The Indian government’s decision to release the interlocutors’ report without making any commitment to accept its recommendations and choosing, after a seven month long wait, a date that precludes an immediate parliamentary debate on its findings, has cast a further shadow on its chequered record. It has also driven home the importance of symbolism and processes involved in any such initiative relating to Kashmir, as indeed the substantive nature of its recommendations along with the possible outcomes. How does the report fare on these three parameters? The first was beset with troubles from the outset and has proved to be a story of missed opportunities. The second lacks focus but a careful analysis reveals some promising elements. The third is too early to predict as it would depend less on the interlocutors’ work done thus far and more on the Indian government’s next course of action.
The interlocutors had begun their work in October 2010 with two serious handicaps. First, the very news of their appointment had elicited severe criticism of the political leadership in Kashmir and deep scepticism among its populace. And not without reason because much before the summer crisis of 2010, the dialogue on Kashmir had already been elevated to the political level. In the early years of insurgency, the Central government had indeed relied upon civil society actors and senior (mostly retired) bureaucrats like K.C. Pant, Ram Jethmalani and N.N. Vohra to establish alternate channels of communication with the Hurriyat in view of the latter’s refusal to hold direct talks with the government within the parameters of the Indian Constitution. This hurdle had, however, been long removed by then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s political intervention who said talks with the separatists would take place within insaniyat ka daira. Later, the UPA regime carried forward the political dialogue and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had met Yasin Malik and the Mirwaiz Umar Farooq-led moderate faction of the Hurriyat Conference. The round-table dialogue chaired by the PM followed, which extended an open invitation to all stakeholders in J&K.
One positive about the report is that it breaks out of valley-centric thinking and addresses the aspirations of all communities. Two, while respecting article 370, it recommends the devolution of power to lower-level state bodies.
Surprisingly, most Kashmiris did not perceive the formal reversal from the prime ministerial level initiative in 2006 to the non-political dialogue steered by a group of civil society actors in 2010 as a huge ‘letdown’. This was more so because the successful visit of the all-party parliamentary delegation led by Union home minister P. Chidambaram in the aftermath of the summer crisis in 2010 had raised public expectations that the Central government may appoint some senior parliamentarians to continue the dialogue process. It was against this background that the government’s decision to appoint three interlocutors, including Dileep Padgaonkar, M.M. Ansari and Dr Radha Kumar was greeted with dismay. Though all of them were highly-qualified professionals excelling in their respective fields, the non-political nature of the group created the impression that New Delhi was not serious about the political dialogue with Kashmiris. The interlocutors began their consultations with another handicap as both factions of the Hurriyat Conference—the moderates led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and the hardliners led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani—refused to talk to them.
The report gives the impression of overcoming these challenges as it places on record the interlocutors’ meetings with over 700 delegations of community representatives, comprising 6,000 people. Such extensive fieldwork, however, fails to throw light on many key puzzles of contemporary Kashmir and, at times, raises more questions than it answers. For instance, interactions with more than a thousand panches and sarpanches surely should have led to more specific insights on precisely what accounts for the slow progress of devolution of powers to the newly-elected panchayati raj institutions than a bald assertion to that effect? This is extremely important as failure to empower the panchayats soon might nullify the impact of high voter participation in the democratic governance of the state and further alienate the masses. Likewise, if the political experiment of autonomous hill councils in the Leh and Kargil districts of Ladakh is working successfully and inspired the interlocutors to recommend the same for Jammu and Kashmir divisions, then they should have made a better attempt at explaining the reasons behind a non-functioning inter-regional council in Ladakh, specially because institutional mechanisms of this kind would be a critical requirement for the successful execution of their own recommendations. The report also fights shy of outlining specific measures that might facilitate and expedite replacement of the army units by the state police, thereby paving the way for removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act—a long-pending and important demand of the Kashmiris.
Moreover, had the interlocutors worked closely with the Central and state governments along with the army and paramilitary forces—all of whom clearly extended them full cooperation—to ensure that justice was actually meted out to the families of those hundred and more children who had died in the summer of 2010, this single accomplishment would have won the confidence of the locals. Viewed from this standpoint, the report comes across as a story of missed opportunities.
In terms of substantive recommendations, the report lacks focus because it seeks to address everything, ranging from constitutional amendments to protocols of media reporting and promotion of cultural interactions among the youth of three regions within J&K. This detracts the value of the much more serious and far-reaching recommendations of political significance. Here, it’s important to take note of two significant points of departure in the interlocutors’ report. Unlike most of their predecessors whose main preoccupation was to somehow bring the separatists to the negotiating table, the interlocutors succeeded in breaking out of this Valley-centric mode of thinking and explore political formulations that address differing political aspirations of all its communities. It’s their understanding of the structural dimensions of the conflict that holds the potential of being a game-changer. This has two aspects. First, it’s important to rid Article 370 of its historical baggage and view it afresh from a futuristic perspective, whereby retaining any specific provisions of this act is not as important as respecting its spirit by creating a multi-layered and nuanced system of democratic governance that matches the deeply plural character of its society. Secondly, and more importantly, it recognises that while it’s critical to renewing, as distinct from restoring, the political sanctity of Kashmir’s special status in the Indian Union in respecting and strengthening its political autonomy from the Centre, this won’t work unless it’s simultaneously accompanied by further devolution of power from the state to the regional, sub-regional and panchayat-level institutions in the state. Such a recognition of the diverse and often divergent political demands of its ethnic, religious and linguistic communities would go a long way in recasting the political architecture of the state.
Ironically, that’s perhaps why the interlocutors’ report has attracted such stringent criticism from across the political spectrum, ranging from the BJP, both factions of the Hurriyat along with the Hizbul Mujahideen as well as political groups, including the Panun Kashmir and the Jammu State Morcha. Among the mainstream political parties, PDP has maintained a cautious silence on salient issues and chief minister Omar Abdullah has reserved his verdict. That is because most mlas, irrespective of political affiliation, would loathe sharing their powers with the proposed regional councils. This is already evident from the long delays in devolving power to the year-old panchayati raj institutions. This might also lead to a significant realignment of political forces by forcing the separatists on the one hand to compete with mainstream political parties like the National Conference and PDP within the valley, and on the other hand, force all political parties to forge coalitions as none would be able to single-handedly command a majority in the state legislative assembly. These propositions, however, make for a bitter pill as they’re likely to upset all kinds of status quos. That’s precisely why the outcome of the interlocutors’ report depends more on the government’s political will to bite the bullet and earnestly pursue the long overdue challenge of recasting the political architecture of the J&K state.
(A professor in the department of political science at the University of Delhi, Navnita Chadha Behera is the author of Demystifying Kashmir, published by Brookings Press.)