The interlocutors appointed by the Centre to restart a dialogue process in Kashmir have made two visits to the State, travelling widely to meet political and civil society representatives but scepticism dominates opinion in the Valley about the three-member panel's mandate, “non-political” character, what it can achieve, its intentions and the weight it carries with those who matter in New Delhi.
The interlocutors — well-known journalist Dileep Padgaonkar, Jamia Milia Islamia academic Radha Kumar, and Information Commissioner M.M Ansari — were appointed in October.
Home Minister P. Chidambaram said their mission was to begin a “sustained and uninterrupted dialogue” with “all shades of opinion” in the State towards a resolution of the Kashmir problem.
The panel has visited the State twice, taking in Jammu and Ladakh as well as Kashmir. The activities of the interlocutors are reported faithfully in the local press and they are the focus of political attention. It seems everyone has something to say about the panel, but mostly critical.
Influential sections of Kashmiri opinion have slated the mission of the panel, saying people are used to seeing interlocutors come and go without making any difference to the lot of Kashmir and its people.
They are asking why the latest panel should be taken seriously, especially as its terms of reference are not clear and it carries no visible political clout.
The Hurriyat Conference leadership's refusal to meet the interlocutors is being seen as an early setback to their mission.
Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the hawkish separatist leader, said there was nothing to discuss with the interlocutors, and asked New Delhi to first act on his five demands: India should accept Kashmir as a disputed territory; demilitarise Kashmir; release political prisoners; bring to book all armed forces personnel responsible for the recent killings of 112 people; and revoke the Armed Forces Special Provisions Act.
The moderate Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Omar Farooq also stayed away from the panel. So far, no politician of significance except Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has interacted with the panel. The interlocutors held conversations with civil society representatives and students and militants being held in jail. Representatives of the mainstream political parties also met them.
But even these parties view the decision by the Centre to entrust the peace process to non-politicians as an indication that it has not understood the gravity of the situation in Kashmir.
“[This panel] is a dilution of a more serious process that was in existence until recently. Nothing could have been more important than the Prime Minister himself holding round tables, appointing working groups that produced lengthy reports,” said Naeem Akhtar, People's Democratic Party spokesman, referring to the process that began in 2006 under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's direct supervision but was discontinued in 2007.
“It is a downgrading of that effort,” he said. Pointing out that the recommendations made to the government by eminent persons who headed the working groups such as Hamid Ansari, presently the Vice-President, were gathering dust, Mr. Akhtar predicted there was little hope that the present panel would fare better.
In the Valley, the October visit by an all-party parliamentary committee is rated as the high point of the Centre's engagement with Kashmiris. Everyone is still talking, almost with nostalgia, about the high expectations it created of a political dialogue with New Delhi.
“For the first time, Kashmiris felt [during the visit of the parliamentarians] that here is something in Indian democracy with which we can do business. They were seen in a more favourable light than any previous visitors. It would have been much better had that same group continued as the interlocutors,” said veteran journalist Sayeed Malik, who once served as information advisor to Sheikh Abdullah when he was Chief Minister.
That they are not politicians has given the interlocutors the advantage of saying things that no parliamentarian could have said. During their interactions, they have defied several holy cows — referred to Kashmir as a “dispute,” talked about the imperative of Pakistan's participation for a solution on Kashmir, and about the need to understand the slogan of “azadi”.
Even such conciliatory statements have not given them much traction, with some even questioning the very motives for setting up the panel.
“Kashmiris have made it clear in the last four months that they want ‘azadi'. Instead of listening to this and registering this,” said Hameeda Nayeem, a teacher of English at Kashmir University, “the Government of India is trying to disrupt the majority narrative on Kashmir by sending a panel to listen to ‘all shades of opinion'. They want to drown out the majority demand in a blizzard of viewpoints. This is devious subterfuge to preserve the status quo.”
Official sources in New Delhi, involved with the work of the panel, said the resistance to the interlocutors on the part of some Kashmiris, especially those aligned with the Hurriyat, was not unexpected or unusual, and that there were large sections of Kashmiris who had been receptive to them.
The panel is expected to visit again early next year.