NC Working President and former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah tells Masood Hussain
KASHMIR LIFE (KL): How you see the security situation at a time when an AMU scholar left his research and joined militancy?
OMAR ABDULLAH (OA): I think there are two distinct aspects to the security situation. One is the valley and one is the International Border (IB) and the Line of Control (LoC). And both are a major cause of concern today.
If we look first at the IB and the LoC, the situation as of today is clear in front of you. Heavy shelling and firing are going on. The ceasefire exists only on paper and not in reality. Civilians are being targeted, killed and unfortunately, the government seems completely helpless. So while you hear statements from the Chief Minister about Indo-Pak friendship and about border tourism, the reality is that people on the border are dying.
The situation in the valley is equally alarming in terms of the number of youngsters that are joining the ranks of militancy. Earlier it was believed or at least Government of India tried to convince itself that only those who don’t have a bright future are joining militancy. But now you have people who have done their masters, who are PhD scholars, they are leaving a possibility of a good bright future and are joining the ranks of militants.
What is the sentiment that is driving them? What is the driving force that is pushing them in the direction that will have at the face of it a very tragic ending?
This government takes great pride in the fact that they killed more than 200 militants in the last year but that is nothing to be proud of. In fact, if anything, it is something to be alarmed by because it means that militancy has increased and that is why the number of militants are dying.
So as I said, right, in the beginning, any way you look at the situation, whether in Jammu or in Kashmir, there is nothing that we can take any degree of satisfaction from. In fact, if anything, it is deeply alarming, and what is equally worrying is that neither the central government nor the state government seems to have any clear idea how to deal with it.
KL: Last year Delhi appointed Dineshwar Sharma as interlocutor. Do you see that intervention was too small or it didn’t deliver the way it should have?
OA: I don’t think it was small. I think it lacked clarity in the beginning. You know first impressions are the impressions that count. When the initial impression was that the government is unsure what Dineshwar Sharma’s mandate is. The government is unsure what his designation is. The government is unsure of whom will he reach out and talk to. I think the momentum was lost right in the beginning.
The first visit that Dineshwar Sharma made to the state, hardly anybody met him. Subsequently, he has tried to go out into the districts and meet people but he is basically meeting same people that the Chief Minister meets in her, what they call, the ‘Awaami Darbars’.
The Chief Minister is mandated to solve day to day problems of the people, Dineshwar Sharma was actually there for a wider political dialogue which we don’t see happening. And therein again the vacuum that is created, unfortunately, is being filled by people who are going forward and picking up the gun.
KL: Should the clarity come in Dineshwar Sharma’s case now or you think there has to be a newer initiative?
OA: How can you make a new initiative when you have this initiative ongoing? Unfortunately, the time for clarity was in the beginning. You lost the momentum right in the beginning. Now it is a struggle to re-establish credibility. Dineshwar Sharma, as I said is trying, he is going out into districts, he is meeting people but the problem of Jammu & Kashmir is not going to be resolved by Dineshwar Sharma meeting the same people that Mehbooba Mufti meets. He has to go out and meet those people who have so far stayed away from meeting the government. But that is not happening and I see no clarity on that either.
KL: You were supposed to have Lok Sabha elections in south Kashmir. You are barely a year away from another general election and then two years away from the next state election. In this security situation that is around on borders or in the hinterland, how are you going to have Panchayat elections?
OA: Well obviously if you are unable to have a Lok Sabha election, how are you going to have Panchayat election. A Panchayat election involves more candidates, it involves more polling booths, and it involves more sort of political mobility. If you cannot secure 15 assembly constituencies for one parliament seat, how can you secure the entire valley plus Pir Panjal and the Chenab Valleys. I am deeply concerned that this Panchayat election, will give militants a new set of targets that will be much easier to attack and they will be the softest of the soft targets. Now whether the government has factored the same, whether they are aware of this risk, whether they have taken this decision knowing they are putting thousands of people’s lives at even greater risks than they were otherwise is a question that only government can answer.
I don’t understand how the same government can write to the Election Commission that the conditions are not conducive for a Lok Sabha by-poll and later issue a notification that conditions are conducive for Panchayat elections. It again shows the confusion in the government.
That said, as a political party, we will not leave the field. If the government announces Panchayat elections, we will put our best foot forward but we know that these are not conditions that are conducive for those elections.
KL: As you know as former Chief Minister and National Conference leader, every election has costs for Kashmir regardless of the fact whether it is contested within or outside J&K. So we are closer to two elections. We barely had an election three years back soon after we were soaked by flood and devastated. What cost will the forthcoming elections have for J&K?
OA: It does. But unfortunately, we haven’t learned a lesson from that. The moment we have somewhat decent turnout in the election, we find successive governments in the centre patting themselves on the back and say there is no problem in Kashmir: Look how many turned out and voted or how many people participated. But the point we have been continuously trying to make is that elections in Jammu & Kashmir are not about the wider issue of Kashmir. Even if you have a 100 percent participation in elections, it doesn’t mean that the political issue of Jammu & Kashmir has been resolved to the satisfaction of the majority of people and therefore to project a successful election as an endorsement of the idea that there is no political problem in Jammu & Kashmir. If that is the case then what is the Anantnag election: That means that an unsuccessful election is an endorsement of what, the separatist sentiment?
So you can’t have it both ways. And therefore I think the Government of India and the commentators all need to see an election for what it is. It is an election where people want their day to day issues and problems resolved and not confuse it with the wider political problem of Jammu & Kashmir.
KL: Every time Kashmir is being talked about, commentators talk about some initiative taking-off, soon after the election. Then there is another state election and these elections are a continuous process and nothing happens.
OA: Well it is a continuous process and you can’t have a dialogue process or a peace process scheduled around elections because you will have Parliament elections every five years. You will have assembly elections every six years if they are on schedule. You will have local body elections and Panchayat elections interspaced in this. No peace process can be designed around elections. It has to be insulated from the changes of government, at the state and central level. That hasn’t happened thus far. Let us see hopefully lessons will be learned.
KL: But how this frequency of elections is impacting the so-called development process in Jammu & Kashmir.
OA: I think frequent elections affect development process everywhere. Jammu & Kashmir is not unique in that respect. There has been grave concern about the way in which Government of India is constantly in election mode because the moment they finish election in one state, they start campaigning for elections in another state. So I mean that is a problem. That is the wider debate in the country as to whether you can have synchronized elections, simultaneous elections and how that would be possible. That is not just an issue for Jammu & Kashmir.
KL: How you see the state of human rights right now. You have handled it earlier as well.
OA: Well it depends. For any comparison to be made, it depends on what baseline you adopt. If you want to compare the security environment in Jammu & Kashmir today. If you compare law and order in 2017 to law and order situation in 2016, there is an improvement.
But if you compare law and order 2017 to let us say 2013-14, then there is a marked deterioration. Same is the case for human rights. If you want to compare human rights today to human rights in the early 1990s, it is but obvious there is an improvement in the situation. But if you want to compare human rights today to an ideal situation, where human rights violation do not take place, then there is still some gap to go.
A state where a person who has shown to be the legitimate voter, who cast his vote is tied to a front of a jeep and paraded through villages, what does that tell you about your human rights situation. Two women of young children are killed in a crossfire in encounters and in dealing with law and order situations, what does that tell you about the human rights situation. So similar instances can be quoted. The reintroduction of crackdowns, what they call CASO, this is again phenomenon which has resumed after many years. You look at what is happening in Srinagar city today. Young boys are pulled out of buses and their mobile phones are being searched. All this is in some way violation of human rights. The way in which the internet is shut down: at the drop of the hat, internet connectivity is shut, no state has had as much shutdown of the internet as Jammu & Kashmir has had. The way in which our mosques get closed on Fridays in the name of the security environment. All this point toward to less than optimum human rights situation.
KL: But is there a conscious crisis in the system that aides the overall deterioration of human rights.
OA: The fact that the Chief Minister is so heavily dependent now on Delhi for her continuation in office. The fact that politically today the PDP’s support base stands deeply eroded. All this makes it tougher for the state government to stand up when an incident of a human rights violation takes place. Again, I come back to the incident with voter tied to the front of an army jeep, the state government should have taken a much stronger position on that than they did. The State Human Rights Commission announced a financial compensation which the state government is refusing to pay.
Similarly in the case of Machil fake encounter where the convicts are now having their convictions reduced or overturned. Again is something that state government should have taken a much stronger position on. They haven’t done and that shows systemic weakness and that stems from the top of the political leadership.
KL: You ruled J&K and faced the worst situation in 2010. Were there incidences in which you took a very strong stand and it became an example for a system.
OA: There are examples. Some I can remember of hand, some I can’t. I will give you one small example. Remember we used to facilitate the return of those who had crossed the LoC for militancy but wanted to come back, settle and spend normal life here. I don’t remember the name of the individual, but he was from Lolab who had come across the Nepal border and was arrested in UP and later handed him over to Delhi police. We took a very strong stand on that and the case was handed over to NIA. He was found to be innocent and released. See there are instances like that. Where we tried to at least make sure that we took a strong stand and we had the support of Government of India and we succeeded.
KL: Jammu & Kashmir’s economy is suffering from multiple sets of reasons. Now the Finance Minister is telling us he is increasing the public spending and that will help the economy grow. Is it going to happen?
OA: Look I am not an economist. Haseeb Drabu is a far better economist than most of us in the state. There is a model of economic intervention that supports this theory that when an economy is in doldrums, increased public spending puts more money into the economy.
This would be sort of more effective if the money is being spent through agencies in the state. But if public spending is going to be done through central public entities, then the money is going to go out. Let us take an example. You will bring a tourism project of Rs 20 crores from Government of India, and it is allocated to NBCC. So employees are all NBCC’s, the staff is all NBCC’s, contractors are all NBCC’s. Money comes, money goes. Same is with NHPC. Let us take this four laning of the national highway. The sort of conditions for allocation of the contracts are so severe, that no local contractor is able to participate. At best they are sub-contractors of sub-contractors. So under those circumstances, I think his idea may be sound but I think in implementation will have problems.
KL: Why is every political party that is based in Jammu & Kashmir forgotten about minorities in Jammu?
OA: That is not true. Well, problems arise. But that is not as if we ignore those problems. Again a small example but this morning in the assembly the issue of young girl Kathua side who, according to newspapers, was found raped before she was murdered, was raised effectively. The Special Investigation Team set up by the state government has now been converted into judicial inquiry and a time-bound judicial inquiry. So it is not as if these issues are ignored. From time to time as necessary, we raise them.
KL: But locals say that certain departments have been purged from Muslims and they feel pushed to the wall?
OA: There is a case to be made for that. State government needs to answer for it and in the course of this budget session particularly when the Chief Minister’s grants come up, I am sure this will be an issue that will be raised.
(Tasavur Mushtaq processed the interview)