Is the wind changing direction?

Are we witnessing a change in the government’s stand on Kashmir and Pakistan? The straws in the wind are accumulating and it's now tempting to add them up and see if they suggest an outcome or, at least, a new direction. Even if the present situation is not  clear,  it certainly feels noticeably different from the past.

First, on Kashmir. The Ramzan ‘ceasefire’, which has held for nearly two weeks and could be extended to cover the Amarnath yatra, was the initial positive development. Now, talks with Hurriyat could be next. Speaking to India Today, Home Minister Rajnath Singh has said: “If Hurriyat is ready to talk, we have no problem. We are ready to talk to anyone.” That’s a marked shift from Special Representative Dineshwar Sharma’s  refusal to engage with them.

In response, Hurriyat has signalled its own willingness to talk provided “the government …give clarity on what it wants to talk about and speak in one voice”. Even more importantly, Hurriyat did not reiterate previously proclaimed conditions such as accepting the disputed status of Jammu and Kashmir or demilitarisation and lifting the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.

It’s also clear what could be bringing the two sides closer. The government must be concerned that since 2014 terrorist incidents have increased 160 per cent whilst the number of local Kashmiris joining militant organisations has doubled. Indeed, by one count a Kashmiri joins militant ranks every third day. Meanwhile, young Kashmiris, both boys and girls and often in their teens, no longer seem to fear for their lives when they obstruct security forces. 

For its part, Hurriyat knows it's being marginalised. It needs to reassert its importance and that can only happen by re-establishing its credibility through talks with the government. The Home Minister’s  statement was an unexpected life-line. 

If anything, the shifting position on Pakistan is more clearly discernible. To begin with, Indian High Commissioner Ajay Bisaria spoke of “signs of positivity” after the two countries exchanged prisoners and the Indus Water Commission and Coast Guards met. “All these steps add to the general level of trust (and) prepare us for bigger moves,” he added. 

Then Home Minister Rajnath Singh told the Indian Express: “If Pakistan is ready to talk why won’t we talk? We want to have good relations with our neighbour. But even the neighbour will have to take some initiative.” Even though Sushma Swaraj seemed to pour cold water on this, when she reiterated the old policy that talks and terror “can never go together”, Pakistan, it seems, chose to only hear the Home Minister. Last Tuesday, it set the ball rolling by proposing full implementation of the badly undermined 2003 ceasefire which India accepted with alacrity. Consequently the two Directors General of Military Operations have agreed “to ensure that henceforth the ceasefire will not be violated by both sides”.

Once again, the compulsions are clear. By India’s reckoning there were 860 ceasefire violations in 2017 with 15 soldiers killed and 908 so far this year with a further 11 soldiers killed. By Pakistan’s count there were 1,813 violations in 2017 and uptil now 1,321 in 2018.

So, on Kashmir and Pakistan, is the wind changing direction? Clearly, it seems to be. The question is, how strongly is it blowing and for how long. With elections in Pakistan in less than two months and our own in, perhaps, 10, all we may get is a passing shower. Unless, of course, we have an ‘understanding’ with the Pakistan army. In that case the forecast could be very different.

Now, could such an understanding emerge? Pakistan’s Army Chief, Gen Bajwa, has already welcomed the prospects of a political dialogue with India. The full implementation of the 2003 ceasefire, which was proposed by Pakistan, could be the first step in that direction. The swiftness with which India accepted is, possibly, another. If talks with Hurriyat start, easing internal tensions in Kashmir, that may constitute a third. 

Step by step we could be moving towards a better relationship with both Kashmiris and Pakistan. But that’s also where the danger begins. One wrong move and we could badly stumble and who knows how long it will take to pick ourselves up again.