The Kashmir Valley continues to be gripped by unrest sparked by the killing in July of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in an encounter with security forces. Curfew has been in place in many parts of the region for over 60 days. So far, 71 persons have lost their lives and scores have been injured in the continuing showdown between protesters and security forces.
When a similar wave of agitations erupted in 2010 after three young men were killed in a fake encounter by Army personnel in Macchil in Baramulla district, the Centre appointed a three-member interlocutors' panel to hold talks with all stakeholders and prepare a report to find a permanent solution to the issue. The three interlocutors – journalist Dileep Padgaonkar, academician Radha Kumar and former information commissioner MM Ansari – submitted their report in 2011. But hardly any of their suggestions – including the caution they wanted the Army and police to exercise in using force against the protesters – has been implemented.
Dileep Padgaonkar, the chairman of the panel, told Scroll that he felt that the mechanics of the recent protests were different from those at play in 2010. He said that the resistance in Kashmir has a new leadership, and protesters do not depend on the All Parties Hurriyat Conference. Padgaonkar said that the government had missed a chance to ensure lasting peace in 2011 when Kashmiris defied targeted killings to turn out in huge numbers to vote in panchayat elections. But the local bodies were never empowered, leaving the elected representatives in the lurch.
Excerpts from an interview:
Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the separatist Hurriyat leader, refused to meet members of the all-party delegation on Sunday. What do you think was behind this decision?
The protest since the death of Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander, has categorically shown us one thing. The ground under the Hurriyat is slipping. I think they would not have snubbed the all-party delegation if not for this realisation. The new wave of protests you have witnessed in Kashmir is fuelled by young, educated people from fairly well-off families. This crowd has also taken to radical Islam, primarily through exposure to such thoughts on the internet.
So are you saying the Hurriyat has become irrelevant now?
I wouldn't go to the extent of saying the Hurriyat is irrelevant. But most certainly, they are losing ground. Their decision not to engage with the all-party delegation from Delhi is to get back some of that lost ground by showing the protesters that they are with their cause. But this manoeuvre is a double-edged sword. The message Kashmiris and the international community would get from this is that the Hurriyat has become obdurate and that it can no longer engage with other stakeholders.
How do you see the response of the security forces in the Valley to the protests?
When we were working in Kashmir between 2010 and 2011, we used to file reports to the Centre after every visit. In one of the very first reports we presented to the then Union Home Minister P Chidambaram, we pointed out that the security forces in Kashmir did not have the training and the equipment to deal with this kind of protest [stone pelting]. We also recommended what to do. Only when all other options are exhausted should firing be used. The firing should aim below the waist and should aim to injure and not kill. At that point there were no pellet guns. Use of excessive force could become counter-productive and lead to fresh protests. This is something we have witnessed this year.
The report the interlocutors' panel submitted wanted a review of Central laws and a re-look at the Centre-State relationship. But many, including the Bharatiya Janata Party, have opposed it and felt special treatment to Jammu and Kashmir will further alienate the population.
There were two elements to our recommendation. One of them pertained to the relationship between the Indian union and the state of Jammu and Kashmir. This largely dealt with Article 370, which provides special status to the state. There has been a steady erosion of Article 370, in the sense we have slowly provided many exceptions since Independence. But whether the erosion was constitutionally appropriate is a question that has, to date, not been addressed. The BJP was opposed to our recommendations that dealt with this Centre-State relationship. But the other part where we proposed devolution of power within the state (to local bodies) was welcomed.
Does that mean you want the Centre-State relationship to go back to what it was when Kashmir acceded to India?
Not at all. We did not ask for turning the clock back. We made it clear in our report that any decision to review the relationship between Delhi and Kashmir should be forward looking and that it should be people-centric in its approach.
Could you elaborate on what you mean when you say people-centric?
When we (interlocutors) were working on our report, we witnessed the 2011 panchayat elections. The polls were a tremendous success. Despite candidates being killed and threats issued to the voters by terrorists, people came out in large numbers to exercise their right. The voting percentage was 77%. But after the people were elected to the panchayats, they were not empowered. The panchayats in Jammu and Kashmir do not enjoy the same rights under the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution [the amendment added a new Part IX to the Constitution titled 'The Panchayats' to enable them to function as units of self government] as other states in India do. More than 9,000 persons were elected but they felt helpless without any powers. If there is one thing I would like to add strongly to the report again, it would be asking the government to empower panchayats. This will automatically bring thousands into the administration and thereby into the mainstream.