Interview: Omar Abdullah

‘First realise Kashmir is a political problem’

Print edition : August 19, 2016

Paramilitary troopers stopping a resident with his son on the 17th day of curfew in Srinagar on July 25. Photo: TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP

It is not a Pakistan-created situation, says former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

UPA-appointed interlocutors on Jammu and Kashmir (from left) Radha Kumar, Dileep Padgaonkar and M.M. Ansari at a press conference in Srinagar on December 26, 2011. Photo: S. Irfan /PTI

Interview with Omar Abdullah, National Conference working president.

Former Chief Minister and National Conference working president Omar Abdullah is worried over the current situation in Jammu and Kashmir and the threat the political mainstream is facing in terms of losing space. He spoke candidly in an interview with Frontline. Excerpts:

Do you think the situation is heading towards what it was in 2010 or do you not draw any parallels?

No, there are parallels inasmuch as there are public protests leading to casualties among protesters. It is unfortunate that the lessons learnt from 2010, which were used to good effect to manage the situation post-Afzal Guru’s execution, have been entirely forgotten and ignored in the current situation. But the similarities begin and end there. [In] 2010 [it] was demand for justice. It originated with the Machil fake encounter and the Quit Kashmir programme and the calendars issued by Syed Ali Geelani and others; it was compounded with the death of Tufail Mattoo and subsequently other protesters. As I said in the beginning, this protest is not a protest for any sort of justice. There are no demands. They are not asking for anything. This is beyond simple anger and resentment. Burhan’s death was the trigger, but there are other factors that are now playing this up, and therefore the problem then arises that in 2010 you recognise and accept the political nature of the problem; an all-party delegation from Parliament came and met a cross section of people; then the interlocutors were appointed; they carried out wide deliberations and discussions to a large extent such that anger and resentment subsided. Today what will you give?

So, as Chief Minister would you have handled Burhan’s killing differently?

Definitely, the first 48 hours would have been different. And the first 48 hours here were critical. It is because of the lives we lost in the first 48 hours that we are in this position today. Two things happened: either the state apparatus underestimated the fallout of Burhan’s death or having estimated it they didn’t adequately prepare for it. One way or the other it is the state that is responsible for the situation that it finds itself in today.

But today there is another narrative: that we do not talk about protesters who are attacking police stations and taking the law into their own hands, thereby inviting more trouble.

I get that. But then that narrative needs to go slightly further. Why is it then that similar violent protests in other parts of the country don’t meet with such violent reaction? My problem is that it seems to be overwhelmingly in favour of the security forces when they respond to violent protests here as opposed to when they respond to violent protests in the rest of the country. Not too far back in Haryana, during the Jat agitation, crores and crores worth property was damaged, what sort of force was used? [During] the Patel agitation in Gujarat, similarly there was economic loss, but we did not see use of force that way. In Jammu they burnt public property, they came to attack a police station, you arrested people, but you did not shoot them. There is no more a stark image than the image of protesters trying to storm Raisina Hill in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya rape case. They were trying to storm that Hill to attack North Block, South Block and then Rashtrapati Bhavan. And even there you used water cannons and tear smoke, but you didn’t open live fire. When your seat of government in Delhi is under threat and you don’t use live fire, how do you justify it here for your police stations and elsewhere? I get that the crowd is coming to attack public property, but your response in the rest of the country is very different than your response here.

Do you not think that Burhan symbolised the anger and so it stems from a political problem?

I agree and always have maintained this. Fortunately for me I am not a sort of person who wakes up to the reality of the Kashmir political problem when out of office. Way back in 2009 and 2010, before the agitation of the summer, you will recall that Dr Manmohan Singh came to inaugurate the railway station in Anantnag and Ms Sonia Gandhi was with him, and in that function in my speech I said, “Look, we Kashmiris are not ungrateful for the economic packages you send from the Centre, but please don’t mistake this problem for an economic problem. Its genesis and roots lie in politics.” Unless we address this problem politically it is not going to go away; certain initiatives were made but unfortunately were not followed through and you have seen the expressions of regret even from [former Union Home Minister] Mr [P.] Chidambaram recently.

But interlocutors were appointed and their report was disowned by the same Home Ministry that appointed them.

I agree, that is how you discredit a process. Now you have an agitation; who will give it time of day?Honestly speaking, if today even an all-party delegation from Delhi came, I would be reluctant to give them time because for what purpose, what would come out of it. You will again appoint interlocutors and then they will prepare a report and that report will never see light of day. The correct thing to have done with this earlier interlocutor report was to, if not presenting it to an all-party delegation, place it on the table of the House. Let it become the property of the House; at least we would know that it has some sanctity.

Chidambaram has said that we failed Kashmir.

It is a fact. Had they not failed Kashmir, the situation would not have been the way it is today.

But do you not think he should have done something while being the Home Minister?

Unfortunately for him I don’t think he was Home Minister for long enough, otherwise he was committed and we both worked very closely on issues like AFSPA [Armed Forces Special Powers Act], on reducing the footprints of security forces, to reduce the presence of bunkers. We were making progress, but then Dr Manmohan Singh thought his presence in the Finance Ministry was more important.

Chidambaram has said power lies with the Commander of Army’s 15 Corps in Srinagar and not with the Chief Minister or the Director General of Police when it comes to the security situation.

It is not quite true. While it is a fact that the Chief Minister has little say even though the Corps commander is technically a security adviser to the Chief Minister, the Army functions on its own sort of hierarchy. But to say the Chief Minister has no role to play in what happens with the security environment is not correct.

But this perception has been there for a long time.

I agree, but some of us are responsible for creating such perception. Either one needs to prove it with facts or one should not make such irresponsible statements. When a Member of Parliament [Muzaffar Baig of the People’s Democratic Party] stands up and says that Burhan’s death was an unlawful killing carried out by a section of the police to discredit the Chief Minister, then what are you suggesting? That the Chief Minister does not even command the loyalty of his or her own police force, forget the CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force] and the Army? These are irresponsible statements. The same Member of Parliament stands up and says I am grateful to the Prime Minister that it was only his intervention that ensured there was no excessive use of force. So that means the Chief Minister stands for nothing. Obviously then we are reinforcing the above argument.

Take the example of the newspaper ban. Obviously, people are going to think that the decision was taken in New Delhi because they impose a ban; we know they imposed a ban regardless of what they say, and then they woke up three days later and said no ban was there. What were they doing for three days? It was only when Parliament started and the [State] government faced some embarrassing questions that the State government decided to reverse their previous decision [of banning newspapers]. I mean if we have given this perception in Delhi that the State doesn’t matter, we are ourselves to blame.

What is the political solution then?

The political solution will flow from the acceptance first that Kashmir is a political problem. Unfortunately, even today the Centre is unwilling to accept the gravity of the situation. Look, Pakistan is fishing in troubled waters. We know that, but this situation is not of Pakistan’s creation. So if we are saying that the protests happening in Kashmir are being engineered by Pakistan, then we are living in denial. I am sorry you have eight-year-olds and 10-year-olds in streets protesting; they aren’t protesting because Pakistan has told them to protest. I am sure that some of them won’t even be able to find Pakistan on a map, much less anything else, but they are out protesting because there is a problem. So we first and foremost need to wake up to the reality that Kashmir is a political problem. It has economic overtones, it has security overtones, but the root of it is political. When we recognise it is a political problem, then solution will follow.

Do you think the solution has now moved beyond autonomy in Kashmir?

I take what you said. I never said it could be autonomy and nothing else, we have said that our road map is autonomy. We don’t represent 100 per cent of the population of Jammu and Kashmir. There are other groups and representatives who have different points of view and solutions. It is only in a course of sustained dialogue that a road map will emerge and maximum people will accept that solution. That means taking components of autonomy or any road maps of others who have been presented. But the root is in accepting the political nature of Kashmir’s problem.

Do you think it is more complicated now?

Of course it is. It is not without reason [that] Mr Chidambaram has given such a statement. It is a fact. We had some good years in which we could have done something, but we did not do it. Let us say the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] government did not have a majority, but Narendra Modi’s government has a majority and has complete support of the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] and met Nawaz Sharif [at the] oath ceremony and took some brave steps with the neighbour. Why is he afraid of taking such brave steps in Jammu and Kashmir?

Do you think we are missing a reach out from Delhi right now?

Now they will reach [out]. Rajnath Singh came and said, I will meet all. Why only reach out when we are burning? Only when my house is on fire as a neighbour you come and ask me are you alright. How do I care in such a situation whether you are asking it or not? I am already in trouble. The time to ask such a question is when the time is right and there is no problem, and to reach out and to look for avenues and solutions is before we start burning and not after that. It is simple; when trouble will subside, you will forget.

Do you think caging Hurriyat is a solution? Even in this situation?

It isn’t. But in this situation I don’t know how much choice you have. I am not sure how much control the separatists exercise over the present situation. To what extent they direct the protest on the streets. But on the floor of the House, the Chief Minister justified caging the separatists by saying, I am doing it to protect the tourist season. So what happened after Burhan’s death was despite the fact that separatists were under house arrest.

Do you agree that the mainstream parties in Kashmir are losing space?

Of course, they are. In situations like these it is the mainstream that suffers. The brunt of the Burhan [death] will have to be faced by the mainstream people.

Is it worrying?

Of course, it is. What is worrying is that the State government, which is primarily responsible for restoration of normalcy, is completely lost. They are busy contradicting themselves and have absolutely no idea of what they are doing. It is as if this government is dealing with one crisis after another; there is no leadership.

Is it Kashmiri leadership, which has not been asserting itself for a long time vis-a-vis Delhi?

It is not as if by sitting in office I have not denied that there is a problem. I wasn’t being foolish when I was trying to draw a differentiation between Jammu and Kashmir and the rest of the country when I said that others have merged and we have only acceded. I was only trying to say that Jammu and Kashmir is a different State. It has to be treated differently. But unfortunately, as much as I tried to get New Delhi to realise that you need to handle Kashmir differently and politically… something was started but not followed.

On October 21, 2012, you were heard saying that the AFSPA will be removed, but it did not happen after that.

I guess that is one of the reasons why Mr Chidambaram says that Corps commander [and] by that logic the Union Home Minister doesn’t matter. I had the unstated support of Mr Chidambaram in that decision; he was a strong votary of removal of AFSPA but even he could not get the approval.

How important is Pakistan in this whole game?

Look, Pakistan has a position on Jammu and Kashmir. They have in one way or the other influenced whatever has happened in Jammu and Kashmir for a long time now. Like militancy-related activities or taking Jammu and Kashmir to United Nations forums. To wish away Pakistan’s role here would be naive. Pakistan is a part of the problem, but it has to be a part of the solution as well. The Government of India recognises the need to solve Jammu and Kashmir with Pakistan in the Simla Agreement; then you have made Pakistan a party way back in the 1970s. They have put it in writing that Pakistan is part of the problem.

Why did you say a dead Burhan is more dangerous?

Tell me, has that not been the case in the last 15 days? Look at the reaction to his death. I have made some contacts with the hospital currently catering to the injured youth. They are only saying, “ Bas main yahan se nikloon (let me get out of here), I am going to pick up a gun.” An eight-year-old is injured or killed in protests. Do you really want us to say that eight-year-olds are there for the job and all? This is a political problem and not an economic one. The two lakh [people] that attended Burhan’s funeral were all unemployed? I tell you, even government servants/private employees/businessmen attended Burhan’s funeral.

Is this an unemployment problem? Don’t confuse what is happening in Jammu and Kashmir with issues like the naxalite problem. It is not economic.

Why did Burhan become a phenomenon?

I think people were looking for one. The generation you see agitated now no longer identifies with the separatist leadership that has existed for 25 years because that leadership has achieved nothing. So the youngsters among them, be it Bilal Lone, Mirwaiz Umar or Yasin Malik, I don’t think this young element identifies with them much less with the senior leadership. Burhan, because of his presence on social media and pronouncements, and being media-savvy, was able to strike a chord with that 16-, 17-, 18-year-old youths who today you see on the streets. That is why I said I am worried because that youngster is unwilling to listen to these separatists today.

And that youngster is not identifying himself with India?

Absolutely not.

Why did you boycott the all-party meeting?

We felt that there was no point in talking to a Chief Minister who has been discredited by her own party; on the issue of the ban on newspapers she did not know, Burhan encounter she did not know, excessive use of force she did not know, in the last 10 to 15 days it seems she knows less than she ought to know. Now under such circumstances, when a Chief Minister does not know what is happening in the government, what is the point in attending such a meeting? And in the last 15 days her party has made a serious effort in trying to make people believe that the National Conference is behind the current unrest in Kashmir. If we are part of a problem, how can we be part of solution?

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