Govt restarts Kashmir dialogue with former IB chief at the helm

NEW DELHI: In a shift of gears, the Modi government on Monday announced the restart of a frozen political dialogue in Jammu & Kashmir that will include the separatist Hurriyat conglomeration if its leaders are prepared for an engagement with the Centre.

Home minister Rajnath Singh said former Intelligence Bureau chief Dineshwar Sharma will be the Centre’s interlocutor and it will be left to him to decide whom to engage with — a formulation that puts the onus on separatists, some of who have been arrested by the NIA for alleged terror funding. The decision, though a departure from a security-led strategy, is seen to flow from PM Narendra Modi’s August 15 speech where he hinted at dialogue by saying that the solution to the problems in J&K lay in embracing its people rather than bullets or abuse.

The opposition was quick to claim that the government had backtracked with Congress leader P Chidambaram saying he hoped the Centre has realised that its muscular approach has failed. The government denied any U-turn, saying it has adopted a calibrated approach to J&K.

“It is hoped and believed that Hurriyat, leaving aside their role of only being Pakistani stooges, they will make use of this opportunity to provide much-needed peace,” a senior intelligence source said. The talks move also comes before the visits of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and US secretary of state Rex Tillerson.

Sources said Sharma had the adequate experience for the job as he had served in the state in 1992, when militancy was at its peak, and handled J&K from the IB headquarters here, including as its director during 2014-16. He will be based in Delhi but will frequently visit the state and his first trip could be some time next week.

According to top sources in the government, the Centre had not ruled out talks but was keen to signal that it would do so at a time of its choosing. National security adviser Ajit Doval, considered a hawk, favoured talks but insisted that terrorists and their backers in Pakistan should not be seen to be setting the timetable.

Opening a dialogue under pressure where stone-pelters were challenging security forces on the streets of Kashmir in the aftermath of the encounter of Hizbul Mujahideen leader Burhan Wani in July 2016 would have been read as a victory of the mob with Pakistan-backed groups mobilising thousands for funerals of killed terrorists. The situation of intense confrontation persisted till early 2017.

While sources said there would be no let-up in cases against Hurriyat leaders, some of whom have been arrested, it is believed that the action could have been intended to make them more amenable to talks. The NIA action was also intended to signal that separatists enjoy no particular immunity — an important indicator for public opinion in the Valley.

Apart from the security situation, the political calculus seems favourable as BJP has won major post-demonetisation elections in UP and Uttarakhand where it argued that notebandi had hurt terror funding and pitched its anti-terrorist strategies as evidence of its resolve to counter Pakistan. Sources said while violence in J&K has still not been quelled nor terror eliminated, security forces have steadily gained an upper hand by eliminating several top terrorists. There is a major dip in stone pelting and turnouts at such funerals have grown smaller. Also, an official clarified that the dialogue process will neither affect security operations nor ongoing investigations by the NIA.

“There will be no let-up in anti-terrorist operations, which have seen around 170 terrorists neutralised so far this year. The thrust on development projects and implementation of the PM’s package will remain. However, we are adding the third prong of ‘sustained and structured dialogue’ to the J&K strategy,” an officer said.

Speaking to the media, Rajnath Singh said the sustained J&K dialogue will include all individuals and groups willing to engage with the interlocutor. Specifically asked by TOI if separatists would be included in the talks process, the minister said the interlocutor would be free to decide on the groups to be engaged. Informal talks were being undertaken at the political level by Singh over the past two years during his five visits to J&K last year and one this year, the last barely a month after the PM’s Independence Day declaration.

“Some political parties in Kashmir, particularly those in opposition, Kashmiri groups, including Hurriyat and individuals, may not be willing to engage with a leader having political affiliations. Besides, the youth in Kashmir, who are part of most violent protests, do not have an identified leader. These youth will find it easier to approach a permanent representative of the Centre with their grievances, who will then convey the same to the political leadership at the Centre for proper redressal,” a home ministry functionary told TOI.

This is not the first time that an interlocutor has been appointed. The NDA government under A B Vajpayee had on April 5, 2001 appointed then deputy chairman of Planning Commission K C Pant as interlocutor who continued till 2002. Thereafter, it appointed former home secretary and current J&K governor N N Vohra till 2008. The UPA appointed a three-member interlocutor team comprising former information commissioner M M Ansari, senior journalist Dileep Padgaonkar and academician Radha Kumar.

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