More than a month after the much-hyped all-party meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and leaders of political parties from J&K, National Conference vice-president and former chief minister Omar Abdullah expressed disappointment at its outcome, lack of follow up and the exclusion of Members of Parliament from the recent visit of Delimitation Commission to J&K.
It is over a month since you met Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the all-party meeting in New Delhi. How fruitful has the meeting been to create a conducive atmosphere to take the dialogue process forward?
The meeting was a first step. It was also important that the first step was taken by New Delhi because they were the ones who were instrumental with regard to the August 5, 2019 move and all the detentions thereafter, particularly of the mainstream leaders. So, the onus was on them to take the first step. But no meeting is successful without any follow-up. So, we are waiting to see what the follow up is from the meeting that took place with regard to addressing the issues that was brought before PM Modi. All we want to see is how the PM and his government plan to move forward on the words, ‘ dilli saey doori aur dil ki doori’ , where the PM himself acknowledged these gaps. We are waiting to see what is going to be done to reduce these gaps.
Were there any specific demands made before the PM?
There were specific demands made, some political and some administrative in nature. There were various people who put demands before the PM. I haven't seen any evidence of any of them being met so far.
Immediately after the meeting, the J&K administration decided to end the tradition of shifting of capitals, 'Darbar Move', terminated 11 government employees and booked a National Conference activist under the Public Safety Act. Are these measures hinting at the Delhi-Srinagar dialogue hitting a deadlock again?
The measures, individually and collectively, are problematic. First the termination of government employees without being given the right to explain. There has to be a due process. Even under the law, you are innocent till proven guilty. The new laws that they framed for J&K are able to terminate at will without any due process. Where is it right to hold someone responsible for omissions or commission of parents? Some are terminated for their political linkages. The BJP conveniently forgets that a lot of people were accommodated in the government services by the then governor (Jagmohan) in early 90s because the private schools of the Falah-e-Aam trust (of the Jamaat-e-Islami), were banned. It's strange and difficult to comprehend that the policy of (then J&K Governor) Jagmohan, a lifelong BJP member, at least for the last two decades, is being twisted in this way.
Regarding the detention of the NC activist in Banihal, he was part of a public protest on a governance related issue. There seems very little appetite for any criticism. We saw what happened in Ganderbal where a gentleman was arrested because he spoke the truth. It is unfortunate that these things are still happening.
J&K still has two capitals. So, even the move to downsize the Darbar Move, if not end the tradition, has bothered people of Jammu more than Kashmir. Traders and shopkeepers in Jammu city do the lion’s share of their business when the Kashmiri employees and their families move to Jammu in the winter. The same cannot be said of the traders in Srinagar. It's the people in Jammu who are up in arms about curtailing the ‘Darbar Move’. It does not help the overall situation.
Is there a deadlock between Srinagar-Delhi again?
These measures suggest that there is a disconnect between what the PM says and what the L-G administration does. The L-G was present in the all-party meeting where the PM clearly talked about ' dilli saey doori aur dil ki doori' , then it is the responsibility of the L-G to steer his administration in a way in which these differences are reduced and not to increase.
When the PM met the political parties on June 24, do you think it was a change of heart or other pressures worked?
As a guest you don’t ask your host why they have invited you. We take it at face value. The PM himself said in the meeting that he actually wanted to have an all-party meeting after the district development council elections but could not because of Covid-19. I would rather take the PM on face value and this meeting better late than never was scheduled for earlier, but circumstances did not allow it to happen.
You made a statement after the all-party meeting that ‘you do not expect the Modi government to return the pre-August 5 position' to J&K. What is the engagement all about?
Foremost for the NC, in terms of political agenda, is the reversal of August 5, which is connected to a host of other things that can be resolved in the interim. Not every conversation has to be about the August 5. The fact that we don't expect the PM to reverse the pre-August 5 decision does not mean we cannot express our anger and disappointment over what happened. We made it very clear that a majority of people of J&K and Ladakh do not accept what happened on August 5. They are deeply bitter and disappointed by it.
Members of Parliaments of the NC have decided to be a part of the delimitation commission. Is the process going in the right direction now?
The MPs were not involved in the process that took place here when the J&K Delimitation Commission visited J&K. That again raised some questions in our mind because we are convinced what happened the other day was an informal exercise. The entire Delimitation Commission was not there. It is not only made of the main members but also the associate members, three MPs from Kashmir and two from Jammu. They were not included in the process. This is simply an informal exercise conducted and has no statutory or legal bearing whatsoever.
Recently, NC president Dr. Farooq Abdullah called for sustained dialogue with Pakistan and demanded the “creation of an environment that recognizes the concept of J&K’s historical individuality, uniqueness of its socio-political complexes and restoration of its political dignity and historical selfhood”. Would you like to expand on this?
It is what the NC always stood for. It’s a reiteration of what we stand for. It is not something new. Both the Delhi-Srinagar and the Delhi-Islamabad dialogue are important. To suggest that one is more important than the other would be to suggest that the J&K problem is unidimensional. It is not. It has internal and external dimensions. The J&K-Delhi dialogue will not address the external dimension and the Delhi-Islamabad dialogue will not resolve the internal dimension. They are two facets of the problem.
In the past, there was an attempt to resolve the problem independently. We saw the Agra summit, the Tashkent and the Shimla talks, which failed to resolve the internal dimension. Similarly, initiatives taken internally failed to resolve the external dimension. Both aspects of the Kashmir issue have to be resolved and a meaningful climate need to be created. For external dialogue, the onus does not lie on one country. It would be unfair on my part to suggest that PM Modi is the one who has to take all the steps to facilitate India and Pakistan dialogue. There are steps that Pakistan should take as well so that tension is reduced, and a dialogue can take place.
In fact, there are reports that informally dialogue is continuing between India and Pakistan at a fairly senior level. If that is the case, it’s good. So long we are talking to each other and not at each other, and an effort is being made to narrow differences and address causes of tension, we will continue to welcome that.
The L-G administration suggested that the situation has improved in J&K, as protests as well as stone pelting have come down. Has it?
The law-and-order situation is better. Is that because of the way in which people are being arrested and detained without due process? I can't say. Artificially suppressing people’s anxieties and concerns is a recipe for disaster. We have seen it in the past as well. It’s much better to go out and address peoples’ concerns and anger rather than suppress it. Ultimately, it blows up at some point or the other. While the L-G may be satisfied with the numbers given by the police on protests showing a slide, he may have to dig deeper and satisfy himself.
On unemployment in J&K, the L-G and his administration need to come out of the security bubble and talk to youth. Unemployment remains a problem as it has gone up. The only saving grace is the tourism that too is artificial. It is because of the pandemic that the rich in the country are not able to travel abroad. Once the pandemic ends, we will find it much more difficult to attract tourists again.
Your family and your party are witness to the most important milestones of Kashmir’s history. Which phase would you compare post-August 5 with, the post-1931 phase, the post-1947 or the post-1953?
It’s completely a new phase. Perhaps, it is closer to 1953 in terms of long term implications, though the NC stands for pre-1953 position. It’s just that they have added new goalposts in terms of restoring J&K to full statehood. This is a new goal and does not mean it replaces the previous goals. It just means it supplements and attaches to what we’re fighting for, or struggling for. While we continue to remain steadfast in our political beliefs and ideology, we also believe to hold the Government of India accountable for its own promise, that it should restore full statehood to J&K. It's interesting that on one hand the L-G has said the situation has improved yet in Parliament, the MoS Home in a reply to a question suggested that the statehood will be restored at an appropriate time when the situation normalises. There is a contradiction between what the Mos Home tells Parliament and what the L-G says here.
As the U.S. forces are leaving Afghanistan, a section of security experts is warning of a spillover into J&K. Do you share their apprehensions?
These apprehensions have always been used to justify heightened military presence in J&K. I was at the receiving end of it as a chief minister of J&K when we were talking about the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). I remember being told during the unified command meeting that the thinning out of the U.S. troops during the Obama regime will lead to a spillover. I was told this is not an appropriate time to tinker with the AFSPA. On one hand we take the credit that it is our defence system on the Line of Control, fencing and the proactive position that has reduced infiltration, yet we use Afghanistan as a reason for heightening fears. Either our fence is working, or it isn't. If it is working, then why is it that it will work against Pakistanis and not Afghans? If it’s not working, then why are we taking the credit for it?
I am not among the fear mongers and have not seen any evidence of a spillover of Afghanistan in the last 20 years. I don't expect any spillover. We have seen odd people of 15 nationalities caught and killed in J&K, which included Bosnia, Chechnya, Britain, Sudanese and Afghans.