‘It isn't as if Srinagar has been handed over to the army; we've only asked for it to stand by and demonstrate its presence.'
Ever since he took office in 2008, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has spent much of his time fending off crisis. Last summer, the alleged rape-murder of two south Kashmir women sparked off rioting across several parts of the State; this summer, street clashes have claimed more than 20 lives. Last week, the Jammu and Kashmir government called out the army to assist it in dealing with clashes in Srinagar — the first time the military has ever been deployed there in that role. In an interview to The Hindu, Mr. Abdullah explained the reasons behind the decision and his view of the way forward.
Why did the State government ask for the army's assistance to curb the ongoing protests in Srinagar and some other cities — something never resorted to in the last two decades?
We had credible information that there was a concerted effort by some parties to spread the agitation out of the urban pockets it is concentrated in, out into Kashmir's interior. This was a matter of great concern to us because the Amarnath Yatra is under way.
Had some miscreants attacked pilgrims in interior areas, it could have had grave consequences across the entire State. It isn't as if Srinagar has been handed over to the army; we've only asked for it to stand by and demonstrate its presence.
It is hard to understand why such extraordinary action was needed this year. After all, Jammu and Kashmir has seen such protests for some years now.
That's true — but we've also learned from the experience of past years. The Amarnath Yatra places a huge strain on our police. We've managed, in the past, by pulling the army out of counter-terrorism duties, but discovered that this gives terrorists a chance to regroup over the summer. This year, we did not want a situation arising where we had to pull soldiers out of the tasks they are here for. It was therefore necessary to act pre-emptively.
Some of your critics say the decision was taken in panic; without due reflection. It has also been said that Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram differed with you on the decision.
Last week, we reached a point where our police forces were stretched to the limit in Srinagar. Given the escalating protests, we had to take a call.
If we had done nothing, and matters had gone out of hand, you would be criticising us for being indecisive and not planning ahead. Like me, Mr. Chidambaram wanted to avoid a situation where the army was brought into conflict with the population. I think we have addressed that concern.
What can be done now? The People's Democratic Party has rejected appeals by both you and the Prime Minister to participate in an all-party dialogue.
It is unfortunate that Mehbooba Mufti has chosen to do so; that's all I have to say, really. I spoke to her personally. The Prime Minister also appealed to her. I earnestly hope, even at this late stage, that they will reconsider their decision. The violence is hurting ordinary Kashmiris, most of all our young people. We need to put our heads together and see what can be done. I hope, at the all-party meeting on Monday, we will get constructive suggestions that will help the government move forward. We have a very difficult situation on our hands. The mainstream parties do not have much influence in the areas that are disturbed. Even the moderate secessionists do not have much influence there. I'm open to all ideas to end the violence.
Do you think New Delhi should, as Mehbooba Mufti has suggested, play a greater role?
I think the PDP was greatly aided by the dialogue that took place between India and Pakistan during President Pervez Musharraf's time in office. Sadly, circumstances in Pakistan are such that the India-Pakistan dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir may not yield a very substantial outcome any time soon. New Delhi should keep trying.
In the meanwhile, I think New Delhi should do all it can to engage all shades of opinion, including the separatists. I know the separatists themselves have not been very helpful but every effort should be made to bring them into a dialogue.