Yashwant Sinha, a former Union Minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee led BJP government, and now a vociferous critic of the policies of the present BJP government, was on a 4-day visit to Kashmir as part of the Concerned Citizens’ Group, a New Delhi based civil society formation. The group arrived in Kashmir on 22 November and left on 26 November. Though it was not allowed to move out and meet people at various places, but it held interactions with many individuals and groups that visited them at their hotel in Srinagar.
Here are the excerpts of the interview:
You have been meeting lots of people here for last few days, what are your impressions, and how do you understand the situation here?
First, we were not allowed to go out. Whoever we had to meet, we have had to meet in the hotel. But still we managed to meet a wide cross section of people, even coming from outside of Srinagar. Out of all these discussions that we have had, one thing that stand stands out clearly is that there is a deep sense of grief about what has been done to Kashmir. One puts up with a little bit of injustice in life, but no body was prepared for the kind of injustice that was heaped upon the people of Kashmir on the 5th of August.
Many people thought that it would be the abrogation of Art 370, some people thought that it would be abrogation of Art 35A, some thought that something would be done to the geography of the state; that all these things would be done together, in one sweep, is like putting a dagger through the heart of the people of Kashmir. So there was a feeling of numbness when it happened, and we have been told that there were even cases of extreme shock that those people had to be taken to a psychiatrist, because this is how their mind was affected.
People are still figuring out what has happened. There is a stunned silence in the immediate aftermath of what was done on 5th August. But now it has been replaced by a calculated silence. However, and in whatever way the Government of India interprets it – as return of normalcy, or success of their policy – it’s actually a well calculated, strategic silence on part of the people here. And I congratulate the people of Kashmir for responding in this mature way.
The feeling we get is that it will not be a tactical silence, it will be a strategic response at some point of time. What that response would be is difficult to define, or predict at his point in time. This situation is not at all normal. Normalcy is not only a physical thing but a state of mind. And in all our conversations we have found that the mind of people is extremely disturbed. There is no sense of security for the future.
This is quite contrary to some of the statements made by some other people in India.
Well, I will tell you generally, not just in the context of J&K, this government has, unfortunately, mastered the art of speaking untruths, and half truths. It is not just about how they are describing the situation in J&K, it is with respect to a whole lot of other things, economic statistics for instance; they just don’t want facts to reach the people. Therefore I have absolutely no hesitation in admitting that with respect to the situation in J&K they are indulging in blatant lies.
If this be the case where would we end up as people, as different communities living together in this region.
I would like to tell you that there have been periods in the history of the world, and also in our country, where, for some time, such people have held sway. But it has not been possible for them to fool, as they say, all the people all the time. So there has come a time when their lies have been exposed, and they have been deposed. Such regimes, whatever their duration may be, have, either in the case of India or elsewhere, not been able to affect the fundamental nature of the country, and its population. Gradually these lies are being exposed, truth is coming out.
These episodes in our history have not changed the basic character of the nation. The basic character of India continues to be one of coexistence, of harmony, of love; and that basic trait of our character will survive this crisis.
If I understand your point, can we then expect a new kind of politics unfolding in India. But what if in the process, as some people fear, irreversible changes happen.
There is nothing that is not reversible. Whatever is being attempted today, or has been done, is all reversible. That is my very clear view. The present government of India has itself talked about J&K being united as a state at some point of time in future. I am strongly of the view that the asymmetrical federation or a federal polity that the constitution of India imagined, contained in Articles 370 and 371 is something that needs to be strengthened.
People ask me whether what has happened with Article 370 vis-à-vis J&K can be rolled back; my answer has always been that it can be rolled back because there might come a day, a regime, which would like to give more powers to all the states in India and bring back asymmetrical federalism in a new form in the constitution. After all even this government is talking to the Nagas with regard to strengthening the article 371, and there are issues and that is why they are not coming to a conclusion. We will watch very carefully what settlement they arrive at with the Nagas because that has a great relevance to what they have done to Kashmir.
If this federal structure is re-established at some point, and then strengthened, would that mean that things can be articulated in a much more honest way, and may be, the possibilities of resolving the disputes widen.
Yes, absolutely. And I see hope for Jammu and Kashmir in future. After all people have lived here in conflict for 70 years, and they have every right to expect that they will get out of this conflict, and that their children will not be the children of conflict. I think every Kashmiri has a right to expect that his or her child will not be subjected to the same torture that they have been subjected to.
In 1990s when the armed response surfaced up in Kashmir for some years all the spaces were filled up with armed clashes. Subsequently there were some openings for some political engagement, till finally a peace process was rolled out. But after August 5th people think that the scale of violence they saw in 1990s has no scope here, and the political engagement thereafter has also completely failed. So if that low scale violence of 1990s, and the political engagement afterwards, both have failed, don’t you fear that some people might think and explore the possibilities of a higher violence, and then there are the global powers that might chip in. Do you think such fears are real.
I can’t rule it out, but that will mean that people will have to pay a very expensive price for it. I’m hoping that the strategic response we witnessed today from the people of Kashmir will be further strengthened, and there is a sizeable opinion in India which feels that what has been done in J&K is not fair; it’s a great injustice. And there is a sizeable opinion abroad, in foreign countries, which also feels that what has been done is not fair. No country in this century, no regime I should say, can carry on with the violation of human rights in its territory for any length of time. The world, and the rest of the country, is bound to wake up to that and start protesting.
If we have to limit the possibilities of Kashmir returning to violence, and the foreign powers chipping in, what, in your political wisdom, needs to be done immediately, and what needs to be done in the long run; and where the people of Kashmir and the people outside can have a non-violent, constructive, and transparent collaboration.?
Well, to my mind it appears that a good starting point will be to immediately undo the segregation of the state of J&K. It should be restored as a state, without further loss of time. Two, that could be the starting point of initiating a political dialogue with all stakeholders here. Three, there must be very strict instruction to everyone working for the government that there will be no violation of the human rights of the people here. And whatever it takes will have to be done.
But most importantly we will have to immediately, and purposefully, and in a time bound manner start a dialogue process with all the stakeholders. At the same time there must be a back channel diplomacy with Pakistan.
India-Pakistan relations have been so sensitive that even an Under Secretary level talk attracts a great deal of world media attention, therefore it leads to nothing. We have seen how even the summit level meetings have failed. So my considered opinion about India-Pakistan dialogue has been that there must be a lot of back channel diplomacy which must clear the way for official talks at whatever level.
When you say immediately restoring the statehood to J&K, does that include restoring the earlier status?
My preference would be one, restoration of the statehood, and two, a clear indication that state will take immediate steps to protect the interests of its citizens like some other states of India have done as for as land and settling rights are concerned. It could be either Art 35 A being brought back, or any other law which would serve the purpose. And a discussion should start not only about Art 370, and 371 but an overall constitutional approach to give more autonomy to the states.
We remember after the 2010 uprising in Kashmir a team of interlocutors constituted by the GoI had suggested to have a new compact, envisioning a renewed constitutional arrangement between J&K and the Union of India. Would you subscribe to the idea of a political struggle within India, as well as in Kashmir, that can articulate this thing more vociferously asking for a constitutional arrangement that can not later be questioned, or called as temporary. And would you like to be a part of that struggle within India?
You know, there is a Supreme Court judgment which says that the basic features of the constitution cannot be interfered with. I think whatever comes out of a discussion of this kind should be conceptualised as a basic feature of the constitution which is fully protected.
Would the recent decisions taken constitute a violation of the constitutional spirit in your view?
A person like me would subscribe to that view that what the GoI has done is the violation of the constitution of India; a gross violation. That matter is before the Supreme Court and one would hope that it would pronounce, sooner than later, on this issue. I have no doubt about the unconstitutionality of these steps.
The other point that I would like to make is that all the states, including J&K, have come to depend so much on doles from the GoI. For example in the financial field, and despite the finance commissions and all that, there are states like Bihar who are asking for special status. So there are many issues in our federal polity which need to be resolved. I would say they should be resolved, generally, after discussion, in favour of the states.
And for that the regional political parties and their leadership really make an impact?
The way the Indian polity has evolved, it was always true of J&K, where National Conference was always a strong regional force. But you look at the map of India today you will find that other regional forces have emerged and have asserted themselves. So we reached a stage where we thought that the coalition is the only possibility for the future until the emergence of the monolithic BJP which has destroyed that concept, and whenever we have had such monolithic parties, including the Congress in the past we have had excesses committed. So that is the phase in which India is at the moment. But we are also noticing that regional parties are ready to assert themselves and strengthen the federalism which is contained in our constitution. This is a trend which is inevitable and it should be recognised and the constitution should provide for it.
When the Congress accuses the BJP of doing wrongs in Kashmir, people respond by saying that the path for the destruction of politics in Kashmir was actually hewed by the Congress. So is there a needed for correcting the old political houses?
You have raised a very important question. This is what we are experiencing in Kashmir. J&K today is the 1953 moment in a much worse form, and you are quite right in saying that every allegation that is levelled against the BJP, especially by the Congress party, bounces back to them. So Congress party therefore, though it is the only other national party, is in a very weak position to take on the BJP, and that has been the tragedy of our polity for the last 5 to 10 years. They can’t take on the BJP effectively because they can face a counter accusation. That is why there is a feeling that some other people must come forward and play this role. Those who cannot be accused in the same way.
Would it mean that the political force that might surface up in future has to make a plain confession before the Indian people about the wrongs committed on Kashmir. Because Kashmir has been turned into an emotive issue as well. Those who bitterly oppose, even they say that we are with the decision of the abrogation of Article 370, but the only difference is that we might have employed a different method. That means the truth telling about Kashmir is becoming increasingly difficult in India?
I will agree with that accusation. Through the control of the media that this government has come to acquire a message went out in the whole country that people in the rest of the country were hugely celebrating the steps that the government had taken with respect to J&K. The parties which are in the electoral game thought that if they went against this popular perception then they will lose their votes. So they not only kept quiet but they made silly statement like the one you have just mentioned; that we don’t disagree with the abolition of the Art 370 but we disagree with the method or the process that was employed. But this will not work. People will have to stand up and be counted on this issue. I will like to tell you that perhaps not in the politics, but outside politics, in civil society at large, there are very many people like me who would think that a great injustice has been done to the people of J&K which needs to be rectified.
In those discussions do we need to include things like relations with Pakistan, relationship between Hindus and Muslims, and not always rake up the historic things that pollute the entire atmosphere, because these enemy images finally inform the politics?
Not just that we should not rake up the past issues, I will go one step further by saying that a politician should not rewrite history. That is also an injustice that is being done by this government. They are rewriting the history of J&K, accession to India, and the past 70 years. They are rewriting the history of the rest of the country. But that is being challenged separately. Ultimately where does the hope lie; hope lies with the people – the peopel of J&K, the people of India. Democracy in India, I have no hesitation in admitting, is under a severe threat today, and that includes the compromises with the constitutional provisions. Unfortunately the various institutions of democracy which have been created by the constitution, and strengthened over the years, they are also not playing the role which was expected of them. So that complicates the situation. So therefore, if you ask me – if you have any hope in the election commission; for the time being, no. Do you have any hope from the RBI; for the time being, no. But I will continue to repose my hope in the people of India, in the people of Jammu and Kashmir that they will think right, and they will ultimately teach us a lesson. I’m not referring to world history but not long ago, some 45 years ago, we had emergency in India and that was undone by what – by a popular vote. And we have just seen how the popular vote, and people’s will taught this regime a lesson in Maharashtra. Let’s not forget the strength of popular vote and the fact that however much you might try and control the means of communication, you cannot control what can be conveyed through the word of mouth. We have seen in recent days, even in Kashmir, the power of the word of mouth. So I continue to have great faith in the people, and I’m sure that the people would realise, sooner than later, the injustice which has been done here, and the injustice which is being done in the rest of the country by this regime.