Dismayed

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The much hyped talk of appointing interlocutors for Kashmir have started as a damp squib, with most people dismayed by New Delhi’s choice. Iftikhar Gilani reports.

Hours before the Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram formally announced the composition of the team of interlocutors, a senior government official called me and inquired if I was driving or standing. When I told him I was sitting in my office, he asked me to hold the chair firmly, as the news he would break may wobble me to ground. He narrated names of three-member official panel for Kashmir- eminent journalist Dileep Padgaonkar, academic Radha Kumar and Information Commissioner M M Ansari. The panel, which looks like a list of speakers at a Track-II seminar was bound to be received with disapproval. Kashmir watchers around the world at this moment were expecting a heavy-weight political personality matching Lord Peterson or American senator George Mitchell (both mediators in Northern Ireland conflict) to step in to find an amicable political settlement to Kashmir problem.

After facing flak for appointing three light weight non-politicos, Home Ministry officials later maintained that the choice of a politician, to head the panel was still wide open. Eminent journalist Dileep Padgaonkar will only chair the meetings, and in no way is head of the panel, they said.

With the sole exception of National Conference, both the mainstream as well as separatists in Kashmir have criticised the profile of the panel. “The central government seems to be groping in the dark to find the right response to the current uprising in Kashmir Valley, which has consumed more than 100 young lives,” said CPI-M state secretary M. Y. Tarigami. Another politician, chairman of People’s Conference Sajad Gani Lone described the composition of the team, “spiteful” and “insulting”. “The appointment has once again trivialized and belittled the institution of dialogue and further eroded its credibility,” he said.

The knives are out in the Congress party as well. “This smacks of arrogance and a total disconnect of Home Minister P. Chidambaram from the ground situation in Kashmir,” a senior Congress leader told KL. Accusing Home Minister of taking total bureaucratic rather than political decisions from tackling Maoists to Kashmir, Congress leaders feel the failure of the panel’s mission, was also an opportunity to show Chidambaram his position.

APD meeting Geelani in 2010.

In Srinagar, politicians believe that half-hearted Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) moving with snail’s pace have scuttled the “feel-good” factor generated by the visit of all-party delegation last month. It appears that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has gone into a shell, leaving Kashmir to a clueless Home Minister. Further, Congress President Sonia Gandhi too, seems bereft of ideas.

Defending the panel, a senior Home Ministry official told KL that they had approached Congress leaders Digvijay Singh, Prithviraj Chuhan and Salman Khursheed. But they declined, even though the position was coming with allurements, a Cabinet rank, perhaps ministerial bungalows at Srinagar, Jammu as well as in the national capital, white ambassador fitted with beacon lights and sirens. Political class felt that interacting with Kashmiri leaders and general public on behalf of India would be a “tough job”. With no solution in sight and Indian public opinion still far away to accept Kashmir a dispute, there was  no fascination for a even a  Nobel peace prize, a guarantee for settling Kashmir, South Asia’s festering sore.

While announcing an eight point package, Chidambaram had said that a team of interlocutors headed by a politician would carry forward the dialogue. Since then Home Ministry leaked one after another names, apparently to test waters. Last take from the Ministry was they were now looking outside the political arena. “We are still trying for someone from the political ranks as politicians have the communication skill to establish rapport, but we have drawn a blank so far,” a top Ministry official conceded while indicating that the government may have to fall back on a retired Supreme Court judge or a former vice-chancellor for the job.

It is believed that government had approached the former Chief Justices of India A S Anand and J S Verma as both have been also the chairmen of the National Human Rights Commission and as such have ears to the human right nuances. Justice Anand, who has also penned a book on “Constitutional Developments in J&K,” had also refused to take up the job. Justice Verma was not available to comment.

Among the former vice-chancellors the government had also tried luck with former Jamia Vice-Chancellor Murshirul Hasan who is currently the Director General, Archives, and former Jammu University Vice-Chancellor Amitabh Mattoo, who is now a Jawaharlal Nehru University professor. Though only Mattoo was approached, the name of Jamia Vice-Chancellor Najib Jung, who hails from Hyderabad had also figured amongst the probables.

Even affirming that Central Government is of the view that there should be no ad hoc-ism in political engagement, as the Prime Minister has stressed that the dialogue should be sustained to involve all walks of life in Jammu and Kashmir, senior Home Ministry official vowed to seriously consider and act on the recommendations of the interlocutors’ panel. “Since the government recognises the need for sustained engagement in the state, several factors need to be considered. Engagement has to be for two, five, 10 years,” he said.

It is believed while Dilip Padgaonkar, was chosen for  his understanding the complexities of Kashmir issue, Prof Radha Kumar was nominated  for her rapport with separatists especially Syed Ali Shah Geelani. She met her recently in Jail and almost lobbied for his release and giving him a political space.

Talking to Kashmir Life from Paris, she said the group will take note of all reactions and devise a plan of action for a regular and sustained dialogue. “My suggestion would be that the group visits Kashmir every month,” she said adding the group would attempt to reach out all stake holders to their satisfaction.

Appointment of the interlocutors and task forces for Jammu and Ladakh was announced by Home Minister on September 25 as part of an 8-point central peace formula that included release of all those arrested or detained under the Public Safety Act (PSA) during the unrest since June. Many are, however, still languishing in jails as the Omar Abdullah government did not implement the Centre’s decision. Many families have also refused to take the ex-gratia relief announced by the Centre for those killed in the unrest.

Chidambaram described the three interlocutors as “very credible people” and said one more interlocutor may be added later. He said the interlocutors will get cracking at the earliest. They are supposed to hold talks not only with separatists but with all shades of opinion including mainstream political parties.

The interlocutors will initiate the process of dialogue with political parties, groups, youth and student organisations, civil society organisations and other stakeholders, including the separatists, Chidambaram told reporters.

Ms Kumar, who heads the Nelson Mandela Institute of Peace in Jamia Milia Islamia, is a known face in Kashmir as she has been engaged in the back-channel dialogue with both the moderate and hard line group of the Hurriyat Conference. Only recently, she was in Srinagar to meet hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani undergoing treatment in the medical college. Geelani is currently under house arrest.

An official notification on Wednesday appointing two task forces said their immediate objective is to defuse the situation through confidence building measures (CBMs). They are to identify the special development needs of the respective regions of Jammu and Ladakh with particular reference to deficiencies in infrastructure. The task forces are to make recommendations within three months on how to overcome these deficiencies.

Former senior state government official and now member of Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) Amit Kushari maintains that Prime Minister needs to send out an extraordinary proposal to separatists to engage them in a dialogue. “The leaders may come forward for meaningful talks if they get categorical assurances on political autonomy,” he said. Kushari, who retired recently as financial commissioner  ridiculed announcement of development and employment packages, saying the average Kashmiri was much better off financially than his counterparts in rest of India with just  3% of the people living  below the poverty line compared to 37% in rest of country.

The Show Goes On
Since 1989 when militancy erupted that eventually led to the resignation of Dr Farooq Abdullah led coalition government, New Delhi has somehow managed to be in touch with the Kashmiri separatists. Initially the militant leaders were in sharp focus. And later the political leadership was approached. There were innumerable channels of communication between the two sides – mostly informal, involving a host of journalists, retired officials and intelligence sleuths. Even jails played hosts to many informal meetings. At least twice before the nomination of the new trio, New Delhi has appointed interlocutors twice – K C Pant and Narinder Nath Vohra.

It was many years later that the track-II was formally ‘inducted’ and a number of groups started meeting the separatist leaders. Invariably all of them were mandated by the government, by the home ministry to be specific. At the end of many such informal sessions, the formal channels took over. There were a series of formal interactions between the two sides and most prominent of the engagements included:

Former Militants
For the first time, it was in 1995 when former top militant commanders – Imran Rahi (Deputy Chief of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen), Babar Bader (Chief of Muslim Janbaz Force), Bilal Lodhi (Chief of al-Baraq) and Gulam Mohi-ud-Din Lone (Deputy Chief of Muslim Mujahideen) and Abid, former commander of Hizbullah – had a detailed interaction with a MHA team in Srinagar. They wanted a series of measures and postponement of assembly elections. MHA rejected almost every demand that led to an impasse. However, this exercise made most of them to join the mainstream. Bader became a member of state’s upper house during NC rule. Rahi contested many polls unsuccessfully and is living a protected life in Kupwara. Abid was killed by the relatives of his lover in Srinagar. Lodhi changed many parties and finally landed in ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party. He died of cardiac arrest in 2008 in an army camp. Lone is the brother of Mushtaq Ahmad Lone, a minister during NC rule who was killed by militants.

Active Militants
It was on July 24, 2000 that Abdul Majid Dar, the Chief of Operations of Hizb-ul-Mujahidin announced a unilateral ceasefire for three months and expressed their willingness for an unconditional dialogue with Delhi for the peaceful resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Security forces responded with “minimized as well as limited” operations. In the first round of talks the Hizb leadership submitted a 12-point set of suggestions to be implemented as CBMs. Amid violations of the tacit agreement and pressure from PaK based militant leadership, the ceasefire was called off within a fortnight. Of the Hizb leaders who talked to the home secretary Kamal Panday, some returned to the parent group and were killed by security forces. The rest including Abdul Majid Dar were mowed down by militants. At least two of them are still surviving on either side of the LoC.

Pant-Shah Talks
The appointment of Deputy Chairman K C Pant as the Chief Negotiator for Kashmir came as part of the unilateral ceasefire that Prime Minister Vajpayee announced in November 2000. Given the terms of reference of the initiative and Pant’s engagement in Srinagar during his long sojourn, separatists refused to interact with him. However, Shabir Ahmad Shah – one of the most popular separatists at one point of time, who had been expelled from the Hurriyat for “indiscipline”, had a series of talks with Pant. When nothing came out, he simply gave it up and called it a day.

Moderate Separatists
Hurriyat Conference that opposed both the earlier initiatives started a series of talks with the Ram Jethmalani headed Kashmir Committee in 2004. Brushing aside the voices that were raised against the “useless talks” from within, the situation led to their formal invitation by the then Deputy Prime Minister. Led by Molvi Abbas Ansari, a Hurriyat delegation comprising Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, Abdul Gani Bhat, Bilal Gani Lone and Fazl Haq Qureshi met L K Advani on January 22, 2004. Next day they had a sitting with the then Prime Minister A B Vajpayee on their request. Second round took place on Mar 27, 2004 and then the Lok Sabha elections triggered a change of guard. The third round – first during UPA regime – could materialize only on September 5, 2005. Their fourth and the last round took place on May 3, 2006 with the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. There was no formal negotiation between the two sides since then.

Sajad Gani Lone
Peoples Conference leader Sajad Lone had an hour long meeting with Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh on January 14, 2006. It was after this meeting that Lone penned his ‘achievable nationhood’ as a prescription to Kashmir that he made public a year after.

Yasin Malik
JKLF leader M Yasin Malik met Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh on February 17, 2006. Not many details are available about the meeting. A report that a second meeting also took place was denied by both sides.

All Party Delegation
At the peak of ongoing crisis, members of all party delegation comprising parliamentarians from different political parties had detailed interactions with Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, Yasin Malik at their respective residences. The meetings were televised live on September 20, 2010. The mission was purely exploratory.

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