By Swapan Dasgupta
If some media reports are to be believed, the Government has sent out a message to the three-member team of interlocutors for Jammu and Kashmir to be more circumspect in their public pronouncements. Maybe this sage advice will have some impact. But, unfortunately, first impressions tend to be more enduring than others. The team whose composition invited scepticism and even ridicule may find that the spate of controversies it generated during its first trip to the Kashmir Valley has cost it the legitimacy it so desperately craved for.
With a Parliament session due immediately after the visit of President Barak Obama, it may become necessary for the UPA Government to discreetly wash its hands off the team—without, of course, admitting any such thing. On paper, the three interlocutors will remain occupied and it is entirely possible that three Ambassador cars, three peons and a generous travel Budget will also be kept aside for their use. Politically, however, the appointment of the three-member looks like becoming another still-born initiative. They may yet produce a report but few are likely to treat it seriously.
To blame Dileep Padgaonkar or, for that matter, Radha Kumar, for the mess is tempting. Both set themselves up as soft targets by (perhaps unwittingly) conveying the impression that their job was to solve a problem that has been festering for six decades. Padgaonkar didn't say anything original by alluding to a Pakistan dimension of any lasting solution. However, it was the tone of self-importance and the boast of "no red lines" that contributed to the furore. Likewise, Kumar's purported comment about amending the Constitution to accommodate azadi was seen to be politically presumptuous.
It speaks volumes for the Government's non-application of mind and its flawed judgment that a political initiative should have been outsourced to a group of well-meaning free thinkers. The people of Jammu and Kashmir can't be faulted for believing that the whole thing smacks of insincerity and amateurishness.
It would not have mattered if the clumsy garrulousness of the interlocutors had just been treating as an amusing aside and something to keep the talk show hosts of TV channels occupied. It could then have been seen with about as much seriousness as the contrived SPG 'displeasure' over Rahul Gandhi travelling in a second class bogey of a commuter train. Unfortunately, the indiscretions of the interlocutors conveyed one dispiriting message: that there was something fundamentally illegitimate about the present status of J&K and India's collective handling of it.
Beginning with Sonia Gandhi's appeal to recognise the "legitimate aspirations" of the stone throwers and culminating in Arundhati Roy's strident deification of secessionism, there are grounds for believing that Liberal India is being overwhelmed by a streak of capitulation.
Padgaonkar has apparently asked students in Srinagar to prepare a precise, time-driven roadmap for azadi which he hopes to discuss at his next visit. For India's sake I hope that he is restrained from negotiating the modalities of azadi with impressionable minds and giving them the impression that what has hitherto been a slogan is actually a realisable political project. Likewise, I am fearful of the Constitutional changes Kumar contemplates to accommodate azadi. The only one I can imagine is an amendment notifying the non-applicability of the Constitution to J&K. Willy-nilly, Kumar has conveyed the message that the "legitimate aspirations" of the state cannot be accommodated within the Constitution, as it exists today.
These are worrying signs that become even more worrisome if we explore the specifics of the "autonomy" that is at present enjoyed by J&K. The meaning of Article 370, according special status to J&K has a direct bearing on the distribution of power between the Centre and the state.
For the rest of India, there is a Central list, a State List and a Concurrent List that is tilted in favour of the Centre. For J&K, there is a Central list that covers defence, foreign affairs, currency and communications. After 1953, the Constitution also extended the jurisdiction of the Election Commission and the Supreme Court to the state.
That is it. All other powers are enjoyed by the state government. And, in the case of J&K, there is no Concurrent list. The Government of J&K has the right to make its own laws, subject to the ratification of the President.
What modifications to the Constitution are the interlocutors seeking? The withdrawal of the Supreme Court and EC? A separate currency for J&K? The complete withdrawal of Indian forces from the Line of Control? Should India share sovereignty of J&K with Pakistan, as Mehbooba Mufti's PDP has often argued?
Are these the Constitutional changes the interlocutors or, for that matter, the Congress president, think is desirable? Arundhati Roy is at least honest: she wants India's azadi from J&K and vice-versa. The others are being wilfully disingenuous: the azadi imagined by the Go-India-Go brigade can't be accommodated within the India as we know it.
The Government must play with a straight bat. After the visit of the all-party parliamentary delegation to J&K, it was agreed that the Government must clearly define what is not negotiable (the accession of J&K to the Indian Union) and what needs to be urgently addressed (overbearing policing and human rights violations). By attempting to pander to bleeding hearts whose stake in India is negotiable and seasonal, it has extended the crisis of liberalism into a crisis of the state.