For internal dialogue

Published : Aug 15, 2003 00:00 IST

Interview with Omar Abdullah.

Last autumn, even before the dust raised by the National Conference's (N.C.) defeat in the Assembly elections had settled, Omar Abdullah started work on plans to revive the discredited and moribund party apparatus. Nine months later, as the party president he finally has what he wanted.

In June, the N.C. severed its links with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Omar Abdullah regrets not having spoken out on the carnage in Gujarat and having failed to contain human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir. The N.C. would now focus on the concerns of Kashmir and Kashmiris "first and foremost", Abdullah said, and added that in moments of doubt he turned to the memory of his grandfather, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, an obvious act of disassociation with the legacy of his father and former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah.

Excerpts from the exclusive interview he gave Praveen Swami:

Sceptics say you left the NDA because you have failed to extract a ministerial berth for your father, Farooq Abdullah. They say that the move is desperate, opportunistic.

Well, if we had left the NDA after the elections, they would have said that it was because we had been defeated, and called it desperate and opportunistic. The truth is we have had a long-running debate within the party on being part of the NDA. Some people believed that we risked isolation by leaving the NDA at this stage, and the issue had to be thoroughly discussed. Secondly, I needed time to put in place a team of people I could work with. Finally, we needed to refocus on just what we stood for and believed in, and to reorder our priorities. As for our trying to extract a ministerial berth, contrary to what the media has been reporting, we have been very clear since the elections that none of us would join the government.

What exactly does the party stand for now? You went into the last elections asking for greater autonomy, but had done little actually to foreground the issue in a sustained fashion.

Well, I don't think our demand for autonomy was opportunistic, although perhaps it came across that way. Today, you have Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, from the [All Parties] Hurriyat Conference, talking on the same lines. Autonomy remains a key platform. But the larger issue is to bring about a sustainable dialogue between all shades of political opinion in Jammu and Kashmir. We need an external dialogue, but also an internal dialogue. Even the Hurriyat Conference, whether one likes it or not, represents some constituency in Jammu and Kashmir, however large or small it may be. On its fringes, there are other secessionist groups, which also need to be pulled into a dialogue. I do not think the Union government is doing enough to make this happen.

Some people in the Union government seem to believe that the emergence of the People's Democratic Party (PDP) is evidence that a dialogue is under way.

Is it? The PDP has an undisguised relationship with terrorists. You covered the elections and saw what was going on. Now, New Delhi is flirting with these people. All this is not without consequences, because it puts tremendous pressure on us and other political forces to play the same game. It is almost as if you have to take extreme positions for New Delhi to listen to you. In fact, the whole situation is bizarre. You have a Congress(I)-supported government, which does not say a word about the Babri Masjid or Gujarat.

In this context, how optimistic are you about the India-Pakistan detente that now seems under way? What kind of concrete impact will it have in Jammu and Kashmir?

Well, one thing is clear: as the peace process gains strength, so will the attacks on the peace process. Violence will escalate, and recent events are just a taste of what could come. Now, the question is, how far can a government just a short distance from general elections take? How many blows can it sustain? And if the Prime Minister is compelled to back down, there could be dangerous consequences.

For example?

Well, there will be great pressure on some elements to seek to recover ground through displays of muscle. One thing could lead to another, with unanticipated consequences. Personally, I would have been much happier had the Prime Minister started on this third peace initiative with five years in his pocket, and a clear road map of what he sought to achieve.

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