Interview: Mehbooba Mufti

‘I always insisted on dialogue with Pakistan’

Print edition : March 29, 2019

Mehbooba Mufti. Photo: Anando Bhakto

Interview with PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti.

Nine months after her erstwhile ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), unceremoniously pulled the plug on her government, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) chief and former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti is on a mission to recover lost ground for her party, particularly in south Kashmir. In an interview to Frontline at her residence in Srinagar, she accused the Narendra Modi government at the Centre of trying to communalise the atmosphere in Jammu and Kashmir and escalate tension with Pakistan to gain electoral dividends. Excerpts:

How do you view Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan's offer of dialogue and peace-building initiatives such as opening of the Kartarpur corridor and the Centre’s response to them? Is there any link between the Centre’s tough posturing vis-a-vis Pakistan and the upcoming general election?

Whatever Imran Khan is doing since he came to power, be it his willingness to walk the extra mile to reach out to India, provided India is ready, or his decision to open the Kartarpur corridor, which was pending for the past 70 years, is a welcome gesture. But post Lethpora [the Pulwama attack on the CRPF, or Central Rerserve Police Force, convoy], the dispute between India and Pakistan has escalated. But the way Imran dealt with Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman [of the Indian Air Force] and sent him back to India, even without being asked to, and the way he has started cracking down on the Jaish-e-Mohammad and other militant organisations [on Pakistani soil], and asked one of his Ministers to resign for a hate speech against Hindus indicate that he is making all the right moves. Unfortunately, the leadership of this country has trapped itself in a muscular policy by deciding to be tough with Pakistan and with people who do not agree with the stated position on Kashmir. This has a lot to do with elections. It is a discourse that has been building in the last so many years, more so in the past five years. Somehow, Kashmir seems to have become an election issue for the political parties. The BJP is preparing to go to elections with strikes on Pakistan and a ban on the Jamaat-e-Islami [JeI] and is taking other harsh measures. The Congress, before the 2014 election, hanged Afzal Guru. The tough posturing on Pakistan and Kashmir seems to pay as you are able to divert attention from all pressing issues, such as the Rafale deal at this point of time, unemployment, demonetisation, the GST and farmers’ crisis.

In this context, what ramifications do you forsee in the aftermath of measures such as the ban on the JeI?

Unfortunately, Kashmir has become something you can milk all the time, and the tougher you are on Kashmir, the better you are placed in the rest of the country. It is happening all the time, and now it has come to a point where there’s a growing perception of a Muslim-majority Kashmir versus India, which is predominantly Hindu. It’s a political issue but they [the BJP] are trying to communalise this, and that is why there was a backlash after the Lethpora attack. Our students were beaten up across India, our traders were attacked.

Specific to the ban on the JeI, do you believe this has the potential to further destabilise the situation in Kashmir and increase alienation?

The JeI is a sociopolitical organisation, not just a religious organisation. It has been serving the people of the State for so many years by providing quality education to the poorest of the poor and offering charitable services for people's welfare. They did a commendable work during the 2005 earthquake and the 2014 floods. They had been a part of mainstream politics until 1987, though they stopped fighting elections after the insurgency started. Whatever their ideology, and whether or not everybody relates to their ideology, they are respected by people. There is no justification for this ban.

Is it true that there was pressure on you to ban the JeI during your tenure as Chief Minister? What other pressures were there and what kind of confrontation did it lead to between you and the Centre?

Yes, during my tenure, I was asked to crack down on them, but I was able to offer resistance and do things that they [BJP] would not like. I withdrew the first information reports against 12,000 youths. I was able to persuade them of a ceasefire. Despite the adverse situation in 2016, a lot of restraint was shown [in handling street protests], otherwise when people with kids in the forefront tried to attack Army camps and police stations, the casualties could have been much higher than what was witnessed. I was able to lodge an FIR against the Army whenever they committed an atrocity. That was something that was against the BJP’s basic ideology. I was able to seek the resignation of two BJP Ministers who supported the accused in a rape-and-murder case. The government could have fallen on that also, but I was ready to do that. I was also able to persuade them to appoint an interlocutor, who was of the rank of a Chief Secretary, and that happened for the first time. But it dawned on them that it was a PDP agenda that was moving forward. I always insisted on dialogue with Pakistan, which also made them uncomfortable.

Apart from the Centre objecting to your advocacy of India-Pakistan dialogue, there was not much progress made on other development agenda either, such as the promise of bringing back power projects to Kashmir. Was there lack of cooperation from the Centre?

When my father passed away I was not ready to form the government without the BJP addressing two-three pre-conditions that I had set. One of them was the transfer of at least one power project. But while the negotiations were going on, some people from my party went to Nagpur and had a talk there [with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] and told them that you don’t need to persuade her [Mehbooba Mufti] and that we 18 or 19 MLAs are ready to form the government with the BJP. It weakened my position. I thought that if they broke my party and formed the government of the BJP under the cloak of the PDP, that would be dangerous to the interests of Jammu and Kashmir. They [BJP] may be successful in diluting Article 370. I was left with no choice but to rush and form the government. After Burhan Wani’s death, there was unrest that went on and on and did not give us space to pursue other things. Though I did continue to persuade New Delhi for talks with all stakeholders and for transfer of power projects, things were so volatile that these seemed out of place.

There is a perception that the alienation in the Kashmir valley is at an all-time high. What sort of confidence-building mechanism is needed to restore normalcy?

First and foremost, reconciliation between India and Pakistan is needed. Our alliance with the BJP was founded on that understanding. Unless you build a peaceful atmosphere, delivering good governance is of no use. Once the discourse is about how many people are getting killed in Kashmir in encounters, whatever economic and administrative advancement you bring goes in vain. Dialogue with Pakistan and the separatists is the first thing that must be undertaken.

Close to nine months have passed since the BJP severed its ties with the PDP and brought down the government headed by you. What is your assessment of the Central rule in Kashmir led by Governor Satya Pal Malik? How has it impacted, or further destabilised, Kashmir's social and political landscape?

So long as we were in power, we were able to exert pressure on the Centre and maintain the status quo on Article 35A. We did not allow them to build a sainik colony or crack down on the imams. After the Governor came, these policy adventurisms are being experimented. They also tried to kind of meddle with Article 35A. The Governor said that he was also the Chief Minister.

According to the Governor, the doublespeak of the regional parties is responsible for the alienation in Kashmir.

Until 1999, all regional parties used to toe the New Delhi line, whether it was about the need to bombard Pakistan or jail the Hurriyat. But the PDP was formed on the principle that there has to be dialogue with Pakistan and with the separatists to resolve the Kashmir issue. Then other parties, including the National Conference, changed their stance. This is a new phenomenon wherein the State parties are taking a position contrary to New Delhi, which they are not able to digest. That is why you are branded pro-militant and anti-national.

The PDP is talking about self-rule. Can you explain the rights and safeguards that you are seeking under its ambit? How will this resolve the Kashmir dispute without impairing national integrity?

There is an idea in Jammu and Kashmir that people are fighting, whether you call it for azadi or for going with Pakistan. But we need to have a better idea, one that gives Kashmiris the feeling that something has changed in the status quo, without changing the borders. First, we need to connect all the routes that connect us to the outside world, not only to Pakistan or the other Kashmir. Like Srinagar-Zing Zang to China, you have Jammu-Sialkot, you have Bandipora-Astore. The opening of these routes will make Kashmir the economic gateway to Central Asia. Secondly, we can have a kind of advisory committee consisting of representatives from the two Kashmirs who meet at least twice in a year and talk about tourism and trade and the sharing of natural resources. This will give people a sense of unification. Thirdly, with the improvement of the situation, we need to withdraw the deployment of security forces from civilian areas and send them back to the barracks. Then we need to restore some of the erosion that has taken place in Article 370.