28 November 2004

Kashmir: Still in search of a policy

28 November 2004
The Hindu

Kashmir: still in search of a policy

The noises are right and the gestures appropriate, but the Manmohan Singh Government has yet to come up with a coherent policy for peace in Jammu and Kashmir, writes Siddharth Varadarajan.

NOW THAT Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has completed his maiden voyage to Jammu and Kashmir and the composite dialogue between India and Pakistan is all set to enter its second round, it is tempting to surmise that the United Progressive Alliance Government has a well thought out policy to tackle the internal and external dimensions of the State's problems in the weeks and months ahead.

The reality, however, is somewhat different. Whether one agrees with it or not, the foreign office's approach to the external dimension -- of using confidence-building measures (CBMs) and people-to-people contact as stepping stones towards an eventual settlement -- enjoys a certain logical consistency.

But the Centre's approach to tackling the domestic aspect of the problem seems fitful, timid and inconsistent. A reduction in the number of troops deployed has been promised and partially effected.

But there is still no game plan in sight for dialogue and reconciliation, for taking the lead in proposing institutional and administrative arrangements that might strike a chord with the popular aspirations of the people in the Valley and across the State.

A dead end

Originally conceived of as two parallel tracks, the domestic spur of the Kashmir peace process has more or less reached a dead end. After two rounds of fruitless talks, neither the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference nor the Centre seems in any particular hurry to return to the negotiating table.

As for the external component — dialogue on the State's future with Pakistan — the process is continuing, but only just. During the first round of Foreign Secretary-level talks on Kashmir earlier this year, neither side went beyond stated positions.

On September 24, the Prime Minister asked the Pakistan President, Pervez Musharraf, to spell out his ideas on the contours of a possible settlement. Indian officials took great pride in the fact that Dr. Singh's request found the General, for once, at a loss for words. He promised to revert, but when he did, by floating a trial balloon during an iftaar party in Islamabad last month, it was India that was not sure how quite to respond.

Novel and controversial

The fortnight or so that the Musharraf balloon was allowed to float was a time of freewheeling ideation on both sides of the border. The General's ideas were novel and also controversial and they sparked off a lively debate, helped, in part, by the low-key Indian reaction of not offering any official opinion until such time the proposals were made formally. Somewhere along the line, however, the decision seems to have been taken to prick the balloon.

Alarmed by the tone of editorials and articles appearing in the Valley's Urdu newspapers, the Intelligence Bureau warned against the cascading effect the Musharraf proposals might have if left unchecked. "It was necessary for us to reassure the pro-India forces," a highly-placed source told this reporter.

Accordingly, the Prime Minister, during his visit to Srinagar, publicly reiterated India's well-known position that there could be no change in external boundaries or a communal partition of J&K.

For good measure, Dr. Singh threw in some references to the Indian Constitution, something his predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had finessed by referring only to insaniyat, or humanism, as the binding constraint facing Government policy towards the State.

But lest the impression go around that the UPA was shutting the door on any change in the domestic status quo as well, highly-placed official sources told a number of newspapers, including The Hindu , immediately after the Prime Minister's visit to Srinagar, that the Government was open to the idea of restoring J&K's pre-1953 autonomy, except as far as the writ of the Election Commission and the Supreme Court was concerned.

The sources said that if both sides of the erstwhile princely State of J&K, including the so-called Northern Areas of Gilgit-Baltistan, could enjoy the same high degree of autonomy, then this, coupled with soft borders, might provide the ingredients for a final solution to the State's problems.

While this idea sounds promising, there is no reason why the question of the State's autonomy should be delayed in any way or held out as a bargaining chip in the dialogue process with Pakistan.

If official thinking is coming around to the view that Kashmir's pre-1953 status is intrinsic to any peaceful resolution of the conflict, steps should immediately be taken to explore this possibility.

Not a good record

Unfortunately, the track record of the Government of India on the question of autonomy has not been very good. In 1996, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao promised a "sky is the limit" level of autonomy. Since then, little has been done to operationalise this commitment.

Working on the basis of explicit but unwritten assurances from the erstwhile Vajpayee Government, the National Conference-led State Government in J&K formulated an autonomy proposal that might, at least, have provided the basis for a debate on the subject. "Dr. Farooq Abdullah, who was Chief Minister at the time, was told by both Mr. Vajpayee and L.K. Advani that the proposals would be reviewed by a high-powered committee and not dismissed peremptorily," a senior official familiar with the subject told this reporter.

"Accordingly, an inter-ministerial committee of officials was indeed set up to look into the J&K Assembly's autonomy report and examine what could be acted upon and what couldn't."
At some point, however, politics intervened with the sangh parivar leadership deciding the question of autonomy had to be officially repudiated. "Without even a Cabinet note on the subject before it, the Union Cabinet met on July 4, 2000, and summarily rejected any proposal for increasing J&K's autonomy," the official said.

The then National Democratic Alliance Government went through the motions of discussing the autonomy issue with the J&K Government but it was clear the Centre considered the issue closed.

Indeed, so entrenched is the official belief that the last word on autonomy has already been said that the following extraordinary paragraph figures prominently in the Union Home Ministry's annual report for 2003-4, released, it should be noted, well after Dr. Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister:

"Autonomy in literal terms can be defined as freedom to work/legislate independently. If this definition is applied in constitutional terms (sic), then autonomy means independent powers to make legislation on various subjects. The State of Jammu and Kashmir already enjoys the said autonomy, as may be seen from the aforesaid." (Paragraph 3.50, MHA Annual Report, 2003-4)

Part of the problem, of course, is that there is no centralised forum for policymaking over Kashmir. During the Vajpayee years, the PMO and the Home Ministry were busy running circles around each other, the Intelligence Bureau and RAW couldn't see eye to eye, while the Defence and External Affairs Ministries had their own perspective. Some attempt was made in September 2003 to hold regular high-level coordination meetings but this consultative process tended to be largely reactive.

Autonomy for J&K

If the UPA Government is serious about redressing the grievances of people in Jammu and Kashmir, it will have to display both political broadmindedness and greater administrative cohesiveness. Increasing the level of autonomy in J&K will put pressure on Pakistan to do the same in those regions of the State now under its administrative control.

This is especially so if autonomy is creatively combined with decentralisation of administrative power within the State to reflect the diversity of its ethnic and linguistic mix.

Along with respect for human rights and a determination to mete out exemplary punishment to any soldier or officer found guilty of violating the rights of the Kashmiris, autonomy can go a long way towards reassuring ordinary people in the State that it is possible to live with dignity and honour in India.

Softer borders and the possibility of the movement of people and produce across the LoC would give a big boost to the region's economy.
CBMs for people

To put things a little differently, it is all very well to push confidence-building measures with Pakistan. It is high time New Delhi came up with CBMs for the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

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