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An opportunity lost

What Kashmir needs today is a political dialogue, not a panel of interlocutors with little authority, writes Praful Bidwai.

india Updated: May 21, 2011 16:47 IST

Indian policy-makers have long erred in underestimating popular alienation from India in Kashmir and in overestimating 'normalising' trends like the recent relatively free-and-fair elections. The result is policy incoherence and resort to repression combined with shopworn 'packages' that fail to address the problem. Now, our policy-makers are making the opposite mistake — of underestimating the significance and impact of the 39-member all-party delegation's visit to Kashmir last month.

This unprecedented event dramatically altered political perceptions in the Valley. Never before had either the Indian political class collectively acknowledged anything approaching the injustice heaped upon the Valley since June through the killing of over 100 protesters armed with no more than stones or so many leaders identified with the pain of ordinary Kashmiris. Especially significant was the gumption of CPI(M) MP Sitaram Yechury in reaching out to hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani, LJP leader Ram Vilas Paswan's visit to the homes of Yasin Malik and Tufail Ahmad Mattoo (whose killing set off a protest wave), and CPI leader Gurudas Dasgupta's meeting with Mirwaiz Umar Farooq.

These meetings needed much behind-the-scenes preparation and delicate negotiation. Their greatest outcome was a memorandum by the Mirwaiz and Malik, which called for a "clear commitment" to an "effective resolution of the Kashmir issue". It said: "Today, we ask not for unilateral political concessions but rather a joint commitment to a meaningful process that guarantees results.... Let the Government of India act on the suggestions given by the Kashmiris and facilitate to establish and empower an official body, a Kashmir committee, consisting of senior representatives of all major Indian political parties to… enter into a process of engagement with the representatives of the people of J&K. Let this process be transparent, designed to deliver a negotiated solution to the Kashmir issue… acceptable to all parties concerned."

Five days later, the Centre announced "a new political initiative" with an eight-point action plan, including the establishment of an interlocutors' panel. It has entrusted the panel with the responsibility of carrying out "a sustained dialogue with the people of J&K to understand their problems and chart a course for the future".

It also announced two Special Task Forces (STF) on development of the Jammu and Ladakh regions. These are headed by Planning Commission members Abhijit Sen and Narendra Jadhav respectively. Extraordinarily, their other members are Delhi-based academics and bureaucrats, barring J&K civil servants. Strangely, there is no STF on the Kashmir region.

The interlocutors' panel is a far cry from the concept of a committee comprising representatives of major parties, or even of eminent politicians assisted by non-political experts. None of the panel's members can remotely claim to be a J&K expert although two have had limited exposure to Kashmir. The panel was nominated without broad-based consultation with previous interlocutors, or Track-II participants with Kashmiri and Pakistani negotiators. Adding a political leader as the panel's chair as an afterthought won't change its character, nor improve its extremely low acceptability. It isn't good enough for the government to claim that it sounded at some political leaders, but they refused. No major politician will be associated with a panel unless it carries political weight and a negotiating mandate, with the full backing of India's top leadership.

There's the rub. The panel's mandate is far too vague. There exist any number of reports and analyses by civil society groups which have tried to "understand" J&K's problems and suggested solutions. The government could have usefully collated these and also drawn upon people such as Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah, an IAS officer of the J&K cadre, and Kashmiris such as educationist Agha Ashraf Ali, economist Haseeb Drabu and Islamic University of Science and Technology vice-chancellor Siddiq Wahid. The present panel is in no way equipped to fill the information, analysis or imagination gap. It has attracted criticism and even scorn and faces a boycott by Kashmir's most important players.

There's a larger problem here, of official amnesia and indifference. In 2005 and 2006, Manmohan Singh set up several high-level committees and working groups on J&K. These included a Task Force on Development headed by former RBI governor C Rangarajan, with members like Drabu, industrialists, former bureaucrats and power experts. Another group on "confidence-building measures across segments of society in the state" was headed by present vice-president Hamid Ansari. Others were tasked with "strengthening relations across the Line of Control", border management and good governance. These submitted their reports. But they have gathered dust, including a 61-page report by Rangarajan, which recommended the transfer of the Dulhasti hydel project to J&K, improving road and telecom connectivity, an IT city, employment generation, vacating properties occupied by security forces, and upgrading vocational institutions.

The callousness with which the government has treated these reports, and ignored the most significant offer yet of a dialogue with Kashmiri leaders, reeks of substitutionism — replacing a political initiative by a panel with little authority. Worse, it represents a missed opportunity, a rarity in Kashmir. The sooner the government grasps the opportunity through a parallel high-level political dialogue, the better—even if that means treating the interlocutors' reports as preliminary background material.

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal.