Indian and Pakistani diplomats tend to agree on one thing: A peace deal with their quarrelsome neighbor will need to be worked out under the cover of darkness through a so-called “back-channel.” Away from the blinding glare of public attention, suited men (and it is invariably men) in smoky parlors and hotels abroad will secretly hash out the finer details of complex territorial and national security issues, which ordinary plebian-citizens can barely begin to comprehend.
The hope is that once these selfless heroes shake hands on a deal, their political masters will sign an agreement with shaky hands, before announcing to the world that peace has been delivered (Nobel Peace prize awaited). Faced with a valley brimming with tensions and a never-ending stalemate in India-Pakistan relations, it may be time for a long overdue reality check. Secret deals among political elites are necessary but certainly not sufficient to make peace in Kashmir.
The benefits of backroom diplomacy are well known. Keeping negotiation processes outside the public gaze allows parties to make concessions and explore creative proposals that could otherwise mean political suicide for their leaders.
Confidentiality, gives parties the time to strategically out-maneuver those who have vested interests in derailing the peace process. Moreover, technical expertise is often needed to negotiate specific issues — whether water distribution or ceasefire lines — another reason to keep negotiations within the purview of experts.
So, while recognizing that a lot happens through discreet tête-à-têtes in the corridors of power, we should be wary of allowing the comfortable fog of backroom banter to blind us to the important complementary role of public diplomacy.
Looking back on Kashmir
Kashmir is no stranger to stealth negotiations, which still grate on people’s nerves. The infamous Indira-Sheikh accord of 1975 was negotiated almost entirely in secret for three years by political middlemen shuttling between Delhi and Srinagar. It installed the legendary National Conference leader, Sheikh Abdullah, as chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir with great pomp and show.
However, contrary to public expectations, it did little to restore Kashmir’s autonomy under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. For many in the valley, this agreement came to symbolize the broken relationship between India and Kashmir, besides deepening their mistrust of politicians all around.
In 2015, former Indian intelligence chief A.S Dulat’s exposé confirmed what people had long suspected: Both cash and political currency have been covertly exchanged between Indian and Pakistani intelligence agencies and Kashmiri leaders, ostensibly to keep the conflict within “manageable” bounds. It is hardly surprising that such policies, marked by cynical realpolitik, have failed to open doors to the promised land.
During a rare productive spell in India-Pakistan relations between 2004 and 2008, a special back-channel appointed by General Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hashed out the practical details of a non-territorial Kashmir proposal based on the idea of “making borders irrelevant.” Wisely, the leaders reportedly went a step further to consult with political parties and separatist leaders in Kashmir, and Indian and Pakistani civil society. This was an attempt to create wider support for the peace process and signaled to people that their views mattered to their leaders.
Still, crucial stakeholders, including Pakistani political leaders in exile and a dominant Hurriyat faction in Kashmir, remained opposed to this proposal. Former Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri claims this is the closest the governments have come to a framework that Indians, Pakistanis and Kashmiris can all live with. But it seems unlikely that any agreement, however ideal, could have been practically implemented so long as the views of resistant constituencies were disregarded.
Other attempts since then have proved to be even less encouraging. After a mass uprising in the Kashmir Valley in 2010, Singh’s government appointed three interlocutors to speak to a range of stakeholders and propose a way forward. Unfortunately, the committee’s report, A New Compact with the People of Jammu and Kashmir, was disowned by the very same government and languishes unattended on the Home Ministry’s website.
In July 2016, another crisis engulfed the Kashmir Valley, triggered by the death of a young Kashmiri militant commander, Burhan Wani. A high-profile Committee of Concerned Citizens, led by former External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha, was constituted to consult people across the state on their grievances and priorities.
However, the committee’s fervent pleas to address political grievances and initiate dialogue between New Delhi and Kashmir seem to be falling on deaf ears once again.
In April, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a speech in Jammu exhorting Kashmiri youth to choose “tourism over terrorism,” “stone-cutting instead of stone-pelting.” More recently, Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced that the government had found a “permanent solution” to the Kashmir issue, the details of which remain a mystery.
Conspicuously, absent in these unilateral declarations is an acknowledgment of political aspirations, human rights violations or governance failures that people have consistently articulated as their primary concerns.
Weight of the public
Despite its obvious merits, why do governments remain reluctant to put their weight behind public consultation and dialogue?
Perhaps there are understandable anxieties about the chaos and lack of control that could arise from opening up to the public’s concerns and grievances, especially on an issue as volatile as Kashmir. Maybe governments fear that “giving in” to public sentiment will make them appear weak or threaten key strategic and security interests in Kashmir.
It is important for these assumptions to be scrutinized under a factual spotlight. For instance, there is a strong correlation between periods of consistent public engagement and lower levels of violence in Kashmir.
It is also worth examining if top-down interventions — beefing up security, introducing relief packages or constructing roads and tunnels — have actually made people in Kashmir more secure, while tensions remain high within the population at large. On the other hand, expending some political capital on a serious public dialogue initiative may well bring disproportionate security, economic and political pay-offs.
The latest resurgence of violent tensions in the Kashmir Valley is a reminder that even the most sophisticated agreements can eventually crumble under the weight of a public’s veto.