Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah (who held office from January 2009 to January 2015) is no stranger to politics in the troubled state. Before him, his father served as chief minister of J&K three times, while his grandfather, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, founder of the National Conference (earlier known as Muslim Conference) , had been the state's prime minister and then served twice as chief minister. The three generations of the Abdullahs have thus held the top job in the state for close to 30 of the 69 years since 1947.
The family is also no stranger to national politics, While Farooq Abdullah served as Minister of New and Renewable Energy in Manmohan Singh's United Progressive Alliance government, Omar Abdullah served as Union Minister of State for External affairs in Atal Bihari Vajpayee's National Democratic government.
Omar Abdullah, who has been in active politics since 1998, is currently Member of the Legislative Assembly from Beerwah constituency of Budgam district.
He spoke to Parvaiz Bukhari on a wide range of issues on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir since the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani on July 8. Excerpts from the interview.
What is your understanding of the political situation in Kashmir today? How would you contextualise the prevailing anger? What is it against?
There is clear anger on the streets. It is largely directed towards New Delhi in as much as this isn’t about day-to-day governance issues. It is not about development. It is about the wider problem of Jammu and Kashmir and its political dimension...
The intensity of what is happening today may be higher, but it is nothing new. You faced the protests of 2010 as chief minister. What did you learn? Has New Delhi learned anything?
I think we need to understand that what we are seeing is actually new, because previous agitations actually had some basis in demands.
In 2008, the agitation could basically be split in two parts. You had the Amarnath land row – the government withdrew the order, the agitation subsided.
Then the second part flared out: there was an economic blockade that was established in Jammu. We were told that no supplies would come from the rest of the country, and then the separatists gave the call to Muzaffarabad chalo [Let’s march to Muzaffarabad]. That was badly handled, there were a number of casualties and things went out of control from there…
In 2010 again, while the actual violence started with the death of Tufail Mattoo, the agitation actually started on the back of the deaths in Machil in a fake encounter and the demand for justice.
The quit Kashmir programme and the [protest] calendar that was issued by Masarat Alam and by Syed Ali Shah Geelani were to demand accountability for those killings in Machil and the withdrawal of the security forces.
Today, in 2016, there are no demands that are being made. It is pure and simple anger and reaction to the death of a militant…
Given what has transpired between 2010 and now – no progress on the issue of Kashmir, and the reaction to death of Burhan Wani – you have said that his potential to recruit for militancy from his grave was larger than his social media actions. Where do you think that is headed?
I don’t know. But wherever it is headed is a huge cause for concern. You have youngsters who are lying injured in hospitals today whose only demand is: "If I can get out of here, lay my hands on a weapon, I will become a militant."
So, it is almost like the fear that had set in about joining the ranks of militants, that has completely evaporated…
You represent a particular thought and your party’s ideology. What are your immediate concerns now?
Obviously we want this state of protest, agitation calendars, deaths of protestors and injuries to end. Once that ends, we want the government of India to realise that this is a political problem. And, therein lies our real cause for concern. We have a government in the Centre that even today refuses to acknowledge the political dimension of the problem…
Why do you think the elected representatives – including you and your party members – have not been able to make any difference as far as resolving the Kashmir dispute is concerned?
We made as much of a difference as we can. Please understand what the people [who are] agitating require, or what they want, is not for the state government to give. If it were, it would have been given a long time ago.
Where is the failure?
The failure is in the government of India adequately recognising the true dimension of this problem until the state catches fire – and then when they realise it, they don’t follow through.
When you had an absolute majority after 1996 elections, you passed the autonomy resolution, something your party had promised the people. But that resolution was trashed by the Indian Parliament.
That resolution never reached the Parliament. It was ignored by the Central government.
What reasons did your party have to continue participating in the elections after that?
Honestly, if we start going that far back, it is not going to help the current situation. We are a mainstream political party. We decided at that point in time that the only way we can get something from the government of India is through a sustained process of engagement, which we have continued to do. We still stand firm that restoration of J&K's autonomous position is the best solution that we can have for the current problem… At that time government of India made the mistake of not engaging in a dialogue with us.
But my father [then Chief Minister, Farooq Abdullah] warned them then. He said, "Look, today at least some people are willing to accept autonomy, don’t push the state to the point where even autonomy will be unacceptable to a large number of people."
And I fear that is where they are pushing the state.
Your party had an absolute majority then. You have now moved away from that kind of majority. Do you think the electoral process post 1996 has further disempowered a party like the National Conference to push for that resolution?
By that reckoning it is the electorate that has disempowered the political parties. It is the split mandate that parties get that has disempowered the state. You can’t blame a political party. It is the voters in their wisdom that decide to divide their votes in a way in which state government is far less empowered to do things than they were in the past. Perhaps this is by design.
I mean, the fact that PDP [Peoples Democratic Party] was created after the NC [National Conference] passed its autonomy resolution is something that can’t be ignored.
By that reckoning, and that is precisely what my question was, the electoral process here has actually served to disempower the political representation of the state?
That again, it is for the voters to decide. Nobody forces the voters to split their votes between the political parties. That political process is democracy. So, if anybody has disempowered the legislature to the point where it is no longer able to do as much as it was in the past, it is because the voters have decided to split votes that way.
Do you think the National Conference can ever be in a majority that it had in 1996?
Of course! Who knows? …
Your party and now the PDP have had to ally with the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is avowedly against Kashmir’s special status.
They [PDP] haven’t had to. They chose to.
So did you and your party.
The difference being we allied only in the Centre for the benefit of the state. We didn’t ally in the state. They were never a part of the state government. In fact we actually fought a by-election against the BJP in Jammu even though we were part of the NDA [National Democratic Alliance] and defeated it. So there is a big difference between our tying up with Atal Bihari Vajpayee and PDP and BJP governing J&K together.
Irrespective of which party is ruling in New Delhi, you are its ally in the state. And you are advocating a solution that Delhi hasn’t even begun to recognise needs to be discussed. Where does that leave the people you represent? Is something missing here?
No, there is nothing missing. The fact that we advocate a solution which so far we haven’t been able to achieve doesn’t stop us from continuing to advocate it. By that reckoning you have had people who for 25 years have been advocating azadi, with full backing of Pakistan, and have not been able to achieve it. Does that mean they should stop as well? They haven’t stopped. So, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander…
But Kashmir is also an extremely militarised place now. How legitimate do you think elections can be in the presence of half a million troops?
Contrary to the perception that is sought to be created about the elections, at least the last few elections that have been held in this state, I have not heard any legitimate complaints about voters being forced to vote.
At the time of voting that may be true. But otherwise does the militarisation affect political choices of people?
There may be a very minuscule minority of constituencies where because of their strategic location along the LoC [Line of Control] or the border, the security forces, particularly the army perhaps, have a greater say in what happens there than in other constituencies. But to suggest, that the security forces have this ability to completely swing the election one way or the other, I will not go along with that.
At the same time New Delhi calls elections in Kashmir repeated referendums in its favour…
I have always said that is a mistake. That should never be done. It is like the suggestion that participation in Burhan Wani’s funeral is a referendum. Neither are referendums…
Yet, New Delhi has still not acknowledged it. Given how fragmented the electoral space here is, you referred to the creation of PDP when you were in a very strong position to push for a solution. But it did not happen. Do you think this fragmentation has weakened political parties that represent Kashmir today? Do you think the pre-1953 status is really possible?
Let us see. I would like to believe so…
Separatists call political parties like yours and the PDP as allies of New Delhi and a part of the problem.
They are allies of Pakistan, and we don’t hold that against them…
Would you agree that when you headed the government, the Hurriyat Conference leadership was treated as badly as by any other government?
Not as bad as this.
What is the difference?
It’s in the degrees.
Like for how long they would be incarcerated?
It depends on the situation. But it wasn’t like this.
In your own imagination, and in your own efforts, do you think there could ever be a win-win solution for all sides to the dispute?
I don’t know if you can have a win-win solution for all sides. Which is why I have always maintained that if government of India and government of Pakistan have to lose a bit for J&K to win, let that be…
Despite India’s growing economic power and clout in the western capitals, the same countries still describe Kashmir as a disputed territory, UNMOGIP [United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan] is still present on both sides of the LoC. Do you think UN resolutions can still provide a mechanism for resolving the dispute
No. Because Pakistan never allowed the UN resolutions to be fulfilled…
Let us say Pakistan calls the bluff and says we are ready to withdraw our forces from the territory. Do you think India will ever agree to a plebiscite then?
I tend to not respond to hypothetical questions with categorical answers because they bring their own trouble with them. I see no indication pointing to the fact that Pakistan is willing to do that. Anyway, by going back to 1947 and saying that UN resolutions should be implemented effectively denies the people of J&K the third option.
Do you think that is an option?
I am not saying that. You say, “Why not the UN resolutions?” I am saying that UN resolutions have a fundamental flaw then. Because what you see on the streets today, how many people are shouting slogans in favour of Pakistan as opposed to independence?…
Now we are at a stage when there is intransigence from New Delhi, there is frustration in Kashmir, there is no dialogue between India and Pakistan. What would you suggest as an immediate first step needed at the moment to begin approaching a resolution of the Kashmir dispute?
Just accept that there is a political problem. Even that would be a huge step forward... I am saying New Delhi accepting and acknowledging that J&K is a political problem... And then we can get about handling it politically…
Do you think the cycles of intensifying protest here are all about securing that acknowledgement?
I believe so. That is why in 2010 things quietened down for a period of time because you acknowledged that there was a political problem, first by sending an all-party parliamentary delegation, and you further supplemented that by putting in interlocutors who were willing to talk about politics with you. You didn’t send economists to talk about money, and you didn’t send security experts to talk about force detachments. I think that played a very positive role. It’s a different matter that the government of India didn’t follow it through. That is why they are facing the consequences that they are today.
At the moment, as far as the need for New Delhi to acknowledge the political issue and its political redressal is concerned, you seem to be in agreement with what is happening on the Kashmir street today?
I am not suggesting what they are doing is right. I understand why they are doing it… Unfortunately, when you have reinforced this point of view to them that you will listen to them only when they pick up stones and start throwing them, then this is going to happen…
Can we say that the charge is legitimately thrown at you as well?
I would have accepted this charge if during peaceful times we had kept quiet. But nobody more than me, in office, has reiterated the political nature of the problem and its requirement for special handling. I went to the extent in the Assembly of saying that Kashmir did not merge with India, we only acceded. And I held government of India responsible for not upholding its side of the deal, that only J&K has upheld its part of the deal by remaining a part of India. New Delhi has reneged on its commitments by whittling the autonomy.
India has been changing during the last couple of years. Would you say the ascension of BJP to power in New Delhi, with Prime Minister Modi at the helm, makes it more difficult to resolve the dispute?
The fact that BJP’s political ideology is more rightwing oriented, its wholly nationalistic focus, can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. It depends on how you want to use it. For Atal Bihari Vajpayee it was an advantage because nobody would question his nationalistic credentials. He stood up and said hum insaniyat ke dayre mein Kashmir ka masla hal kareingay [We will solve the issue of Kashmir within the ambit of humanity]. If the Congress had said the same thing the BJP would have eaten them for breakfast…
You have worked with P Chidambaram yourself earlier. He said recently that the Corps Commander [Indian military chief in Kashmir] was more powerful than the CM. You have been CM yourself. Is Chidambaram right?
If that be the case then the Corps Commander is more powerful than the home minister of India also, because Mr Chidambaram was as much a supporter and a votary of removal of AFSPA [Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act] as I was. If we both failed then we both failed for the same reasons. And therefore, if the CM of J&K is less powerful than the Corps Commander of 15 Corps then I am sorry to say that the home minister is equally less powerful, and that is something only P Chidambaram can answer.
In that case, given how power flows in J&K, do you think the Indian army has a veto now over the status quo on Kashmir.
I get the sense that it is the government of India that has unfortunately given the armed forces this impression that they have a veto over things. I think it is something that we should take up and take notice of…
Given how the situation is, many independent global observers say that the territory today presents all the characteristics of a military occupation. Does it?
I don’t know. Please understand there has been military deployed here even before 1989-90. Don’t forget that.
But not to the current levels.
But they are responding to an internal security situation. Otherwise you have had force deployments in Kashmir at very high levels, because J&K unfortunately has been fought over by Pakistan and by China since 1947. The Indian security forces didn’t march in of their own accord. They came in responding to a situation. When levels of violence go down we would be able to convince them to leave.
Levels of violence have gone down, haven’t they?
We were able to withdraw sections of the security forces.
But their numbers were not reduced?
Even the numbers were reduced, we sent troops out. Why do you think they had to rush troops back in to respond to the situation. Because, we have actually had troop reduction and a sort of thinning out in areas.
Can you share any figures?
Not at the moment, plus recent figures now will not count, because you had a complete sort of change over the last couple of months.
What do you make of the home minister saying the other day in Srinagar that New Delhi wants to develop an emotional relationship with Kashmir?
I think it is good that he is acknowledging that we don’t have an emotional relationship with Kashmir, that this problem has arisen because we are looking at Kashmir through prism of security and economics.
It again comes back to those words of Vajpayee sahib: insaniyat [humanity]. We want a human relationship, an emotional relationship. I just hope somebody listens. The problem is that every time the people in New Delhi leave the beaten path, there are many people who slap them down…