Bits of consensus

Published : May 18, 2007 00:00 IST

At the Third Round Table Conference on Kashmir in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's residence in New Delhi on April 24. From the left, former Chief Minister and chief of the People's Democratic Party Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, Union Water Resources Minister Saifuddin Soz, Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, Manmohan Singh, Home Minister Shivraj Patil, Kashmiri leader Karan Singh and former Chief Minister and leader of the National Conference party Dr. Farooq Abdullah.-RAVEENDRAN/AFP

At the Third Round Table Conference on Kashmir in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's residence in New Delhi on April 24. From the left, former Chief Minister and chief of the People's Democratic Party Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, Union Water Resources Minister Saifuddin Soz, Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, Manmohan Singh, Home Minister Shivraj Patil, Kashmiri leader Karan Singh and former Chief Minister and leader of the National Conference party Dr. Farooq Abdullah.-RAVEENDRAN/AFP

The working group reports made to the third Round Table Conference on Kashmir contain the seeds of forward movement.

"NATIONS," said the Islamist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani in a recent interview, "decide their future by consensus, not by bits and pieces."

Last month, four working groups appointed to develop an agreed vision of Jammu and Kashmir's future presented their recommendations to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Round Table Conference. Many critics and commentators have been dismissive of the reports, noting that a fifth working group on Jammu and Kashmir's constitutional future - the real challenge, as it is often characterised - is yet to submit its findings. But politicians from a wide political spectrum are demonstrating that the peace puzzle can only be put together if its scattered bits and pieces are first brought to the table.

For the most part, the four sets of working group recommendations tread on uncontentious terrain. However, a close reading of the reports does not bear out allegations that the working groups have ducked hard political questions. Indeed, working group recommendations on some key issues go a significant distance in meeting the demands of secessionist groups like the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC).

National Minorities Commission Chairman Mohammad Hamid Ansari's working group on confidence-building measures, for instance, has asserted that "certain laws made operational during the period of militancy (for example the Armed Forces Special Powers Act or the Disturbed Areas Act) impinge on [the] fundamental rights of citizens and adversely affect the public". The group demanded that the laws "should be reviewed and revoked". In addition, the working group suggested that the "cases of all persons in jail should be reviewed, and a general amnesty given to those under trial for minor offences or who are innocent".

Former Foreign Secretary M.K. Rasgotra's working group on strengthening cross-Line of Control (LoC) relationships, similarly, laid out possible contours for cooperation between the two parts of Jammu and Kashmir. It suggested that "a joint consultative group or committee of 10 members each of the legislatures of both sides may be constituted to exchange views periodically on social, economic, cultural and trade-related matters of mutual interest". In addition, "joint consultative groups of professionals may be set up for horticulture, tourism promotion and environment protection".

Likewise, former Planning Commission member N.C. Saxena's working group on good governance - which produced what is without dispute the most empirically rich and discursively nuanced report - did not confine itself to administrative issues. It noted that "the State Human Rights Commission requires strengthening" and called for the creation of "a high-powered committee (including political representatives and civil society members) for enforcing human rights".

Even former Reserve Bank Governor C. Rangarajan's working group on economic issues marked a significant break with past practice on Jammu and Kashmir, which has consisted largely of calling for fresh Central government handouts. Rangarajan's report focusses, instead, on the reconstruction of existing infrastructure, and offers pragmatic suggestions for the revival of the State's economy from the bottom up.

If nothing else, these proposals should give the leaders who have attacked the Round Table process - a curious alliance of Islamists and Hindu nationalists - reason to reconsider their position.

In a February 4 speech, Mirwaiz Farooq criticised official investigations of human rights violations as "mock exercises as the agency that is directly involved in the crime holds no moral and credible authority to probe into such incidents". He demanded that the outrages instead be investigated by "a neutral commission comprising of persons of repute from different walks of life". Soon after, in a February 28 statement, the Mirwaiz called on the Government of India to withdraw what he described as "black laws".

Now two of the working groups have demanded precisely the same things. This opens the question as to why the APHC refuses to join hands with major political parties and groups to bring about a mutually sought outcome.

Both the Hizbul Mujahideen and the hardline Islamist leader Syed Ali Shah's Tehreek-e-Hurriyat have, like Mirwaiz Farooq, called on more than one occasion for the repeal of special laws and for respect human rights. The APHC's refusal to strengthen those in the State who are asking for the same things by participating in a multi-party dialogue involving all major groups is mystifying.

Similarly, Mirwaiz Farooq has thrown his weight behind President Pervez Musharraf's calls for some form of joint management of the two parts of Jammu and Kashmir.

The report of the working group led by Rasgotra makes it clear that the idea is up for discussion. The working group report marks one specific vision of what joint management might constitute, but there is no reason why others cannot be considered as the Round Table process proceeds. If the APHC's public polemic is indeed representative of its actual position, reason demands that it at least participate in the discussion.

Interestingly, the most aggressive response to the working group reports has come from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. Within hours of the end of the Third Round Table, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Hari Om announced that his party was disassociating itself from the working groups. "The recommendations of the working groups are being imposed upon us," Om said, "which is not acceptable." He alleged that the People's Democratic Party (PDP), the Congress and the National Conference had a "nexus with each other" and were taking "decisions which instead of bringing Jammu and Kashmir closer to India were taking it further away".

As evidence of this proposition, Om said that "these three parties have collectively defeated private members' Bills in the Budget session of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly on reducing its term from six to five years; incorporation of the word `secular' in the preamble to the State Constitution; using only the national flag in the State; and, parity in Assembly seats between the two major regions of the State". "On the other hand," he added, "a Shariat bill, which encouraged communalism, was passed in the House."

While all of this may or may not be true, the BJP's decision to disassociate itself from the process needs reconsideration. It is unclear, for one, just why the BJP's representatives did not bring up these issues for discussion within the working groups themselves. The BJP was, after all, represented by senior party functionaries in each group, and could have demanded further negotiations on those recommendations it disagreed with.

Leaders of the BJP are in particular exercised by the recommendation to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the Disturbed Areas Act, legislation the party considers necessary to fight terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir. However, the party presented no real evidence before the working group to substantiate this perceived need.

What empirical evidence does exist, it bears noting, suggests that the laws have little impact on the ground. In 2001, in the wake of a series of large-scale massacres of Hindus in the district of Doda, the government of Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah imposed the Disturbed Areas Act in the district. At first glance, the decision paid off, for overall fatalities in the district fell from 253 in 2001 to 223 in 2002. Close examination of the figures, though, does not bear out this proposition.

Killings of Muslims by terrorists, which stood at 66 in 2001, remained static in 2002. So did the numbers of terrorists eliminated, at 101. The killing of police and military personnel actually increased, from 35 to 40. Killings of Hindus did fall significantly, from 51 to 16 - but because of a massive increase in physical protection for remote mountain villages, not the use of the new law.

Some elements of the BJP critique of the working group recommendations may, of course, be legitimate. A legal process already exists, after all, to determine which prisoners are innocent, while a panel constituted by the Prime Minister is monitoring the use of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Jammu and Kashmir. As such, some recommendations may be redundant. But BJP leaders - just like their rejectionist counterparts on the Islamist end of the ideological fence - need to accept that there are at least two sides to any debate and that any meaningful dialogue involves give - and-take.

Why should politicians - who must, after all, meet the expectations of their mass constituencies - accept positions at a considerable distance from their public posture? One good reason is evident: self-interest.

It has been clear for some weeks that the fifth working group set up in Srinagar last May, chaired by former Supreme Court judge Saghir Ahmad, is deadlocked. The PDP, the National Conference and the BJP have, in their presentations to the working group, restricted themselves to reasserting their well-known, and irreconcilable, visions of the State's constitutional future. As such, Justice Ahmad may have little choice other than to release a report simply recording their differences.

National Conference and PDP politicians have often insisted, correctly, that the people of Jammu and Kashmir be consulted before an India-Pakistan agreement is arrived at. If the parties prove unable to fashion an agreement on the basic principles of the State's political future, however, their argument will lose credibility. While the APHC may react with glee to the prospect, it needs to consider whether this outcome is in fact desirable. More likely than not, an impasse will strengthen those who have argued all along that the dialogue process itself is, to use Geelani's pithy formulation, "a flop show". In that event, all who support a negotiated end to the conflict would suffer.

Many secessionist politicians in Jammu and Kashmir have pinned their hope on a rapid India-Pakistan settlement, hoping that the pieces will fall in a way that benefits their particular formation. Mirwaiz Farooq has gone on record to state that an agreement will be inked by September; Geelani, for his part, claims former Union Minister Ram Jethmalani made similar assertions during a recent meeting between the two.

However, in his closing remarks to the Round Table Conference, Manmohan Singh made it clear that hopes of a rapid breakthrough are misplaced. The failure of New Delhi and Islamabad to arrive even at a settlement on the demilitarisation of the Siachen glacier shows that a final agreement may still be years away, notwithstanding polemical assertions by figures like Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri.

In the meanwhile, Jammu and Kashmir's politicians - irrespective of their ideological differences and conflicting interests - need to move forward on securing the interests of those they claim to represent: the people of the State.

Some bits of the peace puzzle in Jammu and Kashmir have started to fall into place. Politicians must next turn their mind to how the missing pieces can be brought to the dialogue table.

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