Interlocutor Tales

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At the peak of 2010 unrest, Dr Manmohan Singh government appointed three interlocutors led by Editor Dilip Padgaonkar, with academic Prof Radha Kumar and bureaucrat M M Ansari as members. They submitted a detailed report recommending various initiatives at different levels. There was not any follow up to the report, so far. In her recent book Paradise At War: A Political History Of Kashmir, one of the interlocutors’ Radha Kumar dedicated a chapter to their interactions with Kashmiri people

Radha Kumar

Our Shopian visit was intensely painful. The town was silent and brooding, with only a few people to be seen. The husband of one and father of both murdered girls accepted our condolences with a single message for us: troops should be withdrawn from Shopian.

They believed that two army men had raped and killed the girls; we heard from others that the murders were organized by an errant policeman and there was no medical evidence of rape. Whatever the truth, it was not an issue to debate with the bereaved, and Padgaonkar promised to raise their demand with the chief minister as well as with the Union Home Ministry.

As we left Shopian, we noticed that the junction roundabout had army encampments on three sides. Clearly, it was unnecessary to have three where one would have sufficed—their presence was obtrusive. Equally clearly, there were three only because the army was working on poor resources, erecting basic structures that required large tracts of land rather than modern and fortified structures that would economize on space. In our report for that month, we suggested that security experts examine the potential to reduce army encampments from three to one at Shopian. We later expanded this recommendation in our final report.

Visiting Jail

Our visit to the Srinagar jail was more substantive. After we had discussed the release of stone-throwers with the jail superintendent, it was suggested we talk to the Hizbul and other guerrillas who were in the prison to probe whether there was scope to renew the 2001 ceasefire. It was taken for granted that they still exerted influence, even from inside the jail. A meeting was fixed for the next day. Ushered into a large cell, we were surprised to find around seventy prisoners waiting for us. To our even greater surprise, most of them—even those who were imprisoned as Hizbul—told us that they belonged to the Lashkar-e-Taiba. The earlier, bitterly violent, rivalry between the two militias appeared to have ended, at least in prison. Or perhaps their announcement, made somewhat defiantly, was intended to provoke us. If true, the former was a warning development for the Indian and state governments, indicating that the line between foreign (aka Pakistani, with a sprinkling of Afghan) and local guerrillas had been erased.

When we began our discussion, it became clear that the guerrillas had already prepared for the meeting. Their spokesmen came quickly to the point. If they were able to convince their militias in the field to a ceasefire, would their releases be a quid pro quo, they asked. We were obviously not in a position to say yes or no, but we could certainly convey their proposal, Padgaonkar said, adding that they should firm it up and present us with a plan.

Leaving the cell after a two-hour-long discussion, we decided to keep the talks confidential, just in case, the guerrillas’ proposal did materialize.

But when we exited the prison gates, we found a group of local journalists waiting for us. They had already received a statement from the prisoners that they would be submitting a ‘peace plan’ to us. I had heard how porous the Srinagar jail was, but the ease and speed with which prisoners could communicate with the media—and presumably anyone else with a cell phone, including guerrillas in hiding and maybe even cross-border agents in Pakistan—was still astonishing. Perhaps it was a continuation of the counter-insurgency ‘listen in’ policy during the Hazratbal siege that Habibullah had described.

Reaction

There was an immediate uproar at the news of our jail discussion. Why were the interlocutors talking to terrorists, the BJP clamoured, and television channels echoed their accusations. In Jammu, there were demonstrations denouncing us. In fact, the Home Ministry and state government had cleared our meeting, and state intelligence officials accompanied us. And the terrorists were behind bars.

Within days of the BJP’s clamour, the Pakistan-backed United Jihad Council followed suit. ‘Having failed to garner support and endorsement from Kashmiris, New Delhi’s interlocutors have taken undue advantage of the helplessness of detained militants in an unsuccessful bid to prop up their falling credibility,’ the council’s spokesman, Sadaqat Hussain, said. ‘The detained militants are at the mercy of the usurping enemy and have been condemned to a struggle of life and death. The peace plan claim has been thrust on the heads of these helpless people under a planned conspiracy.’

File Photo of Aasiya and Neelofer.

In Srinagar, Geelani called for a boycott of us. The Jihad Council’s statement indicated that the prisoners’ ceasefire proposal was local in origin, not cross-border. It might have reflected exhaustion from the field, just as Majid Dar’s offer had ten years earlier.

Terrorist attacks in the state had continued to decline and the army’s counterinsurgency had grown far more successful at targeting terrorists and keeping civilians out of the crossfire. There was little overall support for guerrillas, whose sources of local shelter and sustenance had shrunk enormously from 2008 on. Total casualties had fallen to 375 in 2009 and remained at that figure in 2010, declining to 183 in 2011. Civilian casualties were below 50 but did not include those who died in stoning protests. When added, civilian deaths due to the conflict were 170 in 2010–11.

Despite these signs of diminishing violence, the clamour in Jammu and Delhi made it impossible for us to probe the prisoners’ offer further. In any case, as I argued and my colleagues reluctantly agreed, we were not the right people to do any further probing. The Indian and state governments had seasoned ceasefire negotiators; we had no experience. Besides, the guerrillas’ press release and resultant publicity made any follow-up by us impossible.

Though our Srinagar jail discussion proved stillborn, its impact in the valley was considerable. The home minister, people began to feel, may have been serious when he said there were no red lines on whom we could talk to. It helped too that we defended the decision to hold a discussion with guerrilla prisoners without either claiming it as a victory or disclaiming it as never having taken the shape it did. Slowly, the tide against us in the valley began to turn.

Visiting APDP

Our visit to the office of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), for example, ended up counterproductive. Just as our jail discussion aroused the ire of the Jihad Council, so did this visit. The impressive head of the parents’ group, Parveena Ahangar, showed us painstaking work tracing close to 130 disappearances that the state government had not followed up on. She mentioned there were over 8,000 complaints of disappearances that her group had not been able to verify in detail. This disclosure was treated as if she had cast doubt on the complaints, which she had not. There were articles in the local media decrying her meeting with us and she subsequently disclaimed our discussion.

A year later, while submitting their research to the state Human Rights Commission, the association’s spokesman Yasin-ul-Hassan Malik announced that ‘according to the documented findings, out of 132 disappearance cases, 21 have been perpetrated by the Army, 24 by different militant groups and one by the personnel of Jammu and Kashmir Police’. In 43 cases, he added, ‘perpetrators were unidentified gunmen’, and in the remaining 43 cases, victims ‘disappeared under unknown circumstances’. Reporting the association’s submission, The Hindu’s correspondent commented, ‘for the first time in the two-decades-long turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir, a valley based human rights group has admitted that militants were responsible for more enforced disappearances than security forces’.

Hurriyat Under Pressure

Despite our setback with the association, the Hurriyat began to come under pressure from local media who asked them as assiduously as they asked us, why we were not meeting. Partly under this pressure, the Hurriyat, JKLF and Tehreek leaders said they would engage with Indian civil society groups and parliamentarians, but not with government representatives or appointees.

Their efforts to engage with civil society met with attack. In October 2010, while we were on our first visit to the state, Geelani was manhandled while addressing a seminar in Delhi provocatively titled ‘Azaadi—the Only Way’. He was later charged with sedition, but the case was not prosecuted.

In November, Mirwaiz Umar was similarly manhandled at a seminar in Chandigarh.24 In February 2011, Yasin Malik was attacked by members of the BJP youth wing, Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, at Ajmer, where he had gone to worship at the Chishti shrine.

In view of Jammu and Delhi’s hostility, as well as lack of response from the Hurriyat and JKLF, we decided to focus on the second prong of our strategy, to hold consultations in each district of the state. We did not want to sit in a government office and receive Kashmiri delegations, we told the Home Ministry and the state government. Rather, we would hold district and public meetings with local leaders and civil society.

Our visits were arranged by the state government, but I was also able to draw on my civil society friends from previous Track II work to ensure that we met local leaders. We went to the higher altitude districts first, before the onset of winter made visiting difficult if not impossible. By end-November, we had visited Anantnag, Baramulla, Bandipora, Uri, Leh, Kargil and Jammu as well as Srinagar (the latter two cities several times).

Though each revealed differing priorities, common strands emerged. In Jammu province and Ladakh, the chief issues were economic development and political devolution within the state. In the valley, the chief issues were human rights, an end to violence, political status vis-à-vis India and economic development. With some give and take, these priorities could be incorporated into an overarching structure.

Our dilemma in the valley was how to balance immediate needs that would calm the situation with longer-term solutions. Everyone we met expressed a burning desire for us to recognize the suffering of people, and each of our meetings started with an explosion of anger by participants, as did the phone calls I received from Kashmiris across the valley, as many as forty a day, starting at 7 am and ending at midnight. I often felt that we were sponges to absorb hate—a necessary but gruelling task. At the same time, it became clear that most of the valley supported four priority CBMs: the release of young stone-throwers, easing restrictions on movement, addressing the aspirations of youth, and putting in place a responsive and effective public grievance redressal machinery. Most of our interlocutors stressed that implementation of these four CBMs would act as game changers.

While some of these points overlapped with our early priorities, others did not. The release of political prisoners (from the Hurriyat, Tehreek and other dissident groups), for example, was not high on the majority agenda.

It was not regarded as an immediate CBM, though most people we met in the valley agreed that the dissident groups would have to be on board any lasting settlement. Talks with the Hurriyat, therefore, would have to be a part of any dialogue framework. Engagement with youth, by contrast, was an essential element of both CBMs and a sustainable peace process.

Meeting Ex-Rebels

Our visits were coordinated by the state government and we met with Chief Minister Omar Abdullah every month and Governor Vohra when he was available (he toured the state frequently). The Omar administration was also deeply committed to reviving earlier peacebuilding strategies that had been poorly implemented or allowed to lapse, such as the rehabilitation of surrendered guerrillas under the policy of disarmament, disbanding and reintegration (DDR) of non-state militias. Classically, DDR is an arm of security reforms, whose other arm is a military de-escalation, troops’ reduction and, ultimately, demilitarization. Normally, DDR either precedes troops’ reduction and allied security reforms or goes hand in hand with it, but in Jammu and Kashmir, the two strategies have rarely been coordinated.

In December 2010, as a confidence-booster to keep former guerrillas from rejoining their militias, Omar announced what the media called a ‘new package for surrendered militants’. Under the package, if a former guerrilla was killed by another guerrilla—as several thousand had been—his kin would be entitled to an ex gratia payment by the government and also to government employment. Previously, such compensation was offered only to the families of civilians who had been killed by guerrillas. As I discovered some months later, former guerrillas who had surrendered under a government reintegration programme had begun to complain that they were being threatened by radical youth.

Surrender and rehabilitation policies were first introduced in the 1990s when Dulat was posted in the state. A number of guerrillas had made individual agreements under Dulat’s policy. Several of them, in fact, set up newspapers with government aid as part of their rehabilitation. These newspapers went on to form the core of the valley’s independent media.

Former guerrillas who had successfully reintegrated were, however, the minority. In spring 2011, a group of ex-guerrillas sought a closed-door and unrecorded meeting with us. None of the state government’s rehabilitation policies was being implemented, they complained, whether previous or current. Sayeed had said they ‘would be able to lead a normal life’, their spokesman pointed out. ‘Three regimes, since then, changed, but our plight has only added to further dimensions.’ When they applied for jobs, they ‘were asked to get No Objection Certificates from [the]police department’, he explained. But the police said such certificates could only be supplied after pending cases against them had been adjudicated. Yet, they had surrendered under the government’s pledge that charges against them would be quietly dropped.

They wanted to form a ‘union’ for former guerrillas, the spokesman added; this too the government refused to register.

The Dulat surrender and rehabilitation policy of the early 1990s was imaginative and did help to phase down the insurgency. But the fact that it was not part of an overall peace settlement meant its application tended to be ad hoc. The policy may have contained conflict but it did not become a building block towards the larger goal of resolving the conflict. More often than not, surrendering guerrillas were seen as being rewarded rather than rehabilitated, both in the state and the rest of India. When the new wave of protests started in 2008–09, they became obvious targets. Some had already returned to militancy, this time as hired guns who were willing ‘to settle personal scores’ for as little as `25,000 per kill.

The Big Break

Our big breakthrough came in late December, two days before Christmas. Independent MLA Mohammad Rashid, who had formerly been a member of Sajad Lone’s People’s Conference, organized a large public meeting with us at Langate in Kupwara, at which over 500 participants took a pledge to refrain from stone-throwing if ‘there was an assurance that the Indian government would move for a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir issue and protect human rights’. Asserting that they wanted to ‘live a dignified and honourable life’, speakers called for political space for non-violent protest.

Interlocutors on Kashmir Dilip Padgoakar (C), RAdha Kumar (R) nad M.M. Ansari Addressing a press conference.

‘The men with guns in their hands should also be included in dialogue’ for a lasting solution, Rashid urged.

News of the pledge made headlines across Jammu and Kashmir. ‘This is the biggest breakthrough since Vajpayee,’ a Facebook user wrote to me.

Even the BJP, which had revived its campaign to hoist the Indian flag in Lal Chowk, welcomed the pledge and flooded Rashid with congratulations on his initiative.

Though I urged that the prime minister or home minister respond to the pledge with a formal statement of welcome, repeating the government’s commitment to the protection of human rights, the response was lukewarm. I was puzzled, and remain so. Both had stated these commitments innumerable times. Was it that they did not want to be seen welcoming a pledge against what was in any case illegal? Or were they cautious about the maverick MLA Rashid, who had himself been pro-independence and may still be?

Slogans for independence resounded during the Kupwara meeting. Padgaonkar, who attended with me (Ansari had remained in Srinagar), was visibly uncomfortable. Though we both saw the significance of the meeting and indeed how subtly it redefined the azaadi or independence slogan, he was worried about the optics. He had been attacked for hearing students on azaadi at a closed-door meeting; how would the BJP react when we were televised listening to azaadi slogans? We were already so controversial that Chidambaram had been constrained to remark there should not be ‘a ball by ball commentary’ on our every doing.

In fact, BJP leaders such as Sushma Swaraj, who had been a member of the all-party delegation, welcomed the pledge; indeed when we went to consult with the three BJP leaders, Swaraj, Advani and Jaitley, they all congratulated us on the Rashid initiative and advised us to focus on human rights in our report. The BJP might have been the only party to see how important the meeting was, both symbolically and in its potential ground impact. Since neither the prime minister nor the home minister responded with a statement along the lines that the meeting’s participants sought, its impact fizzled out.

(These select passages were excerpted from the chapter Talking To The People of Paradise At War: A Political History of Kashmir published by Aleph Book Company with due permission).

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