C Raja Mohan: There have been efforts to find a political settlement to Kashmir,both by the Vajpayee government and by Manmohan Singh. But all recent efforts seem to have gone up in smoke during last summer’s agitation. Thats where the three interlocutors come in.
Dilip Padgaonkar: When we were appointed,at least two of us had something to do with Kashmir earlier. Radha has been working on Kashmir,going there often for more than a decade. I was part of the Kashmir committee led by Ram Jethmalani. I had a chance to get to know many stakeholders in the state. This time,we decided to meet the stakeholders in Srinagar,Jammu and Leh,but also to visit the district headquarters in order to get a feel of what the people have to say–something that had not been attempted in the past. In the four visits we have had since our appointment,we have been able to cover more or less half the number of districts in the entire state and we hope to cover the remaining half in the next few visits. We have broadly focused on three parallel tracks: the first,to find out theimmediate concerns of the people we met; secondly,their long-pending concerns,interests and grievances; thirdly,to focus on trying to evolve a broad consensus on a political settlement in J&K.
As far as the first is concerned,these are largely,though not exclusively,in the nature of confidence building measures. We were told particularly by people in the Valley that these included the release of stone-pelters after getting their parents to sign bonds,the release of political detainees against whom there arent serious charges,speeding up the trials of undertrials who have been detained for a long time,reducing
the intrusive presence of security forces,getting them to conduct themselves with a little less brazenness because the kind of frisking,the kind of checking of ID cards that goes on,creates a huge number of irritants.
Alongside these,there are issues of governance,economic development,the lack of quality education,infrastructure and the lack of job opportunities. These matters were raised during our meetings. We covered a fairly wide spectrum of opinion with the exception of Hurriyat and other separatists who have not yet talked to us. Weve held meetings with the mainstream political parties,leaders of various communities,professional organisations,clerics,academics,students,NGOs,human rights activists,women rights activists,etc. Their immediate concerns,particularly in the Valley,are the ones I have mentioned,whereas those concerning governance or corruption,the lack of transparency and accountability–these matters come from across the spectrum. And then you had the political issues. The media,thinktanks,policy makers,various analysts have been focusing on Kashmir per se,and that is quite natural because the people of Kashmir bore the brunt of the violence in the state for the past two decades. They have grievances that go back to well before Independence and they feel consistently betrayed by New Delhi–the erosion of Article 370 is something that comes up frequently in our discussions. There is a sense of tremendous alienation. The announcement of our group’s appointment was received with a great deal of what I think is perfectly understandable cynicism. There have been interlocutors before us,nothing very much has emerged from their exertions and therefore,we began on a note of deep scepticism. But the big lesson we have learnt in the past four months is that while the grievances of the people of the Valley are far more intense than those of the other regions in J&K,any kind of a political settlement would necessarily have to take into account the grievances of Jammu and Ladakh.
So,the broad conclusion is that in the Valley you get a certain rhetoric about implementing UN resolutions of self determination,plebiscite,independence,etc. This language is alien to the non-Kashmiri Muslims. Now,how do you reconcile these various aspirations? It is a two-fold process.
The first process is to see what kind of a constitutional arrangement has to be there between the state and the Centre. Several commissions have been set up,recommendations have been made,none of them have been accepted either by the state government or the Centre. Then,there is the question,equally important to the people of Jammu and Ladakh in particular,of the internal set-up taking into account autonomy vis a vis Srinagar with their political,economic,social and cultural distinctiveness,their distinctive needs and aspirations. There is also the Pakistan dimension,something we are not mandated to go into.
Rakesh Sinha: Does your interaction involve interaction with the security forces?
Padaonkar: Indeed,it does. We have met the senior officers of the J&K police,CRPF and we hope to now meet with senior Army officers.
Radha Kumar: There are two or three separate issues involved when it comes to security. One is the immediate issue of trying to prevent human rights violation,maximum restraint,etc. The other is the issue of transition that began a couple of years ago from the Army to the police. That,as you know,is somewhat uneven with CRPF bearing the brunt of it–the police were not in a position to handle the situation very well. The third issue is a part of the political question–demilitarisation. One must bear in mind that demilitarisation,almost always in a peace process,begins with non-state actors first and then moves to the state actors. Demilitarisation becomes one of the elements of the agreement to be implemented after you have arrived at some kind of political solution. Our approach has been to draw some of the lessons from previous attempted peace processes between New Delhi and Srinagar,New Delhi and Islamabad. One major lesson is that in the past we have tended to be a little ad-hoc in the CBMs. They have tended to be CBMs that may sometimes actually be part of an eventual political settlement,not CBMs that have paved the ground towards a political settlement.
C Raja Mohan: One of the problems you might be having is the problem of your credibility,your authority. During your interactions,do people ask you,can you deliver the government of India?
Padgaonkar: Soon after our appointment,we had extensive meetings with the Prime Minister,Home Minister,Chairperson of the UPA. In all these conversations,we got a distinct impression that we can try and evolve some kind of a broad consensus on a political settlement and that the government was determined to give a chance to this process. One of the early decisions taken was that instead of waiting for a whole year–we have a years mandate–to give our report,we would be giving a report to the government after every visit. The government has taken all our recommendations seriously; they have been divided into two: those that fall within the ambit of the Centre and those to be implemented by the state government. We hope to give precise details about what those measures are,very soon. But already,we have the release of stone-pelters,of certain political detainees and the reduction of bunkers in urban areas. There is a review of the deployment of security forces too. These are part of the very first set of recommendations we made. We have good reason to believe that the recommendations are taken seriously. Weve met with the CM of J&K and the impression we get is they are taking measures.
Kumar: On the question of political will–it’s not just the governments political will. There are so many critical stakeholders who have to be on board: the two national parties,the two major regional parties,the Army,the CRPF,the police,then you have all the various Hurriyat plus groups.
You have these somewhat quiet militant groups who may at any point decide to play a spoiler role. So,for deliverance,you have to bring all these stakeholders on board,you have to figure out ways in which spoilers can either be neutralised or be somehow accommodated and they make the transformation to being part of a solution,rather than being part of the problem.
Manu Pubby: There is a feeling that there are fissures in the security setup,that initiatives in Kashmir are being driven by the Home Ministry and that the Defence Ministry is not totally on board. Did you ever feel this?
Padgaonkar: One normally assumes that before announcements are made,security forces and the Home Ministry are both on the same page. Our understanding is that the government is seized of the need to be speaking in one voice. There are absolutely no reasons to believe that there are fissures between the two.
Manu Pubby: There was a disagreement between the Home and Defence ministries on the feasibility of troop reduction. The Army Chief said we dont know the scale of the reduction; the Home Secretary said a 25 per cent reduction.
Kumar: There were two reductions,one,over a year and half ago,which was a reduction in the military troops. Possibly two battalion size divisions have been moved out during this period. The other is the 25 per cent that the home secretary has announced. Our impression is that it does relate more to the transition–to handing it over to the police. Thats the focus–most likely,it will be the CRPF reduction.
Coomi Kapoor: What do you feel about the recent programme of the BJP to unfurl the tricolour at Lal Chowk?
Padgaonkar: We had our stand clear. We said that every Indian citizen has a right to unfurl the flag on any portion of Indian territory. But,the exercise of this right has to be seen in a given context and the question to ask is,will hoisting of the flag add to the tensions or dissipate tensions,will it make life more difficult for the people who were trying to advance the dialogue towards a political settlement,will it impede the process?
Coomi Kapoor: Did this make your life more difficult?
MM Ansari: Whenever or wherever we met the BJP leadership,we did suggest the tiranga yatra was not appropriate because it will come in the way of the peace process which we have initiated. There has been a reduction in the security forces,there has been removal of bunkers,but all of a sudden,many things have been brought back for security reasons. The decision of the BJP to unfurl the Indian flag there has created a serious security problem. It has obstructed our efforts. If things like these happen,itll create problems.
Coomi Kapoor: In these four months,would you say that a breakthrough has been made in terms of a political settlement?
Padgaonkar: Absolutely not,it’s too early for something that has been lingering for 63 years–it cant be settled in four months. What we do have,however,are the first impressions of the way people want us to move. The need for a settlement through a comprehensive dialogue with all the stakeholders on board–including the separatists–is something that has clearly emerged. The second concern is a review of the constitutional relationship between Srinagar and Delhi. There have been five different commissions on this matter. The recommendations by those committees werent accepted. More recently,a fifth working group set up by the PM has also come up with recommendations. Meanwhile,there have been some developments.
For example,the National Conference; the breakaway group of the National Conference,the ANC; the PDP and one separatist leader,Sajjad Lone–all four have produced documents and these documents have produced detailed propositions about what needs to be done. We are going through all those documents,looking at the areas of convergence,looking at the areas of differences to see whether those differences can be bridged. We have also appealed to the separatists that depending on their decision to talk to us,they can send us published material,then well be able to factor that in too. But,it’s going to take time,it will emerge out of a long detailed conversations because in the end,its a question of sharing power.
Kumar: I would say there have been some very important breakthroughs. One of the first for us was when one of the MLAs,who was formerly close to Sajjad Lones People’s Conference,organised a big meeting for us in in Handwara,which has been the seat of Abdul Ghani Lone. It was very dramatic–they took a public pledge that they would not resort to stone-pelting if peaceful public protests were allowed and human rights violations didnt take place. More importantly,they talked about reconciliation and the political dialogue. What I have felt happening in these four months is that the tide has turned a little bit away from pure anger and confrontation to a desire and belief that the dialogue to a solution is possible and that solution can be accepted by the people of India and J&K and the people of Pakistan.
Maneesh Chhibber: Could Omar Abdullah have handled the situation differently? Also,do you think the PDP means what it says in your talks with them?
Padgaonkar: We are not here to pass judgments on the chief ministers performance because that is not part of our mandate. The fact is that the NCP and the PDP are hardly on talking terms. But,this is equally true of the Geelani and Mirwaiz factions of the Hurriyat. I suppose the only way out is for us to consider what their stand is and to put together a document giving various alternatives. It will be a kind of cherry-picking on every side and we hope that by the end of this exercise,we would be in a position to say these are the broad contours around which you can start working.
Amitabh Sinha: How legitimate is the state government is in the eyes of the people? Does it have the authority to carry forward the kind of recommendations you are offering?
Kumar: You have an area here which has been in armed conflict and instability for about 23 years and governance is the first casualty of the conflict. To expect them to be able to perform well,the way in which a normal,peaceful,conditioned government does,would be asking too much. There is no running away from the fact that governance is a major issue and the rate of governance is also a major issue.
Vandita Mishra: When the Omar government came in,there was a huge opening,people were standing in queues to vote for bijli,sadak,paani issues. But the impression is that this opportunity has been largely and vastly squandered.
Kumar: Yes,I would say the opportunity of,say,two years was squandered. But dont forget that when this government came in,the Amarnath row started,which really polarised people. Months after that came the Shopian incident,which again polarised people. So,it became a bit difficult for anyone to focus on bijli,sadak,paani. They had to focus on human rights violations. Also,to think that in three years,you will be able to make up for all the losses you had suffered in the 20 years before that,in terms of governance,is overambitious.
Smita Aggarwal: After you hold a round of consultations and you sit together,are there strong disagreements or agreements?
Ansari: A difference of opinion is always welcome,but the differences should not lead to confrontation that comes in the way of performing our duties and responsibilities.
Padgaonkar: We come from different backgrounds and a different set of expertise. So when we sit down to discuss,there are a huge number of differences that are expressed. But when it comes to formalising the report to the government,there is absolute unanimity on what goes into it.
Raj Kamal Jha: Can each one of you mention a few things you have learned or that you now look at differently after four months on the assignment?
Kumar: I have learnt that there is an innumerable number of stakeholders and potential spoilers and I need to make a list of all people that we need to somehow try and talk to. But I also remember that almost in every case,both at the beginning of a peace process and when it appears to be reaching a conclusion,youll find the most extreme views being expressed. It is about how you move the momentum forward in such a way that those extreme positions do not control what is happening; they cant determine success or failure. The trick is,do you have the implementing mechanisms in place that would turn these extremists into eventual power sharers as it happened in Northern Ireland?
Ansari: When I came to know of this assignment,I felt that I am definitely going to fail in this examination. But as we started talking to people–and by now we have met thousands of persons in J&K–we felt the stakeholders in the state,the media,NGOs and people everywhere are interested in the resolution of the Kashmir issue. Therefore,I feel we are definitely going to succeed.
Padgaonkar: First I learnt that when you are looking for a settlement,to be fixated only on Kashmir would be incorrect. You have to take into account the concerns,the aspirations of all the constituent units. We also learnt a great deal about the goings on as far as the Centre-State relations and autonomy is concerned. And we learnt to explore a little bit of the ideological orientations of the various separatist groups. Some separatists have moved away from a hard Islamic line,and I can mention Yaseen Malik and Shabeer Shah in particular. Both have gone out of their way to reach out to the minorities.
Mehraj D Lone: What has been the response of mainstream politicians to this initiative? People in Kashmir feel that mainstream politicians have a vested interest in the status quo.
Padgaonkar: I dont think thats quite true. Read the autonomy report of the National Conference. Read a detailed document by the PDP. Both suggest changes in the status quo. We have had meetings with both of them and with other political parties in the state,including the Panthers Party,BJP,etc. A lot of people think that the status quo is not the solution but a problem. I think the various options regarding autonomy and internal self-governance are being discussed.
Sobhana K: You reiterated that youll look at the state as one entity. Even after 63 years of pumping thousands of crores into the state just to maintain it as a single entity,it doesnt look like they want to be a single entity. So arent we looking at the failure of the peace process?
Padgaonkar: No one we met wants a division of the state. That includes the ruling party,the Opposition parties and even the separatists. None of the stakeholders,not even Geelani,want to divide the state,so who are we to defy that? There is a huge surge of sentiment in favour of self-governance in terms of political,economic,cultural and social empowerment. We have got to work around that sentiment.
Rakesh Sinha: How much has unemployment or lack of opportunity contributed to the slide?
Ansari: It is very difficult to quantify that. But those involved in stone-pelting or militancy are largely the youth in the age group of 15-35,which comes to almost 50 per cent of the population,especially of Kashmir. They are also the ones who have seen the turmoil of 20 years. It is during this period that the education institutions have been in turmoil,economic activities have been poor. Thus,local opportunities have been bad and the youth do not have the mobility to take advantage of economic opportunities elsewhere.
Pranab Dhal Samanta: What kind of goals have you set amongst yourselves in the sense of discussions,etc. At the end of the day do we expect a unanimous report or not?
Padgaonkar: We do talk a great deal and have meetings,but what we have missed really is enough time to spend amongst ourselves because the number of delegations that want to meet us each time is extraordinary. When we went to Poonch and Rajouri,we stayed each time for about 8-9 hours and 132 delegations met us. As far as possible,the three of us are present for all the meetings but we have agreed if the pressure goes up,well go to different rooms,take notes and share them. But it has been extraordinary.
I think people want to meet us because they have so much pent up in them and particularly because no real efforts were made in the past to reach out to the people in the districts.
Transcribed by Geeta Gupta & Shreya Sareen
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