Jethmalani panel to hold talks on Kashmir
3 August 2002
New Delhi: In yet another attempt to broaden the peace process and electoral exercise in Jammu and Kashmir, the Centre is believed to have blessed the formation of a ''Kashmir Committee'' which will start a dialogue with the separatist groups in the Valley. The former Union Law Minister, Ram Jethmalani, will be the chairman of this committee. Besides Mr. Jethmalani, the other members in the committee are Shanti Bhushan and Fali Nariman, both among the most respected Supreme Court lawyers; Dilip Padgoankar and M. J. Akbar, media personalities; Virender Grover, a former Indian Foreign Service officer, and Ashok Bhan, known for his excellent rapport with a number of separatist leaders. Mr. Bhan will be the convener of the committee. The first meeting of the Kashmir Committee is scheduled for tomorrow. The Jethmalani Committee would supplement the process being initiated by another former Law Minister, Arun Jaitley, who has been named the Centre''s representative on the ''devolution of powers'' dialogue with the Jammu and Kashmir Government. Recently, Mr. Jethmalani had been to Srinagar and had engaged various civic groups in a dialogue; the tone and tenor of his speech during the Rajya Sabha debate last week on Jammu and Kashmir was widely appreciated in the Kashmir Valley. What adds bite to the Jethmalani Committee is that the panel is believed to have the blessings of both the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, and the Union Home Minister, Lal Kishen Advani, who, since his elevation as Deputy Prime Minister, is known to have dropped his opposition to a dialogue with the separatist groups. The Committee is also believed to have the ''blessings'' of Prof. Abdul Gani Bhat, chairman of the All-Party Hurriyat Conference, and Shabir Shah, the most prominent ''separatist'' voice outside the Hurriyat. Apart from opening a dialogue with the separatist groups, the Committee would strive for ''democratic decency,'' meaning broadening of the political space, ending cross-border infiltration and a ''genuine electoral exercise.'' This ''track-II'' initiative has been in the making for some time, and was supposed to have been concretised at least a month ago; however, the differing perceptions between the PMO and the Home Ministry held up its formal launch. There is a sense of impatience among the ''track-II'' people that an inflexible election time-table for the State Assembly has left them little time for achieving any breakthrough. In fact, this frustration was reflected in a statement Mr. Jethmalani issued today from Mumbai. He warned the Government against ''holding elections without securing the assurance of participation by elements, which in the past have boycotted them. This will be totally counter-productive.'' In a gesture that should please the Hurriyat, Mr. Jethmalani took the Chief Election Commissioner, J. M. Lyngdoh, to task for rejecting outright any role for international observers in the Kashmir elections. ''Article 324 of the Constitution does not enable the Election Commission to make comments on international affairs and certainly does not authorise the making of abrasive and undiplomatic statements of the kind made by him.'' Mr. Jethmalani also used words which should be music to the ears of the Hurriyat leaders: ''We have to be grateful to the Americans, Western powers and other friendly countries who are helping to solve the Kashmir problem. Mr. Lyngdoh must mind his own business.'' More interestingly, Mr. Jethmalani went out of his way to praise Mr. Advani ''for his statesmanlike and refreshing speech in the Rajya Sabha,'' and interpreted his reply to the debate as indicating that ''he was making a public pledge of the holding of a sincere dialogue'' (with the separatist groups).