Interview: Mehbooba Mufti

‘Agenda of Alliance is the only way forward’

Print edition : June 09, 2017

In Srinagar, students throw stones during clashes with the police on May 17. Photo: Mukhtar Khan/AP

Interview with J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti.

CHIEF Minister Mehbooba Mufti, one of the founders of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), has been in power for the past 13 months, a period that has seen some of the worst disturbances in Kashmir’s history. Her government has been fighting stone-throwing protesters on the streets and the new brigade of young gun-wielding militants in the Valley even while trying to convince her coalition partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of the need to initiate dialogue with Pakistan and the separatist leaders in Kashmir and to create an atmosphere conducive to that. The Chief Minister talks about the issues confronting her government and the road ahead. Excerpts:

How do you see the situation in Kashmir right now?

The situation is very challenging. It has been a problem for the past 70 years, but today it is manifesting itself in various ways. Since 2008 it has changed in many ways, like militancy was seen declining but at the same time agitations and agitational politics were on the rise. Today, youths are proactive and it is a challenging situation.

Apart from it being a political problem, there are so many things responsible for it, there are so many issues concerning the ground situation. Have the provocations from Delhi, from different quarters, also contributed to this?

When there is a problem, you have an issue, then any other thing that is not well-received by the people adds to the problem. They definitely precipitate the issue. Last year there were certain quarters looking for an excuse even if you clarified many things. In the Assembly, I and my Ministers tried to clarify about the Kashmiri Pandit colony and Sainik colony issues, yet the very next day statements came from different people that a Sainik colony ws being set up. I think they were preparing. At times, there are people who want to keep the issue alive. Some people are very genuine, who want a resolution of this problem, who want to see peace returning to the State, who want every Kashmiri to have a life of dignity. But there are others for whom it has become a business to keep the pot boiling, and the only way they feel they can be relevant is by creating chaos and confusion. It has become a money game for them.

How do you see the role of the BJP? Do you think that they have let you down?

When Mufti [Mohammad Sayeed] sahab entered into this alliance, the idea behind it was much bigger than anyone could anticipate. It was like 1947, when Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah entered into an alliance, rejected the two-nation theory and went for secular India and supported the Maharaja in his accession to India. At this point of time, there was a mandate, which was very divergent, and then after a long time you had a Prime Minister who had secured a brute majority and who seemed to echo Vajpayee.

Vajpayee is the only leader who is remembered very fondly by Kashmiris even today. He was the only one who went out of his way to reach out not only to Kashmiris but even Pakistan despite the Kargil War, despite the attack on Parliament House. That is why Mufti sahab thought that this alliance would do wonders for the subcontinent. He was not thinking about Kashmir only. He was thinking beyond himself, his party, beyond the formation of the government. Unfortunately, his health was not good during those 10 months and he did not get enough time, and things did not shape up the way he wanted. For that I would not say the BJP is to be blamed, but I think it was the situation, the way the media, especially the electronic media, play up things, the atmosphere that was created because of various things. Someone was joking some days back, saying that if the electronic media had been there in the 1990s [the situation in] Kashmir would not have been where it is, I don’t know what would have happened to Kashmir.

So the media are to be blamed more than the BJP?

For any movement forward, you need to have a favourable atmosphere on the ground. My father was able to change things in his first tenure when we went with the Congress because he could create that kind of atmosphere on the ground. Then Vajpayee came, announced a ceasefire on the border, then dialogue was announced, militancy was going down, then Vajpayee initiated the opening of routes. It was a combination of good governance, political process and a favourable atmosphere on the ground.

Provocations from the BJP began when Mufti sahab took charge. They went to court on Article 370, and there was the issue of the State flag. Rather than contributing towards the vision of Mufti sahab, the BJP was sabotaging.

Mufti sahab always said these are two different ideologies. We did not expect a very smooth start. They have their own ideology and we have ours and there were going to be contradictions to start with. They went to court on Article 370 and now, after two years, you have Mr Amit Shah saying that abrogation of Article 370 is not going to resolve anything. So that means it takes time. Definitely, there have been certain provocations which came from their side, which we could have done without.

But the Agenda of Alliance is not being followed.

The Agenda of Alliance is the only way forward. It is a road map, which is the crux of the working groups’ reports. Working groups [formed in 2006] have been the crux of the agenda of our party from the beginning. The N.C. [National Conference] says autonomy, the Congress says something else, the BJP says something else, we say self-rule. So the Agenda of Alliance is the crux of the working groups’ reports endorsed not only by the Prime Minister then but by all the political parties. Unfortunately, we have not been able to move much on the Agenda of Alliance, and I would say it is a loss not just for the PDP but for the entire country. This is the road map if we want to take Kashmir out of this situation.

Only three points of the Agenda of Alliance have been followed vigorously and implemented—the issue of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) refugees, the West Pakistan refugees, and Kashmiri Pandits—and nothing that would match the PDP’s ideology and manifesto.

As far as the West Pakistan refugees are concerned, providing them basic amenities was not exclusively the BJP’s agenda, the one-time compensation to PoK [refugees] is something that was even on our agenda and in our manifesto. About Kashmiri Pandits, I have not seen anybody keener than my father. He would tell me, I feel sad that we are not able to retain this minuscule minority of Kashmiri Pandits. He wanted to do something about it. So all these issues that we have started working on are not exclusively the BJP’s issues. Maybe they have been talking too much about it, but all these issues are human issues.

There are some issues directly concerning Kashmir. Do you not think that certain issues like the transfer of power projects and revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act would help ease the situation?

We have been working on the transfer of power projects. At this point of time, revocation of the AFSPA sounds ridiculous when militancy is on the rise and infiltration is on the rise. You can say it for the heck of saying it, but if you are really serious, then you need to ask, is this the right time? Even if you want to, do it slowly and steadily and start from some place. You need to understand, is this the right time? I would say no.

Should not something be done to address the situation.

As soon as I took over, the NIT thing was there. Then we had this Handwara incident. I just got three months of relative calm and then all hell broke loose. During those three months, we had been discussing one of the very important points in our agenda, of the opening of new routes like Jammu-Sialkot, Nowshera-Jangard, Kargil-Skardu. The Government of India and the Home Ministry were very serious about it. We were also discussing how to legalise the Nepal route. So there were certain things we were discussing and this was something that was most non-controversial in our agenda, and I believe this is something that is going to change the entire perception of people living within Kashmir and outside Kashmir. Unfortunately, whatever happened and how it happened, everything went into disarray.

HURRIYAT AND PAKISTAN

Engagement with the Hurriyat and Pakistan is part of the Agenda of Alliance.

Of course. The Prime Minister went to Lahore. It was after Vajpayee, he was the only one who went there. He went in a very normal way like the way one visits a neighbour’s house. Unfortunately, we had Pathankot happening. And we are living in a democratic country where the Prime Minister is also accountable and answerable to so many people, the opposition, and then you have the electronic media and everybody talking about it. I think it was sabotage and I do not know who sabotaged it, but it was sabotage. Talking about dialogue, I think I must be the only Chief Minister in the history of Jammu and Kashmir who wrote to the Hurriyat people to please talk to Sitaram Yechury and the group of those parliamentarians who came, to move forward, but again the door was shut. That was the unfortunate part.

But does dialogue take place in a situation where you put the other side under house arrest and detention?

Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and all those people who have entered into dialogue and achieved so much in their lives have all been in jails. Even Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah was in jail when he entered into dialogue.

In terms of the experience the people and leaders have vis-a-vis New Delhi, is there not a huge trust deficit?

It is on both sides.

Do you not think there is always an effort to discredit the leaders, whosoever they are?

Well, I think we have to take a chance if you really care for your people. You see how much people have suffered. We have lost so many lives. We have suffered economically. Ultimately, we have to think what to do about it. It is we the people of J&K State who are suffering and we have to take a chance.

Let us leave Pakistan aside, why does the Prime Minister not reach out to the people?

There is a feeling that having Pakistan on board is as important as talking to the Hurriyat. Pakistan has its own role to play.

Did Pakistan have a role in the 2016 unrest?

Going by the latest admissions of some separatist leaders, it seems that they did have a very important role in last year’s unrest. It is not about Pakistan or the Hurriyat, it is more about the Indian leadership, not only Mr Narendra Modi and his Cabinet, but the entire leadership of the country. What do they have in their mind about Jammu and Kashmir? If you look at Pakistan, in the other part [of Kashmir] which is with them they have built the economic corridor, the dams and so many things. Then China had taken a part of us; they are also using that. So we as a country are still busy, 70 years down the line, in containing the people of Kashmir, their anger or their emotions.

So whose fault is it?

As Mufti sahab would say, it is the fault of the leadership of Jammu and Kashmir as well as the leadership of the country, whosoever was there right from Jawaharlal Nehru. We need to think what we can do with Jammu and Kashmir. Can we make Jammu and Kashmir a model for SAARC cooperation? Can we do it? If China is building an economic corridor in the other part of Kashmir, why can’t SAARC countries have our offices, banks, educational universities, handicrafts universities? You need to have a better discourse in Kashmir, but we are not doing anything.

SELF-RULE

But PDP talks about self-rule, which goes beyond the Line of Control. It is not only about this part of Kashmir.

Of course, opening of routes between the two Kashmirs is something we have been pursuing, having some kind of joint mechanism and advisory that has been recommended by the working groups, like having people on both sides meeting each other at least once or twice a year so that they can have a joint environmental policy, joint tourism. Kashmiri Pandits have been asking why they cannot visit Sharda Peeth on the other side. Sikhs from Rajouri want to go to the other side. They have some gurdwaras there.

When we talk of self-rule, it is something that has been discussed in the working groups exclusively and threadbare, and it is not alien to anyone and everyone has endorsed it. When we talked about dialogue, everybody at that point of time endorsed it; when we talked about the opening of routes, everybody endorsed it; and it is again a part of our Agenda of Alliance. Self-rule is not some book of literature; it is something which is very practicable. It is something that is for today and tomorrow. It is a futuristic document which will bring both Kashmirs closer without undermining the sovereignty of our country and also satisfy the emotional urge of people on both sides.

At the same time, the generation that has grown up after the 1990s in Kashmir—and you have been closely associated with the youth—is saying emphatically that they think they are not Indians and do not fear death. How to address that? Is military the only solution?

No, not at all. The military has its own job cut out for it. It has to deal with militancy, not only with militants but militancy, which is a thought. As far as these young kids or youth are concerned, we need to have a multidimensional approach whether it is through sports, dialogue, culture, education, so many things have to happen at the same time. They need to be engaged through various ways and means. I don’t think it is the job of the military or the police. It is our job. It is the job of society, first of all of parents and then of teachers. Today’s teachers are not [the same as] what we used to have. The teacher-student relationship has changed. Kids are more tech-savvy now, they are more into mobiles, and teachers too now have a clear-cut job. I think teachers again have to become father figures and reach out to kids. The entire society—politicians, parents, and teachers—have to get together, and if we do not do that then we will lose one more generation.

You attracted a lot of criticism for your toffee and milk comment of 2016. Do you regret it?

I am a brutally frank person. What I said at that point of time was when there was curfew, when the situation was so bad that nobody would like to venture out, and when shops were closed, why would any parent allow their kids to go out. Even today I say that parents should not allow if there is a situation like that, every parent has a duty to ensure that their kids are safe and sound within the four walls of their home. So why would they send their kids out, why would they do that? So many kids got hurt, many kids even died. I am a parent and I would not allow my kids to go out when there is a situation like that.

The situation was uncontrollable. Many people died. Did you at any point of time think of leaving?

I think that is the easiest thing to do. We have seen politicians leaving in the heat of the moment and then blaming Governors and everybody for whatever happens after that. I would always like to fight till the end.

But when people were getting killed, you were being blamed for it.

My resigning from office would not have resolved anything. When Farooq [Abdullah] sahab left in 1989, did it resolve anything? No. On the other hand, he kept blaming Jagmohan after that, saying Jagmohan came and did this thing and that thing. I do not want to be responsible for running away from my duty.

Chief Ministers of Jammu and Kashmir have always been seen as New Delhi’s face in Kashmir rather than as Kashmir’s face in New Delhi.

It may have been the case in the past, but when Mufti sahab was there he always talked about Kashmir. I always talk about my own people. I talk about how to salvage the situation. I still am what I was. I am still a fighter. I still care a lot for my people. I am straightforward, not a diplomatic person. I feel hurt as there was a time when I would enter these Army camps and get these boys out and fight with everybody for them. And then there was a time when these kids were on the streets trying to fight with the Army and the police with stones in their hands.

There was an incident in Kupwara when the Army was punishing two boys and you picked a fight with them, but today you are defending the Army?

Not only in Kupwara, I fought with the Army and the State Task Force in Kapran and Dooru and so many other places. I do not defend the actions of the Army when they do something wrong, but how can we allow our kids to go and pick a fight with the Army by throwing stones at an Army camp or pick a fight with the police by throwing stones or even, at times, bottles filled with petrol at a police station? How can we allow kids to do that when we love them so much? We know there is going to be some kind of retaliation. It is so dangerous.

Will there be a solution to the Kashmir issue or will Kashmir be subsumed ultimately into the politics of Delhi going by the way things are happening? No talks, nothing....

As I said earlier, we have to think about it. What do we want to do about this piece of land that is with us? And what about the people, how do we win them over, what do we do with their lives? Do we just watch, sometimes people are sulking and sometimes we are sulking, or do we want to make this a happening place? I would repeat, like what is being done in the other part of Kashmir, or Kashmir that is with China, we can also think about out-of-the-box things and see that it becomes a happening place with all the other countries of the SAARC.

But the impression is that Delhi only thinks on the lines that this is just a piece of land.

I don’t think they think this is just a piece of land. I have seen a lot of concern. The Prime Minister has been very concerned, the Home Minister has been very concerned, the Defence Minister has shown a lot of concern. So I don’t think it is just a piece of land for them. The only thing is that it is a problem that has been there for so many years. So it is not so easy because the mindset that exists in the rest of the country and the mindset that exists here are in collision with each other. That is why Mufti sahab entered into this alliance. He wanted to have some kind of a meeting point for the two sides. He wanted to change the mindset on both sides.

What is the reason for the increasing support for the militancy in Kashmir, which is the major challenge you face today and no operation is being carried out?

It is a cycle. Who was Burhan? When did he pick up the gun? In 2010, after the agitation. Who were the militants who picked up the gun in 2008? So there has been a cycle, militancy going down and then after some time agitations.

GENERATIONAL SHIFT

What about public support, where you have thousands of people attending funerals of militants and people stopping counter-insurgency operations?

The way people react to things has changed. There are more protests. People are no more scared, unlike in 2010 when they would fear to go near the Army camps. The fear of the Army is no more there. After the healing touch policy, the fear of the Army was reduced to a large extent, POTA [Prevention of Terrorism Act] was revoked, and the State Task Force was disbanded. The kids who were born after that and those who were young were brought up in a different atmosphere. They did not see what the earlier guys had seen. So they do not have the fear of the Army, or they would not go and attack an Army camp.

Also, the general exposure of what is happening globally is making them bolder. Then there are also people who are organising these things. You cannot say it is all spontaneous. A bunch of separatist leaders themselves disclosed that they have people in different parts of the Valley who organise such things.

Your opponents say that is because of the PDP-BJP alliance.

They can say that but the PDP-BJP alliance has a much higher purpose than what my opponents can understand. They were also in an alliance with the BJP when they were sharing power in New Delhi. They were in alliance with other parties also. For them alliance only means power-sharing. I don’t think they would be able to understand the great vision of Mufti sahab, to put everything at stake, your own self, your individuality, your personality, your party, everything. A person went beyond small things for a big thing.

Was it a gamble and did the PDP get discredited with it in Kashmir?

It was not a gamble. A person gambles without knowing what he is going to do. My father knew very well what he was going to do. Till his last, he believed in this alliance. He was very passionate to do something for the people. He wanted their miseries to end because it had been going on for so many years—beating up of people, bloodshed, and disillusionment.

When all these things happened last year, we had so many business houses that were opening offices and we could have addressed the unemployment problem, but everybody got a setback.

Of course, our party received a setback owing to so many things, but I would still say the purpose is much bigger than my party.

Do you think lack of governance is also contributing towards the unrest?

It is a vicious circle. The government had started well in the first three months, but since then the focus of the Cabinet has been law and order. No development work was allowed.

Someone went to the contractor of a flyover to start work and then some boys went to his home and told him they will burn his home if they started work. When there is such a group of people who organise such kind of chaos and confusion, then governance takes a hit.

The government has banned the Internet, social media, everything.

Nobody loves to do such things. These are very unpleasant decisions which we had to take. Anytime anything happened, they would circulate fake pictures and news, and it would create more anger among the people. But it is a temporary thing and it is not going to last forever.

Will the situation improve because you talked about three months after you met the Prime Minister and the impression was that you have been given three months?

It is improving. We need some time. It is not anybody giving me two or three months. I said give me some time for creating on the ground an atmosphere conducive to any kind of political process.

So it can be two months or three months. And about the improvement in the situation, I think the situation is improving.

And there is talk of President’s Rule also.

Maybe. I cannot comment on that. It is for the Central government to decide.

You are in an alliance with the BJP.

Such decisions are not discussed in public. There may be a thought process among a certain section of the people who think that if a democratic, elected government is soft then harsher measures are needed to bring the situation under control. There is such a section of people in Delhi as well as within the State; there may be that kind of a lobby that thinks it is better to have President’s Rule.

They will lose confidence in you?

No, they will be losing the confidence of the 60 to 70 per cent of the people who voted for this government. This is the government that has the most representative character, going by the voting percentage in Kashmir or Jammu. It is not Mehbooba Mufti who they will be losing confidence in. They will be losing the confidence of all the voters who turned out to vote for this government in 2014.

But the people’s mood vis-a-vis elections has changed.

It is a temporary phase. When I fought my first election in 1996, the voter percentage was in single digit, but later it increased. It is not something permanent, it is a temporary phase. It will change.

Where is that Mehbooba Mufti today who used to visit homes of militants, was popular, got people out of Army camps?

Mehbooba Mufti is still the same. Mehbooba Mufti is used to facing challenges. I started my career fighting a seat which was the most militancy-infested area where nobody dared to fight an election. I moved around and there is hardly any place in the State where I have not been and stood with the people.

Today I am facing a different kind of challenge and I am fighting. I am a fighter.

Should dialogue begin with Pakistan and the people of Kashmir, including all the stakeholders?

There is no alternative to reconciliation between India and Pakistan, between New Delhi and the people of the State. There is no other way out, but the time factor is very important. We also need to think about taking other measures, like opening up Jammu and Kashmir to the outside world.

But the BJP is opposing dialogue regularly despite being an alliance partner.

What you say today is not something very permanent. The other side also has not responded well.

You are saying the Hurriyat has not responded?

Yes, they have not responded. The group of people like Sitaram Yechury and Sharad Yadav coming to their doors and trying to talk to them and getting no response.

They met Yashwant Sinha?

That was the next time.

Yashwant Sinha did not get a good response from Delhi.

I think it is a vicious circle. First, the Hurriyat did not respond. Now, New Delhi is not responding.

Will you force New Delhi to respond?

We cannot force anybody, but I am trying to create an atmosphere where both sides can reconcile with each other. Reconciliation is the first step.

Are you concerned about the student unrest?

Yes, I am, but it seems to be a more organised thing, not something spontaneous. If something happens at one place and you control it there, then it happens at some other place. There is someone behind it. It is not something that students want to do on their own.

There are people who want to create unrest. For them creating unrest has become a money-minting machine.

Your father and you were both media friendly when you were asked about Omar Abdullah in 2010 and how you protested on the streets. But the same things were happening in 2016 and you were in power, and why did you lose your cool?

But Omar prefers to be on Twitter instead of on the streets. The Home Minister was telling me that he was getting late. I was not upset with the question. I was emotionally hurt as I said they were the kids whom I had rescued and their parents were not taking care of them. I started entering into Army camps when I joined politics.

How do you see Omar Abdullah’s criticism even if on Twitter?

He has to do that. I do not grudge him that. At least he is saying something on Twitter if not hitting the streets. I think the mainstream political party should be very active on the streets also. Otherwise there will be a vacuum. Who is going to fill that vacuum?

You do not allow the Hurriyat to do that?

What does the Hurriyat do? They throw stones. When Omar sahab was the Chief Minister, we used to take out processions and raise slogans. The same can be done by the N.C., but they are not doing any political activity of that kind. So if he chooses to be on Twitter, it is okay with me.

The Congress and other parties have said that the PDP feared that it would lose the byelection in Anantnag parliamentary constituency and for that reason called it off.

What Tassaduq [Hussain, Mehbooba Mufti’s brother] said that day was that eight people had lost their lives and it was not worth it. We were anticipating more violence in Anantnag. Three-four months earlier, I had in a way tried to convey to the Election Commission of India, “let’s not have elections and postpone them for some time till wounds are healed and let’s give people some time after the 2016 unrest”. But I don’t know what came over them and they announced this election. It was ill-timed.

When Tassaduq came into the party and you gave him the mandate, the N.C. and the Congress labelled your party a private limited company.

Tassaduq is established in his own way. He has a name in the industry and is one of the best cinematographers. So, if he chose to come and serve people here, to me it is something that I could not deny him. He says his father left something unfinished. He feels passionately about it. He is not a politician. He does not think like a politician. But he really wants to do something about this place, do something for these kids, talking to them, meeting them, going deep into what is ailing them. I could not deny him that. Also, the party, everyone of them, was of the opinion that he was the right choice at this point of time. So that is what I did.

You talk a lot about corruption, but on the ground not much has changed.

As far as the Cabinet is concerned and our Ministers are concerned, there is a difference. But beyond that, on the ground we have not been able to control corruption. Although I dismissed 60 people, they have gone to the court and got their dismissals quashed. When your energies are diverted to law and order, governance and corruption take a back seat.

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