'Indian people's patience has run out'

Published : May 25, 2002 00:00 IST

Union Minister of State for External Affairs Omar Abdullah has been paying more attention than most to recent events in Jammu and Kashmir. He has good reason to. Next month, he will formally take charge of the party affairs of the National Conference, and if elections are held, will most likely take over as the State's next Chief Minister. Jammu and Kashmir's freewheeling political-bureaucratic establishment is not wholly delighted about the prospect - Omar Abdullah's austere administrative practices extend to using SMS messages instead of making expensive cellphone calls - but have little choice in the matter. Unless, of course, an India-Pakistan war leads to the elections being deferred. In this interview to Praveen Swami in New Delhi, the young Abdullah discusses that prospect and other terrorism-related issues confronting Jammu and Kashmir.

Ever since the National Democratic Alliance took power, there seems to have been a great deal of confusion over how to respond on Jammu and Kashmir. First, we were to have had a pro-active anti-terrorist policy; there was talk of hot pursuit across the Line of Control. Then there was dialogue with Pakistan, and now war is being considered. Do we have a policy at all?

I don't think it is correct to say there is confusion on Jammu and Kashmir policy. Within the government you have a variety of opinions on how the situation we are faced with ought to be handled. These different opinions are considered within the government and a consensus is arrived at about the course of action best suited to us. Now, after the October 1 attack on the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly in Srinagar, a decision was made that no major attack would be allowed to go unchallenged. This was a significant move forward, since the attack was not after all the first major terrorist strike. After the subsequent attack on Parliament, two major responses were put in place. The first was diplomatic and the second the Army build-up. By sponsoring the latest outrage at Kalu Chak near Jammu, Pakistan has made clear that it just doesn't care about diplomacy and world opinion. That being the case, we will have to step up our responses. Precisely how we intend to do that, of course, you cannot expect me to discuss publicly.

Why should the Kalu Chak incident be the grounds for an escalated response? After all, we have had terrible killings in Reasi and Doda, and there have been bigger massacres than Kalu Chak in the past.

One reason, of course, is the sheer barbarity of this attack. Women and children were killed brutally.

They have been in the past as well. Women and children had their limbs chopped off in the Prankot massacre.

That's true, but remember these killings have come in a very different context. The sheer numbers of the dead at Kalu Chak set it apart from most of the other massacres, for one thing. Then, most important of all, this was an express act of war. The intention was to demoralise personnel stationed on the border. The attack had a military purpose, and was not just intended to terrorise civilians.

In a purely military sense, is war really an option? Some analysts believe the Indian Army has lost the element of surprise needed for a decisive outcome because of its prolonged presence on the border. There are also problems with tanks, aircraft and so on.

On the specific military issues you have raised, I cannot comment, since they are not within my area of expertise. But all the expert information we have makes clear that our armed forces are ready and able to do whatever needs to be done. The real problem here is that Pakistan seems to have decided that we have no will to respond militarily to the war it is waging against us. It feels secure because, in its view, we are terrified of the prospect that it might use nuclear weapons should we initiate a conventional war. I believe this is very foolish of them because the fact is that the patience of not just Indian politicians, but the Indian people, has run out. We will do whatever the situation mandates that we must.

If India-Pakistan hostilities do break out, it could well lead to the postponement of elections in Jammu and Kashmir, which are due in September. This would give nascent Opposition formations the time they have been asking for to put together a more credible challenge to the National Conference. Wearing your National Conference president hat, how do you feel about this prospect?

It would be foolish of us not to consider this possibility; we have thought seriously about the possibility of the elections being postponed. I have ruled out our acquiescing to any such move in the past. Should a war occur, of course, the situation would be completely different. The postponement of elections would not be in the interest of the National Conference, but it would then be most certainly in the nation's interest. We are willing to subordinate our political interests to the interests of the nation. Should a war break out, we would of course agree to postponing elections.

Finally, a further question on the pre-election scenario. A lot of hope is being pinned on the ongoing dialogue with the Hizbul Mujahideen's Abdul Majid Dar, and the possibility of elements around him forming the nucleus of a new Opposition grouping. Now, the Dar group observed the Ramzan ceasefire, but levels of violence were at an all-time high then. What do you hope will emerge from this process if it does nothing to contain violence?

Majid Dar and Syed Salahuddin have started acting like all mainstream Indian politicians. They have expelled each other from their parent group, and are both claiming to be the real representatives of their organisation. Now, the issue here is not whether violence comes down or not. The Hizbul Mujahideen is the last largely ethnic-Kashmiri organisation still to be active. The split makes clear that its cadre, or at least a large part of it, is fed up with orders issued not in the interests of Kashmir, but Pakistan. They are fed up with Pakistan and Afghan nationals who make up the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad speaking on their behalf. Should parts of the Hizbul Mujahideen participate in a democratic process, that would be a major step forward. Any right claimed by the Pakistan-based jehadi groups to speak for Jammu and Kashmir would collapse.

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