CPM Politburo member Sitaram Yechury tells Tusha Mittal that the starting point for any discussion on Kashmir should be its pre-1953 status
You were one of the key people in the all-party delegation. Did you gain any new insights?
The intensity of the alienation surprised me. We always knew about the alienation, but this time the intensity was much deeper. Many told us of how even with valid curfew passes they are not allowed to move. The army doesn’t accept the passes given by the civil administration. What else is this but harassment? Even during a curfew, you have a right to obtain a pass, and if that is not respected, what is the meaning of the law of the land? Hospitals are exempt under curfew but relatives of the injured told us that even emergency pharmacies inside hospitals are closed. Lives are lost because of that. In this situation, Kashmir won’t attract any private investment. We should increase public investment but on the contrary we are disinvesting or privatising. I met a few workers of the Centaur Hotel in Srinagar. They were recruited as casual labour in 1993 when violence broke out and the regular staff left. For 17 years, they’ve been working as casual employees. Now, they ask where are the labour laws that apply elsewhere in India. Why don’t they apply in Kashmir? This is how alienation has been growing. There are hundreds of such stories.
What prompted you to seek out Syed Ali Shah Geelani even after he refused to meet your group?
When I said we would like to meet Geelani, there was resistance. The official side asked what would you gain. But we wanted to show we’re sincere. We are ready to meet them even if they are not. It is not so much about the individuals as it is about the trends they represent. Our meeting with Geelani would not have happened without the state support. Even if they did not promote it, they did not oppose it. During the meeting, Geelani stuck to his position, we stuck to ours. The objective was not to convince him, and neither was his motive to convince us. It was a good psychological exercise at conveying our sincerity to the people of the troubled state. In Kashmir, psychology is a very important element, which people tend to forget. What prompted this was the desire to give a message to the people of Kashmir that we – the Indian parliament – are there sharing your sufferings and your agonies and wanting to resolve the problem. I also went to meet Kashmiri pandits in Jammu to make it clear that this is not Muslims versus non-Muslims, that is a problem of the state of J&K together.
There have been allegations that this was a carefully scripted visit. Ordinary Kashmiris were asked to submit in advance what they would like to tell the delegation so it could be ratified. Were you able to hear the voice of ordinary Kashmiri?
We did, on the digressions we made from the official programme, but not as much as I wish we could have.
But the fact that there was an officially ‘scripted’ programme that left out the ordinary Kashmiri voice, what does it say about the state’s sincerity?
They wanted to show they are doing their very best because the governance deficit also had a direct question mark on the state government’s functioning.
But this was coordinated with the Home Ministry. It’s not as if Delhi didn’t know that people are being kept away. What does this say about Delhi’s intentions?
Well one is the Home Ministry or administrative apparatus always wants to predictate or decide what the program should be. The other point is that overall impression to be gained from the delegation was also sought to be regulated. But mercifully, we broke it. When we went to Tanmarg, we had to interact with the people outside.
Why did it take more than 100 deaths to have even this symbolic visit?
When the violence started in June, I said we need some out-of-the-box thinking. I suggested an all-party meeting on 6 August in Parliament. I said we should go before Ramzan begins. But the Centre had put the condition that talks could start only after normalcy is restored. We said even to restore normalcy the delegation should go. There were 108 deaths in 100 days. That is unacceptable. That should stop. That was our primary purpose when we visited Kashmir.
But ‘normalcy’ itself has become a cliché, because what India defines as ‘normalcy’ is not acceptable to the Kashmiri. For them, it still means living under siege.
That is what needs to be addressed. The government has its own set pattern of thinking. It has its armed forces. Needless to say the army and CRPF are feeling stretched. You have handed over the entire question of maintaining peace and normalcy to them. Everybody knows peace and normalcy can only be restored through a political process. It is not only a law and order situation. That is the political process we have always been saying needs to be strengthened. We have to bridge the deficit in both governance and trust. We suggested certain things to be done. Some of them have been announced in the eight-point package. Some more need to be done.
What else did you want to see in the eight-point formula?
There is the question of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. They said when the unified command of Jammu & Kashmir meets, they will review the Act. That has not yet happened. We wanted to see the government take action if excesses committed by the armed forces are proven. There were two cases at least – Macchil and Pathribal. In both cases, the investigating agency has said that excesses were committed. So, we want the government to take action. There is a general perception that there is an army siege there.
Do you agree with that perception?
It doesn’t matter. That is the perception of the Kashmiris. Whether we agree or not is irrelevant. The perception is there and irrespective of what we think the actual situation, that perception needs to be disabused. The excesses of the armed forces should be addressed to generate instant confidence in people that the law of land works in Kashmir as well.
Your name has been circulating as someone who could be part of this interlocutor’s panel. How often will this panel meet, who will it talk to and what will its mandate be?
That is also what we are waiting to know. I’m only hearing this from the media. I don’t know who will be in the panel or what the terms of reference will be. Nothing of that has been discussed or remotely suggested.
So what is the purpose of such a panel?
The interlocutors panel came up because the visit of the delegation did make an impact and there are a lots of expectations from the people of Kashmir to see if something will happen on the ground. The interlocutors were to carry this process forward. The government thought it would be a good idea to have a permanent body because everybody in Kashmir had asked for it.
Hurriyat’s Mirwaiz and JKLF’s Yasin Malik had asked for a Kashmir committee? Is this the equivalent of that?
Mirwaiz and Yasin asked for it in writing but all the others are also asking for a political process. The talks should not be between the Central government, the armed forces and the separatists. That doesn’t take into account the people. But instead of calling it the Kashmir committee it is being called the interlocutors panel.
How will this initiative be any different from previous attempts at dialogue?
The constant complaint of the Kashmiris is that you only come here when there is trouble. That is why many have asked for a permanent Kashmir committee and a political process. This time is it not only a question of the government, army and people. Here you have the entire Indian political spectrum involved. That is a very important difference because it is the debates taking place within this political spectrum that will actually determine the final outcome of policy.
Where does the CPM stand differ from the Congress and the BJP?
Our fundamental difference is that we should stop treating Kashmir as a law and order problem. Former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao said the sky is the limit. This was followed by Atal Behari Vajpayee’s ‘insaniyat ke dayre mein jo mumkin hai’ [Whatever is humanly possible] But what the hell does it mean unless you concretise it? If you want to concretise it, you have to have serious talks at the lower level. Instead of the formality of talks, they must be conducted seriously.
What concrete things would you do if the CPM was in power?
One is to remove the trust deficit to ensure that proper civil liberties and democratic rights are there. Second is to see the excesses of the armed forces are addressed to generate instant confidence in the people that the law of the land, which does not allow such excesses to happen anywhere else, will not allow it to happen in Kashmir as well
Why do you think the state and Center are reluctant to act on this?
We are yet to hear from the government why. Forget excesses, even when a senior Army officer in West Bengal was found guilty of land scams, he was court marshaled.
Would you repeal AFSPA?
I’m not saying it can happen overnight, but we would have started the process of discussion with the armed forces.
What about AFPSA makes it so intractable? That one cannot be seen as offending the Army?
Kashmir is not only an internal domestic issue. There is the Pakistan dimension, the external dimension. So you’ll have inputs from the army and intelligence. All those will have to be taken in account.
There are almost 7,00,000 troops in Kashmir. That is 70-armed soldiers for every 1000 civilians. Counterinsurgency experts recommend a ratio of 25:1000, which according to international media reports, even the US never achieved in Afghanistan. Do you understand how people could view the situation in Kashmir as an occupation?
We can understand that, but they must also understand is that Kashmir is not only an area of Kashmir, it is also a border with Pakistan. That element is also there.
Article 370 is a commitment we made to the Kashmiri people. How can you nullify that?
The DGP has himself admitted that there are less than 500 militants active. The current upsurge is widely acknowledged to be indigenous and without any Pakistani backing. So how relevant is this external dimension today?
The external dimension in Kashmir is not something that is measurable over a period of time. It keeps going and coming. It all depends on what is the situation you are creating in Kashmir. If there is stability and peace, the external interference is low. Only when you have such uncertainty and disturbances, your Friday speakers become your daily speakers. What situation you are creating on the ground level will determine what is the degree of your external influence, or the potential of it.
What is your stand on autonomy and Article 370?
We believe that Article 370 has constantly been diluted and is not being implemented. The BJP’s viewpoint is that Article 370 is leading to the separatist movement. Article 370 is a historical commitment we made to Kashmiris. How can you nullify that? An order passed in 1954 – The Constitutional Application to Jammu & Kashmir order – circumscribed the provisions of Article 370. That should be reviewed. The starting point for any discussion on Kashmir should be the pre-1953 status. The ‘autonomy’ term used by the National Conference also means going back to the pre-1953 status. The state should be remained united, but degrees of autonomy for Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh can be discussed.
Would you accept a solution that excludes the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and Election Commission in Kashmir and that changes nomenclature from Chief Minister to Prime Minister.
All those issues can be up for discussion, but Kashmir should remain an integral part of India.
We keep asking Kashmir to work within the constitution, but even basic rights promised by the constitution don’t exist or have been diluted. The RTI commission has been headless for 1.5 years. The State human rights commission is seen as defunct. The President of the state’s Bar association has been booked under the Public Safety Act. Thousands of Kashmiris are still missing. And even after the declaration to free arrested stone pelters, more young boys continue to be arrested. So what reason have we given the Kashmiri to believe in the constitution? Is that something New Delhi is beginning to realize?
Yes, that is the point of discussion. I hope it has because I have raising it rather forcefully. The basic democratic and human rights that are available to everyone else in the country must be available to the Kashmiris. This is one of the things the committee or panel will have to address. How effectively they will be enforced is another matter, but not being available at all is unacceptable. What we have seen in Kashmir in the last two months has not suddenly come up. This is culmination and building up of all that has happened. That is why it is disturbing. The degree of alienation is much deeper than what we think sitting here in Delhi.
What is the role of public opinion? Do you think because much of India’s public opinion sees Kashmir through a patriotic, nationalistic lens that it makes it harder for governments to budge – because they are seen as soft?
That is the unfortunate part. If you engage in talks with them, you are seen as being soft. That is wrong. You can be strong and still capable of negotiating.
Do you feel confident that as part of the Indian political spectrum, you will be able to influence the debates on Kashmir?
I hope so.