Why the Kashmir Interlocutors’ Report must be made public.
|February 12, 2012||Posted by Shehla Rashid under Kashmir, Politics, Shehla Rashid in Print|
This was published as an Op-ed piece in the Financial World on 9 February, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.
IN OCTOBER 2010, following three consecutive summers of protest and immediately following the massive 2010 civilian unrest, Government of India (GOI) appointed a three-member team of Interlocutors for “undertaking a sustained dialogue with the people of Jammu & Kashmir to understand their problems and chart a course for the future”. The Interlocutors, thus chosen, were politically unaffiliated, distinguished public figures: Prof. Radha Kumar, leading academician, author and expert on peace and conflict, Dr. Dileep Padgaonkar, veteran journalist and editor and Prof. MM Ansari, former Information Commissioner. The purpose of the exercise as stated by the Ministry of Home Affairs was “that after inter-acting (sic) with all shades of political opinion they will suggest a way forward that truly reflects the aspirations of the people of Jammu & Kashmir, specially the youth.” Whether or not the Interlocutors were given enough powers to discuss, record and comment on the “political aspirations” of people, even aspirations such as sovereignty, is not clear from this statement. However, it was welcomed by almost all sections of the society especially the youth except the so-called “separatist” factions who dismissed the effort as “mere eyewash” at the very outset.
Over three months have passed since the Interlocutors submitted their report but there has been no sign which would indicate willingness of the Union Home Ministry to make the contents of the report public, and thereafter, implement the same. This has given way to a lot of speculation as to what the contents of the report are, whether it will encourage secessionist tendencies, whether it has been censored or watered down and so on. Two interesting developments took place in the meantime.
First, the Home Ministry rejected an RTI application filed seeking its contents on grounds of potential “prejudicial affect (sic) on the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic interest” of the country. The application was returned by a bureaucrat in the Home Ministry quoting “instructions” from an unnamed senior. Experts opine that the grounds on which the RTI application was rejected and the manner in which it was dealt with are both flimsy.
The second development, however, seems to contradict the apprehensions expressed above: of any report having a prejudicial effect on the sovereignty and integrity of India or of jeopardizing the security and strategic interests of the nation viz. the commissioning of a study by the Union Home Ministry to understand the mindset of the Kashmiri youth. That the Home Ministry commissioned such a study is itself significant, but the findings are even more so- “54% of Kashmiri youth identify Azadi as the preferred final status of Jammu & Kashmir” with Azadi having different connotations for different people. These findings, however, indicate avenues for opportunity rather than disappointment for the GOI in that only 8% out of these youth see Azadi as territorial independence and 11% as secession from India. Even though Kupwara and Pulwama districts have been excluded from the study, including them won’t alter the statistics significantly, which means that there’s no significant threat- real or perceived- to national security and sovereignty as claimed by the Home Ministry Official in response to the aforementioned RTI application.
Some of the crucial recommendations in the report, as could be gathered from the remarks of the Interlocutors in the media, are internal autonomy for Kashmir (NC’s autonomy formula), restoration of pre-1953 status (PDP’s self-rule formula) soft-borders, increased trade and inter-Kashmir travel (moderate demands of separatists). It talks about unemployment and alienation among youth, failure to implement central schemes as a reason for alienation, general sense of victimhood among all three regions of the state and political, social and cultural aspirations of the people. Why then, if there’s no mention of Azadi or secession from India, is the government so wary of publishing the report?
Does the government’s cause of worry lie in those recommendations that emphasize the need to “reduce Army’s visibility, address human rights violations urgently, review the AFSPA, put an end to harassment and intimidation by police and security forces, indiscriminate use of PSA”? Although the Army top brass argue that repealing or diluting the AFSPA will “lower the morale” of its soldiers, leading national daily, The Hindu, has recently revealed that AFSPA has more often than not been invoked in cases of misconduct by the Army– this is the principal cause of opposition to the contentious law and the entire political spectrum within Kashmir seems united over the issue. The Chief Minister of the state has been proactively advocating its removal from the relatively peaceful districts of Budgam and Srinagar. Besides the raging public debate on AFSPA, there’s mounting international pressure on India to revoke it.
The final decision on publishing the Interlocutors’ report rests with the Cabinet Committee on Security, of which the Home and Defence Ministers are important members. While the Home Minister, Mr. Chidambaram has gone on record saying AFSPA review is in consideration, the Defence Minister AK Antony has been vocally opposed to any review on the said contentious law. In all likelihood, this failure to build consensus on AFSPA within the government, and an already beleaguered UPA government lacking the political will to take a call on its revocation or review, stands in the way of the Interlocutors’ report being published.
No report compiled within one year can be the final word on Kashmir. In its own words, the government must strive for “sustained dialogue”. That is possible only when the Interlocutors’ interaction with Kashmiris is recognised as one small step towards the restoration of trust. Instead of pushing the report under the carpet, the government should make a sincere attempt to understand the underlying grievances and try to address the same by taking the recommendations of the Interlocutors seriously and making honest attempts to implement the same.
The appointment of Interlocutors for Kashmir was part of an 8-point package following the 2010 mass unrest. The package is seen largely as a damage-control exercise because seldom have the promises made in the wake of such uprisings been honoured. The response to civilian unrest in Kashmir follows a familiar pattern: suppressing protestors with brutal force, announcing compensations and then inviting people for talks. These measures are often too little, too late. The recommendations that emerge out of such talks are ignored and the basic issues remain unaddressed causing anger to build up again. The next slightest provocation- be it an unpopular policy decision, a human rights violation or shortage of electricity- stirs up another protest: the underlying cause may change but the slogan remains same- Hum Kya Chahte, Azadi (We want freedom)!
The reason these slogans never change is that the GOI has been unable to take advantage of the favourable political atmosphere. Armed militancy has receded and has lost much of its popular support. The protestors are young, educated people who do not condone violence. As found by the study mentioned earlier, 56% of the youth who seek Azadi say that Azadi has more to do with rights and civilian liberties than with secession!
The recommendations of the report should be thrown open to debate and the good sense of Kashmiris trusted. That will certainly give them a sense of both empowerment and responsibility. It is, after all, not fair to expect Kashmiris to trust the GOI even after a long history of political betrayals and not express confidence in them even once. While some factions will continue to boycott and issue rhetorical statements against the peace process, the youth are certainly looking for a dignified, peaceful resolution. It is, therefore, important that the report be published before it becomes the next major cause of grievance and distrust itself.