After the year 2018 ended in Kashmir with a record number of casualties and a string of political machinations that culminated in the dissolution of the State Assembly, Omar Abdullah and his National Conference are gearing up for this year’s elections. In an interview with Frontline in New Delhi, the former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir squarely blamed the interest-driven Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition and the muscular and communalist agendas it piloted in the valley as the root cause of home-grown militancy. Excerpts.
While the dispute between India and Pakistan and cross-border terrorism has a role to play in the unrest in the Valley, what according to you led to the recent explosion of home-grown militancy?
I don’t think there is any one single factor accountable or responsible for it. It is impossible to not make a correlation between the NDA [National Democratic Alliance] coming to power at the Centre and the BJP-PDP alliance forming a government in the State in early 2015, and the deterioration in the situation, particularly in south Kashmir which has hitherto been the bastion of the Peoples Democratic Party. Most of the recruitment for local militancy is in south Kashmir, and some of the most spectacular militant successes have been in south Kashmir. The Narendra Modi government’s inability to recognise Jammu and Kashmir as a political dispute, coupled with the anger that people [of the State] felt at the betrayal of their mandate for the PDP, when the PDP tied up with the BJP, and, of course, the manner in which the 2016 protests were handled, all contributed to militancy. The failure of the then government to own responsibility for what had happened also played a part.
The protests in 2008, 2009 and 2010, when you were the Chief Minister, did not spiral out of control. What was your conflict-management mechanism?
As painful as it may be for some people to read, it is important to understand that protests that deliver no face-savers for the protesters or don’t seem to deliver anything give rise to a deep-seated resentment. In 2008, there were two distinct agitations. There was the Amarnath land row. An agitation built up in the Valley, the allotment of land was cancelled, the agitation in the Valley died down. But as a result of that agitation, an economic blockade of Kashmir took place. You had a “Muzaffarabad chalo” call; people died in that, an agitation spiralled out of control. But the agitation really ended when the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road was thrown open for trade. People who agitated felt that there was something that that agitation had achieved. In 2009, the agitation was about the allegation of rape and murder in Shopian. A CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation] probe found otherwise, and the agitation petered out. In 2010, the agitation to a large extent eased off with the announcement of the interlocutors and the acceptance of a political dialogue. Contrast this with 2016; when the agitation ended, you had basically tired people out but nothing emerged out of it.
The Centre appointed Dineshwar Sharma as its interlocutor to Kashmir in 2017, but he failed to get much traction in the Valley. Did his past association with the Intelligence Bureau prove to be a baggage?
The individual to my mind is less important than the mandate that the individual gets. The mandate that had been given to Dineshwar Sharma lacked clarity. His terms of reference were unclear. In most instances it appeared that he was supplementing or complementing, and in some places, even intruding into, the mandate of an elected government. He would visit districts and meet delegations, but the delegations were about bijli, sadak, paani, whereas when the previous team of interlocutors went to Kashmir, their interactions were political in nature. That’s why their report was political. It was a sad thing that that report was not followed through.
Terror outfits like the Al Badr and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, which were nearly defunct in the past decade, have suddenly made a strong comeback. How do you view the Centre’s handling of the security situation in Kashmir?
Well, you created an environment where revival was made possible because ground support was made available to them [militants]. In the past, militant organisations found it difficult to exist in the Valley because local support for militancy had all but eroded. This is the first time after many years that the number of local militants who have been killed outnumbers the number of foreign militants who were eliminated. That is the direct legacy of the past five years of this government.
Can elections be held successfully and peacefully in this atmosphere?
The security situation in Kashmir, no doubt, is grave. But, not so long ago, you had panchayat and urban local bodies’ elections. We can quibble about the turnout in those elections, but no less a person than the Prime Minister claimed those elections were a success. So, has the security environment deteriorated to such a great extent within a couple of months that there is speculation whether elections will be held or not? That’s something only the Government of India can answer.
Is it possible for political leaders, including you, to travel across south Kashmir and canvass for the parliamentary elections, given the threat perception?
Well, we have been travelling to south Kashmir. You never had a perfectly conducive environment in Jammu and Kashmir. From 1996 onwards, we have dealt with situations that have been less than optimum for elections. If we are going to sit and wait for the perfect environment for elections, then I don’t think that perfect environment will come. But is this the worst possible climate for elections? That’s again something the Government of India needs to decide.
What led to the poor turnout in the Valley during the panchayat and urban local bodies’ elections? Did the row over the State’s special status have a role to play?
It does obviously have an impact on electoral climate. But the point we are making to potential voters and potential participants is that no government is there in perpetuity, and we are hoping that this general election will throw up a different dispensation, one that will be more open to the idea of a political dialogue, and that’s for the voters to decide.
How do you feel the Pulwama terror strike will impact the political discourse in the country?
One would hope that the attack would not be used for political purposes, but clearly that hope is misplaced. You have images of Ministers getting selfies clicked in front of coffins of dead soldiers, of BJP MPs standing in the same truck which is carrying a dead CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force] soldier and waving to the crowd, you have the national president of the BJP politicising this attack by saying that had there been a Congress government, it would not have avenged the death of the soldiers. As much as one would like to wish that the soldiers’ deaths would not be politicised, they will be. Now what impact this will have, it is far too early to tell.
Impunity for [the perpetrators of] human rights violations and lack of access to justice are key human rights challenges in Jammu and Kashmir. How does your party, which has promised a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, plan to end the cycle of violence and ensure accountability for violations and abuses?
We have asked for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we haven’t promised one. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is something that I had talked about in a blog post sometime in 2005 or 2006. It will have to be a post-conflict confidence-building measure jointly agreed on by India and Pakistan to answer the unanswered questions in the last 30 years of militancy and provide some healing.
Your party has promised to revoke the Public Safety Act. Do you see it as a political tool to stifle dissent?
Well, if there weren’t perceptions of misuse, I wouldn’t have been committing my party’s support to removing it. We watered down some of the harsh provisions of the Act when I was Chief Minister. I believe that it did not go far enough and, therefore, this time we will look at abrogating it.
The N.C. has once again reiterated its commitment to regional autonomy. But experts are of the view that the1975 Sheikh Abdullah-Indira Gandhi agreement carried in it an implicit rejection of the option to restore the pre-1953 constitutional situation in Jammu and Kashmir. Is autonomy an implementable idea?
No, I am not going to get into the details of autonomy, except to say that both documents are in the public domain—the 1975 accord as well as the Centre-State autonomy which was endorsed by a two-thirds majority of the Legislature of Jammu and Kashmir in 2000. That is our template for discussion with the Central government and with anybody else.
As far as regional autonomy is concerned, our need to reiterate [the need for] regional autonomy stems from the way in which the BJP has used the Raj Bhavan to minimise the damage that the party is facing in Ladakh. No less a person than the Prime Minister committed to the Ladakhis that should he become Prime Minister he would give them Union Territory status. He hasn’t. And, therefore, they have got a sort of consolation prize in the form of a division. Now, a division could have been given to them by anybody, if that’s what the Ladakhis wanted. But the division reopens the demands of the Pir Panjal region, of the Chenab valley, of other areas. Jammu and Kashmir had two divisions at a time when it had eight districts. Today Jammu and Kashmir has 22 districts, but we now have only three divisions. So we believe there is a case to be made for greater regional autonomy within the State framework.
What is your message to Kashmiri students who are being attacked across India?
My message is to people who are attacking them, to please sit and think whose agenda they are fulfilling. The only message that I have for students who are studying outside Jammu and Kashmir is to those whose words or actions create problems for all the other students. I think they are the ones that need to be careful.
(Courtesy: Frontline Magazine)