Interlocked disengagement in the troubled waters

Dileep Padgaongkar

The most important trip you may take in life is meeting people halfway. Perhaps this piece of wisdom, or perhaps the lack of it motivated the Government of India to send a three member interlocutor team led by senior journalist Dileep Padgaonkar along with Information Commissioner M M Ansari and noted academician Radha Kumar to the state of J&K to engage with political actors and civil society at large and find a solution to the ever-contentious crises in the Valley.

M.M Ansari

The term interlocutor connotes people who narrow or bridge differences between two parties and if possible, bring them to the negotiating table. Appointment of 3 interlocutors sounds a travesty when compared to earlier arrangements including Prime Ministers Working Groups for Confidence Building Measures (CBM), Track-2 diplomacy and 60 years of main stream politics. But the very fact that the team constitutes of  apolitical figures, makes them occupy a different space altogether; and for some, mean silver lining in otherwise dense black cloud- like CM Omar Abdullah who termed their first visit a success.

Radha Kumar

The interlocutors managed to reach out to various sections, from top politicians to students and other ordinary citizens, despite a call by the separatists for their boycott.  The interlocutors expressed their wish to visit Pakistan-administered Kashmir to take all the stake-holders on board, make LoC irrelevant and facilitate the movement of people from both sides. They would recommend: amendments in the Public Safety Act, release of political prisoners, lifting of curfew and allowing peaceful protests in the Valley. The panel of interlocutors said that they would be meeting senior Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) leader L K Advani to get clarifications on why the BJP government at the Centre in 2000 had rejected the autonomy declaration passed by the J&K Assembly. The interlocutors also went on to define Azadi as a very flexible term having different meaning for different people. “It is a very flexible term. Our task is to explore the nuances in the coming days,” said Dr Radha Kumar.

Their first round of engagement which sought to gather every shade of opinion, had its share of cold-cynic reactions. “I am not expecting anything from you. You are the representatives of a nation that has raped and killed not only my sister and wife, but many other women in Valley. Such cases will continue till Indian occupying forces remain in Kashmir and unless Kashmir achieves freedom,” Shakeel Ahmad Ahanger kin of Asiya Jan and her sister-in-law Neelofar (whose bodies were recovered on May 30, 2009, after being allegedly raped and murdered in Shopian) told the interlocutors.

The three interlocutors also visited the office of the chairperson of Association of Parents for Disappeared Person, Parveena Ahanger in the capital city. Parveena asked the trio to ask New Delhi to trace the ten thousand Kashmiri youth disappeared since 1990 in security forces action. “Ask India to furnish the details of our children. If they’re dead show us their graves,” she said.

Mainstream parties as well as a section of the Hurriyat leadership had pressed for mediators but they had made a case for politicians to come. With the moderate Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz ruling out any contact with them and Syed Ali Shah Geelani (Chairman, All Party Hurriyat Conference (G)), rejecting their appointment as far short of his absolutist expectation, the interlocutors faced a serious credibility crunch. The only major political meeting held by the interlocutors was with the Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and senior PDP leader and the former deputy chief minister Muzaffar Hussain Baig followed by a meeting with some top militant commanders and the stone throwers at the central jail.

The maiden visit of interlocutors in Jammu finished up with the boycott of important segments representing Jammu region. These groups alleged that the panel had come with “biased and prejudiced mind” and were concerned more for the separatists in the valley rather than people of entire state. Major opposition parties like BJP, Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party and Jammu State Morcha boycotted the interlocutors, a move that was reciprocated by the Kashmir Pandits organisations also. The Gujjars under the banner of All J&K Gujjars United Front also boycotted the meeting, terming it as a “formality” and “mere eyewash.”

Padgaonkar’s recognition of Kashmir as a dispute and the acknowledgement of Pakistan as a party to the solution though had BJP on the warpath; it also spells out the readiness on part of the interlocutors to speak a language spoken by the Kashmiris for years. However an admission of a similar nature by New Delhi would carry greater weight. For example, the recognition of Kashmir as a dispute by the Union Home Minister P Chidambaram could initiate dialogue with Geelani, possibly the biggest achievement in Kashmir under the circumstances. Radha Kumar then suggested that the Constitution be amended to accommodate the aspirations of the people of the Valley for azaadi — which again created a storm amongst the BJP and made Congress circles uncomfortable. But the alternative language spoken by these interlocutors definitely sets the stage for a laboratory experiment of a rarer kind.

All things considered, establishing committees, conducting meetings, appointing interlocutors, doing security assessments – nothing is ultimately going to solve the crises. There has to be a will shown by New Delhi to move beyond token politics into a clear negotiated framework for resolving the contentious situation in the Valley. Statements issued by Padgaonkar (being a non-political figure) can be thought at best to be an outsourcing job, lacking teeth. It is only the Center’s implementation of their recommendations that will set the tone for the future success of this exercise.

Dilip Padgaonkar recently revealed that the prison inmates in Kashmir reached out to him and offered a peace plan for Kashmir. After initial cynicism and road blocks, the Centre’s interlocutors have finally been able to establish contacts. This is a significant development spelling out the possibility of this exercise turning into a historic move, and achieving what political figures have not been able to in last sixty years.

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Why Arundhati is not wrong on Kashmir?

James A. Baldwin wrote not too long ago that-‘I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. While quoting his thoughts he made plain that perhaps the test of patriotism comes with willingness to confront the nation’s failures and censure the same. This argument also forms the dividing line between ultra –nationalism and patriotism- a notion, slowly dying into oblivion for the larger Indian society.

Not surprisingly then, Arundhati Roy has come under severe attack for what she said at a seminar titled ‘Whither Kashmir? Freedom or Enslavement’ organised by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society in Srinagar. Following her call for azadi for Kashmir, there was news doing the rounds that she will be booked under sedition by the Government of India who sought legal opinion in this regard.

Criticisms poured in from all sides with pseudo-patriotic fervor. Union Law Minister Veerappa Moily said that Roy’s statements were not in good taste. Union minister Farooq Abdullah said there was “too much of freedom” in India that was being used by some to destroy the country. The Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party continues to take a strident position, insisting that a case of sedition be lodged against her, even as the Centre played safe (by not arresting her for sedition), side stepping the potential minefield with the US President Barack Obama on visit to India.

Under attack over her statements on Kashmir, writer Arundhati Roy said she only spoke what “millions of people” in Kashmir have been saying everyday for years. “Pity the nation that has to silence its writers for speaking their minds. Pity the nation that needs to jail those who ask for justice while communal killers, mass murderers, corporate scamsters, looters, rapists, and those who prey on the poorest of the poor, roam free,” she said from Srinagar. “Anybody who cares to read the transcripts of my speeches will see that they were fundamentally a call for justice. I spoke about justice for the people of Kashmir who live under one of the most brutal military occupations in the world,” she added. “In the papers some have accused me of giving ‘hate-speeches’, of wanting India to break up. On the contrary, what I say comes from love and pride. It comes from not wanting people to be killed, raped, imprisoned or have their finger-nails pulled out in order to force them to say they are Indians. It comes from wanting to live in a society that is striving to be a just one,” Roy said.

Meanwhile, an organisation of Kashmiri Pandits – Roots in Kashmir – filed a complaint against Roy and Syed Ali Shah Geelani at Tilak Nagar Police Station, New Delhi for instigating communal passions. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) women’s wing activists on Sunday, Oct 31  marched to author-activist Arundhati Roy’s Delhi residence, protesting her remarks over Kashmir and shouting slogans “Take back your statement, else leave India”.

The growing middle-class furor over Arundhati Roy’s statement only highlights the narrow notion of patriotism that we Indians have come to embrace. What she espoused was a cause for democratic India and a more humane society. For more than sixty years nobody from the mainstream questioned the nature of Indian sovereignty over Kashmir. And when today someone has found the audacity to think otherwise, there is a furor and attempt to label such acts as anti –national and divisive. Have we become so numb to the suffering of people around us? Can’t we see the callousness of military occupation in Kashmir? The extra judicial killings, unaccounted disappearances, restrictive curfews, arbitrary arrests, rapes- all make for a terrible recipe for alienation of the Kashmiris. Is it justified to torture Kashmiris so that they call themselves Indian? What Arundhati Roy questioned was sacredness of territorial integrity over humanity. And the response with which she was met clearly indicated a non-self-critical ,ultra-national, intolerant  society guilty of supporting military atrocities in the name of Indian unity.

Incidentally, more than one lawyer has cited Kedar Nath vs State of Punjab to point out that a Constitution bench of the Supreme Court clarified in 1962 that nothing would be considered sedition unless there was a call for armed revolt or for use of violence, pointing out that it is a clear case of freedom of speech. Wikipedia defines sedition as: “Sedition is the stirring up of rebellion against the government in power”. Arundhati Roy is not the originator or instigator of the acts of sedition. What she has done is to take note of the disaffection against the Indian state in J & K, draw the attention of the rest of India to the disaffection, analyse the causes for the disaffection such as alleged human rights violations and express her understanding and sympathy for those in J&K who have taken to arms against the Indian state. [Vir Sanghvi, 2010]

Extending moral support to a movement is very different from actively participating in that movement. In a similar incident, during the Vietnam War, the Hollywood actress Jane Fonda visited North Vietnam and expressed her support for the struggle of the Vietnamese people condemning the US role. There was widespread public outrage accompanied by demands for her arrest under ‘sedition’. But the governments were content to let the actress be, upholding freedom of speech.

The test of a democracy is in the freedom of criticism that it guarantees. Aptly put by Potter Stewart- “Censorship reflects society’s lack of confidence in itself.  It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.”  Thus the public backlash to what Ms Roy had to say in not only uncalled for but also reflects poorly on a country that prides itself to be the world’s largest democracy.

Voltaire has rightfully opined, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Also published at: http://isikkim.com/why-arundhati-is-not-wrong-on-kashmir/

Of Kashmir and Kashmiriyat.

I am incarcerated, in these dark walls
I see nothing, coerced to smell
Filthy, dirty, plagued floors
You caught me by my collar
Dragged me to these walls
Which I won’t call a “place”
Some days ago
Just the sore words I whispered
“We want freedom!”

These words of Jasim Malik, from ‘As I die’, reiterate the sentiments of an ordinary Kashmiri youth, whose only wish is to see a self determined azad Kashmir. Similar feelings were emoted by noted writer and Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy last Sunday at a seminar titled ‘Whither Kashmir? Freedom or Enslavement’ organised by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society in Srinagar. Accusing India of launching “a protracted war” to suppress the ongoing movement in Kashmir, she said it was high time for Kashmiris to set goals for Azadi and achieve them systematically. Terming India as a prison with many nationalities, she claimed that after attaining freedom from the British, India itself became a colonial power and left the legacy of Partition in the shape of Kashmir.

The statement, though reflective of an extreme stand does nevertheless reflects the ground realities in the Kashmir Valley. As simmering discontent gains momentum, the international community continues to turn a blind eye towards South Asia’s most volatile region. In fact the only time Kashmir made international headline was when Bill Clinton in 2000 termed it as nuclear flash point. On 10 July, 2010, US State department spokesman Mark Toner stated that much as they are concerned abut Kashmir, it was an internal Indian matter and hence refused to intervene.
A survey by Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society claims that as many as 60,000 people have been killed and almost 7000 are missing in 15 years of Kashmiri struggle. This excludes those injured during police firing, and the victims of molestations and rapes. Killing of innocents civilians by security forces in 2007, followed by Amarnath land row in 2008, rape and murder of two women in Shopian in 2009 and three different cases of killing innocent youth by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Border Security Force (BSF) in 2010, followed by many more such incidents of extra judicial killings, unaccounted disappearance, restrictive curfews, arbitrary arrest and other similar grievances make a terrible recipe for discontent, disillusionment and cynicism in the Valley.
Alienation is so extreme that the ordinary Kashmiri, today does not feel afraid to openly defy the writ of the State by coming out to protest curfews. Kashmiris observe protest calendars provided by the separatist and accordingly carry out total hartals, partial half day hartals, protest marches etc. During the last few years militancy has declined and indigenous separatist sentiments have taken hold in the popular imagination. Kashmiri struggle can no longer be termed as proxy- war, or a pan-Islamic movement. The murder of an innocent seventeen year old playing in a park by the local police is bound to bring people together against the state. You don’t then need a Pakistan to mobilize people’s opinion against the Indian state.

For a very long time mainstream Indian media has been projecting distorted images of Kashmir. Newspapers and television channels have been dominated by images of Kashmiris enacting violence against the state- youth setting fire to a government vehicle, stone pelters wreaking havoc or a youth assaulting police personal. What goes un-noticed by the media is a father crying over the corpse of his young son shot at point blank range by the Indian Army, or the funeral procession of a rape victim or a lone woman hurling bricks at security forces so that she may be heard by the establishment.
Today however media coverage of the Valley has taken a U-turn. A viewer poll conducted by CNN/IBN on 5 August showed that 82% of its viewers thought that Indian State needs to completely overturn its Kashmir strategy. We now encounter a spate of mainstream writings by Indian media criticizing the State’s role in Kashmir. Mr . P. Chidambaram also acknowledged the untoward deaths in the valley. Sanjay Kak’s documentary ‘Jashn-e- Azadi’ in 2007 depicting the ground situation in the Valley was well received by the masses which only goes to show that there is a ten fold change in India’s attitude towards Kashmir. There has been indeed a dent on conventional truism of what is happening in Kashmir.
The stone thrown by a nine year old is not only a hard rock aimed at security force. It comes with an understanding of oppression and insurgency that this generation has grown up to be a part of. This understanding is also behind the debate raging on Facebook and YouTube and should actively engage Indians and Kashmiris alike.

Also published at: http://isikkim.com/of-kashmir-and-kashmiriyat/