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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Kashmir 'interlocutor' appointed to tackle violence in region

Indian government asks former intelligence chief to seek solution through talks

Kashmiri villagers clash with government forces in Hajin on October 11, 2017 after an anti-militant operation in which two rebels and two commandos were killed. Mukhtar Khan / AP Photo
Kashmiri villagers clash with government forces in Hajin on October 11, 2017 after an anti-militant operation in which two rebels and two commandos were killed. Mukhtar Khan / AP Photo

The Indian government has named the country's former domestic intelligence chief as its interlocutor in Kashmir, hoping to quell an upsurge in unrest and violence in the region since July last year.

Dineshwar Sharma, the director of the Intelligence Bureau until he retired in January, will "initiate and carry forward a dialogue with elected representatives, various organisations and concerned individuals” in Kashmir, the government said in its announcement on Tuesday.

The appointment is a response to a torrid year-and-a-half of civilian and militant unrest in Kashmir. Protests began last July after a popular separatist militant was killed by Indian troops. The Indian government used force to suppress the protests, leading to the deaths of 84 civilians and injuries to more than 12,000 people, civilians and troops alike.

In parallel, militant activity has grown. At least 90 Kashmiris joined militant groups in the first 10 months of this year, according to government statistics — the highest figure in the last seven years.

Forty-nine civilians, 65 security personnel and 176 terrorists have been killed in clashes between the state and militants in the first 10 months of this year, according to figures compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal.

Last year, which included the summer of peak violence, 14 civilians, 88 troops and 165 militants were killed. The previous year, which was quieter, saw the deaths of 20 civilians, 41 troops and 113 militants.

The civilian violence — such as incidents of stone-pelting — has tapered off somewhat, said Ajit Kumar Singh, a research fellow at the Institute of Conflict Management in New Delhi, which maintains the South Asia Terrorism Portal. “If an interlocutor had to be appointed, this is probably the right time to do it,” Mr Singh told The National.

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Mr Sharma is the latest of five Kashmir interlocutor missions appointed by the government since 2001, and the first since 2010. Whether working individually or as a team, they have all had vaguely defined aims: to engage in informal dialogue, to get a sense of any political or economic or social concerns, and to report these back to the government.

As a result, previous missions have rarely come up with concrete proposals, apart from discovering that “Kashmiris want development, they want more government funds and more jobs”, Mr Singh said. “This is just talking for the sake of talking.”

Mr Sharma’s mission will be complicated by the fact that the various Kashmiri separatist groups — who desire either an independent Kashmir or one joined to Pakistan — have collectively refused to commit to meeting and speaking with him.

On Wednesday, a joint leadership committee of the separatist groups called for a general strike on Friday to protest against what they claim is India’s occupation of Kashmir.

“People will observe October 27 as a black day, and it will send a message to the global community that they are resisting and resenting the forced occupation and will continue to do so, till the last soldier leaves the state,” the committee said. “It will also illustrate their wish that they will not accept anything less than freedom.”

For his part, Mr Sharma has carefully refrained from admitting that the separatists are stakeholders in Kashmir, unwilling to grant them that political edge. Asked whether he would meet the separatist groups, Mr Sharma said only that he would speak to “all stakeholders”.

“In one way, sending an interlocutor is a small positive move,” said Noor Ahmad Baba, the dean of the school of social sciences at the Central University of Kashmir. “It is an acknowledgement by the government that pure coercion alone will not get them anywhere.”

But Mr Sharma will have a difficult job ahead, Mr Baba said.

“The repressive approach the Indian government has followed over the past year or so has agitated people,” he said. “And there is some scepticism here about the interlocutor, especially since the experience with interlocutors in the past has not been very positive or fruitful.”

Even a mission like this, Mr Baba said, can only play a small role.

“It has to be accompanied by a much larger effort on the part of the government,” he said. “They have to start realising that Kashmir is a larger political issue, rather than just a matter of law and order.”