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The day prior to the arrival of United States (US) Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in India, on his maiden visit, Dineshwar Sharma was appointed “as the Representative of the Government of India to initiate and carry forward a dialogue with the elected representatives, various organisations and concerned individuals in the State of Jammu and Kashmir” (PIB 2017). The coincidence in timing was not lost on the Hurriyat, a key participant, among the “various organisations” with which Sharma might have been expected to engage. In its joint statement, the Joint Resistance Leadership—comprising separatist leaders Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, and Yasin Malik—claimed that the appointment was “a tactic to buy time adopted under international pressures and regional compulsions” (PTI 2017a). Consequently, the separatists have rebuffed the offer of a sustained dialogue.
No Inkling of a Strategy
That the appointment is another, and by now typical, pirouette of the Narendra Modi government on national security issues is apparent from the manner of the appointment. The media informs of a “hurriedly-convened” press conference at which the home minister makes the announcement (India Express 2017). That Sharma has been given no agenda as part of his marching orders does not suggest delegation and flexibility as much as it suggests lack of strategic application on the part of India’s national security minders.
A former Intelligence Bureau (IB) head, Sharma, since June this year, has been tying down a post-retirement position as convener of talks with Assam-based insurgent groups. That job had been lying vacant for over a year since its last incumbent, appointed by the earlier union government, and was not granted an extension. It is not clear if Sharma has demitted his responsibility in the North East or if it remains his responsibility alongside his Kashmir engagement. Both possibilities highlight the deficit in strategic application. Neither can the North East suffer stepmother-like treatment that changing interlocutors midstream testifies to, nor can Kashmir do with a double-hatted interlocutor. Further, Sharma, at the end of his first visit to the Valley, mused that though he looked to a time horizon of two years, he could be dispensed within six months (Wani 2017). Politically, keeping him on longer can help keep Kashmir be quiescent till the 2019 national elections.
This is unsurprising since the appointment bears the fingerprints of National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval. While over the past two years, India has been maintaining a disdain for talks in Kashmir and with Pakistan, the media report on the sudden announcement informs of a huddle a week prior to the appointment, between the NSA and the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in which they discussed a “new political process” in the state (Singh 2017). Doval had then just returned from a trip to Kabul. On the day of the announcement itself, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was in New Delhi on Narendra Modi’s invitation, conveyed by Doval during his Kabul visit. This makes clear the background to the appointment as not rooted so much in a conflict resolution initiative regarding India’s leading internal security challenge, as much as in the regional security situation, energised by US President Donald Trump’s Afghanistan policy speech of 21 August 2017.
No doubt, among the NSA’s talking points with Tillerson figured India’s intent to take forward the dialogue with Kashmiris in order to pre-empt any messaging from Tillerson, who flew in from Pakistan as part of the South Asia leg of his Asian tour that covered West Asia as well. A perceptive observer of South Asia, Harsh V Pant was quick to point out, “With this move, the Modi government can tell its foreign interlocutors that India has started the process of dialogue with the Kashmiris” (Das 2017). Keeping its interests at heart in Afghanistan, the US has expressed its keenness on occasion to intervene in the India–Pakistan stand-off that Pakistan, leveraging its strategic location, regularly urged. While India had in 2009 decisively rebuffed Richard Holbrooke, US Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan (Af–Pak), the new US administration in its settling-down stage had revisited the notion. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump, valuing his dealmaking skills, had said he would be “honoured” to mediate. In April, Nikki Haley, the US Permanent Representative to the United Nations, had expressed as much (IANS 2017a).
Trump, laying out the US’s “path forward in Afghanistan and South Asia” in his policy speech, was severe on Pakistan, calling for a rollback of terror sanctuaries there. The US defence secretary, James “Mad Dog” Mattis, at a House Armed Services Committee hearing said, “We need to try one more time to make this strategy work with them (Pakistan), by, with and through the Pakistanis, and if our best efforts fail, the president is prepared to take whatever steps are necessary” (Ali and Stewart 2017). The Pakistanis, being past masters at manipulating the US, will, to their advantage, allow transit of US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) logistic lines through Pakistan, demanding that the US lean on India over the Kashmir issue in return. Apprehending this, India appears to have scrambled to put together a dialogue process of sorts in Kashmir.
Given these external wellsprings of the initiative, its sincerity cannot but be doubted. The union government is already conversant with the levels of alienation in Kashmir. Sharma has an IB stint in Kashmir behind him and reportedly also has handled the Kashmir desk within the IB, and more recently, has had familiarity with the issue at the strategic level as director of the IB.
This is not the initial stage of conflict resolution necessitating a fresh analysis. A conflict resolution strategy needs to have already been in place and Sharma charged with rolling it out, empowered as he is with a cabinet secretary–level appointment. He should have set the national agenda in terms of discussions on design of the negotiations, its content, and possible outcomes. At this juncture, he ought to have had a battery of conflict resolution experts, constitutional lawyers, and trained negotiators on his rolls, all armed with an agenda. He should have used the winter to coax the Hurriyat. Instead, no preparatory work is apparent, with Sharma still busy putting his secretarial staff together (Yadav 2017).
What Are the Priorities?
Sharma, daunted by the scope of possibilities, remains in his comfort zone. He ascribes being motivated with the need to prevent Kashmir from turning into another “Yemen, Syria and Libya” (IANS 2017b). He is fearful of radicalisation of the youth and of the militancy underway. He wishes “to convince the youth of Kashmir that they are only ruining their future and the future of all Kashmiris in the name of whether they call it azadi (independence), Islamic caliphate or Islam” (IANS 2017b).
To begin with, Sharma’s concern over azadi is misplaced. A spat over the term between Prime Minister Modi and Congress stalwart P Chidambaram, on the campaign trail in Gujarat, which is going to the polls this December, had Modi interpreting azadi as independence, while Chidambaram plugged for autonomy (PTI 2017b). Chidambaram should know, since he had disclosed in Parliament in 2009 that he had engaged in closet discussions with Kashmiris. That interaction informs his belief that “when Kashmiris ask for azadi, mostly, I am not saying all ... the overwhelming majority ... want autonomy” (PTI 2017b). In 2016, he had said that restoring the “grand bargain” when Kashmir acceded to India in return for autonomy was the need, lest India pay a “heavy price” (PTI 2017b). For his pains in highlighting the nuanced understanding of the term, Chidambaram was typically cast alongside Pakistanis and separatists by Modi.
Second, Sharma’s allusion to Islam—negatively clubbing it with the Islamic caliphate—is to misunderstand Islam. Islam does offer the motivation to adherents to fight injustice and oppression. There is no denying that Kashmiris require considerable moral support to cope with the violence that has beset their society over the past quarter century. Insofar that some Kashmiris see the military presence in their midst and the actions of the Indian state as oppression, they are liable to turn to Islam for psychological sustenance and political and physical response. Recognising the place of Islam in such terms in the milieu in Kashmir, the conclusion can only be that the Indian state steps back from a militarised template in Kashmir.
It missed an opportunity for this when in the 2000s violence indices were considerably muted owing to talks proceeding apace internally and externally. While Narinder Nath Vohra, the current J&K governor, was the interlocutor with Kashmiris, Satinder Lambah, a diplomat, undertook backchannel talks with Pakistan. Alongside were the first (and only) talks between the government and the Hurriyat, with L K Advani engaging with the Hurriyat leaders, and, externally, in the following United Progressive Alliance’s first term, five rounds of the composite dialogue. This time around, the comprehensive bilateral dialogue with Pakistan, heralded by Sushma Swaraj, stands suspended, and the ham-handed overture to Nawaz Sharif, through the visit of steel tycoon Sajjan Jindal, was sabotaged by the Pakistan army.
Further, the Indian army chief spiked any conflict mitigation potential in Sharma’s appointment by saying that the military operations would not be effected (Peri 2017). Insofar that this is part of the strategy, it suggests Sharma would be ineffectual, deprived as he is at the very outset by the one arrow in an interlocutor’s quiver that could have worked: the modulating of military action. This assumes conflict resolution as an Indian aim. If the army chief has spoken out of turn, it bespeaks either of an absent Kashmir strategy or a strategy in disarray. Under the circumstances of ongoing military operations appropriately termed “Operation All Out,” Kashmiris cannot be begrudged a turn to Islam’s wellsprings of moral strength.
Finally, even Sharma’s reference to the Islamic caliphate is not sufficient cause to worry. As shown, the initiative is directed less at the Kashmiris, but more at India’s strategic partner, the US. By painting itself into the same corner as the US, as a victim of international terrorism, India hopes to score brownie points over Pakistan, depicted as the fount of such terror. As for the relevance of the Islamic State (IS) in Kashmir, the Hurriyat has expressed its disdain, alleging that this is a propaganda plank designed to misrepresent the political movement in the Valley. In May this year, they contested the interpretation of the struggle in Kashmir by a Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Zakir Musa, casting it in Islamist terms. Even Musa’s overlords across the Line of Control, the United Jihad Council, chose to disown Musa (Rashid 2017). Pakistan is unlikely to cede control of the Kashmiri insurgency to “bad terrorists”—pan-Islamists—who they fight in their own backyard.
Late and Insincere
Perhaps, Sharma’s stint at the IB explains his proclivity. His tenure in the mid-2000s reportedly endeared him to the then IB chief, Doval. It bears recollecting that it was in the mid-2000s—when Doval was at the helm in the IB—that the identification of Muslims with terrorism began with gusto. Recall the role of the two infamous cases of “encounter” killings in Gujarat—Ishrat Jahan in 2004 and Sohrabuddin and his wife Kausarbi in 2005—in setting up this canard that by now passes for common sense. Reportedly, the IB hand in Gujarat generated the intelligence that led up to the killings (Marvel 2016). Ever since, the sway of Islamism—and lately the IS bogey—in India has been exaggerated for political purposes. Likewise, its extent in Kashmir is blown out of proportion. This suggests an intelligence operation at work with multiple aims. In Kashmir, besides dividing the militancy, it legitimises the hard line within Kashmir. In the rest of India, it helps with polarisation, with electoral benefits for cultural nationalists. Its external benefit is in enabling India to sidle up to the US, displacing Pakistan. Sharma is thus either a victim of the IB’s own propaganda or is playing his part in it; with his credibility affected in either case.
National security minders need reminding that an intelligence-led national security strategy must not fall for its own narrative. By being overly Chanakyan, India cannot fool the intended targets of its guile. The US may evince being persuaded, if only to fob off Pakistan. However, it cannot fool Kashmiris serenaded in turn by a relay of interlocutors, more credible than Sharma, who have headed over the Pir Panjals.