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Breaking Ice On Kashmir‏ – OpEd

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SRINAGAR (Kashmir): India-appointed interlocutors on Kashmir, it seems, were sailing in several boats at once and wished to uphold preconceived notions than addressing the crucial questions which outwardly had prompted New Delhi to assign them the task.

That why does the scenic Himalayan region often burst into flames, where even a normal crime or a civic issue brings people out on the streets to chant pro-freedom slogans and sporadically try hands at their own version of Intifada, how to overcome mistrust existing between its Muslim majority population and the successive governments which has taken its toll over the years and ease sub- regional and ethnic tensions as well?

However, the inconsistency with which the mediators from day one articulated themselves publicly on issues concerning Jammu and Kashmir as the official name of the Indian controlled part of the disputed region goes is also reflected in their 179-page report submitted to the country’s Home (Interior) Minister P. Chidambaram in October last year and made public earlier this week. After dissecting and analysing all the important aspects of the report one finds it only self-contradictory and confusing. At end of the day, the interlocutors have served neither God nor Mammon. The government is apathetic and in all probability may shelve the report. It was disinclined even to make it public.

On the other hand, it has already been rejected by key players of Kashmir politics including separatists and some ethnic groups for dissimilar reasons though. India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has announced to launch a nationwide ‘Save Kashmir’ campaign in the belief the panel recommendations are detrimental to the security and integrity of the country. The state’s ruling coalition partners-National Conference (NC) and Congress too are dragging their feet. Chief local opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) insists its own ‘self-rule’ formula is sacrosanct and doable although it sees some positive features of self-rule in the report.

Moreover, the interlocutors would before penning down the report openly voice divergent views on identical issues and during their assignment even choose to wash their dirty linen in public, a story that strained their credibility. Whatever was left has been only squandered as the report has, so far, failed to find any takers. Local watchers believe ‘Kashmir is the graveyard of many reputations’. The interlocutors-Dileep Padgaonkar, Radha Kumar and M. M. Ansari- seem to be the latest prey.

Fallacy or fact

In a democratic society, the majority rule and respect for the rights of minorities are of overriding importance. Any attempt to dilute it and, ostensibly, seek to divide people into fragments logically makes the initiators suspicious in the eyes of those already feeling disillusioned and alienated and who perceive themselves as being victims of an inequitable system and a make-believe or real devious game played to impair their distinctive identity. Then any other propositions and considered opinion, how so vital, real and positive they might be, find no takers in the people they are meant for either. That precisely is how the report is being seen back in the Valley.

More importantly, in a democratic setup only the decisions taken with consensus can address the issues of vital national importance. In this case, such harmony is missing. BJP has begun to sell the notion that the report, if accepted by the Indian federal government, would “weaken” the country’s position on the sensitive border state in dispute with Pakistan and scene of a 23-year-old insurgency by Muslim separatists which New Delhi has largely contained using its military might.

The party has objected mainly to the report recommending deletion of the word ‘temporary’ from the heading of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and replacing with word ‘special’ and its saying a broad consensus exists in the state on the point that the state’s distinctive status guaranteed by this article must be upheld.

BJP has been asking for abrogation of Article 370 as a prelude to the only Muslim majority state’s complete merger with Indian Union as it sees it only solution towards neutralizing overwhelming pro-independence sentiment. Some analysts, however, say the party is dragging on the issue with an eye on the forthcoming elections in Gujarat state. That precisely makes it all the more important for ruling United Progressive Alliance particularly the Congress to discard the report, at least for now.

The question thus raised is; has the document its authors claim could address the issues Jammu and Kashmir is faced with lost its sheen before the Indian government mulls over it- and if, at all, it wishes to do. Some local watchers subscribe to the view, essentially that of separatists, that it has been a futile exercise and a waste of time and resources. Average Kashmiri too does not see much in the report that could allure him either, leave alone if, at all, it has any potential of resolving the mess he or the state as such has been caught in. Opinion-makers have in newspaper columns termed the salient component of the report as “not any impressive” and, in fact, something not heard before. Hard-line pro-freedom leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani summarizes it by saying “Old wine in new bottle.”

The Confusion

Is that really the case and has the panel tasked with ascertaining the views of the people on resolving the Kashmir tangle at a time when the scenic region was witnessing massive protests during the 2010 summer, through its report, thrown up total confusion or made the one that already existed more confounded? It has also been openly accused of acting as an extension of New Delhi’s ‘divide and rule’ policy on Kashmir and its report termed as government trick to buy time. To find the answers, it would need to scrutinize the salient content of the report.

The report ridicules the universal majority-rule principle by circuitously seeking to term it as “majoritarian conceits” and “regional chauvinism”. The panel, ignoring the essence of the civilian unrest that the Valley witnessed for three consecutive summers beginning 2008 and decades of separatist campaign, rejects the idea that Kashmir should be autonomous. Instead, the report — which is not legally binding — reaffirmed Kashmir’s “dual character” within India.

Paradoxically, the report defines “freedom” demanded by the Kashmiri Muslims as “freedom” from a staggering range of afflictions: freedom from religious extremism and “opaque and unaccountable administration;” from “economic structures” to “social structures and policies”; freedom “from harsh laws, or laws harshly applied” to “intimidation and violence that compel people to flee their habitat.”

It would be naïve to expect the separatists endure the diktat. Therefore, the principal component of the predicament has been ignored rather provoked.  Shakeel Ahmed Bakshi, the face of young dissenters who openly supported stone-pelting pastime of the local youth during the 2008-10 civil unrest openly calling it Kashmiri Intifada, protests “It seeks to “dilute the freedom sentiment.”

The Interlocutors seem to have supported many freedoms but the cause of the “freedom” and talk about “deep sense of victimhood” instead being the source of tribulations which has irked even the moderate separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. “Such moves (appointing Interlocutors) are nothing but a waste of time,” he said to ridicule the report.

Panun Kashmir, an outfit of displaced Kashmiri Brahmin Hindus, has rejected the report saying it was a crude joke with their geo political aspirations. This report is liable to be out rightly rejected being “totally apathetic” and “unconcerned” about the plight of Kashmiri Pandits and has failure to address the issue of the reversal of the causes of the “hounding out” of almost entire minority community from the Valley.

On relation between New Delhi and the state, the report calls for review of all Central (federal) Acts and Articles of the Constitution of India extended to the state after 1952 Delhi agreement between country’s first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru and Kashmiri legendary leader Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah. But quickly contradicts itself saying “This does not mean a pure and simple return to the pre-1953 situation. The clock cannot be set back.” Restoration of pre-1953 constitutional position has been the principal demand of ruling NC. The report says that granting more autonomy, as the territory had before 1953, “would create a dangerous constitutional vacuum in the Center-state relationship. The clock cannot be set back.”

Not only has the panel attempted to wind New Delhi’s best bet in Kashmir up but the question it can be asked is; then why did it talk upon the 1952 Delhi agreement at first place and recommend that a Constitutional Committee (CC) be set up to review all central acts and Articles of the Constitution of India extended to the state after the signing of agreement.

Though Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has sought time to examine the report, saying “will discuss it with senior colleagues and then react”, his party colleague and Member of Indian Parliament Dr. Mehboob Beg takes a dig. “On one hand, they call for revisiting the Central laws and, on the other, say clock can’t be turned back.” He said, “This is a clear contradiction and the Interlocutors need to explain it.” Beg is also of the opinion that recommendation of forming a committee for revisiting federal laws seems to be “time-buying exercise.”

The report apart from disfavouring any change in the state’s present status within Indian union rejects the idea of dividing the state on the basis of region or ethnicity. But then proposes creation of three separate Regional Councils for Jammu, Kashmir Valley and Ladakh regions with equal constitutional status – legislative, executive and financial powers. This is set to revive the touchy ‘trifurcation’ debate in the state and it is where the Mirwaiz sees a deliberate attempt to “split the society into regions, religions, and ethnicities.”

Contrary to political sentiment, the report suggested that there should be no change in Article 356 which gives New Delhi authority to impose federal rule if there have been failure of the constitutional machinery in any state of India but in same breath says if the state government is dismissed, elections should be held within three months. Interestingly it also suggests that for internal emergency, prior consultations with the state government is required. “It should be headed by an eminent personality who enjoys the esteem of the people of Jammu and Kashmir and of the people of the India as a whole…It should include as its members Constitutional experts who enjoy confidence of all major stake holders. The CC’s conclusions, to be reached within six months, will be binding on “all of them”.

Simply turning a blind eye to local concerns and sensitivities, the panel seeks to authorize Indian Parliament to make laws applicable to the state that relate to country’s “vital economic interests”, especially in the areas of energy and access to water resources. That comes at a stage when the demand by locals that there should be end to the exploitation of the state’s vast water resources is getting momentum. In deference to the sentiment, the Jammu and Kashmir Cabinet recently accepted a report formulated by a cabinet sub-committee seeking return of major power projects from the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC). The NHPC is being openly accused of exploiting the huge water resources of the state to its benefit and critics quote statistics that show 27 percent of the corporation’s earnings are from Jammu and Kashmir.

Positive expressions

The report, however, contains certain recommendations that merit consideration by even those who have rejected it for other reasons. It talks about a broad consensus existed on a political settlement in the state through a dialogue between all stake-holders including those who are not part of the mainstream. It also recommends that for promotion of the state’s economic self-reliance, a fresh financial agreement between the Centre and the state is required. Under the political component, the report deals with Centre-State relations and internal devolution of powers and suggests a road map listing confidence-building measures that includes review of contentious Disturbed Areas Act and re-appraisal of application of controversial AFSPA. The report also says that no more central laws and Articles of the Constitution should be extended to the state by Presidential order.

The report also listed several recommendations to harmonise relations between people on both the sides of Line of Control including a hassle-free movement of people and goods across the de facto border that divides Kashmir between Indian and Pakistani controlled parts a consultative mechanism where elected representatives from both sides can deliberate on issues of common interests like water, economy, tourism and trade. “This would be especially effective if democratic institutions of self-governance are established in areas of princely state under the de-facto control of Pakistan,” it says adding “The core idea here is to make the LoC irrelevant, a mere line on a map.”

However, separatists and some analysts say the idea of making LoC irrelevant is a “conspiracy” to divide Jammu and Kashmir on permanent lines and has the blessings of the United States. The thought is likely to whip up a more assertive demand on both sides
of the LoC for granting the promised plebiscite. The Mirwaiz knowing surely the Interlocutors have failed to address the “real issues” and that another attempt has been made to divide Jammu and Kashmir on religious and ethnic lines suggests India and Pakistan should take people of the state as the prime party in any dialogue process aiming to solve the Kashmir issue. “Otherwise it would be a futile exercise and the tensions would continue to haunt the South Asian region.”

Muhammad Yasin Malik, chairman of the pro-independence Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) who like the Mirwaiz, Geelani and other senior separatist leaders had refused to meet the interlocutors, termed the report as an “intellectual exercise in bankruptcy without any historical background.”

Indian Express summed up saying the interlocutors have while seeking a ‘new compact for Jammu and Kashmir’ drawn a roadmap to resolve the Kashmir dispute without acknowledging that it has been the demand for a solution outside the ambit of the Constitution that has fuelled the insurgency since 1990 and have seen the Kashmir problem largely through the prism of Centre-state relations.

Hence, they have chosen to put focus on past but the time and situation gave a call for future. Professor of International Relations, Amitabh Mattoo, reacting on the report said, “Initial disappointment confirmed.”

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Yusuf Jameel

Yusuf Jameel, is journalist of South Asia. Formerly a correspondent for the BBC, he is currently the Special Correspondent with Indian global newspaper The Asian Age and its sister publication Deccan Chronicle, based in restive Kashmir besides regularly contributing to the New York Times, Time magazine and the Voice of America. He is recipient of several journalism awards, including the 1996 International Press Freedom award of the CPJ and may be reached at [email protected]

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