Interrupted peace process and the way forward

Dr Ashok Bhan
Peace process in Jammu and Kashmir began circa 1995 with resumption of political activities leading to the assembly election of 1996 and formation of an elected Government after a prolonged Governor/President’s rule. It peaked off with assembly elections of 2014. For a variety of reasons this election was an important milestone in the peace initiative. The situation on ground was far more peaceful than any of the preceding three assembly elections in 1996, 2002 and 2008. Credible electoral exercises had substantially reduced the ‘democratic deficit’. A huge voter turnout, even in constituencies with sizeable separatists’ influence, was a testimony to the faith in the Indian democracy. Separatists had been marginalized.
The verdict of 2014 was a mandate for democratization, fulfilling conflicting regional aspirations as well as development. It raised expectations that the political parties in power will address their poll promises and work towards resolution of the conflict.
The nature of the 2014 verdict necessitated a coalition Government which was described as coming together of ‘north and south pole’. Unfortunately, the competing regional aspirations led to acrimony and mistrust between the peoples, regions and coalition partners. The Agenda of Alliance remained on paper. Government was unable to fulfill poll promises as the coalition partners were not on the same page in dealing with the situation. One coalition partner was perceived to support ‘soft separatism’ and ‘appeasement’ and the other promoting a ‘muscular policy’. Pakistan and separatists exploited the fragile political situation leading to deterioration in security situation in the valley. This eventually led to fall of the coalition Government in June 2018.
Fall of the elected Government was a serious blow to the peace process which had already been interrupted with deteriorating security situation since 2015. A fresh wave of radicalization and local youth joining terrorists’ ranks; ascendancy of separatists; and hostile attitude of Pakistan including sending of armed terrorists and persistent cross border firing and ceasefire violations vitiated the atmosphere. A mere 7.1 percent votes were polled in the Srinagar PC and bye elections to Anantnag PC could not be held. Elections to the Panchayats and Urban Local Bodies were deferred. The peace process had derailed.
Peace process since mid 1990s has traversed along different paths. The improvement in the security situation was a major component of this achieved by generous support of GoI; synergy between forces and with administration; and sacrifices of security force/ police personnel and civilians. While Ladakh had always remained peaceful, terrorism had been completely eradicated in Jammu province. It is not to say that there have not been ups and downs in the security situation. The civil strife and wide spread violence in 2008 and 2010 were major setbacks, yet the levels of terrorist violence continuously dipped from the post Kargil peak of 2001 to the election year of 2014. The levels of violence and cross border firing and infiltration have increased since then. The after affects of 2016 street violence have yet not abated. The number of terrorists has swelled to 327, highest in the last one decade. Local recruitment to terrorist’s ranks has reached 130 during the current year.
The immediate challenge before the Government, therefore, is to go after the terrorists and handle separatists and OGWs as per a well drawn policy. An upper hand on the security situation is a sine qua non for development as well as for democratic exercises. In doing so, collateral damage has to be avoided. J&K Police is capable of playing a pivotal role in this for which they need to be provided the necessary resources.
The commitment and consistency in holding elections, despite a large number of incidents of terrorist violence and killings of political activists in 1996 and 2002; inter-regional tension and violence after Amarnath Land row in 2008; and devastating floods in 2014, signal the primacy given to democratic processes by the successive Governments. Periodic elections to the Indian parliament and path breaking Panchayat elections in 2011, held after four decades, with a voter turnout of over 80 percent, supplemented this effort. Elected Governments had gradually reduced the dominance of security forces in matters related to governance and even internal security.
The democratisation process which has been temporarily interrupted by inability to hold Anantnag PC bye elections and Panchayat/LUB elections has to be resumed. The intent of the Government in this direction is laudable. The elections have to be free and fair. They have to be peaceful, credible and participative. It will take lot of resolve, resources and process of consultations with the political parties to ensure this. Merely going through the motions of the exercise will not be an increment to the peace process. Support to boycott call and insecurity amongst candidates and electorate will seriously compromise with efforts to put peace process on the rails. These elections will set the stage for the 2019 Lok Sabha and future Assembly elections in the state and therefore have to be taken seriously.
Meanwhile, the verdict of 2014 must not be tampered with till polls are held again. The revival of the doctrine of ‘installing Governments of choice’ will put to naught all efforts to end the democratic deficit.
In dealing with the external dimension the focus has been on talks with Pakistan to stop cross border terrorism and support to separatists. Despite neighbours’ Kargil misadventure, the following period of 2003-08 was the most productive for the peace process. It saw ceasefire agreement bringing relief to the border dwellers and CBMs like trans-LoC travel and trade. Pakistan does not see beyond its agenda of dismembering India and all attempts to engage in bilateral talks have failed. Costs inflicted on Pakistan in recent years, including surgical strikes, have been applauded but have not yielded the desired results. There has been increase in border firing and as many as 147 people including 67 civilians were killed in these incidents from January 2015 to 30 June 2018. India has rightly exposed Pakistan before the international community as a source of terror.
The new civilian Government in Pakistan has pressing domestic issues at hand. Ruling PTI is perceived to have won elections with the backing of the Pakistan Army. With Army continuing to call shots, no significant forward movement can be expected any time soon. The moot point is can Pakistan be made irrelevant as far as Kashmir is concerned? That is possible only with the support of the people and a firm grip on the situation on ground, both elusive for the present.
That brings in the most important but hitherto feebly addressed dimension of political engagement and reaching out to the internal stake-holders. Bringing down violence, democratisation and development are significant contributors but alone they can’t sustain the peace process. This is proved by relapses now and then because of the absence of a continuous and sustainable dialogue. There have been political initiatives including NICO of November 2000; talks with separatists in 2004; visit of a Joint Parliamentary Committee after 2010 violence; appointment of Interlocutors; and Round Tables and reports of five Working Groups including one on Centre-State relations. Add to these the more recent appointment of Special Representative of GoI and recent Ramzan NICO. None of these have been taken forward except the introduction of trans-LoC CBMs of travel and trade.
Inclusion of key players is a pre-requisite for result oriented negotiations. But there has to be willingness on both sides to negotiate. The separatists must understand that their refusal to talks will only prolong the conflict with people bearing the brunt. The ‘maximalist agendas’ on the two sides of Peer Panchal will have to be put on the backburner to allow the peace constituency to grow. There are high hopes from the Governor Satya Pal Malik, a seasoned politician, to reach out and engage with people in finding a lasting solution. No miracles are expected but a beginning has to be made.
While improving security situation in the valley has to be at the top of the agenda, a responsive Governor’s administration and a spell of all round development will help cool the tempers. Special attention to harness energies of youth in sports, education, skills development and employment can help arrest alienation to some extent and reduce their ‘hate’ and ‘anger’. Engagement with all stakeholders is the key for sustaining peace. There is an urgent need to bring together people of the three regions. A state which was a symbol of brother-hood and co-existence has sadly drifted apart. The trust deficit between regions and communities can have serious repercussions. Eventually, once the violence is under control, a fresh election to the state assembly may be the most appropriate step to break the impasse.
(The author is former Director General of Police and former Member National Security Advisory Board)


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