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Build on beginning

Centre and J&K leaders, Centre more than J&K leaders, must ensure Thursday’s meeting leads to structured engagement

The first Jammu & Kashmir all-party meeting called by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his seven years in office, his first engagement with leaders of mainstream Kashmir parties since the revoking of special status of J&K in August 2019, marks an important and welcome political moment. The meeting ended without “outcomes”, expectedly so. But a way forward can be carved out from here. From the statements and tweets of the participants, it seems the Modi government has a plan: Delimitation, assembly election, restoration of statehood. Though the timeline is still not clear, Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have indicated that delimitation is a priority. The J&K leaders appear to be in general agreement with the broad contours, though some might want the ordering to be different — statehood or elections first, delimitation last. There is also a sense that participation in the exercise is in their own interest. The regional leadership seems to have come to terms with the reality that restoration of the special status of J&K cannot be negotiated with a government that had made revocation of Article 370 a key ideological project. If at all there is a reversal, it will come through the courts.

That the J&K leaders decided to attend this meeting despite their public humiliation over the last two years — of the 14 present in the room, at least six, including three former chief ministers, were detained for extended periods — is a measure of their investment in, and commitment to, the political mainstream. An acknowledgement of this by the host may have been statesmanly. It was not forthcoming on Thursday. But the government must at least make clear that this was not a one-off event to grab a headline or photo-opportunity, that it is listening now to those it had earlier derided and sought to sideline in “Naya Kashmir”. It must commit to a structured process of continuous engagement. After August 2019, there is a terrible trust deficit vis a vis the intentions of the Centre. Those whose co-operation Prime Minister Modi now seeks have taken an enormous political — and security — risk, both in Delhi and in Kashmir, and it is his government’s responsibility to walk the extra mile, especially as it still holds all the cards.

There are some overarching takeaways from Thursday’s meeting. One, the Kashmir problem needs a political solution, not administrative quick fixes entrusted to an unaccountable bureaucracy. Two, new leaders cannot be created overnight, there is no going back to a clean slate in politics. Three, there is a huge difference between political rhetoric and political reality. It is too early to say how Delhi’s latest political outreach to J&K will play out. Both sides, the Centre and Kashmir’s mainstream leadership, have travelled far from August 5, 2019, but there is a long distance still to be covered. Thursday’s meeting was the right and necessary step to take, but the state has seen too many fresh starts lead nowhere. The Centre and Kashmir’s leaders, the Centre more than Kashmir’s leaders, must build on this beginning.

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