Four panelists and a protest.
A couple of weeks after the Modi government revoked the special status of Jammu & Kashmir, V Ravichandar, honorary director of Bangalore International Centre (BIC), suggested that Takshashila co-host a panel discussion on the issue. Knowing that my senior colleagues Anand Arni (former senior intelligence official) and Lt Gen Prakash Menon (former military advisor to the NSC) had been critical of the government’s move and pessimistic about the future, Ravichandar and I decided we ought to get a pro-government voice to make for a balanced discussion. So we invited Ashok Malik, who was press secretary to the President of India until recently, and a knowledgeable and articulate person, and he agreed to join us.
Ravichandar and I decided that we will focus the panel discussion on the way forward, because the future is the only thing we have influence over. Discussing whether or not it was a good idea to nullify Article 370 is interesting but mostly pointless because parliament has already passed it. Whether or not the action was constitutional is a matter for legal experts and the Supreme Court.
What we, as policy analysts could do, is to work out is “how to make a post Article 370 world a better place?” My initial thoughts on what the Indian government must do were published in my The Print column and my Takshashila colleagues put up a detailed discussion document last month. BIC and Takshashila both agreed that this focus on creating a better future would make for an interesting, engaging and fruitful discussion.
Just before the panel discussion started yesterday, a few people approached the Ravichandar on stage and requested that they be allowed to read out a statement regarding the panel. They insisted that they should be allowed to do this before the panel discussion started so that the panelists might consider points they wished to raise. Ravichandar agreed to this, given BIC’s commitment to freedom of expression. Two people went on stage and read out a statement criticising the framing of the topic, the composition of the panel (general, intelligence officer, pro-government intellectual), the lack of a Kashmiri voice and the absence of women. The protest was polite, civil and decorous.
Unfortunately, the protestors had not acquainted themselves with the published work of Gen Menon and Anand Arni, who have been sharply critical of the government’s actions (listen to them in this podcast). Or the policy recommendations Takshashila made that include releasing political leaders, tuning down security presence and amending AFSPA. (Read Arni’s piece in the Telegraph and Menon’s in The Wire). There were no Kashmiris or women on the panel (Amusing aside: the Kashmiri woman we had on our staff left a few months ago to pursue graduate studies in the US.)
In any case, the panel discussion witnessed strong arguments in support of and opposing the current government policy. During the Q&A one of the protesters conceded that they were pleasantly surprised that the panel was not a one-sided affair as they feared. (I noticed a video circulating on social media, and another report on The News Minute, covering only the protestor’s initial statement. What do you say to one-sided coverage of protests alleging one-sidedness of the panel?)
After the event a number of members of the audience told me that they were happy to see a balanced discussion on an important topic. I think the fact that we could have an open public discussion on the issue, with generals and intelligence officers disagreeing with the government’s line, with a pro-government speaker making good points, with protestors given the unprecedented opportunity to speak before the panel, speaks for Bangalore’s remarkable intellectual scene.
BIC has put up the recording of the event and I’m sure you will find the conversation interesting. And definitely not one-sided! When we at Takshashila say we are an independent, non-partisan think tank, we mean it.