kashmir’s problems can only be solved by embracing Kashmiris,” not bullets or abuses.
Asked if the government really needed another report on held Kashmir, the home minister didn’t refer to the older report but underlined that the government’s intentions were clear.