Extracts from Paradise at War by Radha Kumar (Aleph, November 2018)
In October 2010, Dileep Padgaonkar, M. M. Ansari and I were appointed to the Government of India’s Group of Interlocutors for Jammu and Kashmir. Our appointment came as a surprise to us as well as others. It was the first time the Indian government had appointed a group of people rather than a single interlocutor. It was also the first time that non-government people were appointed to such a mission. Previous interlocutors had been retired government officers or politicians.
Before making our first visit to the state, we had extensive discussions on how we would approach the mission amongst ourselves as well as with the then Home Minister Chidambaram, Home Secretary Gopal Pillai and our Home Ministry point person K. Skandan. Our work would be step by step: we would visit the state every month and give the ministry monthly reports with recommendations that would be both for CBMs and towards a political resolution. The ministry would act in real time on some if not all of the CBMs we recommended, so that at the end of a year, when we presented the Home Ministry with a final report, the ground would have been set for next steps towards a political resolution.
We agreed with Mirwaiz Umar’s statement that ‘[s]tep one is that the ground realities should change first’. Indeed, Chidambaram’s eight-point programme and Omar had already mentioned some of the steps to be immediately taken. Geelani’s ‘five points’ also overlapped to some extent; the release of political prisoners had been discussed between the Vajpayee administration and the Hurriyat and was an issue to be taken forward, as was an end to human rights violations. While there was no question of withdrawal of armed forces from the state, redeployment out of thickly populated areas and troops’ reduction following a security assessment were already sought by the state government.
Within the army, too, a ‘hearts-and-minds’ approach had gained salience. Speaking to journalists in December, the new GOC (general officer commanding) of the army’s 15 Corps, which oversaw security in the valley, Lieutenant General S. A. Hasnain, said he was ‘looking at a long-term perspective where [the] Army can assist the State administration and the Government in reaching out to the people by putting a balm on [their] wounds’, a phrase that Mehbooba Mufti had used during the Sayeed administration. ‘Our main weapon is our heart,’ Hasnain added.
We decided that priority CBMs – release of stone-throwers and political prisoners, along with human rights improvement – would be high on our agenda…. The most important task was to secure the release of stone- throwers, beginning with first-time offenders, and those political prisoners who were not accused of heinous crimes such as murder. Alongside, there was the issue of unresolved human rights abuses, such as whether and which youth disappearances were forced and which were voluntary (those who had crossed to the Pakistan-administered territories of the former princely state for guerrilla training).
My colleagues had asked me to deal with human rights issues, perhaps knowing what a complex and thankless task it would be. Though I requested a list of youth detained by the state government during the recent unrest and those who were still under detention, I did not receive one. Instead, parents began to write to me with individual complaints. Follow-up entailed endless file-pushing, not to mention liaising, with the police and families at various levels to ensure that action was taken. By the end of November, I had only succeeded in ensuring thirty releases, and we turned to the union Home Ministry to push for overall releases of first-time offenders rather than case- by-case recommendations from us. Eventually, we were informed in late December that all but 50 of the 3,000 arrested stone-throwers had been released.
Arrests, however, continued. Though stoning protests were by now much reduced, they were still frequent in areas such as Baramulla, Pattan and Shopian. The state police, who had begun to video protests to identify the ringleaders, also continued to arrest as their recordings were processed. A general amnesty was finally declared on Eid 2011, but only after our mission had ended.
Writing our final report was not easy. We had to examine possible solutions to the conflict and also suggest the roadmap to consensus. In order to do either, we had to draw lessons from past experience and factor in the changing ground situation as well as new actors, with their new demands, in both the state and the country at large.
Being very different individuals with very different backgrounds was both a plus and a minus. Padgaonkar was a seasoned journalist who knew the leaders of all the major parties, a large bonus when it came to considering what could be politically acceptable. Ansari was an economist who had worked with the government and could cover development issues. I had a background of policy work on Kashmir and with Kashmiri civil society, and had devised a roadmap towards peace in the state. In theory we complemented each other, though in practice we sometimes competed, to our own loss. It also became clear that we had different ideas of what constituted a solution. Our differences were even greater when it came to what the Indian government should do.
On two major points, we agreed. Article 370 and Kashmir’s autonomy within the Indian union had to be taken as the baseline for a solution, we believed—as had most of our predecessors. To mitigate reservations in Jammu and Ladakh, any strengthening of the state’s autonomy should be accompanied by regional and local devolution, as Sheikh Abdullah had recognized over thirty years earlier.
It was an anomaly that Article 370 remained ‘temporary’ in the Indian Constitution seventy years after its inclusion. It should, we argued, be made permanent after a constitutional committee was set up to review its provisions and the changes made through a series of presidential orders. Once the committee decided which elements of Article 370 needed to be strengthened or altered, and which changes rolled back, the union and state legislatures could amend Article 370, if required.
On a third associated point, we disagreed: the question of Pakistan. That Pakistan played a role was indisputable, as was the fact that it was a spoiler role. Whether Pakistani spoilers could or would transform to being part of the solution was debatable, but again we agreed there was no option but to try. Where we disagreed was whether our report should have a chapter on Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Gilgit–Baltistan. My colleagues argued that we had only been appointed to canvass opinion in Jammu and Kashmir. I argued that if we went by the 1995 parliament resolution, then the Pakistan-administered parts of the former princely state became part of our brief, even if in practice we were restricted to long-distance communication. We compromised when Padgaonkar decided that a section on cross-border CBMs was necessary—if we talked about trade relations between divided parts of Kashmir, then why omit discussion of issues of concern for Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Gilgit and Baltistan, such as human rights and political control?
Our most difficult decisions were on how to frame the political solution, whether we should go into its details, and if so, which? There had already been several official reports examining the political issues and recommending solutions, from the 1960s on. We could either refer to each report and highlight its salient points, or we could present a comprehensive set of ideas on autonomy and internal devolution, drawing on what past reports had recommended.There was also the question of whether we should put the political solution front and centre, or whether the roadmap should have pride of place. We had already received several inputs from political parties. The BJP leaders whom we met—Advani, Jaitley and Swaraj—advised us to concentrate on human rights. The National Conference wanted us to adhere to their autonomy report and refer to internal devolution only in passing, if at all. The PDP wanted us to emphasize their ‘self-rule’ document and Sajad Lone his ‘Achievable Nationhood’ proposals.
Though the BJP leaders had implicitly warned us that their party was likely to oppose our report if it dealt with political solutions and took autonomy as a baseline, there was no way we could omit that discussion. Nor did we wish to leave it ambiguous as the Saghir Ahmed report of the Working Group on Centre–State Relations had done. Ahmed’s report had focused on the unbridgeable differences between parties of different strengths and popular support. We, on the other hand, found that there were large overlaps between proposals for a solution, especially between Kashmiri political parties. We sought to build on these, but at the same time also had to consider how to reconcile the regional devolution issue, which was a source of tension between Jammu and the valley.
In Jammu, regional devolution provided a way around the union territory demand which would have divided the state. In the valley, it was seen as a way of further undercutting Srinagar’s powers and paving the way towards another division. Many in the valley advised us not to recommend regional devolution as part of a political solution. Instead, experienced Kashmir administrators advised that we would achieve the same impact in terms of improved governance if we recommended district-level devolution.
The problem was that regional devolution was as much about political power as it was about improved governance. Jammu and Ladakh were unlikely to accept a rollback of encroachments on Article 370 without some degree of power-sharing as regional units. To devolve to the districts without devolving to the regions would also run the risk of giving primacy to religious identities, since most of the state’s districts were either Muslim- or Hindu-majority. It could lead to further fracturing residents instead of enabling them to integrate.
The way we chose to address the problem was through a three-tiered system of devolution of powers, from the union to the state, from the state to its provinces (renamed regions with the additional creation of Ladakh as a region), and from the provinces to the districts. The legislature would, however, remain as one, and the powers of regional councils would be largely limited to budgetary allocations and development administration.
Though we were aware that our solution would be unpalatable to start with, we also believed that once it began to be seriously discussed, it would gain a wide degree of acceptance. Most of its elements had been proposed earlier and accepted by the chief political parties in the state; they had also begun to be accepted by Pakistan’s Musharraf regime as the core of a solution. Pakistani acceptance was new. India and Pakistan had discussed Kashmir and its status for over half a century, but the idea that both Jammu and Kashmir and the Pakistan-administered portions of the state should have the same relations with their respective powers—India and Pakistan—gained currency only during the 2004–07 peace process.
We submitted our report to Home Minister Chidambaram in October 2011. Some weeks later, he briefed the union cabinet on our report, and four months later, the Cabinet Committee on Security. Though the report was then supposed to be placed before the members of the 2010 parliamentary delegation, no meeting was held with them. When we contacted some of them later to ask whether the meeting was going to happen, we received evasive replies. By this point, corruption scandals had rocked the winter session of parliament, with Chidambaram himself accused of fiddling with spectrum allocations. The only members of parliament to table questions on our report were Karan Singh, the prince who ended the monarchy, and Shashi Tharoor—both represented the Congress party.
The Singh administration did not act on any of the political recommendations made in our report, nor on the major human rights and security reforms we suggested. Eventually, it was put in the public domain as a link on the Home Ministry’s website in spring 2012, with a disclaimer that it represented our opinions alone. Its release was greeted by loud criticism from the BJP, whose Jammu unit burned copies of it. The Congress, CPM and other political parties ignored it.
“Whether likely or unlikely, you have been made a part of history by assigning you the role of an interlocutor to Kashmir. I don’t have any brave offers to offer but I would like to know from you that in between the competing expectations of the Indian state on one hand and to some extent of the people of Kashmir on the other where do you place yourself as an interlocutor, as an Indian and as a human. Because sometimes at the end of day one realizes that I could have served the purpose in a better way had I done this and that thing?”