C Raja Mohan: There have been efforts to find a political settlement to Kashmir, both by the Vajpayee government and by Manmohan Singh. But all recent efforts seem to have gone up in smoke during last summers agitation. Thats where the three interlocutors come in.
Dileep Padgaonkar: We have broadly focused on three parallel tracks: the first, to find out the immediate concerns of the people we met; secondly, their long-pending concerns, interests and grievances; thirdly, to focus on trying to evolve a broad consensus on a political settlement in J&K.
As far as the first is concerned, these are largely in the nature of confidence building measures (CBMs). We were told, particularly by people in the Valley, that these included the release of stone-pelters after getting their parents to sign bonds, the release of political detainees against whom there arent serious charges, speeding up the trials of undertrials who have been detained for a long time and reducing the intrusive presence of security forces.
Alongside these, there are issues of governance, economic development, the lack of quality education, infrastructure and the lack of job opportunities. We covered a fairly wide spectrum of opinion with the exception of Hurriyat and other separatists who have not yet talked to us. Weve held meetings with the mainstream political parties, leaders of various communities, professional organisations, clerics, academics, students, NGOs, human rights activists, women rights activists, etc. Their other concernson governance or corruption, the lack of transparency and accountabilitycome from across the spectrum. And then you had the political issues. The media, thinktanks, policy makers, various analysts have been focusing on Kashmir per se, and that is quite natural because the people of Kashmir bore the brunt of the violence in the state for the past two decades. They have grievances that go back to well before Independence and they feel consistently betrayed by New Delhithe erosion of Article 370 is something that comes up frequently in our discussions. There is a sense of tremendous alienation. The announcement of our groups appointment was received with a great deal of what I think is perfectly understandable cynicism. But the big lesson we have learnt in the past four months is that while the grievances of the people of the Valley are far more intense than those of the other regions in J&K, any kind of a political settlement would necessarily have to take into account the grievances of Jammu and Ladakh.
C Raja Mohan: During your interactions with people, do they ask you, can the government of India deliver
Padgaonkar: Soon after our appointment, we had extensive meetings with the Prime Minister, Home Minister, Chairperson of the UPA. In all these conversations, we got a distinct impression that we can try and evolve some kind of a broad consensus on a political settlement. The government has taken all our recommendations seriously.
Kumar: On the question of political willits not just the governments political will. There are so many critical stakeholders who have to be on board: the two national parties, the regional parties, the Army, the CRPF, the police, the various Hurriyat plus groups. You have these somewhat quiet militant groups who may at any point decide to play a spoiler role. So, for deliverance, you have to bring all these stakeholders on board, you have to figure out ways in which spoilers can either be neutralised or be somehow accommodated and they make the transformation to being part of a solution.
Manu Pubby: There is a feeling that there are fissures in the security setup, that initiatives in Kashmir are being driven by the Home Ministry and that the Defence Ministry is not totally on board. Did you ever feel this
Padgaonkar: One normally assumes that before announcements are made, security forces and the Home Ministry are both on the same page. Our understanding is that the government is seized of the need to be speaking in one voice. There are absolutely no reasons to believe that there are fissures between the two.
Coomi Kapoor: Did the recent programme of the BJP to unfurl the tricolour at Lal Chowk make your life more difficult
MM Ansari: Whenever or wherever we met the BJP leadership, we did suggest the tiranga yatra was not appropriate because it will come in the way of the peace process which we have initiated. There has been a reduction in the security forces, there has been removal of bunkers, but all of a sudden, many things have been brought back for security reasons. The decision of the BJP to unfurl the Indian flag there has created a serious security problem. It has obstructed our efforts. If things like these happen, itll create problems.
Coomi Kapoor: In these four months, would you say that a breakthrough has been made in terms of a political settlement
Padgaonkar: Absolutely not, its too early for something that has been lingering for 63 yearsit cant be settled in four months. What we do have, however, are the first impressions of the way people want us to move. The need for a settlement through a comprehensive dialogue with all the stakeholders on boardincluding the separatistsis something that has clearly emerged. The second concern is a review of the constitutional relationship between Srinagar and Delhi. Meanwhile, there have been some developments. For example, the National Conference; the breakaway group of the National Conference, the ANC; the PDP and one separatist leader, Sajjad Loneall four have produced documents and these documents have produced detailed propositions about what needs to be done.
Kumar: I would say there have been some very important breakthroughs. One of the first for us was when one of the MLAs, who was formerly close to Sajjad Lones Peoples Conference, organised a big meeting for us in Handwara, which has been the seat of Abdul Ghani Lone. It was very dramaticthey took a public pledge that they would not resort to stone-pelting if peaceful public protests were allowed. More importantly, they talked about reconciliation and the political dialogue. What I have felt happening in these four months is that the tide has turned a little bit away from pure anger and confrontation to a desire and belief that the dialogue to a solution is possible and that solution can be accepted by the people of India and J&K and the people of Pakistan.
Maneesh Chhibber: Could Omar Abdullah have handled the situation differently Also, do you think the PDP means what it says in your talks with them
Padgaonkar: We are not here to pass judgments on the chief ministers performance because that is not part of our mandate. The fact is that the NCP and the PDP are hardly on talking terms. But, this is equally true of the Geelani and Mirwaiz factions of the Hurriyat.
Amitabh Sinha: How legitimate is the state government in the eyes of the people Does it have the authority to carry forward the kind of recommendations you are offering
Kumar: You have an area here which has been in armed conflict and instability for about 23 years and governance is the first casualty of the conflict. To expect them to be able to perform well, the way in which a normal, peaceful, conditioned government does, would be asking too much. There is no running away from the fact that governance is a major issue.
Vandita Mishra: When the Omar government came in, there was a huge opening, people were standing in queues to vote for bijli, sadak, paani issues. But the impression is that this opportunity has been squandered.
Kumar: Yes, I would say the opportunity of, say, two years was squandered. But dont forget that when this government came in, the Amarnath row started, which really polarised people. Months after that came the Shopian incident, which again polarised people. So, it became a bit difficult for anyone to focus on bijli, sadak, paani. They had to focus on human rights violations. Also, to think that in three years, you will be able to make up for all the losses you had suffered in the 20 years before that, in terms of governance, is overambitious.
Smita Aggarwal: After you hold a round of consultations and you sit together, are there strong disagreements or agreements
Ansari: A difference of opinion is always welcome, but the differences should not lead to confrontation that comes in the way of performing our duties and responsibilities.
Padgaonkar: We come from different backgrounds and a different set of expertise. So when we sit down to discuss, there are a huge number of differences that are expressed. But when it comes to formalising the report to the government, there is absolute unanimity on what goes into it.
Raj Kamal Jha: Can each one of you mention a few things you have learned or that you now look at differently after four months on the assignment
Kumar: I have learnt that there is an innumerable number of stakeholders and potential spoilers and I need to make a list of all people that we need to somehow try and talk to. But I also remember that almost in every case, both at the beginning of a peace process and when it appears to be reaching a conclusion, youll find the most extreme views being expressed. It is about how you move the momentum forward in such a way that those extreme positions do not control what is happening; they cant determine success or failure.
Ansari: When I came to know of this assignment, I felt I am definitely going to fail in this examination. But as we started talking to peopleand by now we have met thousands of persons in J&Kwe felt the stakeholders in the state, the media, NGOs and people everywhere are interested in the resolution of the Kashmir issue. I feel we are definitely going to succeed.
Padgaonkar: First I learnt that when you are looking for a settlement, to be fixated only on Kashmir would be incorrect. You have to take into account the concerns, the aspirations of all the constituent units. We also learnt a great deal about the goings on as far as the Centre-State relations and autonomy is concerned. And we learnt to explore a little bit of the ideological orientations of the various separatist groups.
Mehraj D Lone: What has been the response of mainstream politicians to this initiative People in Kashmir feel that mainstream politicians have a vested interest in the status quo.
Padgaonkar: I dont think thats quite true. Read the autonomy report of the National Conference. Read a detailed document by the PDP. Both suggest changes in the status quo. We have had meetings with both of them and with other political parties, including the Panthers Party, BJP, etc. A lot of people think that the status quo is not the solution but a problem.
Sobhana K: You reiterated that youll look at the state as one entity. Even after 63 years of pumping thousands of crores into the state just to maintain it as a single entity, it doesnt look like they want to be a single entity. So arent we looking at the failure of the peace process
Padgaonkar: No one we met wants a division of the state. That includes the ruling party, the Opposition parties and even the separatists. None of the stakeholders, not even Geelani, want to divide the state, so who are we to defy that
Rakesh Sinha: How much has unemployment or lack of opportunity contributed to the slide
Ansari: It is very difficult to quantify that. But those involved in stone-pelting or militancy are largely the youth in the age group of 15-35, which comes to almost 50% of the population, especially of Kashmir. They are also the ones who have seen the turmoil of 20 years. It is during this period that the education institutions have been in turmoil, economic activities have been poor.
Pranab Dhal Samanta: What kind of goals have you set amongst yourselves in the sense of discussions, etc. At the end of the day do we expect a unanimous report or not
Padgaonkar: We do talk a great deal and have meetings, but what we have missed really is enough time to spend amongst ourselves because the number of delegations that want to meet us each time is extraordinary. When we went to Poonch and Rajouri, we stayed each time for about 8-9 hours and 132 delegations met us. I think people want to meet us because they have so much pent up in them and particularly because no real efforts were made in the past to reach out to the people in the districts.
Transcribed by Geeta Gupta & Shreya Sareen For the longer version, visit www.indianexpress.com