Wrong Again on Kashmir

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The Centre’s interlocutors lack what is needed for useful talks

“The Government of India is acting like the deaf and dumb.” For once, one has to agree with hardline Kashmiri separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Minutes after the Centre announced the names of three interlocutors to take forward the dialogue process in Kashmir, this is what comes to mind no matter which side of the fence one is sitting on. After dithering for days and burning its hands badly in the Kashmir Valley, the Centre has finally appointed senior journalist Dilip Padgaonkar, academic Radha Kumar, and Information Commissioner MM Ansari to hold talks with the entire spectrum of Kashmiri leadership, including separatists.

Minutes after these names were announced, the news was met with a sense of utter disbelief by Kashmir watchers. While Union Home Minister P Chidambaram describes these three as “very credible people”, just how credible remains incredibly unclear. What has stumped many Kashmir watchers more is that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself cleared these names during a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security on 25 September.

Let us go into the past a bit. A few years ago, Padgaonkar was part of a three-man mission called the Kashmir Committee, appointed by the BJP-led NDA Government, to engage with leaders of the Hurriyat Conference. But soon, serious differences emerged among the three, and two of them, journalists MJ Akbar and Padgaonkar, resigned, leaving lawyer-politician Ram Jethmalani alone. Later, when the Congress-led UPA Government took over in 2004, Jethmalani was sent again—some say at the behest of the Home Ministry—to unofficially hold talks with Geelani. This proved to be an absolute non-starter. Geelani is believed to have kept him waiting for hours, and refused to accept what Jethmalani had to offer.

Radha Kumar is head of the Nelson Mandela Institute of Peace at Jamia Milia Islamia University. Of late, she has been engaged in discussions with Geelani and moderate separatist leaders like Mirwaiz Umer Farooq. She even met the former while he was undergoing treatment in a Srinagar hospital. But these were discussions and nothing else. Writing policy papers and organising seminars on the Kashmir issue is one thing, and having a real foothold in the separatist bandwagon is quite another. In fact, as a Kashmir watcher points out, Kumar was recently introduced to the Prime Minister’s Office by an academic of Kashmiri origin, who has been active via backdoor channels in the Valley for a long time. In fact, many were predicting that his name would figure in the list.

The same holds true for MM Ansari as well. His work is in the field of Human Resources Development, and one is hard pressed to understand what qualifications he has to be appointed as an interlocutor. Like a separatist leader told this correspondent:

“If you speak to Kashmiris, chances are that nine out of ten wouldn’t have even heard of these three names.” Though no formal reaction has come from mainstream political leaders, many have expressed disappointment off the record. So, what exactly does the Government have in mind? In the past few months, it has become quite clear that it is Geelani who calls the shots as far as protests in the Valley are concerned. If he immediately called the Centre’s announcement a “futile exercise”, then what exactly does the Centre hope to achieve in Kashmir?

The Centre has clearly failed to realise that, even after the turmoil of the past months in Kashmir, you need someone with credible political acumen to hold talks with Kashmir’s separatist leadership. That is the only way to achieve tangible results. The announcement of these three names amounts to nothing but adhocism. The Government has failed to draw lessons from its recent cluelessness and subsequent laid-back approach in dousing the fire in Kashmir. So much so that to save his own position, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had to tow the separatist line by saying that Kashmir had acceded to India and not merged with it.

These should have served as a clear signal to New Delhi on how jumbled the Kashmir jigsaw has become. But instead of displaying clear vision on how to salvage the situation, the Centre has thrown yet another rock in the already-muddied waters of Kashmir.

The time has come for responsibility to be fixed. Clearly, the buck has to stop with the Prime Minister himself. The question is: does Manmohan Singh know what he is dealing with?