ĎIf I React With A Bit Of Emotion, Good. For Too Long, Politics Has Been Dehumanised In This Countryí

12 December 2009
The Indian Express

Jammu: As chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah has what is arguable one of the most difficult jobs in the country. In this Idea Exchange moderated by Shishir Gupta, Editor (Express News Service), Abdullah speaks about being CM, the Shopian case and that famous speech he gave in Parliament last year Shishir Gupta: How has the situation in J&K changed since you took over in January 2009? A lot has changed, most of it for the better. In spite of a difficult summer, we have had the best tourist season in years. We have had the lowest levels of violence in two decades. The attack on moderate Hurriyat leader Fazal Haq Qureshi, recently, broke a pattern established for the first time in 20 years - six days of incident-free J&K. So, there is an upside to the situation that allows the government more time to focus on issues other than security. Due to the situation at the time, my predecessors focused their attention on keeping the state as peaceful as possible. We now have an opportunity to try and ensure that the peace dividend actually flows down to the people. Ads by Google We are focusing on the essentials - bijli, sadak, paani, sehat and taleem (electricity, roads, water, health and education ). A t the same time, we are focusing on the youths, trying to convince them of the need to change their thinking from the point of view of their productive future. Unfortunately in Jammu and Kashmir , due to the circumstances, particularly in the Kashmir valley, the only employment one has talked about is government employment. The only way youngsters feel they are employed productively is if they have a government job. They will happily turn down private sector jobs paying them Rs 10,000-12,000 a month for an uncertain salary in a government job. We need to change that because there isnít much scope in the government for employment. The number of unemployed youths, according to our latest tabulation, has crossed 5 lakh. I think the chief minister of J&K had a much more difficult job in the previous years. There was a time when the J&K CM had the most threatened existence. I would like to believe I am much safer now than some of my predecessors. Shishir Gupta: How do you handle violence in a state where whenever there is violence, a section of people believes there is a conspiracy and, where everyone takes to the streets? Everybody doesnít take to the streets. Last year, the Amarnath agitation saw huge crowds in Jammu and Kashmir. It was a passion fuelled by religious sentiment but the moment we worked out an equitable solution, the situation returned to as normal as possible. You saw a record turnout in elections. There is an element of the population that likes to encourage agitational politics. It helps them to have the pot boiling. It helps the militants: the more the government is focused on law and order, the less they can do to control militancy, since security is diverted towards law and order rather than towards militancy. It helps a section of the political landscape too because the more we focus on law and order, the less we can focus on development, the less we focus on development, the more unpopular the government becomes. But it is not a land of conspiracies; it is not as if the majority of the population has nothing better to do than to sit and wonder where to create trouble next. There are pockets in areas such as Sopore, Baramulla, downtown Srinagar that create trouble but by and large it is a minuscule part of the population. Shishir Gupta: Every time the Centre wants to start a dialogue with the separatists, the Hurriyat, an incident occurs Ėthe attack on Fazal Haq Qureshi is an example. How, then, do you take this dialogue forward? By ensuring incidents like this one donít deter us. The attack was designed to do that. It was carefully calibrated. He is an important interlocutor but he wasnít as much a mass leader as some of the other separatist leaders, an attack on whom would have caused a much bigger ripple effect. So, obviously, it was a carefully selected target to send out a message but without causing too much collateral damage. Equally important has been the quick reaction of the Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and others that they will not be deterred from the path of the peace process involving dialogue. The moment you respond to an attack like this by stepping back from the dialogue process, you embolden those forces that engineered this attack. If the dialogue continues in spite of this attack, I think they will think twice before another such attack. Anubhuti Vishnoi: How much work did you have to do behind the scenes to get a reduction of troops in J&K? What is the optimum presence of the armed forces required? I donít think it is possible to quantify the optimum levels at this point. The idea is to begin moving the Army to the role it is meant for - protecting the border and the line of control (LoC) - and increasing the role of the CRPF and the J&K Police until such time as the police can carry out the role of the Central paramilitary forces. Fortunately, with the present government, particularly with the Defence and Home ministries, if you argue a point from the basis of logic rather than politics or emotions, you are likely to get a very positive response. Decisions like these have to be taken because the ground situation allows for them. Maneesh Chhibber: Are there differences between you and the Union government on the dilution of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFPSA)? The AFSPA is not applicable to J&K alone, it is applicable to the North East also, and wherever else trouble may be. So, amendments to it will not only have to look at J&K but the North East too. Maneesh Chhibber: How difficult or how easy is it to be Farooq Abdullahís son? I am not unduly worried or burdened by it. My father is my father and he is the sort of person he is. It would be extremely unfair on my part to enjoy the good that flows to me as a part of this family without taking some of the difficult parts that come with it as well. I got my entry into politics because of the family I belong to, I won my first election and perhaps my second election because of the family. My father is one of the best campaigners in the country today. There isnít a corner of this country where within minutes he cannot strike a chord with the people. Himanshi Bhardawaj: You are the third generation Abdullah in politics. Do you want your children to enter politics? I honestly hope not. If they do join politics, I hope it is at a time when I am not in active politics so I can watch from the sidelines. I hope it is at a time when they make the choice all on their own and it is not seen as something that I have engineered. I think it is important for parents to allow children to make their own choices. Rajkamal Jha: Now that we know more about the Shopian case than we knew when it happened, with that benefit of hindsight, would you have handled it differently? I would prefer to answer this once I have a report on CBIís investigations. But yes, some aspects would have been handled differently, particularly the immediate political response of sending colleagues of mine to Shopian to talk to people and the families. The medical response would have been different - we would have handled the autopsy in a far more professional manner, something we have done in the incidents that followed Shopian, particularly in north Kashmir. Yes, it was a tough lesson to learn but that is life. Parul Saxena: Is your approach to finding a solution to the Kashmir issue different from that of the leaders before you and one that is more likely to succeed? No, not at all. I am a very small wheel in a very big machine. No single individual will have the opportunity to solve the Kashmir issue. There have been leaders, far taller than me, at the national level and at the state level who have tried. It is really due to circumstances that one happens to be in the right place at the right time and can help the process along. My government will try and facilitate the process but I donít think there will be a time when I will take the credit. Shivani Kala: You have spoken of a Truth and Reconciliation commission for J&K? What do you have in mind? The idea is to answer some of the unanswered questions in a way which can give some degree of closure to people. For example, how many people have actually disappeared? What about the unmarked graves? Are those the graves of Pakistani or non-Kashmiri militants? What forced Kashmiri Pandits leave? How many have been killed in the course of the conflict? If I answer such questions, there will be a huge credibility gap. If the Government of India answers them, there will be question marks, and if an organisation like the Hurriyat tries to answer them, some of us will think twice before believing them. So, the idea was to work out a mechanism whereby we can answer these questions in as credible a manner as possible. When I wrote about this it was to involve both sides of J&K with the support of the Indian and Pakistani governments. I felt once violence reached low levels and India and Pakistan were able to agree on it, this would have a very positive impact on the psyche of the people. Shivani Kala: You have opted for two Central universities in the state Ė one in Kashmir, one in Jammu. Is this a good idea, considering universities are places where students mingle, go beyond the barriers of regionalism and religion? We had two universities anyway - University of Jammu and the University of Kashmir . We have three other government universities - Baba Ghulam Shah Badshah University in Rajouri, the Islamic University of Science and Technology in Avantipur and the semi-autonomous Mata Vaishno Devi University. Those have a mix of students from Jammu and Kashmir. Having two Central universities does not mean students from one region wonít study in the other. The curriculum can be devised in such a manner that some subjects are available only in one university, encouraging people from other regions to come and study there, Certain elements wanted to recreate last yearís tensions over the Central university issue and we could not let that happen this year. D K Singh: Every time you initiate a dialogue, the Hurriyat is at the centre of the process. They have not been tested, electorally, so how credible are they in Kashmir politics today? It is impossible to quantify. The truth is the more you seek to term them as irrelevant, the more relevant they become. In 1998-99, we did everything to convince the people about the lack of relevance of the Hurriyat Conference; and they became even more relevant. To suggest someone like the Mirwaiz is of no consequence would be wrong. He has a following. Similarly, Yasin Malik has established an element of credibility; he too has his pockets of support. As an umbrella, the Hurriyat might not amount to much but the individuals under the umbrella have to be engaged. When this process is taken to its logical conclusion, you would have to, at some stage, include forces like even Hizbul Mujahideen. We have done it in the past after they announced a ceasefire. When they are ready to lay down the arms, it will be necessary to involve them again because a peace process that does not involve Kashmiri militant outfits wonít get you as far as you would want. The idea is to make a beginning with those Hurriyat Conference leaders Mihir Sharma: There is concern that by giving two Central universities to the state, you are developing two different civil societies, two different civil infrastructures. Is this even perceived as a problem by your government? We have an extremely diverse state, Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh are three different regions. Their concerns have to be addressed. It is the only state in the country that operates two full fledged capitals, six months of the year in Jammu and six months in Srinagar. That tells you things need to be done differently there. If it takes two universities along with two capitals, so be it. The links between Jammu and Kashmir can never be broken. You have to pass through Jammu to get to Kashmir; one without the other would find it hard to exist. Vidya Krishnan: You donít fit the bill of the stereotypical politician or CM. For example, you ride a Ducati motorcycle. Has your tenure as CM so far been what you had expected? It has been largely along expected lines. I knew that there would be good days and there would be bad days. I honestly didnít expect the bad days to be as bad as they have been. Some of the days were so frustrating that the only thing I could do was to get on to my motorcycle. The immediate aftermath of Shopian and the trouble in Baramulla were extremely difficult times. Fortunately, we got through it, lessons were learnt and my job is to ensure that we donít ignore those lessons and donít repeat the same mistakes again and again. Zahid Rafiq: Your grandfather, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, was a leader of Kashmir who represented the people of the time - the uneducated and landless peasants. Do you think of yourself as a leader of Kashmir who represents the people or as a politician from Kashmir? You have said people in Kashmir want freedom but it is not possible. I have no hesitation in saying that a section of the population in J&K, particularly in Kashmir, does not want to remain as a part of India. There is no point in denying that such a section exists. But 60 per cent of the population turned out for an election held under the Indian Constitution. I donít want to suggest all of them have sworn allegiance to the Indian Constitution and that is why they voted but they were ready to participate in the elections. I am both a politician and a leader, like my grandfather and my father. I think all politicians should be leaders otherwise they wonít get far. I am elected from the ground level. I havenít parachuted from on top. I have won four out of five elections I contested and I have lost an election. If I hadnít lost an election one could say I was oblivious to what is happening on the ground. So, I would like to believe I am a leader. Tanushree Roychoudhary: You are the youngest chief minister in the country. What are the advantages and disadvantages of being so young? The disadvantage of being young is that everybody thinks I am not adequately prepared for the position I find myself in. Before I became chief minister I spent three years as a Union minister and almost 11 years as MP. If someone with the same experience was 60, you would never say he is ill-prepared for the job. Everything I do is seen as the decision of someone who doesnít have the necessary experience. As for the advantages, whether it is generational thing or whether it is just the way I am but I am very quick to take a decision and then carry on from there. Avantika Sharma: You said that there was limited scope for government jobs. How, then, do you propose to generate one lakh jobs in the next five years? That is about as much scope as we have. The reason I said we have limited scope is that the current number of unemployed is more than five lakh. The ability of the government to absorb these youngsters is very limited. We need to start telling the youngsters that the answer is not government jobs. Rajkamal Jha: How did you get Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah into your government? What role do you see for him now? He has been very keen to come back and work in the state. I was very keen to have him back. Once we decided to bring our Information Act at par with the Central RTI Act, the next challenge was to bring someone with enough experience and credibility to build the institution. He was the appropriate person. We are now looking forward to his release him from his present job as CIC. What we didnít realise was that unless his replacement is in place, he canít leave. So, my clock is ticking, and he is stuck here. I hope he can come soon and begin the Information Commission, which I think is vital. The only way to instill confidence in the people about the government is if you allow them the opportunity and right to question that government. It is all very well to talk of J&K as the second most corrupt state in the country. You can address it only by bringing in transparency. Swaraj Thapa: You were a minister in the NDA government with Mr Vajpayee as PM and and Mr Advani as Home Minister. Both have been indicted in the Liberhan report. What are your views on the report? I havenít read the report. I am so insular in terms of focusing on what is happening in J& K that except for a brief glance at what was said about it in the media, I havenít gone further. Shishir Gupta: The Mirwaiz recently said China has a stake in Kashmir. Do you believe that? To the extent that they occupied territory of ours, they have a stake. Beyond that, no, I donít see a stake for China in J&K. They have been playing a part largely because of the support they have been giving Pakistan, not beyond that. Maneesh Chhibber: You have said that going with BJP in the NDA was your biggest mistake and you will not go back. What if BJP needs your help to form a government - will you stick to that stand? I had said that we wonít repeat the experiment. I made that statement as president of National Conference. It is not my place to usurp that position now and give you the party line. As an individual, I would definitely recommend that we donít follow that course of action. At the time the decision to be a part of the NDA and form a close relation with the Central government was believed to be necessary so that the state government received all the help from the Centre. In hindsight, it was not the best way to go about things. Vandita Mishra: When you were recently named by an Opposition leader in the 2006 sex scandal, you offered to resign. Why? There was criticism that although you hold one of the toughest jobs in the country, your reaction was faint-hearted. I did what I had to do and I would do it again. That is the way I am. I am not going to paper over these things. I am human, I am not a machine. If I react with a bit of emotion, it is good. For too long, politics has been dehumanised in this country. I felt the need to resign because the nature of the allegations would have made it impossible to do anything without this cloud hovering over me. I was very sure that I didnít want them chasing me out on an allegation so I made it clear in my letter to the Governor that if any truth to the allegation was found, my resignation should be accepted. I had resigned only because of the allegations. It was only fair to me and the people that if the allegations were found to be true, my resignation should be accepted. Mihir Sharma: Your speech last July in Parliament during the debate on the trust vote was widely welcomed. Was there a difference between the response in J&K and elsewhere? I am amazed the effect of the speech has lasted as long as it has. Even now when I go places, it is referred to. I hadnít planned to stand up and say, ďI am a Muslim and I am an Indian and I see no distinction between the twoĒ. I just stood up and it came out. I was extremely frustrated with the way everything had gone during the debate: we were made to wait ages to speak; then I was told that I would get a chance to speak at 3 am. I said even my dog is not going to be awake to watch me at that time! At the end of the day, we have to go back to our constituencies, people need to see us. Then that cash for votes scandal happened and we were told we wouldnít be able to speak. So finally when I got the chance, I just said what came to me. By and large, the speech was well received. For a speech that started with ĎI am an Indianí, it went down really well in Kashmir . Maroosha Muzaffar: You were once an avid blog writer, why did you stop it? It is amazing how abusive people can get. Some of the responses were downright abusive. I have been to a boarding school so there is hardly an abuse I havenít heard and I am not uncomfortable with it. But when the abuse is directed towards my wife, my kids, my mother, my grandmother the line has to be drawn somewhere. I just couldnít take it. As much as I like writing, I didnít enjoy the result. Now, I guess you donít get to blog when you are the chief minister. Transcribed by Zahid Rafiq