Srinagar chai

Lost in interlocution

Raising expectations in Jammu & Kashmir?

Srinagar chai
Photo: Liao Chinghua/Flickr

On October 13, 2010, the Ministry of Home Affairs appointed journalist Dileep Padgaonkar, academic Radha Kumar and bureaucrat M M Ansari as interlocutors to Jammu and Kashmir to interact with different groups to find a lasting solution to the issue. Reactions to the appointments were anything but centered—Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of Hurriyat’s moderate or (M) faction, termed the selection a joke, while Syed Ali Shah Geelani, chairman of Hurriyat’s hardline or (G) faction called it the “Centre’s dirty trick”.

So far, the interlocutors have visited Jammu & Kashmir four times, meeting as many people, citizen’s bodies and organisations—political and apolitical—as have agreed to meet them. Each of these visits was conducted in the media’s glare. Unfortunately, the trio fell into the trap of making impromptu statements as and when the record button was turned on. Even as Mr Padgaonkar almost ended up advocating Pakistan’s claim in the Kashmir dispute by suggesting that Pakistan be included in the search for a solution, Ms Kumar suggested that the constitution be amended to accommodate a “discussion on the Azadi option for Jammu and Kashmir.” “Yeh interlocutors kaisi kaisi bat kar rahe hain? (What are these interlocutors talking about?),” retorted Lal Krishna Advani in reaction to their statements.

While the Kashmiri mainstream met the interlocutors and put forth their ideas for the resolution of the dispute, the separatists shunned the group—which led Chief Minister Omar Abdullah to accuse them of adopting double standards. “I am surprised that the separatists can talk to Parliamentarians, who have taken the oath of Indian constitution and treat Kashmir as an integral part of the country. What is the harm in talking to the interlocutors, who have no boundaries or red lines?” Mr Abdullah asked when addressing a public rally at Pahalgam, in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district.

In a subsequent press conference, Mr Geelani responded by raking up criticism about the rather publicised pay packet of the interlocutors (each of them receives Rs 150,000 plus perks as monthly remuneration): “We have been maintaining from day one that the interlocutors have no authority, they can only plead with New Delhi without being paid much attention to. Their appointment was to hoodwink the international community; these fellows are more interested in their one lakh-plus salary than addressing the issues of Kashmiris, because they have no authority to do so.”

Changing the discourse

The team submitted its interim report to the home minister in early-November 2010. Home Minister P Chidambaram said that the interlocutors had enabled a “change in the discourse” in the valley, marking a significant improvement after a summer punctuated by protests, deaths and curfews. “The three-month period of agitation was an unfortunate and deeply regrettable chapter. However, after the visit of the all-party parliamentary delegation and the appointment of interlocutors, there has been a significant improvement in the law and order situation,” he acknowledged at the monthly report card presentation press conference in January 2011. “In particular, the interlocutors have been able to change the discourse and have been able to persuade a number of stakeholders to offer suggestions for a political solution,” he added.

Even though the report has not been made public, the recommendations—as reported by the media—range from the hackneyed “better training for security forces to respect the rights and dignity of citizens” and “allowing peaceful protests and handling mass protests without loss of life by using non-lethal weapons” to the innovative, even utopian, proposition of “demarcating specific areas in Kashmir and Jammu where peaceful protests can be staged against the government.” The last recommendation can only be termed as one that is naïve, based on the assumption that such “peaceful protests” won’t turn violent.

Among the recommendations made by the report was the call for select central government jobs to be offered to the youth in the state. The report also asked that all militants and protesters (including stone pelters) against whom there were no serious charges be released from prison, and be given training to improve their employability. The idea of offering a second chance is laudable, but the question of whether there are militants and protestors who do not bear serious charges is questionable—and in some cases, even oxymoronic.

The report also asked for increased fiscal and other incentives for businesses that invest in Kashmir. While the concept of raising economic activity as a means to curb social unrest is well known, similar measures that have been implemented in the past failed to yield positive results. In some ways, they even worked against the state, fuelling and sustaining what is now a conflict economy.

Another reported recommendation is for the adequate representation in political institutions of Muslim Gujjars and Bakerwals, and according of special status for Pahari-speaking residents. Whether such a move will help resolve the problems on the ground is questionable. These communities have not resorted to violent means to demand for political concessions, and their demands have so far been well within the purview of the Indian constitution.

There were some credible suggestions as well. One of the propositions was for an increase in the monetary assistance provided to the widows and orphans of militants—in contrast to the current policy of punishing the family members of those seen as guilty of waging war against the state. This is a very notable idea, considering that the state has made several enemies in the state due to its policy of penalising the militants’ families. The panel also requested the central and state governments to announce special scholarships for Kashmiri students who want to pursue higher education. Such a policy could be highly beneficial as it addresses the long term problem of the isolation of young Kashmiris.

Do no harm

The three-member team is currently preparing for another visit to the state, amid reports that the home ministry is already acting on some of their recommendations. A plausible means to test the veracity of the interlocutors’ intervention in the conflict zone is to test it against the “Do no harm” principle of development. The principle states that if you do not have the capacity to make a positive intervention, make no intervention that will raise the expectation of positive developments, or worse, cause further damage.

New Delhi’s intervention in the appointment of the three interlocutors (as part of the Union government’s eight-point initiative to hold a sustained dialogue with various groups and communities in Jammu & Kashmir) will be a worthwhile one if it passes the “Do no harm” test.

Raheel Khursheed is an independent journalist working out of Kashmir.

One Reply to “Lost in interlocution”

Comments are closed.