The Narendra Modi government seems to be taking tentative steps to restore the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir, and hold elections to the legislative assembly. According to media reports, the centre has already initiated backchannel negotiations, and if all goes well, the mainstream political parties of Jammu and Kashmir are likely to be invited to Delhi for a formal dialogue. The central government can rationalise this move as its recent public statements have claimed that it was always committed to restoring statehood at an “appropriate time.” But the reasons for moving forward are likely to be mainly external, as there is still no popular acceptance of the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy and its bifurcation in August 2019.
The United States is putting pressure on India to provide a roadmap for restarting democratic processes in Jammu and Kashmir, and subsequently, a dialogue with Pakistan. On 12 June, the US acting assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, Dean Thompson, told a congressional hearing on democracy that “some of the Indian government’s actions have raised concerns that are inconsistent with India’s democratic values.” Thompson told the hearing that among these concerns, “Kashmir is one area where we have urged them to return to normalcy as quickly as possible, including we’ve seen some steps taken: the release of prisoners, the restoration of 4G access, things of that nature. There are other electoral steps we’d like to see them take and that we have encouraged them to do and will continue to do so.”
However, the Joe Biden administration’s interest goes beyond concern for human rights and democracy. The United States is committed to a pull-out of troops from Afghanistan before 11 September 2021, possibly even by mid-July. It, therefore, has to signal to Pakistan that despite a close alliance with India, it is conscious of Pakistan’s interests. It needs the active cooperation of Pakistan for the Afghan peace negotiations and to protect American interests after the troop withdrawal. Pakistan’s concerns over the developments in Jammu and Kashmir have to be acknowledged by the United States, at the least as a courtship gesture.
The United States may have got its opening with the Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan’s offer, on 4 June, to restart talks if Delhi provides a roadmap on Jammu and Kashmir. This differs from Pakistan’s earlier position, as recent as 30 May, that unless India reverses its decisions of August 2019, normalisation could not begin. It was on these grounds that in April this year, the Pakistan cabinet had put the proposed reopening of trade with India on hold.
The Modi government’s new narrative for international consumption will include initiation of a dialogue with Kashmir’s mainstream parties—the five-party Peoples’ Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, or PAGD, as well as Sajad Lone’s Peoples’ Conference and Altaf Bukhari’s Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party. Having failed to incubate a new pliable leadership through the local body and the District Development Council elections held in November and December 2020, the centre seems to have realised the inevitability of engaging with Kashmir’s mainstream parties. This is a far cry from professing to eliminate dynastic politics in the region—meaning the Abdullah family of the National Conference and the Mufti family of the People’s Democratic Party—and creating a pliant King’s party under Bukhari’s leadership.