A five-party alliance of mainstream parties in Kashmir decided on Tuesday to attend an all-party meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the first such political outreach by the Centre since it controversially stripped the region of its special status two years ago.
Leaders of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration ( PAGD), set up to demand restoration of Jammu & Kashmir’s special status, met at the residence of former chief minister Farooq Abdullah in Srinagar and decided to attend the meeting in Delhi on Thursday.
The decision was unanimous, and the Centre didn’t impose any conditions for the 14 invited politicians, said leaders who attended the discussion.
“We received an invitation from the PM and we are going in that meeting. We are going to put forward our point of view before the Prime Minister and home minister,” said Abdullah, National Conference (NC) patriarch and PAGD chairperson. “All those invited will be attending the meet in New Delhi,” he added.
Asked about the PAGD’s stand, Abdullah said, “Whatever our stand was, is still there and will be there.” In a separate meeting, the Congress also decided to attend the all-party event.
Former chief minister and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) president Mehbooba Mufti, who is also vice-chairperson of PAGD, said she was already ready for dialogue, and indicated that PAGD will push for restoration of Jammu & Kashmir’s special status and full statehood.
“We will talk about the agenda for which this people’s alliance was formed. What has been snatched away, we will talk about that and how they have erred. It was illegal and constitutional and without restoring it you can’t improve the situation and bring peace in Jammu & Kashmir,” she said.
PAGD spokesman and CPI(M) general secretary Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami said all leaders will advocate for what was “taken away from us”. “We are not seeking stars or moon but the constitutional guarantees taken away from us,” he said.
Anantnag MP Hasnain Masoodi said the Centre hadn’t imposed any conditions on participation in the meeting. “We see this meeting as an opportunity to present our point of view,” he said.
The meeting signals the restarting of political engagement between mainstream Kashmiri parties and the Centre, which in August 2019 voided Articles 370 and 35A that bestowed special status to Jammu and Kashmir and privileges to its residents, and split the state into two Union territories. All mainstream political leaders were detained, internet and phone connections were snapped and curfew-like restrictions were imposed in the Valley for months.
When the leaders were released in 2020, they came together as PAGD and adopted a resolution to demand the region’s full statehood and special status. Current PAGD members include the NC, PDP, CPI(M), J&K Awami National Conference, and the J&K People’s Movement.
Politicians in the Valley remain bitterly opposed to J&K’s bifurcation and revocation of Article 370. In the past, PAGD members have clashed with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which backed the scrapping of special status.
News of the meeting broke last Friday but months of backchannel talks between the Union home ministry and national security adviser Ajit Doval with mainstream politicians in the Valley paved the way for the event, said people aware of developments. On Saturday, Union home secretary AK Bhalla called all members personally to extend an invitation for the June 24 meeting. The meeting has no fixed agenda but is likely to discuss restoration of statehood, delimitation and fresh elections, added the people quoted above.
According to members who attended the two-hour-long discussions at Abdullah’s residence on Tuesday, the decision to participate in the all-party meeting was unanimous. “There were no dissenting voices. Everyone agreed that dialogue is the way forward,” one member who was a part of the meeting said on the condition of anonymity. Mufti initially suggested that Abdullah should represent the PAGD but later it was decided that all invited leaders should attend the meeting.
Tarigami said the outreach vindicated the PAGD’s stand. “There is clearly a realisation in Delhi that they have not been able to move forward on their own in the last two years since Article 370 was revoked,” he said. In local-body elections held last year, the PAGD had swept Kashmir, winning 110 of the 278 seats contested in the Valley.
“The PM invited us and we will express ourselves in clear terms. Our historic state was downgraded without any consultation with us. Delhi is not mandated to destroy the foundation of the Constitution,” said Tarigami.
Mufti said that for a conducive atmosphere, the government should release all political prisoners in the Valley. “Many prisoners are ill in jails. So, the political prisoners should be released and those who are lodged in jails outside Kashmir should be shifted back to Srinagar .”
Masoodi said the leaders will press the Centre to undo the decisions of August 2019. “We don’t know what will be the response from the other side but we are hopeful that there is understanding in New Delhi that things need to be changed in J&K,” he said.
Separately, the Congress also decided to attend the all-party meeting with its Kashmir unit leader GA Mir asserting that the restoration of full statehood will be its “priority number one”. The decision was taken at a meeting chaired by Congress president Sonia Gandhi and attended by former prime minister Manmohan Singh, and senior leaders Karan Singh, P Chidambaram, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Rajni Patil, Mir and Tariq Hameed Karra.
“Congress will keep restoration of full statehood on priority number one irrespective of the agenda of the meeting,” said Mir.
The meeting comes weeks after the delimitation commission for J&K wrote to all 20 UT’s district commissioners seeking both quantitative and qualitative data. Set up in early 2020, and given an extension earlier this year, the commission was tasked with delineating the boundaries of the assembly and parliamentary constituencies. It is only after this process is complete that assembly elections can be held for the first time in seven years.
So far, both the PDP and the NC have boycotted the exercise of redrawing the constituencies in the UT in accordance with the provisions of Part V of Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019 and Delimitation Act, 2002.
The meeting also sparked protests in the Hindu-majority Jammu region with some leaders accusing the Centre of pandering to Kashmiri politicians. “In this meet, Jammu has been given a negligible share but Kashmiri leaders who talk about separatism and separatists are invited,” said former state minister and Panthers Party chief Harsh Dev Singh.