The wide range of opinions on the interlocutors’ report indicates that serious dialogue is possible and must be encouraged
Over the past month, there has been a series of responses to the Report of the Group of Interlocutors for Jammu and Kashmir. When we wrote the report, it was evident to us it would please none in whole, but might please many in part. On the plus side, The Hindu, the Times of India and the Hindustan Times ran editorials calling for action on the report. It has been welcomed, in varying degrees, by the People’s Democratic Party, the State Congress, the Samajwadi Party and the Janata Dal (United), most of the minorities in the State, be they religious, linguistic or cultural, sections of civil society, migrants and refugees, women and groups such as the cross-LoC traders or Chambers of Industry.
Constructive criticism, distinguishing between contentious and acceptable elements of our report, has been voiced in editorials and opinion articles in the two major Valley papers, Greater Kashmir and Rising Kashmir, and the chief Jammu paper, the Excelsior.
On the negative side, there have been denunciations from the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Panthers party, Panun Kashmir, and some others. To the first round of critical comments — “nothing new”, Article 370 cannot be the baseline, regional devolution is divisive, and there should be no discussion of Pakistani-held parts of the State — new criticisms have been added, focussing on the proposal for a Constitutional Committee; the talks roadmap; and our discussion of human rights.
The bulk of criticisms indicates a profound misreading of our mission, which was to dialogue with the widest possible section of the people of Jammu and Kashmir and report on what could be done. Given the extremely volatile conditions at the time, we exceeded our mandate to suggest immediate actions, and went so far as to take up grievances case by case. This part of our mission comprised day-to-day confidence building and should be set apart from the report that we submitted in October 2011, though some of it is summarised in Chapter I.
The report itself puts together the various recommendations that came out of our interlocution, across the State and with every community, group and party except the Hurriyat, the JKLF and allied groups in the Valley, who chose not to meet us and whose views are therefore not summarised in the report. To my knowledge, such an exercise has not been conducted earlier, and it opened a vital channel of direct communication between New Delhi and the people of the State.
It was not the purpose of the mission or of the report to add something “new” to the sum of knowledge on the issue. Indeed, it is both fallacious and harmful to demand newness from a group whose mandate is to revive and/or accelerate a peace process. Rather, the task for the report was to seek a framework in which the diverse aspirations of people could be accommodated, identify commonalities between the various party and community positions, and suggest action plans for the Government of India drawn from a review of prior or ongoing peace initiatives and lacunae.
We found broad agreement on CBMs, reviewed their implementation, and suggested how they could be pushed at a faster pace. Political proposals were more contentious. There were commonalities in the stated positions of the two major regional parties as well as parties such as the SP, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the JD (U), but also divergences. Some of the divergences, we felt, could be reconciled. We also found that sectoral demands — of the minorities, gender, traders, refugees and migrants, to cite but a few — could be accommodated by all, in principle. The issue was to get them into practice.
Leaving aside divergences, winning a political consensus on commonalities could not possibly be achieved in a year, especially such a volatile year, and to accuse us of failing to bring all the stakeholders on board is silly. Those that have engaged in such an endeavour for years will agree that the obstacles to consensus are formidable and to overcome them would require a coordinated effort between government, political actors and civil society.
Concerning Article 370, autonomy, regional councils and panchayati raj institutions, our report saw them as interlocking measures. Only a tiered system of devolution, we believed, would fulfil the diverse aspirations for self-rule in the State and make the restoration of autonomy in its original spirit acceptable. Given the wider debate on Centre-State relations that India is presently engulfed in, we felt the time was propitious for this discussion. Recognising aspirations for integration into the global economy and world of ideas, we added new elements to the historic issues.
The Constitutional Committee was proposed in this context. Contrary to postponing decision-making, a Constitutional Committee should speed it. Any settlement has to be accepted by the principal stakeholders if it is to work and if it is not given constitutional validity, then it will not have been committed to. We suggested a six-month time limit in order to stress deadlines in a process that has stretched tragically long.
The most serious criticism of the Constitutional Committee is that it will make it more difficult for the “azadi” groups to enter talks. While this point is well taken, the position that talks must be “outside the ambit of the Indian Constitution” makes sense only if viewed as a statement on process.
The ideal process is indeed one in which no red lines are set at the outset of talks, and the stakeholders are allowed a period of ambiguity during which they can narrow their differences. But how long can constructive ambiguity be maintained without becoming counter-productive? Nearly 20 years have passed since Prime Minister Narasimha Rao promised “the sky is the limit”, and the failure to move beyond ambiguity since then has left bitterness and cynicism in the State. Sometimes, momentum towards resolution can be injected only through measures that appear to set red lines but actually force the pace of talks.
Nor should the establishment of such a committee narrow or limit the options for the “azadi” groups. The dialogue track remains open to them, unconditionally, as it did before. In the roadmap section of our report, we stressed the importance of engaging them at whatever level they wish, on an agenda to be mutually determined. What we suggested, in fact, is two parallel resolution tracks: one engaging the elected representatives and the other engaging the “azadi” groups. As they progress, the two tracks may converge, or one may overtake the other.
Similarly, we discussed Pakistani-held Jammu and Kashmir and the India-Pakistan talks because that is the best way to get a settlement for the whole of the former princely state, and in prior rounds they contributed to a peace process. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee himself initiated talks with Pakistan on Jammu and Kashmir on the grounds that war is unthinkable (except under severe provocation of terrorism).
Some criticisms are plain misrepresentation. We have been accused of ignoring the Pandits and PoK refugees, but we actually made detailed recommendations on both. According to a creative act of cut and paste, we put the figure of disappeared persons at 200. In fact, we mentioned that the Association of Parents of the Disappeared had documented 200 cases out of thousands of complaints, and the government could begin with these. In our discussion of unmarked graves we did not dispute figures; we recommended a judicial commission.
We have been criticised for being weak on justice and reconciliation. On the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, we said the army had three options: repeal, amend or gradually lift as suggested by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, and urged a speedy choice. We also recommended amending the Public Safety Act (the State Assembly has amended PSA, while the AFSPA amendment is concretising). Moreover, we supported transparent court martials for Pathribal and Macchil (now agreed by the army), and reforms in troops deployment and operating procedures. Finally, far from “trivialising” the truth and reconciliation concept, we actually echoed Bishop Tutu on it.
This is not to say that there are not many faults in our report. For example, Gandhiji would have asked us, “where is atonement?” That is why the government has done the right thing in releasing the report and calling for an informed debate on it. All those who talked to us — and those who did not — now have the chance to add to or amend what we said before the government takes a policy decision rather than after.
Many of the opinion pieces on Jammu and Kashmir have taken this point on board. Of three harshly critical pieces, one said our recommendations should be implemented to demonstrate credibility, another said condemn the report but introspect about your own lapses, and a third said the call for informed debate should be responded to. Several others did not comment on our report but took off from the debate it generated, including a very thoughtful piece on the role of the media. These voices indicate that a truly serious dialogue can indeed be encouraged.
(Radha Kumar was a member of the Group of Interlocutors for Jammu and Kashmir and is Director of the Delhi Policy Group)