(The Daily Star, 25 October 2010)

Point Counterpoint

by Praful Bidwai

When the Cabinet Committee on Security announced "a new political initiative" on Jammu and Kashmir on September 25, it was expected that high-level interlocutors would soon begin a dialogue with the state's parties and civil society.

The appointment of the interlocutors' panel was considered the only novel, and most important, feature of the official 8-point plan of action. It was also the logical follow-up to the all-parties delegation's September 20-21 visit to J&K, itself remarkable.

However, the announcement of three panellists journalist Dileep Padgaonkar, conflict resolution academic Radha Kumar, and Information Commissioner M.M. Ansari has attracted widespread criticism, anger and ridicule.

To many, it represents a desperate anxiety to pretend just before President Obama's visit to India that the government is sincerely grappling with the Kashmir issue.

The Valley's moderates as well as extremists have dismissed the panel as a non-starter. Indian parties, from the Left to the Right, are disappointed that it excludes politicians, who should lead it. Their unanimous opinion is that the Centre is not serious about finding a Kashmir solution.

There is no support for the panel from political, civil society or intellectual opinion, not even the ruling Congress. Apparently, the government first approached Congress leaders Digvijay Singh (a heavyweight who mentors Rahul Gandhi), Prithviraj Chavan (close to the prime minister) and Salman Khurshid (by virtue of being a Muslim?) to join/head the panel.

They refused. Hence the present "Team B" panel, without a proper chair with cabinet rank.

Given this hostile reception, no senior politician is likely to agree to head the panel. His/her authority would already be dented by the absence of a chance to choose the other members.

How did the hope of September dissipate into the disappointment of October? All three nominees are political lightweights. None conveys gravitas or incisive grasp of Kashmir.

Ms. Kumar ventured in 2006 into making suggestions for governance structures from the bottom-up. But they wrongly presume India and Pakistan have already agreed to "soft borders." Her conservative pro-Western reputation further weakens her acceptability.

Mr. Padgaonkar isn't distinguished for his grasp of Kashmir or out-of-the-box solutions. Mr. Ansari is a non-entity, unacquainted with J&K.

Several candidates, with superior understanding, experience and acceptability, come to mind, including Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah, an Indian Administrative Service officer of the J&K cadre. He's so highly regarded in the Valley that when he had a near-fatal accident some years ago, thousands prayed for him.

There are also eminent Kashmiris, including educationist Agha Ashraf Ali, economist Haseeb Drabu and vice-chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology Siddiq Wahid.

Among the all-parties team politicians who visited Kashmir, two made a particularly favourable impression: the Communist Party (Marxist)'s Sitaram Yechury and Ram Bilas Paswan. Mr. Yechury grasped the nettle by knocking on hardline leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani's door. Mr. Paswan visited the grieving family of Tufail Ahmad Mattoo, the 17-year-old, whose killing in June sparked a wave of protests.

As for the Valley's politicians, it would have been eminently wise to associate people like Yasin Malik and CPM MLA Yusuf Tarigami with the panel.

But it's more important to focus on the panel's mandate than on individuals. A democratic government should have initiated the broadest possible consultation on the mandate to generate the contours of a feasible solution. This alone can adequately clarify the interlocutors' task and enable them to prepare for conciliation.

Yet, the government, in its usual imperial style, consulted nobody -- not even those involved for years in the civil society dialogue with Kashmiris, nor key individuals engaged in back-channel diplomacy with Pakistan, which by all accounts had almost yielded fruit by 2007.

Instead, it thoughtlessly nominated the three panellists and entrusted them with "the responsibility of undertaking a sustained dialogue with the people of J&K to understand their problems and chart a course for the future."

Nothing suggests that the panel will "understand" the "problems" through a few desultory visits to Kashmir and that it's better placed to suggest a way forward than dozens of recent civil society initiatives. It's not easy to instil confidence among Kashmir's widely divergent actors and produce worthy, consensual and practical solutions.

In all probability, key groups in the Valley will boycott the panel. Kashmir is indeed the burial ground of countless attempts at mediation.

In constituting the interlocutors' panel the way it did, the government is making two blunders. First, the present team patently lacks New Delhi's confidence and a mandate to negotiate a deal -- unlike the few past instances of successful reconciliation in Kashmir, like the defusing of the Hazratbal crisis of 1963 (caused by the alleged theft of a relic of the Holy Prophet) or the Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Abdullah accord of 1975.

Second, there's no indication that the Centre intends to treat the Kashmir issue qualitatively differently from other current or past separatist insurgencies like those involving the Nagas, Mizos, Bodos and other Northeastern groups, to whom it has been talking.

The Kashmir problem is unlike any other because of its international dimensions and a long history of alienation of the Valley's population from the Indian state, which has violated Article 370 of its own Constitution. Military repression of the azaadi movement further aggravated matters after 1989. Pakistan cynically fished in the troubled waters.

Although the 2006 Assembly elections and the 2009 Parliamentary elections restored a degree of normality in J&K, the Centre failed to use it to promote conciliation.

The outbreak of the stone-pelters' protest in June was another ominous warning against New Delhi's complacency and an injunction to correct course. But the state substituted the all-parties delegation visit and now, the interlocutors' team -- for strategy.

The interlocutors could spread yet more despair, cynicism and anger in the Valley, obstructing a real solution. The Centre should go back to basics: wide consultation, formulation of a broad-framework solution, exploration of areas of agreement, and find interlocutors who carry authority and political credibility.

Praful Bidwai is an eminent Indian columnist.