There was something curious about a special meeting on Kashmir called by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh on Sunday even as the centre gropes for a roadmap for peace in the troubled Valley. Instead of Kashmiris, Singh invited a group of non-Kashmiri Muslims for a brainstorming session.
While some of the invitees have a nodding acquaintance with the complexity of the issues involved when Kashmir is discussed, some were quite clueless and seemed more interested in getting themselves photographed with the home minister.
The meeting demonstrates two things about the Modi government, both of which probably explain why the Valley has spun out of control to the extent that large parts of south Kashmir have today become "liberated zones" where security forces don't dare enter. The Times of India reports that in at least four districts of south Kashmir--Anantnag, Pulwama, Shopian and Kulgam--no security forces are to be seen anywhere as people hold azadi rallies every day.
One inescapable reality is the government's helplessness. It doesn't seem to have a clue where to begin or who to talk to. Turning to non-Kashmiris as interlocutors to search for a solution to the ongoing mass unrest and violence is hardly a step in the right direction.
The second, and perhaps more disturbing, signal is this. By inviting non-Kashmiri Muslims to discuss Kashmir, the government has given a religious colour to a complex issue rooted in history and culture. For the first time, Kashmir has been put into a box marked 'Muslim' and given a communal tag.
Kashmiris have never seen their 70 year long struggle for self-determination and preservation of their unique identity as a religious war. Nor have they looked to Muslims in the rest of the country for support or succour. In fact, because of their geography, history and culture, Kashmiris have little in common with Muslims living in the plains south of the Valley.
Significantly, Muslims in the rest of India too have rarely given a thought to the struggle of the Kashmiris. Militancy in the Valley has never found an echo in the plains and no Muslim group outside of Kashmir has taken up cudgels on behalf of the separatists, militants or the young protestors pelting stones on the streets today. It is almost as if they are insulated in a world of their own by the mountain range around them.
Pakistan's abiding frustration has been precisely this, that it has failed to create an empathy between Kashmiris and Muslims in the rest of India. The dispute with India over Kashmir has remained locked in the Valley with no resonance outside of it, except in international fora.
Today, as the unrest continues unchecked amid provocative and communally charged statements from responsible government leaders, that barrier is in danger of being breached. By turning to non-Kashmiri Muslims for assistance in finding a solution, the Modi government could well be playing into Pakistan's hands.
Wajahat Habibullah, who has been, among other things, chief secretary of Jammu and Kashmir, stresses that the outreach to Kashmiris must come from India as a nation. The search for a solution cannot begin with the Muslim community because the rage of the Kashmiris does not spring from Islamic fervour. He laments that the difference between the mood in the Valley in the 1990s and today is the anger against the Indian state. "Earlier, they were at least willing to talk to us. Today, they don't want to have anything to do with us," he says.
Habibullah's Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation has offered to visit Kashmir in a non-governmental capacity in search of a solution. He says many people including former foreign minister in the Vajpayee government Yashwant Sinha and former director general of defence intelligence General Kamal Davar have approached him and expressed a desire to help in any way they can to bring peace in the Valley. "India has to reach out to Kashmir otherwise it won't work," Habibullah stresses.
After talking tough and engaging in a war of nerves hoping to tire out the protestors, the Modi government seems to have realised that the Valley may be reaching a point of no return. Opposition leaders who attended the meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday were pleasantly surprised to find that he had an open mind and expressed his willingness to talk even to those who have different points of view.
The challenge for the government is two-fold. First, to initiate confidence building measures like easing up on curfew restrictions so that peace is restored as soon as possible. The second is to find interlocutors with whom the government can talk to so that they can at least begin the search for a political solution. If this means overturning its policy of not talking to the Hurriyat separatists, so be it.
Hurriyat leaders still maintain a degree of credibility which mainstream political leaders from the National Conference and PDP no longer have. This is clear from the fact that they announce a daily schedule of protests which is more or less adhered to by the groups out on the streets.
But the link is tenuous at best. The government must act fast before it evaporates.