‘The strongest instinct to pick up the gun is political, not money or governance deficit’

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In the intermittent hot discussions on issues confronting J&K in the ongoing budget session, NC Working President and former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah made candid confessions in an interview with Masood Hussain. He said his administrative follow-up to 2010 did not absolve him of his moral responsibility and like him Chief Minister Ms Mufti will carry the baggage of 2016 for her entire political career. Excerpts from the long free-wheeling interview:

Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah

Kashmir Life (KL): You faced unrest in 2010 and your successor in 2016. What were the marked differences between 2010 and 2016?

Omar Abdullah (OA): The biggest difference in terms of actual agitation was that 2008 and 2010 were urban centric unlike 2016 that was largely rural. Mere comparison of intensity will bare me out. The incumbent governments in Delhi and Srinagar were more into ending the agitation by tiring out protesters, by using arrests, detention and other things. Unlike 2016, in 2008 and 2010 efforts were made to bring out a peaceful end of agitation by offering certain concessions.

In 2008 opening of LoC route for trade was made. In 2010, appointment of interlocutors took place and political nature of the problem was accepted. In 2016 you had nothing of this sort.

There are differences in terms of intensity, damage to public property, and injuries to people – 2016 was worst on that count. But the fact of the matter is at the end of the day, whether it is 2008, 2010 or 2016, the state suffered, people lost their lives, people were injured, the economy was effectively derailed. It will take a long time to build confidence in economy and confidence of the state also. At this peak hour of winter tourist season, we are not getting as many enquiries as we would like. But let us see how the season goes.

KL: In 2010 we had so many dead bodies and in 2016 we again had them. Neither was 2010 investigated the way people would like, nor is this government in a mood to investigate beyond a few cases?

OA: We had intended to investigate all cases. We had announced judicial inquiry well before 2010 agitation ended.  We had hoped that the announcement of judicial enquiry in itself would have a calming effect on the situation. It did not. We registered FIRs in all cases, submitted challans, investigations were conducted and cases were made in the courts. It is now a matter of the legal system to follow up.

KL: You were in power in 2010 and PDP is ruling since 2015. These are the two main parties with strong Kashmir base. If you do not investigate, or investigate only to a level, then what will your voters do?

OA: The fact is that people passed a judgment on it in 2014 elections. One is that of moral responsibility which will not be reduced by the electoral outcome. The baggage of 2010, I will carry for the rest of my life, regardless of what happens in the subsequent elections. I am sure that is true for Mehbooba Mufti, as well.

As for as state politics is concerned, it is for people in J&K to throw up alternatives. I did not create the PDP. It was created under circumstances which were very different. If tomorrow a third alternative emerges in the regional political space, so be it. It is for circumstances to throw up.

As far as NC is concerned, I believe whether we win elections or lose, NC remains relevant to the politics of J&K and will remain involved till a solution is found.  Wins and losses in elections is part and parcel of the whole thing.

KL: Is there a possibility of having a common minimum silver lining on issues concerning people, like the use of pellet guns. This I am asking because all vote-seeking parties will have to work with the same people in the same ideologically split place.

OA: In her most recent speech in the legislative assembly, the Chief Minister basically gave ownership of the PDP-BJP Agenda of Alliance to everyone. She said that this agenda is not the agenda of only PDP and BJP but is the product of Working Groups, Round Tables and all the other documents introduced in the last few years. If that be the case, then clearly it is common minimum programme of all mainstream parties. Since all parties participated in the Working Groups and Round Tables, therefore the Agenda of Alliance is a sort of summary of those exercises and a CMP.

Our problem is not with the content of the Agenda of Alliance. Our problem is the way in which content is being ignored. Today, three budgets and two years into this government, we would like to look into the Agenda of Alliance: which decisions were implemented? Most of it has remained unimplemented. So there is no point in the common agenda if it is not going to be implemented.

There is no single party that is not against the pellet guns. What is the harm in withdrawing them? The circumstances in which these guns were introduced in the valley and the way they were supposed to be used and the way they were subsequently used, there is a huge difference. You have put these guns into the hands of complete untrained forces who have no idea. You picked them up from the fields of Jharkhand and other Naxal affected areas where they used to fire at Maoists with AK47. Here you put them into law and order situation, with pellet guns and then you tell them to fire as you like. Then you have to face the consequences. So not only is the problem with the weapons, but the way weapon is being used. So I think, on the withdrawal of the pellet gun, you would not find any political party that will oppose it.

Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah speaking in assembly in 2010 about the civilian deaths (KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)

KL: In 2008 one trade route was opened in response to economic blockage. In 2010, there were people showing concern. Why it did not happen in 2016?

OA: For that you will have to go back to the speech that was made in Hyderabad in 2010 by Ajit Doval, now the National Security Adviser. Opposing the handling of 2010, he suggested how it should actually have been handled. If you see how it has been suggested at that point of time and how the government of today has handled it now, you will see a lot of similarity in what he suggested and how 2016 was handled. There in itself lies the answer as to why in previous agitations efforts were made to reach out to people, unlike in 2016.

KL: So what happens when people survive with a sense of defeat?

OA: Obviously the simmering resentment remains. Any agitation that ends artificially, or without the agitators getting anything for the suffering and the pain, unfortunately results in simmering resentment. I am not for a moment suggesting that because of this we will see a similar agitation next year. We may not see but for some years to come. But the anger will continue to remain, and that anger unfortunately will keep feeding on itself. In any situation that is dangerous. In J&K it is even more so.

KL: Government acknowledged the costs of the agitation with emphasis on Rs 16000 crore. People  in Kashmir are counting bodies. Do not you think, this dichotomy of approach is more different?

OA: As far as I am concerned, the monetary loss is far less important than the human loss. Monetary loss can be made up over time, certain concession, incentives, and restructuring of loans. But for human loss cannot be compensated by any amount. So I am not concerned, if the costs of this agitation is not Rs 6000 or Rs 60 thousand crore. The cost of this agitation is the lives we have lost and the lives we have ruined as a result of injuries. That is the only cost that matters to me. That is why it is more important that we do our level best to ensure that this sort of situation never arises again.

I had hoped that the lessons we had learnt in 2010 would suffice to ensure that this situation would never arise. Unfortunately those lessons were unlearnt. I can only hope that the lessons learnt in 2016 will ensure that we do not see a situation of 2016 again.

KL: But what were the lessons of 2010?

OA: There are a whole lot of lessons about the coordinating between the police and the CRPF and the army. How you will ensure that large crowds do not gather by blocking the access from village to village so that the size of protests is smaller; the actual use of non lethal weapons so that they remain non-lethal; and how you deploy your tear smoke shells and other weapons? These lessons should have helped improve this situation. During the initial day of the agitations, these lessons were completely forgotten or ignored.

Former chief minister Omar Abdullah coming out of his residence to address media in 2014 (KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)

KL: In Jammu, there is feeling of minorities being chocked. What are the reasons and what it could lead to?

OA: There is no doubt that there is a continuous effort by one of the constituents of ruling alliance to basically divide people on religious lines. In 2014 assembly elections in spite of the best efforts by the BJP to unite people under Mr Modi, it did not happen. So the only places they benefited from were where they polarized the voter. Therefore, in this situation when they are faced with problems because of the ceasefire violation, demonetization, complete absence of development, they are faced with problems of corruption, they are more interested in fanning the flames of this sort of division because they believe that is the only way they can keep their vote bank intact.

I believe this is also the result of the fact that both parties have very clear cut constituencies. PDP has no stakes in larger part of Jammu and BJP has no stakes in Kashmir which was not the case in previous government. Congress had stakes in Valley and NC had stakes in Jammu. We were very careful in how we went about, trying to address the problems. Though their stated aim was to bring Jammu closer to Kashmir, get Hindus and Muslims together, unfortunately that did not happen. In this government that gap has widened. And it continues to widen everyday. You see the sort of steps taken by the forest minister that is creating the sense of unease. There is a general sense of disquiet which is not good.

KL: In such a situation, can Kashmir get the spillover from Jammu as was the case in Gool and Kishtwar?

OA: Every situation has spillover. The 2016 agitation had spillover in parts of Jammu. There were no casualties, thank goodness but the spillover was there. We had spillover in Kashmir when the communal incident took place in Kishtwar. There is a mountain between Jammu and Kashmir but that can not block sentiment. It only blocks physical access and not the emotional access. So where there is an emotional connection, there will be spillover. That is bound to happen. That is more important for the incumbent government to address concerns in these areas which we, unfortunately, see are not happening.

KL: What is your role as principle opposition in at least settling that part of the issue?

OA: I see our role as that of a responsible opposition, which is to ensure that for our own petty political gains we do not fan these flames which is the easiest thing for us to do. I could have taken up summer agitation and made things worse by trying to capitalize on it politically. But as a considered decision it was not done. We will never do it.

We will continue to oppose this government on the issues of principles and development but we will never oppose for the sake of opposition by fanning flames, by creating communal strife, by adding to the tally of dead bodies. So long J&K is peaceful, there is scope for me as opposition party. When J&K is in turmoil, my space is as threatened as that of the government. I have to be reasonable opposition to ensure that my party plays a positive role to ensure the situation remains calm on both sides of the mountains.

KL: Would good development fetch you a good election in J&K?

OA: No. it is as simple as that. Let me put it this way. The absence of development can cost you as heavily as an election. The presence of development is not a positive factor that the people will vote for. Let truth be told, there was no shortage of development in the six years I was in government. But all that was washed away by issues on which I had little or no control over. I had very little control over whether Afzal Guru was executed or not. I had absolutely no control over the floods. There were a whole host of issues I had no control over. All that superseded the role played by the development. I am convinced that absence of development is a huge setback and presence of development is not a positive issue unfortunately in elections.

Some of the constituencies saw the greatest development in six years but saw the sitting MLAs losing. Some of my ministers did so much in their constituencies like Kupwara, Handwara, Chrar-e-Sharief, Vijapypur and various other Congress colleagues. But the development is not the only thing which is good enough.

KL: Does that essentially mean that you will have to carry part of the ground sentiment with you?

OA: Absolutely. If you do not identify with some or part of the aspirations of the people then you are failing as a politician. This you have to, to the extent that your personal and party’s beliefs coincide with that. There are people in Kashmir, who believe that future of the J&K lies outside the constitution. Now there is a point, beyond which, I cannot go. My point ends at J&K’s autonomous position. There is a limit about how much I can identify myself with the aspirations and the sentiment.

Similar is the case in Jammu. There is a group that says Jammu should not be part of J&K state and should be a separate identity. There is limit to what extent can my colleagues here identify with that sentiment.

Same situation exists in Ladakh as well where so many people seek UT status. We can identify with the extent that party ideology and personal beliefs permit.

KL: But heterogeneity of political aspirations, faiths, culture, climates within the J&K is making politics a real worst thing?

OA: No. I will not say worst, I will say toughest. It is by far the best place which is toughest to cover and toughest to be in politics in. Unless you are a one man army with a small and limited constituency, there is no problem. If you are a party like ours, that straddles regional divide, ideological divides, that all makes your job difficult. But if you are a party that is limited to Jammu like Panthers Party or confined to valley like that of parties of Hakim Yasin, Ghulam Hasan Mir, it is easy for you. Straddling different shades of opinion is not easy. They are not bad either. It just makes it more challenging.

Former chief minister Omar ABdullah during a public rally (KL Image)

KL: With Agenda of Alliance in place, there is lot of judicial activism on J&K. A partner of the ruling alliance is trying to achieve certain goals that are visibly given up in the CMP. Is J&K’s politics going to the next level, where you have two agenda, one on table and another hidden?

OA: I do not think there is anything new in that. We have time and again been the victim of hidden agendas, more so when these hidden agenda were invoked at behest of central government.

That we are seeing greater judicial activism is not unique to JK. It is a nation vide phenomenon. It is not a bad thing. It is all result of politicians failing in fulfilling their responsibilities which is why the courts have got in.  That political agenda are now solved or fulfilled through courts and judicial routes is a worrying factor.

Today I am firmly of the opinion that BJP is convinced that they cannot impact J&K’s special status through legislative route. Therefore they are seeking courts to change special status. This SARFAESI is one of the first steps in that direction. The fact that the state government put its hands up and refused to put up a fight in court to defend its position on SARFAESI is extremely worrying. SARFAESI on its own is not a problem because our state subject laws are such that with or without SARFAESI you cannot sell land to non state subjects. So that is not worry for me.

If tomorrow the government surrenders on 35A, J&K’s special status is a matter of history. What is the guarantee to me that in order to prevail in power, Ms Mufti does not surrender on 35A as her government surrendered on SARFAESI?

Yes the fact the judicial route can be used to affect political change by a party like BJP is a worrying factor.

KL: You had 1947, then 1952 then 1975 but the debate is still going on. What does that mean that it is still unsettled?

OA: It is not settled because I mean if changes had not been affected to the substances of the structure around accession took place, to the sum and substance of Article 370, you would not have a problem. The problem arose because the letter and spirit of instrument of accession was violated. If today the Union of India, was only responsible for three things – communication, defence, currency and foreign affairs – that were originally given, you would not have this problem.

Your problem started because you deposed and arrested a democratically elected Prime Minister, gradually eroded the very structure of the instrument of accession on which J&K had acceded to the union which gave rise to the political problem.  Had Article 370 exists in the same form as it was, you would not have a problem.

I mean history as a matter of what, if and but, but one can assume if that had not taken place, perhaps you would not have the problem today as you have.

KL: Can you visualize Delhi and Srinagar coming together to reconcile and move ahead?

OA: Up till now I find the will completely missing, largely on part of Delhi. It suits Delhi that our voices in the state are today divided. My grandfather at that time had warned that Delhi’s design is to create a leader in every Mohalla. So that J&K is never able to talk in single voice. It suits Delhi to divide us first regionally, then sub regionally, then ideologically. Then, they tell us first you decide what you want and then come and talk to us. So it is in their interest to keep us divided. Unfortunately there is inherent unwillingness on our part to come together, to frame a reasonably coherent roadmap for the way forward. More than that there is more unwillingness on part of Delhi to even engage us separately – to look for a way ahead.

KL: What is going to happen on the external front between India and Pakistan?

OA: Unfortunately, in the short term, very little. Whether we like it or not, we are one year closer to a general election. There is a limited quantity of political capital that any prime minister has, and that is true for this Prime Minister as well.

At the same time, let us be honest and give him credit for what he did. He went to Lahore and then talked in Uffa. Efforts were made. Those efforts did not deliver. In short term, I do not find any significant changes on the external front.

KL: Surgical strikes are over. Are we heading towards a war now?

OA: No. I believe good sense prevailed and good sense will continue prevailing. That there is tension along LoC or border cannot be denied but it is also true that both governments ensured the levels of tension remain within manageable limits. So I do not know whether you will see surgical strikes of a similar way because the surgical strike that was conducted after Uri did not deliver any results viz-a-viz an end to terrorism or infiltration. What the government will do; one has to wait and see.

KL: Youth bulge in J&K’s demography is quite serious. Do you have any suggestion that prevents young men to have an alternative in picking up guns?

OA: We are limited by our ability to suggest to them because their ideology and their vision of J&K differs from ours. So how can I suggest a youngster who is willing to pick up a gun and die for his cause; that I have a better suggestion that he does.

In three decades of violence now nothing has changed. The only thing that has happened is the grounds that could have been used for children to play in are used to bury our youngsters. That is the only thing that changed. And as much as I would be able to tell them that their violence will deliver results, it would not. The world over we have seen that it is only dialogue that has followed on from a violent struggle, and has actually delivered results. Whether we look at Ireland, East Timor, or most recently in Columbia, longer militant struggles than ours, it is only dialogue that is producing result. I like to believe in case of J&K we had a violent struggle for last three decades but if anything has to come out of this violence, it will come only when we sit down and talk. For that Delhi has to show right intent, right frame of mind, and we will have to convince these youngsters that at least temporarily they must come forward, and address the dialogue process, that they can do what they like, if that fails.

NC working president Omar Abdullah during his visit in 2014 to access the flood situation in valley (KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)

KL: Is there a link between the governance failure and the violence?

OA: Fundamentally our problem is a political problem. Therefore the strongest instinct to pick up the gun is political. But I will be fool to deny that issues of governance do not play a part. It adds to anger. But governance is not the root cause of anger. Otherwise who is highly educated with a good degree and a prospect of a job would not pick up the gun if his motivation would be governance related. The government has reached him, given him opportunity to attain education. For him governance actually has succeeded. If all our militants were uneducated, they had no prospects for job, I will believe the governance is cause of their anger. If you are highly educated youngsters who are wiling to pick up the gun and die for the cause, then you must accept that governance plays a small part in their motivation.

Their motivation is largely political and that is something we need to address. That is why we do a disservice to these people when we say de-monetization has happened and militancy has ended. They are not dying for money. If money was the reason, we would have bought our solution out from this problem long time ago. Any package would have resulted in less militancy. That does not happen so we have to accept that sum and substance of our problem is political. Yes governance and security infrastructure plays a role in it, a small role.

KL: Internet, I believe, is more democratic than democracy denotes in this part of the world. Is it possible to make it politics-neutral and permit the people to express, the way they wish they can?

OA: Unfortunately, nothing is politics and governance neutral, not even education. It emerged single biggest victim of last six months of turmoil. The last thing to open in this turmoil was the school. On open days the shops would open but not schools. So when we are not able to make our education and health care conflict neutral, how can the social media be conflict neutral. To the extent that opinions and voices in social media do not give rise to violent reaction, I am all for making it conflict neutral. I am supportive of people making their views.  My problem arises when these views give rise to violent reactions, whether on the part of mainstream or separatists ideologies. Because this medium is new. We have not developed the maturity to handle it as we should. As and when we get gradually used  to it – twitter, facebook, perhaps we will be able to agree to disagree.

 

 

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