‘Freedom Is Kashmiris’ Birthright Under Indian Constitution’

K-Panel Report Echoes Indira-Sheikh Accord: Wajahat

Wajahat Habibullah is currently the chairman of National Commission on Minorities. He was actively involved in Jammu and Kashmir between 1991 and 1993, when he served as divisional commissioner of Kashmir. An alumnus of St Stephen’s College, he has widely written on the conflict in Kashmir, including the book ‘My Kashmir: The Dying of the Light’.

In this interview with Kashmir Observer Special Correspondents, Anando Bhakto and Nazir Ganaie, he talks about the lukewarm response the much-hyped report of government of India appointed interlocutors, Indo-Pak relations and how a post-NATO Afghanistan will influence the political landscape in J&K. Excerpts.

KO: How do you evaluate the interlocutors’ report on the Kashmir conflict? Can it help expedite a political solution to the dispute?

Wajahat: The interlocutors’ report is important inasmuch as it has put together the grievances of all who are party to the conflict in Kashmir, and has made suggestions based on that. It is also significant because it educates readers across India about the grievances and aspirations of the people of Kashmir. It is true that all political parties are not in agreement with recommendations made in the report. In fact, if these recommendations were to be implemented, a few adjustments might have to be made in the Constitution, which means it is going to be a long process.

KO: There is a belief that the report is a mere repetition of Indira-Sheikh Accord of 1974, and that it is designed to represent the political stand of New Delhi which has traditionally been opposed to any demand for right to self-determination.

Wajahat: Yes, the report echoes the Indira-Sheikh Accord which in itself was not fully acceptable to all parties involved with the conflict. Nevertheless, it has suggested the setting up of committees to review and revise laws that give the army exemption from punishment. It is important to note that it has for the first time admitted past mistakes and acknowledged people’s political aspirations.

KO: But the report has been trashed by separatists and people alike.

Wajahat: How can I comment on individual reactions to the report? Everybody is free to have his or her opinion about it.

KO: Is there still any taker for General Musharraf’s out-of-the-box solution for Kashmir, where the status quo of either India or Pakistan does not change but borders are made softer to allow free movement of people on either side of LoC?

Wajahat: I think you are wrongly ascribing that to General Musharraf. It is our prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, who said there would be no change in borders, although he would work towards making them irrelevant. General Musharraf fished it out and talked of local self-governments and local autonomy within the state, and a sort of India-Pakistan development body to oversee development activity in parts of J&K as well as regional areas of Gilgit-Baltistan and also the areas what they call Azad Kashmir.

Obviously, there is a consensus between the two countries on going in that direction to resolve the stalemate. But we have to realize that there is also a third party to it and that is the people of Kashmir whose future you are talking about. They have the right to be heard and be included in the negotiating tables. In fact, they already have their representatives sitting on those tables but these representatives need to interact with them.

KO: You talked about a third party to the conflict, viz, the people of Kashmir. Now that Pakistan is understood to be abandoning its ‘struggle’ over Kashmir to engage with India, there is growing frustration among Kashmiris that New Delhi would be better placed to quell their political aspiration – the aspiration for ‘azadi’ to be more accurate.

Wajahat: The elements of democracy prescribed in the Constitution of India already give them the right to determine their own future. It is only a question of properly operating the rights and the laws which are already in place.

Yes, it is true that Kashmiris were denied these rights before. Elections in J&K have not always been free and fair; even the 1977 election under Janata Party government was not fully fair although it was freer than the previous ones. While the rest of India has an advanced democracy, people of Jammu and Kashmir have only a taste of democracy. But the fault lies with their political leadership. Kashmiris should not leave it to their leaders, but participate in the government. What the government of India and Pakistan could do is to have constitutional, legal and ministerial mechanisms to ensure their participation in all stages of governance.

KO: But 20 years of unabated human rights abuse has left the people of Kashmir thoroughly disillusioned. They admit to be voting in election for only ‘Bijli, Sadak, and Paani’ and certainly not to express their political aspirations. Don’t you think the situation requires radical innovation rather than expecting an aggrieved class to trust a democratic process which does not even safeguard them against arbitrary detention?

Wajahat: Who said the elections are only for ‘Bijli, Sadak, Paani’? If they have larger aspirations let them participate and press for larger aspirations. Who can stop them?

KO: Excuse our saying this; haven’t they always been stopped by what is understood as extra-ordinary state coercion?

Wajahat: Sorry, if they elect leaders, who share their aspirations, through the democratic process, and if the assembly comes up with a demand for plebiscite, then they can go and have a plebiscite. Under the federal structure of India, and under Article 370 of the Constitution, that would be their right.

But are they doing so? I am sorry to say this is a victimization syndrome which the people of Kashmir have. Who has told them elections are only for ‘Bijli, Sadak, Paani’? Did I tell that, did the media tell that? Let them work and make this a bigger issue. And not only that, they have got ‘Panchayati Raj’, they have got Right to Information Act. Through these mechanisms, they can work towards their goal. The aspiration is for freedom, and freedom is their birth right under the Constitution of India. “Swaraj is my birth right”, said Bal Gangadhar Tilak from the same India to which they belong.

KO: It is inconceivable how “Swaraj” could be the birth right in a state where one army man is deployed for every six civilians.

Wajahat: It is true that there is over-deployment of forces. But it resisted civil disturbances. During the 2010 protests, the army was called out but it was instructed to only flag march in the streets of Srinagar.

KO: But custodial deaths continue.

Wajahat: You cannot blame New Delhi alone, or the Armed Forces Special Powers Act for all wrongs. What about the Public Safety Act? That is imposed by the state itself.

KO: While on the one hand every political leader in J&K says they have lost from the Indus Water Treaty of 1960, Pakistan has been holding Indian projects responsible for reduction of flow in its western rivers. Do you see any need or the scope to renegotiate the treaty?

Wajahat: I don’t think so, because the Treaty lays down a mechanism for sharing of waters. The right over tributaries of Indus which flow through Kashmir is vested with Pakistan, while the water that flows from Pakistan (Punjab) has been entitled to India. But there is a mechanism to make adjustments in favor of each other also. It talks about preventing the diversion of water, not necessarily regulating the flow of water. If you have a mechanism which is meeting regularly to administer that, there should not be any issue at all. And in that mechanism, the government of J&K can also be a representative. It has not worked because the relationship between the two countries has been adversarial. It does not, however, mean the treaty is flawed. We need to use it in a way which is mutually beneficial to all parties.

KO: How do you judge the developments concerning Indo-Pak relations post-26/11 Mumbai terror attack, particularly in the areas of trade and commerce?

Wajahat: Ever since the unfortunate developments of 26/11, Indo-Pak relations, in particular trade, between the two countries was badly affected. On the one hand, extremist forces kept Pakistan away from any kind of engagement with India, on the other India was under civil society pressure to abandon all talks. Fortunately, both India and Pakistan are realizing that they need each other. Pakistan needs India to realize its economic potential, and India needs a non-hostile neighborhood to emerge as a strong player internationally.

KO: Wouldn’t such economic deterrence shift Pakistan’s focus, or at any rate obfuscate its position on the Kashmir issue? Will it not impel separatist quarters in Kashmir to once again fashion their movement from non-violent to militant?

Wajahat: This is not the first time India and Pakistan are attempting at economic cooperation as deterrence to conflict. I would in fact credit it to the Vajpayee government; the progress it made was far greater than that made by any other government. It is imperative that in order to keep this up, India and Pakistan should not allow adversarial relations on issues, which are in fact separate issues. There has to be a tacit understanding of what those issues are, whether it is Sir Creek or the issue of Jammu and Kashmir.

KO: You talked about the need to see political issues separately. But the truth is after 26/11 public sentiment in India was so bitter that it even hijacked bilateral cricket between the two countries. Pakistani cricketers were not invited to participate in even a cosmopolitan edition of the game such as the Indian Premiere League. Do you think India and Pakistan need to build a more accommodating public perception?

Wajahat: The perception has already changed for the better. The erstwhile government of General Musharraf did not feel the need to carry the weight of public opinion in Pakistan. But both governments (India and Pakistan) are now democratic governments. India is of course an advanced democracy while Pakistan’s transition to democracy is still nascent.

And, for that reason, we have to carry the public opinion in all our undertaking. The government of India should make it easier for the people of two countries to interact with each other. The media have a major role to play there. As for cricket, I really do not have much interest or knowledge of it and you can safely call me anti-national for that reason (grins). I don’t think that not inviting Pakistani cricketers has much to do with people’s political opinion in Pakistan. There was a time when Australia was very unpopular in India. These are really immaterial. The more important fact is there are a lot of Indians who are keen to have better relationship with Pakistan.

KO: A lot of instability is bound to happen once the US pulls out its troops from Afghanistan in 2014, or presumably earlier. There is an underlying belief Taliban would become more amenable to Pakistan than it was ever before, and help it renew its insurgent policies in Kashmir. How does India plan to counter this, especially when there is no consensus among the ruling elite in New Delhi about the nature of political involvement in Afghanistan?

Wajahat: So far India’s policy is very clear in reaching out to the government of Afghanistan. I also think Pakistan does not wish to obtain hegemony in that area, or win over Afghanistan in its cause against India. Pakistan is not adverse to India engaging with Afghanistan but they would like India to confine itself to economic engagement. After the retreat of NATO forces from Afghanistan, the ‘neighbors’ should work on military cooperation to avert a crisis. It is important to note ‘neighbors’ do not include only India and Paksitan but also Iran which shares a long border with Afghanistan. But if these countries are not able to build an understanding at how they are going to handle the post-NATO situation in Afghanistan then I share your fear there will be instability and its consequences will have to be borne by India, Pakistan and Iran.

KO: God forbid, if the situation does turn out to be unstable, will India be in a position to stop a repeat of 1990-like situation in Kashmir?

Wajahat: I have already said the consequences will be dangerous, and it will be virtually impossible to push across-the-border trade in fear of infiltration. In fact, it is because of infiltration, and the violence perpetrated by insurgent groups – whether in or outside the control of ISI – that most problems in Kashmir have persisted in the past 20 years, despite initiatives made by the government of India and sometimes periodically that of Pakistan.

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