The crowd of television crews outside Jammu and Kashmir House in New Delhi, waiting for the slightest signs of VIP movement, illustrate the depth of nationwide interest Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah's demand for autonomy has generated. Abdullah h imself, however, is clear that no dramatic progress on the issue is likely to take place, at least not in the near future. In the course of an hour-long interview to Praveen Swami, his first after arriving in New Delhi to begin a series of meeting s with the Union government leaders and also political figures from other States who are also demanding greater autonomy, the Chief Minister said his real interest was in initiating a debate. He also discussed the impact of the autonomy resolution on his relationship with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the criticism directed the at National Conference (N.C.). Excerpts:
You have had an opportunity to study the reactions to the autonomy motion passed by the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly. What progress do you expect in realising your demands?
We have raised an issue for debate. When we passed the motion, we never thought constitutional changes would come about immediately. It is not as if we are taking an inflexible stand, saying that we must have this or are stubborn about that. All this mus t be decided through debate. And this debate is necessary if we want to win the hearts and minds of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.
Are you optimistic that such a debate will in fact come about, despite opposition to autonomy, especially from the BJP?
Absolutely, I'm certain of it. There has to be a debate. The committee of Ministers we have set up, along with the groups of MLAs, will soon start visiting various State capitals to initiate these discussions. And we are not the only ones asking for auto nomy, as is well known.
Within your own State, there are sharp differences on the issue. What do you make of the protests in Ladakh and Jammu, and the Ladakh Autonomous Council's resolution?
Do not take these protests too seriously. Do not worry. These are things that happen, these are things that are orchestrated.So you see them as orchestrated?
Yes, of course they are orchestrated. If I was worried about the possibility of protests, I would not have brought up the subject of autonomy with P.V. Narasimha Rao. After all, we have discussed this issue since 1994, well before we took power. Then he promised autonomy, but there were no protests. Why is it that when the United Front government promised maximum autonomy, nobody raised his voice and protested? People should think about these things.
What sort of impact do you think this will have on your relationship with the BJP? After all, they have used very harsh language to attack your proposals.
Well, you know, politicians always use harsh language. You should not take it seriously. These things eventually calm down. Temporary reactions are just that, they subside.
If things don't subside, if there are no substantial gains in a reasonable period of time...
What do you mean by a reasonable period of time?
Say, a year, perhaps two years, when Assembly elections are due in the State.
I am not one who likes to jump the gun. This has been a long-standing problem, and if it has to be sorted out, the issue has to be thought out very carefully, point by point. We have to ensure that autonomy comes about in a positive way, so that our aspi rations are met and at once it does not unbalance the country.
Are you afraid that if there are no tangible results, the mass expectations that have been raised will be shattered and that your credibility will be eroded?
My credibility is not at stake. I promised the people a report, and I produced a report. The House endorsed the report. I have done my duty to the people. They are aware that our intentions are good, because we have done what we promised to do. Now, we a re going to try to convince the Union government that our position is correct.
Some people believe you have only raised the autonomy issue for tactical reasons, to undermine the Union government's dialogue with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference.
I have answered this allegation not once but a thousand times. Where was this dialogue with the Hurriyat when the State Autonomy Report was tabled in the Assembly last year? Where was this dialogue when the Assembly was in session in Jammu in the summer, when the MLAs wanted to discuss autonomy? The only reason the motion was not moved then is that it was getting hot in Jammu, we had had a long session, and I begged the MLAs to agree to a special session in Srinagar so we could discuss the whole thing p roperly. These are the facts. People have lost their balance. Do you think autonomy will derail the talks? When I met the Prime Minister during the session, he was very clear the talks would continue.
But in the course of the last year, you in fact must have had a good idea what the Union government was up to. You have met at least two of the United States-based people involved in dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir, first Farooq Kathwari and recently M ansoor Ijaz. You have been fairly critical of the kind of solutions that are being advocated. So what did you discuss with them?
I saw Kathwari's plan. I must confess it shook me. It rather reminded me of the Owen Dixon Plan, with the added element that the people of Rajouri and Poonch would have to decide whether to remain part of the Jammu region or join a greater Kashmir. Manso or Ijaz, on the other hand, had no plan. He just came to learn about what was going on and to discuss what was possible. So, I and my colleagues told him about the situation.
Both these people came with the blessings of the Union government. Kathwari had even been denied a visa to visit India for several years.
No, no, I do not think his visit took place with the Union Government's blessings. I think you are reading too much into it. I think he came as a Kashmiri who wants to find a solution to this problem. He did not meet any of the top people here, in New De lhi.Mansoor Ijaz did.
Yes, but Mansoor Ijaz was a different man. He did not have a plan. He was just here to find out what was possible.
Did you tell them that any partition of the State was unacceptable to you?
Well, I have been very clear on that. But what a damn good job they have done. Maps, everything.
What kind of impact do you think this autonomy debate and its future realisation would have on terrorism? Some analysts say at least Kashmiri organisations may be won over, but what has been seen so far is the opposite. Hizbul Mujahideen leader Ahsan Dar, released on the orders of your government, has again started a group.
I am delighted that he feels he is under no pressure, that he is going to launch a party.Not a political group, a terrorist group.
These things are said, but I do not think it means anything. There are already enough terrorist groups across the border.
Some in the security establishment say the problem in Jammu and Kashmir is that it is already too autonomous. For example, you have recently handed over control of secret service funds to your Principal Secretary, and that yours is the only State whe re the Additional Director-General of Police in charge of intelligence does not control these huge funds which are not audited.
In my father's time, control of these funds was always with the civil service, not the police. During Governor's rule things changed. It is not my money after all, it is the people's money, and I have to ensure it is used in the proper way. Now, after I came to power, the Additional Director-General of Police, Rajinder Tickoo, controlled the money, but I was receiving constant reports on how it was being spent, about what was happening to it.
So you were apprehensive that the new officer who took charge after Tickoo, A.K. Suri, would not keep you informed?
No, no, I just wanted to be absolutely certain. Tomorrow if someone asks me what happened to the money, I have to know.
Moving on, you said during the autonomy session that had Jammu and Kashmir been a part of Pakistan, you would have been Prime Minister. What exactly did you mean by this?
The temperatures in the House were very high, and I made the statement more as a joke than a serious statement, to calm things down. But it is also true. In such a large country, a Hindu country, it is not that easy for a Muslim to become Prime Minister. If Kashmir was a part of Pakistan, my chances would have been far brighter than they are in India. But I still want to be President of India. That I can become!With your son as Chief Minister?That is the people's decision, not mine.
There is a great deal of speculation that you intended to call an early election to capitalise on the goodwill the National Conference has gained in the Kashmir Valley as a result of the autonomy issue.
No, that is not true. It is not something I am considering. I still have a lot of work to do in the State, and I would say the Centre's attitude has not been particularly generous. We have to beg constantly for money, which should be ours by right.
Finally, how would you respond to critics who say that the autonomy issue is just a means to divert attention from poor governance and lack of development?
Everyone says there is no governance in Jammu and Kashmir. Everyone says Farooq Abdullah does not do any work. Since you have made that claim several times, I hope you will publish my answer as well. Under terrible circumstances, 24 bridges destroyed by terrorists have been rebuilt, and work is being completed on another 75; 2,500 minor bridges have been built on culverts and streams; 1,500 km of road upgraded and a 100 villages connected by new roads; 1,800 school buildings have been built along with 5 00 Panchayat buildings; 650 anganwadis and 550 passenger sheds; 31,000 homes have been built under the Indira Awaz Yojana. You say I am not bothered about development? I've generated 400,000 manhours under various schemes and given jobs to 100,000 unempl oyed people. New power projects are coming up, and should be online soon. We have handed over seven more power projects to the Centre, which they will complete and then hand over to us. More than 180 water schemes have been completed, and 500 more are in progress. And people say we do not work.