Playing deaf in Kashmir

JK Bank

Based on year long consultations, the interlocutors report – made public last month – has come as yet another imprudent exercise aimed at further complicating the problem rather than a making a serious step towards resolving Kashmir.

 Muzamil Jaleel


MJWhile Kashmir was simmering with anger and protests for the third consecutive year in 2010, the Centre appointed a group of three interlocutors – Dilip Padgoankar, M M Ansari and Radha Kumar “to interact with all shades of political opinion” and “suggest a way forward that truly reflects the aspirations of the people of Jammu & Kashmir”. Based on yearlong consultations, the interlocutors report – made public last month – has come as yet another imprudent exercise aimed at further complicating the problem rather than a making a serious step towards resolving Kashmir.

The main problem with the interlocutors report is its framework. The report makes the issue seem more complex and ambiguous than it actually is. One of the major causes for the seething anger in Kashmir has been the government’s consistent failure to acknowledge the basic reason for the political dispute and instead restrict its efforts to tackle the symptoms alone.  If the interlocutors were not ready to engage with the fundamental political issue, there was no chance to draw a credible roadmap for a permanent resolution of the conflict.

This report, however, is not even an exercise in conflict management. “The New Compact with the people of Jammu and Kashmir” is a 179 page incoherent summary of problems and issues that have arisen because of the political conflict.

The report talks about “a sense of victimhood” in the Kashmir valley. Its reasons, the report says, are all too compelling that include a systematic denial of democratic rights, rigged elections, the arrests of leaders, the choking of dissenting voices through harsh laws. Thus the interlocutors concluded that at the heart of all the “dirges” — they use this term to describe the “demand for Azadi and an Islamic State”, “autonomy, self-rule, achievable nationhood and other such alternatives” — is the “sentiment that the woes of Kashmir are due to the emasculation of the substance of its distinctive status enshrined in Article 370 of the Constitution of India”. The interlocutor’s diagnosis of the problem is flawed. The post 1952 constitutional erosion is only an outcome of New Delhi’s mistrust caused by the dispute and it is not the reason for the dispute.

In fact, nobody was expecting the interlocutors appointed by the Ministry of Home Affairs to suggest a plebiscite to figure out the future of J&K or recommend any remedy outside the ambit of the Indian constitution. However, it was surprising to see that the report has not even seriously acknowledged that the demand for secession exists in the State.

Calling the political demand for Azadi a dirge and fallaciously clubbing it only with the establishment of an Islamic state, the interlocutors have mocked Kashmir’s entire political struggle, the meaning of Azadi and even the political agendas of J-K’s two major pro-India parties NC and PDP.  The standard definition of a dirge is a somber song or lament expressing mourning or grief and it is hard to understand as to how the interlocutors reached to the conclusion that these serious political demands which have kept Kashmir on boil for decades can be reduced to a mere dirge.

The report makes it amply clear that the official goal post for a dialogue on Kashmir has been substantially shifted and now even the restoration of a pre-1953 position is not on the table, leave aside anything more. Interestingly, the demand for a restoration of pre-1953 position of the state is not a secessionist demand but a resolution passed by a two third majority of the State Legislative Assembly. The report emphasizes in the most unambiguous terms that the “clock cannot be set back” and thus interlocutors do not recommend a “pure and simple return of the pre-1953 situation”. The interlocutors, however, recommend “a case-by-case review of all central laws” extended after 1952 but with several stringent caveats.

“Any proposed change that questions the sovereignty of India, disrupts its territorial integrity, compromises India’s defence and larger, strategic economic interests cannot be entertained,” the report stresses.

The curious case of a Constitutional Committee:

To review the central acts extended to the State after 1952 that have dented J-K’s special status, the interlocutors have recommended setting up of a Constitutional Committee (CC). Though the CC is one of the main recommendations in the report, it is evident that the interlocutors have themselves ensured that it never succeeds.

The report emphasises that the head and members of the CC must be constitutional experts who “enjoy esteem and respect in the State and in the rest of India” besides the “confidence of all stakeholders”. How is it possible to find such distinguished members for the Committee who are acceptable to all the stakeholders in such an intractable conflict?

This follows another set of pre-conditions which are so imprudent that even if such a dream Constitutional Committee is set up, there is no way that its recommendations will ever be accepted. According to the report, the Committee’s “recommendations must be reached through consensus so that they are acceptable to all stakeholders represented in the State assembly and in Parliament”. Then the next step, the report says, would be for the President to issue an order. “The order, however, needs to be ratified by a Bill in both houses of parliament and by each house in the State Legislature by a margin of no less than two-third majority,” the report says. Such a consensus in both houses of Parliament and Assembly would need divine intervention.

Then comes the final nail in the CC’s coffin. Following a call for the review, the interlocutors suggest “retaining many of the central laws made applicable to the state” because they are `fairly innocuous”.

The Parliament, however, can still continue to make make important laws related to “country’s internal and external security and its vital economic interest, especially in the areas of energy and access to water resources”. Thus between the important and innocuous, there is hardly any work left for the CC.

Communal Polarisation:

The report has correctly raised the issue of serious communal polarization in the state but has suggested a solution, which will balkanize the State into three pieces along Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist lines.

“…communal polarization has gone quite far in Jammu and Ladakh, both in relation to the Valley and between parts of the two regions,” the report says. “…the Muslim and Hindu majority districts of Jammu, for example, are steadily drawing apart rather than coming together; similarly, the Muslim and Buddhist districts of Ladakh are becoming increasingly distant, even acrimonious; indeed, the two Autonomous Hill Development Councils have not held a single joint meeting, though each would benefit from cooperative planning”.

The report further reveals that the five Muslim-majority districts of Jammu province direct their ire at those who seek statehood for Jammu province, much like the Shia- dominated district in Kargil is wary of Buddhist-dominated Leh, which seeks Union Territory status for Ladakh. “Muslims of these districts indeed argue that granting such a status to Ladakh or establishing a separate State in Jammu will force them, much against their grain, to cast their lot with the Kashmir Valley,” the report says.

But once the interlocutors suggest a solution, they have totally disregarded the communal divide especially within Jammu and Ladakh and recommended division of J&K into three regional councils – Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh – and devolve legislative, executive and financial powers to them.  This is a recipe for disaster because such a division will eventually manifest itself into a

complete balkanization of the state along communal lines.

To add to this divisive agenda, the interlocutors have further divided the State’s Muslim population and come up with “stoutly pro India Muslim Pahadis, Muslim Gujjars and Bakarwals”.  This new classification that has been introduced is extremely problematic and flawed. It is preposterous to club an entire ethnic group and claim that it has a homogenous political loyalty. Then the interlocutors have also split these ethnic groups along Muslim-Hindu lines and recommended that these Muslims need to be rewarded for being pro-India. The interlocutors have recommended “some sort of a special status” for the Muslim Pahadis “who have always stood by India”.

The interlocutors also have supported the “demand for forest rights, enhanced development funds and representation in local and state level political institutions and bureaucracy for Muslim Gujjars and Bakerwals” because they “have also been stoutly pro-India”. Similarly, the interlocutors have sought “development projects and private sector units” to be set up in localities which have concentration of Shia Muslims” across the State.

Cross LoC bonhomie and 1994 Parliament resolution:

It is ironic to find the interlocutors recommend “harmonization of relations” between the two parts of Kashmir and turn the Line of Control (LoC) into a “line of concord and co-operation” while wrongly suggesting it to be in consonance with the 1994 Parliamentary resolution on J&K. Contrary to the interlocutor’s understanding, the 1994 Parliamentary resolution had asked Pakistan to “vacate the areas of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir, which they have occupied through aggression”. In their over optimism, the interlocutors even sought “wide ranging constitutional change in Pakistan administered Kashmir” for  “harmonization of Centre-State Relations (between Islamabad and Muzaffarabad) and devolution of powers across the LoC”.

On HR violations:

Despite a unanimous demand for repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) cutting across the political spectrum in Kashmir, the interlocutors have avoided to take a clear position on this issue and instead requested the Defence ministry to respond to the demand favourably. Subsequently, the interlocutors term the army’s decision to hold  “court martial in Machil (stage managed encounter) case” as a “positive response”. Once interlocutors support a court martial, which is the army’s preferred forum for a trial of its erring men, it is clear that the interlocutors would probably not mind if AFSPA stays.

The interlocutors have been extremely apologetic while putting forth the demand for withdrawal of troops, suggesting that “the shifting out of residential areas and thinning them out is the desire across political divide”. However, they add a caveat and make any such measure subservient to the demands of the security forces. The demand for assimilating the Village Defence Committees in J-K Police will have dangerous consequences as this vigilante force has been mostly drawn along religious lines.

The report recommends “a psychological closure for 200 cases of disappeared persons, most of them from 1990.” As per law, the families of the disappeared have a concrete right to truth, justice and reparations and not some vague and absurd psychological closure. And how have the interlocutors reached this figure of 200 when according to State’s own acknowledgment the number of disappeared persons is more than three thousand.

The issue of reconciliation has been taken up in such a casual manner that it seems that the contours of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission proposed by the interlocutors can only circumvent justice rather than meaningfully unearthing the truth or providing the victims with closure.

Then there are several smaller observations that defy common sense.”….while security interests are supreme, they must be safeguarded in such a way that a curfew does not create hassles to day today living which it does at present,” the interlocutors recommend. How can there be a curfew where people are allowed to carry on with their daily chores without any hassle?

“Lift curbs on the media but also get them to observe a self-regulated code of conduct. Our group had to cancel couple of appointments because someone had tipped off the media to converge on the venues,” the interlocutors observe.  How have reporters broken the cardinal rules of professionalism by following the activities and meetings of the government appointed group of interlocutors?

Though Kashmir has been peaceful for two consecutive summers, there is no guarantee that this calm is permanent. Interlocutors too admit that  “it would be foolish to deny that the situation remains very volatile” because “the alienation runs very deep in the Valley”. And if Kashmir slips back to its familiar brink, the government will find itself in a precarious situation. The message that has gone out through this report is disastrous for any future effort for engagement in Kashmir. In a way, this report has completely exposed the diplomatic ambiguity in the Union government’s stance regarding the ambit of a dialogue on Kashmir. From Narasimha Rao’s “sky is the limit” to Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s “insaniyat ke dayray mein (in the ambit of humanity), the Centre had always ambiguously offered unconditional talks to the separatists.

Courtesy: Indian Express | Thumbnail: AFP/Getty Images/Rouf Bhat