The PM’s meeting with the political parties comprising of 14 political leaders including PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti, NC president Farooq Abdullah from Jammu and Kashmir is part of the Centre’s initiatives to bolster political processes, including holding assembly elections, in the union territory.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will head the talks on Thursday with representatives of mainstream political parties from Jammu and Kashmir, which will be an attempt, many in the government say, to settle a “political equilibrium” with regard to the Union Territory (UT). Fourteen leaders have been invited for the meeting, the first such engagement with the Centre since Jammu & Kashmir was stripped of its semi-autonomous status in August 2019. The erstwhile state was also split into two Union territories.
This comes 22 months after the passage of the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019, removing the special status of J&K and splitting the erstwhile State into two Union Territories.
Talks will be held at Prime Minister Modi’s official residence, 7, Lok Kalyan Marg with Home Minister Amit Shah in attendance.
The government is clear that there is no going back on the removal of Article 370, and while statehood can be discussed, the main agenda for the government will be seeking cooperation from the political parties on the delimitation exercise underway for the Assembly seats.Parties that make up the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) such as the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the National Conference (NC), however, will stick to their position of seeking the restoration of Article 370, and the immediate restoration of statehood for Jammu and Kashmir, with the Congress and National Panthers Party pushing for restoration of full statehood.
The passage of the Reorganisation Act was opposed tooth and nail by the mainstream Kashmir parties, with many leaders being immediately taken into custody and released months later in a staggered manner. Many of these parties, such as the PDP and the NC, as well as the CPI(M), formed the PAGD, which stood for talks with all stakeholders and refused to fight Assembly polls till their demands were met.The Indian government wants to start fresh talks with pro-autonomy leaders in Kashmir.Almost two years ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a military crackdown on the Muslim majority region, historically close to Pakistan.
In 2019, the Indian government revoked the autonomy of the State of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Indian constitution.
Modi has summoned the leaders of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), a five-party grouping seeking a restoration of the state’s autonomy.By abrogating Article 370 in August 2019, India’s nationalist prime minister took direct control of the state, opening it up to Hindu immigration as a nationalist response to local the pro-independence movement. He also split off Ladakh, a Buddhist-majority Himalayan region, from Jammu and Kashmir.
The PAGD has confirmed that it will take part in the meeting, but it remains steadfast in its call for a return to the full recognition of Jammu and Kashmir’s special autonomy in accordance with the Indian Constitution.The alliance can count on good results in recent district development council elections, the first poll held in Kashmir since 2019. This has made it harder for New Delhi to pursue its objectives from a position of weakness.Modi’s greater overture towards local demands also appears to be influenced by India’s geopolitical context, most notably its military clash with China a year ago right in the mountains of Ladakh, showing how strategically important the area is.
At the same time India has for months been conducting informal talks with Pakistan, with the mediation of the United Arab Emirates.
Among the topics under discussion is the issue of Kashmir. For Pakistan, a return to local self-government and an end to any attempt to change the region’s demographic balance are preconditions.The United States is also pressing for a political solution in the region, as it withdraws its troops from Afghanistan. To this end, it is negotiating with Pakistan over possible military bases in the South Asian country.Talks have been called to streamline the process of delimitation in J&K and seek political validation to this exercise, sources in the government say. An earlier meeting held by the delimitation commission in February saw three out of its five associate members, including NC leader Dr. Farooq Abdullah, Hasnain Masoodi and Mohammad Akbar Lone, refusing to attend.The Prime Minister is likely to urge political leaders to participate in the delimitation exercise so that it can be done via consensus.
Implications beyond borders
Restoration of statehood for J&K also has implications beyond the borders. India has endured regular international criticism over its handling of the Kashmir issue after the August 2019 decision. Although much of the criticism was rebuffed, India could have done without the constant scrutiny of its human rights record. The invite acknowledges the fact that New Delhi needs the regional leaders to restart a political process, and that they are still in a position to be able to reach out to voters. This is an obvious derivation from last year’s district development council elections. Several parties including the NC and the PDP came together as the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), to contest and win a majority of the seats.
But will PAGD help New Delhi in moving forward, if an election in the UT is the sole aim behind the PM’s invite? The unequivocal answer is, No. The NC and the PDP cannot afford to be seen to be supping with the government in Delhi, if the talks don’t include the restoration of J&K’s statehood, a promise that has been made by home minister Amit Shah. There are also pleas in the Supreme Court, seeking the restoration of Article 370. For the BJP, there is no question of the law being reversed but the NC and PDP would at least like to see the petitions being taken out of cold storage for an early hearing. J&K’s leaders have also been accused of financial impropriety, and view the notices from central investigative agencies as instruments of undue pressure.Modi and his government have their own set of reasons for holding out the olive branch. President Joe Biden’s administration has openly called for normalcy to be restored in J&K and the volatile region can’t perpetually be in a state of political limbo. Not when there is a tentative ceasefire on the Line of Control and the need for a 24×7 vigil on the China front.
The all-party meeting can be the thaw that J&K sorely needs, but for it to succeed, Modi has to be prepared to give more than he expects in return. The onus of repairing the trust deficit lies with him. If he understands the need to reach out to the sullen population – even Jammuites are not happy with the scrapping of the special status and the possibility of outsiders buying their land – the all-party meeting can be the window of opportunity. It is that moment when the deadlock can be broken.