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.
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.
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.