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'UPA government let down the people of J & K'

‘Our administrative organs pose formidable obstacles to implementation.’

‘The pro-dialogue constituency has shrunk in the valley.’

‘Hatred will inevitably follow if the chief response to anger is suppression.’

Academician and author Dr Radha Kumar was among the three interlocutors whom the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance-II government appointed on Kashmir in October 2010, after massive protests of the preceding summer saw more than 100 civilian deaths.

The group travelled across the state and a year later submitted its report to the Union government, recommending several political and administrative measures for the ‘lasting solution of the Kashmir issue’.

However, the report was neither tabled in Parliament nor discussed by the Union Cabinet.

After yet another bloody summer of 2016, political observers have been saying that had the government acted on the interlocutors’ report in 2010, Kashmir wouldn’t have witnessed another bloody summer.

In an interview with Pervez Majeed, Dr Radha Kumar narrates her experiences and feelings about the ‘dumped’ report, and says that successive state and central governments are responsible for the continued unrest in Kashmir.

After five years, Kashmir in 2016 saw yet another summer of massive protests and subsequent civilian deaths. Why did it erupt again after a seemingly perpetual calm?

I don’t think there were five years of continuous peace. There was still sporadic violence when we started our mission in late 2010 and though the violence more or less ceased by end 2010, the situation remained very volatile when we completed the mission in late 2011. From 2013 on there were a series of inflammatory gestures from Delhi itself which made the situation ripe for violence to re-erupt.

What ‘inflammatory gestures’?

Afzal Guru’s hanging; a sudden announcement from minister in the PMO Jitendra Singh that Article 370 would be rolled back, which was hastily retracted but the damage had been done; non-implementation of the (state ruling) coalition’s agreed agenda of political dialogue; the beef ban controversy in which a man was beaten to death; rising Pakistan-India violence along the LoC and international border; Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s untimely demise and a several months’ hiatus when the coalition’s fate was uncertain.

Once again Mehbooba Mufti pressed for the implementation of the agenda of alliance and once again little action was taken.

We had warned in our report that there was a high probability of violence re-erupting, especially among the youth, if the state and central governments did not take immediate steps.

What steps?

Steps to curb human rights abuses, induct non-lethal methods of crowd control, begin to repair the dangerous communal divide between the Valley and Jammu and resume a political dialogue towards a lasting solution to the Kashmir conflict.

So you mean Kashmir erupted because your recommendations were not implemented?

It was one among many elements. Though some piecemeal measures were taken, the substantive steps we recommended were not taken.

There is a feeling in Kashmir that after the government dumped your report which you had prepared after a year of extensive interactions across J&K, the pro-dialogue constituency has shrunk in Kashmir. Because they believe that taking recourse to dialogue amid popular outrage doesn’t fetch anything.

Because of the failures of previous initiatives over the past 20 years, the pro-dialogue constituency had already begun to shrink in the valley — and in Jammu too, though for different reasons. And the feeling was reinforced by the then government’s unceremonious dumping of our report.

But a deeper problem, I believe, is that we seem to have forgotten that any political dialogue must be accompanied by concrete steps, as happened between 2004 and 2006. It is a great pity that no government thus far has sought to build on the peace process gains of previous governments, with the exception of a brief attempt during UPA-I, when Manmohan Singh tried to build on A B Vajpayee’s initiatives.

P Chidambaram in many of his articles during the last year or so, has been advocating to take certain steps vis-à-vis Kashmir which actually you had recommended to him as the home minister but he didn’t do so. Do you think this is a paradox?

Yes, indeed a tragic paradox. But to be fair to him, he did try though to what extent and with what results only he can tell you. His speech in Parliament showed he had understood the nature of the conflict in all its nuances.

He had a ‘quiet dialogue’ with the Hurriyat leaders during 2009, which was abruptly ended when militants opposed to dialogue shot Hurriyat leader Fazal Haq. He tried again during our mission, but through another channel than us.

My chief criticism is that there was little done to bring the various channels into coordination with each other, but unfortunately that is an endemic problem of our governments for the past 50 years.

Do you think the UPA government cheated you, or let you down by mandating you to give recommendations and then didn’t implement them?

Personally I felt like a used and discarded rag! More importantly, though it is the people of Jammu and Kashmir they let down. We had visited every district of the state, met thousands of people and heard a wide cross-section of public opinion, including from among the young ‘stone-pelters’, as well as received hundreds of recommendations.

We synthesised these into monthly reports we gave the home ministry as well as in the final report. By not discussing the report or tabling it in Parliament they gave credence to the view that our mission was seen by the government as merely to pacify agitating people.

But let me tell you, there were also contributing factors to the government’s response. The state government objected to our report and the state cabinet did not discuss it, though the home ministry requested them to.

Moreover, it is a mistake to attribute the problem to the political leadership alone. Our administrative organs pose formidable obstacles to implementation, whether of concrete measures or broader policy.

In fact, we did conduct an ‘Action Taken’ review on our recommendations. Interestingly, the most detailed report we got was from the ministry of external affairs; by contrast the report from the state government left most of the sections blank!

There is a view that by ignoring your report on Kashmir, Delhi discredited the institution of public dialogue with reference to Kashmir?

I am sorry to say that we were not the first set of interlocutors for J&K to face this. As I said, the institution had already been widely discredited before our mission. Yet it was also striking — for me, at least — that by the time we completed, the most frequent recommendation to us was that dialogue should not only continue but also be institutionalised.

Given that more than 100 youth had died only a year ago, I thought it showed not only that there is deep commitment to substantive peacemaking in the state at the overall public level, but also a considerable generosity of spirit.

Separatists and even non-political public circles didn’t meet the home minister-led all party parliamentary delegation to Kashmir. What is your view on this?

Several members of this parliamentary delegation had shown a consistent commitment to J&K over the years. Refusal to engage with them delayed the possibility of reopening dialogue and they (separatists) lost a valuable constituency in New Delhi.

But the common refrain in Kashmir is that when the previous dialogues initiatives, including yours, couldn’t even help minimise militarisation, release of political prisoners and probing the human rights violations like custodial disappearances and mass graves, there is no reason for separatists to engage into the talks process again?

I think that is a slightly biased interpretation. The vast majority of ‘separatists’ did not engage with us, nor did they engage with prior interlocutors. One leader (Molvi Abbas Ansari) had a meeting with us, he was expelled from the Hurriyat.

I have been told that even during the peace process years of 2004-06, when the Hurriyat had begun a dialogue with Manmohan Singh, they were hesitant to suggest a road map and that is why the dialogue faltered. I don’t know whether this is true, but I do believe that there were and are powerful influences against a Delhi-Hurriyat dialogue, including threats to life.

That said, steps such as probing and acting against human rights abuses would have been important confidence boosters for the resumption of dialogue and to that extent yes, the cynicism is justified.

About demilitarisation, well, the irony is that security reforms had just begun when the protests erupted — civilian policing had been withdrawn from the military and handed over to police forces. But the police had neither the training nor the equipment to handle crowd control non-lethally and tragedy ensued. Some political prisoners were released during our mission and so were many of the young ‘stone pelters’ who were arrested, but we had to literally push case by case for these releases though we had recommended a general amnesty.

The Yashwant Sinha group has issued a report after meeting separatist leaders and various political and public circles. What you have to say on that report?

The group has played a very important role in filling the vacuum and opening a dialogue. It would have been additionally useful if they had referred to previous initiatives and reports, both official and civil society, but this is not a common practice in our country, more is the pity.

Sinha has said that the 2010 and 2016 mass agitations are different — earlier it was an expression of anger and the latest one of hatred.

As an academic I was rather surprised by Sinha’s recent statement. Surely, hatred will inevitably follow if the chief response to anger is suppression!

In fact, we encountered a great deal of hatred in 2010: not only was it evident across the social media but the Facebook page I opened for our mission was full of hate speech from every side.

After years of disenchantment against the gun, local youth have been again getting attracted towards militancy. There is widespread anger against the nearly 100 killings and blinding of youth with pellet guns. Most political observers in and outside Kashmir opine that Kashmir is back to the brink as whatever political and security gains were made over the years, have been lost again. Your view?

I am afraid I agree. Let me add that what happened this (2016) summer — with hundreds being blinded — should be regarded by all of us as an absolute and intolerable outrage. Once — in 2010 — was bad enough for a democratic country but twice is unforgivable and heads should roll. At the very least security reforms should start straightaway, as should a political dialogue.

A S Dulat in an interview to said when New Delhi doesn’t talk to Kashmiris, Pakistan becomes more relevant. Do you agree?

Yes, though Pakistan is in any case relevant, both because they control a large part of the former princely state and because of the cross-border terrorism they harbour, indeed even incite.

When did you last talk to Dileep Padgoankar (another member of the panel who passed away recently)? And did you talk about Kashmir?

Dileep rang me up in great distress when the first news of the re-eruption of conflict and pellet blindings came out. We spoke perhaps a dozen times during those two first months to see what we could do. He brought our recommendations to the notice of MHA ministers, and was effective to the extent that there were MHA statements that our report, along with previous reports such as those of the Joint Working Groups, were being reviewed for action. I don’t know what follow-up took place but there doesn’t seem to have been any.

We also talked about going to Kashmir but felt it would be in bad taste for us to show up uninvited given that we had at one time been government-appointed.

He was also trying to organise a J&K civil society meeting in Maharashtra when he was taken ill.

Did anybody from the central government ever speak to you during the 2016 summer turmoil?

No — but nor did anyone from the state government!

Source: Rediff