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Published on: Nov. 9, 2020, 8:41 a.m.
New opportunity in J&K
  • Will peace bloom in the valley?

By Business India Editorial

It is not every day that three former chief ministers of Jammu & Kashmir – Farooq and Omar Abdullah, and the just-released Mehbooba Mufti – come together to discuss their future and that of the people of what has now been reduced to a Union Territory. But that is exactly what happened when the three met to form the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, which is ostensibly aimed at extracting a renegotiation of Kashmir’s status within India. Given the rapid pace at which events have unfolded in J&K over the past year, it is easy to forget that the National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) have been arch-rivals for over two decades. 

The Abdullahs saw the PDP as a force propped up by the Centre to undercut them. The BJP-PDP government in J&K, though short-lived, seemed to validate this claim. On the other hand, the Muftis blamed the NC’s compromises with New Delhi as responsible for Kashmir’s fate. Remember, Omar was a minister of state in the Vajpayee government and Farooq served as cabinet minister in successive UPA regimes. The competitive rivalry between the two dynasties prevented them from joining hands earlier.

And while, on the face of it, the Abdullahs and Mufti cannot openly give up their demand for the restoration of Article 370, a more realistic goal – that could provide them a face-saver – is asking for statehood. This is something that even the Modi government has maintained can happen, once the situation settles down. It would, therefore, not be out of turn for New Delhi to start a sincere dialogue to restore political normalcy in J&K.

The time is propitious. Both the NC and the PDP now recognise that their political survival is itself at stake. Pakistan, known to stoke trouble in the Valley, is beset with political turmoil, with Prime Minister Imran Khan’s domestic and international credibility falling by the day. The Centre needs to initiate the dialogue and carry it to fruition before Pakistan recovers its breath and once again starts fishing in the troubled waters of the Valley. Indeed, some of the moves of the J&K administration could bear fruit in the coming months. 

By-elections to 13,000 panchayat seats, which are lying vacant for the past about two years, are being held shortly. In 2018, regional parties, including the NC and PDP, had boycotted the panchayat elections. These parties should be persuaded to contest the elections, so that their cadres get a stake in the political process. Once the people of J&K get to decide their own priorities, they will develop a vested interest in peace and back any well-meaning move.

For the Modi government, an accommodative stance will also factor in the probability of dealing with a new (Biden) administration in Washington, in the event of a regime change there. The Democrats have always been strong on human rights, with Kashmir emerging as a sore point whenever a Democratic dispensation has been in office. The Centre should thus try to accommodate mainstream Kashmiri parties which have stood against Pakistan-sponsored terror, but always sought, in principle, a degree of autonomy within India.

The effective nullification of Article 370 has put an end to these political aspirations. They have found themselves blamed for having surrendered to Delhi on the streets of Kashmir, while the establishment in New Delhi sees them as untrustworthy. To help them gain credibility, the government should allow political activity and that includes political protests. 

Recently, the Kashmir Valley observed a total day-long shutdown after a call by Hurriyat Conference to protest against the new land laws notified by the Centre. The amended laws allow any Indian citizen to buy land in the region, sparking fears among locals as it was earlier meant only for permanent residents under Article 370 of the Constitution. The Centre’s notification states that the term ‘being a permanent resident of the state’ as a criterion has been ‘omitted’.

The new laws have their merits, as Indians from other parts of the country have as much a right to buy land in J&K, as Kashmiris have in other parts of the country. But many PDP members who staged protests against the new laws were arrested. Not allowing peaceful protests is tantamount to asking parties to quit mainstream politics. 

Both NC and PDP now recognise that it is only by putting up a joint front that they can extract a renegotiation of Kashmir’s status within India. This unity between Kashmir’s democrats actually is a positive development, for it allows the Centre to reach a comprehensive accommodation with all of them. Otherwise, it would be easy for one Kashmiri faction to accuse the other of ‘selling out’. The Centre should grab the opportunity with both hands.

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