The Bengal Post, October 20, 2010

by Praful Bidwai

The Kashmiri people have seen so many botched attempts at dialogue and mediation to resolve the thorny dispute of which they are the victims that the collapse of such (usually half-hearted) efforts doesn’t strike them as remarkable. Nor does the mindlessness of the “packages” of poorly formulated financial and development measures which every government at the Centre periodically throws at them.

But something new happened last month, when the collective Indian political class was compelled to take note of the largely peaceful protests in the Kashmir Valley triggered by the killing of Tufail Ahmed Mattoo (17) in June. So disproportionate was the security forces’ response to the stone-pelting demonstrators that more than 100 people died in the cascading protests.

Even the most deadened minds could see that a grave injustice was being committed against the Kashmiris, which has polarised the situation there to a point where hardliners like Syed Ali Shah Geelani appear moderate. The government—until recently displaying the hubris and cocksure firmness typical of Home Minister P Chidambaram—all but conceded it had run out of ideas.

This prepared the context for the visit of a 39-member all-parties delegation on September 20-21 to Jammu and Kashmir. The visit was brief and fragmented. But it was undeniably important—the first by a broad spectrum of Indian politicians with common humanitarian concerns. It made a uniquely positive impact on ordinary Kashmiris. Even separatists, barring the new Masharat-Andrabi variety extremist-Islamists, couldn’t ignore it.

After the visit, the government announced a “new political initiative” and an 8-point plan of action on September 25. Apart from employment generation and other components of a “package”, this promised that a panel of high-level interlocutors would be appointed to begin a dialogue with J&K’s parties and civil society with an open mind and in full acknowledgement of the gravity of the situation and the international dimensions of the issue.

A three-person panel has since been announced—comprising journalist Dileep Padgaonkar, conflict resolution academic Radha Kumar, and Information Commissioner MM Ansari. This has attracted widespread criticism, anger and outright ridicule within and outside the Valley, cutting across party and ideology. No major opinion current, including the Congress, supports the panel.

Two reasons explain this pervasively hostile reception. First, the panel excludes seasoned politicians who enjoy the confidence of India’s top leadership and have a real mandate to negotiate. In fact, the government hasn’t even remotely hinted at what kind of solution it has in mind, where the “red lines” lie, and at what point of time might the negotiation process be extended to Pakistan to discuss autonomy, “soft” borders, etc. By all accounts, the Indian leadership is clueless. Yet it has entrusted to the panel “the responsibility of undertaking a sustained dialogue with the people of J&K to understand their problems and chart a course for the future”.

So it’s futile to complain that many politicians were approached, including Somnath Chatterjee, Digvijay Singh, even poor Salman Khurshid, but they refused. No leader worth his/her salt will stake much on an initiative where the government gives it no real mandate, as opposed to open-ended exploration (kite-flying, as our media calls it).

Second, none of the nominees has been seriously engaged with Kashmir or is credited with a deep interest in or understanding of it. None carries political weight in general, or a positive profile in the Valley, in particular. I have known both Padgaonkar and Kumar for three decades as colleagues or friends. Neither conveys any gravitas or incisive grasp of Kashmir. Ansari is a non-descript entity, without even a nodding acquaintance with J&K.

Radha Kumar alone has written a Kashmir-related document—“Frameworks for a Kashmir Settlement” (2006), a pamphlet co-authored with Pakistan-bashing ex-diplomat G Parthasarathy. This has some interesting suggestions for building governance structures from the bottom-up. But they all presume that India and Pakistan have already agreed to “soft borders”. Kumar also carries ideological baggage from the former Yugoslavia and the Council on Foreign Relations (US). This, and her conservative pro-Western reputation, further weaken her acceptability.

So lightweight is the interlocutors’ panel that it has many observers wondering if it was created under external pressure, or only to create the impression just before President Obama’s visit to India that the government is sincerely grappling with the Kashmir issue.

Several candidates, with superior understanding, experience and acceptability, should have been considered in place of the unimpressive trio, including Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah, an IAS officer of the J&K cadre, besides eminent Kashmiris, including educationist Agha Ashraf Ali, economist Haseeb Drabu, and Islamic University of Science and Technology vice-chancellor Siddiq Wahid.

Logically, the panel’s nomination should have been preceded by the broadest possible consultation with experts and stakeholders to generate the contours of a feasible solution. Yet, the government, in its usual imperial style, consulted nobody—not even those involved for years in civil society interaction with Kashmiris, nor key individuals engaged in back-channel diplomacy with Pakistan.

It won’t be a surprise if key groups in the Valley boycott the panel and the whole process collapses. Kashmir has seen many failures. But this could be an especially grievous one—not least because the origins of the “new political initiative” lay in hope, and a different kind of hope. Such collapse, leading to cynicism, could make it considerably more difficult to launch another initiative for conciliation and resolution in the near future. The government will only have itself to blame for that setback.