Veteran Congress leader Saifuddin Soz has courted controversy by saying that Kashmiris will prefer independence if given a chance to “exercise their free will”. In his forthcoming book, the former Union minister has argued that former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s assessment a decade ago seems to be “correct even today”.

“Musharraf said Kashmiris don’t want to merge with Pakistan, their first choice is independence,” Soz told ANI. “The statement was true then and remains true now also. I say the same, but I know that it is not possible.”

In his book, Kashmir: Glimpses of History and the Story of Struggle, Soz said the primary responsibility to find a solution lies with the Centre. He also claimed that various Central governments since 1953 have committed “blunders” that alienated Kashmiris, and added that it was time for the Centre to show “a gesture of compassion” and initiate a dialogue with the people. His book will be released next week.

He also argued that the Centre should first hold talks with the Hurriyat Conference to find a solution to the Kashmir problem. “…Then, the ball will certainly move to what is broadly known as the ‘mainstream’,” Soz has written, according to The Indian Express.

He added that repression – be it through bullets or pump action guns – cannot solve the problem. “The Union of India has to adopt a mechanism to assess properly as to what has gone wrong and how it can be corrected,” said Soz, arguing in favour of reducing the presence of troops in Kashmir and revoking the “draconian” Armed Forces Special Power Act.

The Congress distanced itself from Soz’s comments. “This is an attempt to sell his book,” said party’s communications chief Randeep Singh Surjewala. “Congress’ [Jammu and Kashmir] unit will take appropriate action against him [Soz].”

The Shiv Sena criticised Soz’s remark. “The Congress president needs to reply on Saifuddin Soz’s statement and if [the] Congress vouches for his statement,” said party spokesperson Manish Kayande, according to The Times of India. If he [Saifuddin Soz] has so much affection for Pakistan and Musharraf, he should consider migrating to Pakistan and become his servant.”

Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said Congress President Rahul Gandhi should take action against Soz.

Bharatiya Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy said that as a Central minister Soz benefited from Centre’s power. “Whoever wants to stay here can stay abiding by the Constitution, if they like Musharraf we’ll give them a one-way ticket [to Pakistan],” he told ANI.

Union minister Jitendra Singh said the remarks were a trend set by “Kashmir-centric” politicians. “When they’re in power they swear by Kashmir being integral part of India,” he told ANI. “[The] moment they’re thrown out of power they start using this separatist or semi-separatist jargon.”