The Kashmir Interlocutors’ Panel

Doomed before it starts?
28 October 2010

There's widespread disappointment over India's choice of negotiators for the recent dialogue over Kashmir, which looks more like an effort to pretend - in advance of Obama's visit to the country - that the government is "doing something" about the situation.

When the Cabinet Committee on Security adopted “a new political initiative” on Jammu and Kashmir on September 25, lofty expectations were raised that high-level interlocutors would be appointed to begin a dialogue with the state’s political parties and civil society groups. This was considered the only novel, and certainly the most important, feature of the 8-point plan of action, which otherwise recycles the shop-worn “package” approach to Kashmir. It was also regarded as the logical follow-up to the September 20-21 all-parties delegation visit to J&K, itself remarkable.

However, the announcement of three names of the panel—journalist Dileep Padgaonkar, conflict resolution academic Radha Kumar, and Information Commissioner MM Ansari—has produced widespread disappointment and attracted ridicule. To many, it represents not a real change of stance, but a desperate anxiety to pretend—just before President Barack Obama’s visit to India—that the government is sincerely grappling with the Kashmir issue.

A broad spectrum of opinion in the Valley, from extremist separatists to mainstream moderates, has declared the panel a non-starter. Indian parties, from the Left to the Right too, have attacked the absence of seasoned politicians in it. Their unanimous opinion is that the Centre is not serious about finding a solution to the Kashmir issue.

There is no support for the panel from political, civil society or intellectual opinion, not even the ruling Congress party. Many Congress leaders root for a panel led by and composed primarily of politicians. According to reports, the government first approached Congress leaders Digvijay Singh (a heavyweight who mentors Mr Rahul Gandhi), Prithviraj Chavan (close to the Prime Minister) and Salman Khurshid (by virtue of being a Muslim?) to join/head the panel. They refused. So the present panel is Team B. It lacks a chair, who is to be given full Cabinet rank.

Given the pervasively negative and hostile reception to the panel, it will be extremely difficult to persuade a senior politician to head it. Even if s/he were so persuaded, his/her authority would already be dented by the absence of a chance to determine who the other members should be.

How did the hope of September dissipate into the disappointment of October? A prime reason is that none of the nominees carries much political weight in general, or a positive profile in the Valley, in particular. I say this although I have known both Mr Padgaonkar and Ms Kumar for three decades as colleagues or friends. Both have had some exposure to the Valley—especially Ms Kumar, who coordinated a recent visit of the European Union delegation there and also held conflict-resolution seminars. But neither conveys gravitas or an incisive grasp of Kashmir’s complexity. As for Mr Ansari, he’s a non-descript non-entity, without even a nodding acquaintance with J&K.

Ms Kumar is the sole panellist to have written on J&K. In 2006, she co-authored, with ultra-hawkish Pakistan-bashing former diplomat G Parthasarathy, a booklet entitled “Frameworks for a Kashmir Settlement”, published by the Delhi Policy Group, of which she is a trustee. This has interesting suggestions for building governance structures from the bottom-up. But they are all based on the obviously unrealised presumption that India and Pakistan have already agreed to “soft borders” in Kashmir.

Ms Kumar carries ideological baggage from her involvement in the former Yugoslavia and the US Council on Foreign Relations. The baggage, and her conservative pro-Western reputation, further weaken her acceptability. She’s regarded a political lightweight who couldn’t be bothered with soiling her hands to get to know the nitty-gritty of Kashmiri society and politics. Nor is Mr Padgaonkar distinguished for his grasp of the Kashmir conflict, or imaginative out-of-the-box solutions.

Surely, there were far superior candidates for the panel, with much greater understanding, experience, acceptability and reach. Several come to mind, including Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah, an Indian Administrative Service officer of the J&K cadre. He is so highly regarded in the Valley that when he had a near-fatal accident some years ago, thousands prayed for him.

It’s also difficult to pass over eminent individuals from J&K itself, including educationist Agha Ashraf Ali, economist and former J&K Bank chairman Haseeb Drabu, and vice-chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology Siddiq Wahid (originally from Ladakh).

Among the politicians from the all-parties team who visited Kashmir, two made a favourable impression: the Communist Party (Marxist)’s Sitaram Yechury and Mr Ram Bilas Paswan. While Mr Yechury grasped the nettle by knocking on hardline leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s door, Mr Paswan visited the grieving family of Tufail Ahmad Mattoo, the 17-year-old, whose killing in June sparked a wave of protests. As for the Valley’s politicians, it would have been eminently wise to associate people like Mr Yasin Malik and CPM MLA Yusuf Tarigami with the panel.

But let’s not put the cart before the horse, as the Centre did, by focussing on individual interlocutors, and not on the content of their mandate. No democratic government which is serious about resolving a thorny dispute can evade the broadest consultation with different constituencies through which to generate the contours of a feasible solution. Only such an outline can clarify the interlocutors’ task and enable them to prepare the ground for conciliation.

Yet, the government, acting in the imperial style it’s accustomed to do, consulted nobody—not even those involved for years in the Track-II and civil society dialogue with Kashmiris, nor the key individuals engaged in back-channel diplomacy with Pakistan, which by all accounts had almost yielded fruit by 2007. Instead, it thoughtlessly nominated three panellists and entrusted them remarkably vaguely with “the responsibility of undertaking a sustained dialogue with the people of Jammu and Kashmir to understand their problems and chart a course for the future”.

However, it’s hard to believe that the panel as constituted is better equipped to “understand” the “problems” through a few desultory visits to J&K and suggest a way forward than the dozens of civil society initiatives and human rights-centred dialogue groups that have recently emerged. The government has treated most of these with suspicion, disdain or outright hostility.

Nothing suggests that the interlocutors will be able to instil confidence among Kashmir’s widely divergent actors to produce worthy, consensual and practical solutions. In all probability, key groups in the Valley will boycott the panel. Kashmir is indeed the burial ground of countless attempts at mediation. In constituting the interlocutors’ panel the way it did, the government is making two blunders. First, it forgets that the few past instances of successful reconciliation in Kashmir, like the defusing of the Hazratbal crisis of 1963 (caused by the alleged theft of a relic of the Holy Prophet) or the Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Abdullah accord of 1975, became possible only when the mediators/interlocutors were seen as enjoying the full confidence of the top authorities in New Delhi and had the latitude to negotiate a deal.

The present team patently lacks this and is already being laughed out of court. Indeed, its credibility may have been irreparably dented before it even begins its work.

Second, there’s no indication that the Centre intends to treat the Kashmir issue qualitatively differently from other current or past separatisms/insurgencies like those involving the Nagas, Mizos, Meiteis, Bodos and other Northeastern ethnic groups, to whom it has been talking. So far only the Mizo problem has been “solved”—mainly through financial inducements and lucrative offers of office. But this manipulative strategy hasn’t worked with the other ethnic groups.

Dragging out talks with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isaac-Muivah), while playing off various ethnic factions against one another, hasn’t produced a lasting truce, leave alone a settlement for a contiguous state of the Nagas which they call Nagalim, which goes beyond officially constituted Nagaland.

The Kashmiris won’t be fobbed off with such manipulative negotiations or with flimsy half-solutions. The Kashmir problem is sui generis, unlike any other, not only because of its international dimensions, but because of a long history of alienation of the Valley’s population from the Indian state, which has violated Article 370 of its own Constitution. Military repression of the azaadi movement further aggravated matters after 1989. Pakistan cynically fished in the troubled waters.

Although the 2006 state Assembly elections and the 2009 Parliamentary elections restored a degree of normality, the Centre failed to use it promote conciliation. The outbreak of the stone-pelters’ protest in June was another ominous warning against New Delhi’s complacency—and an injunction to correct course. But the Indian state failed to do that. It substituted the all-party delegation visit for strategy. It’s now doing the same thing via the interlocutors’ team.

The team seems doomed. It would be futile to rescue it through patchwork solutions. That will spread yet more despair, cynicism and anger in the Valley, obstructing a real solution. In all honesty, and with humility, the Centre should go back to Square One: wide consultation, formulation of a broad framework for a solution, exploration of areas of agreement, and a clear mandate for a newly constituted interlocutors’ team which carries authority and political credibility.