In her first detailed interview since she became J&K Chief Minister in April, and faced widespread protests across the Valley after the killing of Hizb commander Burhan Wani, Mehbooba Mufti talks to Muzamil Jaleel about how she was taken by surprise by the scale of the protests, why she has faith in the alliance with the BJP, the long road ahead — and the work she needs to do to ‘build bridges and mend fences’.
Q. How do you see the current situation in Kashmir?
MM: The quiet in the Kashmir Valley now is a fragile calm. We have to do a lot of work to build bridges and mend fences.
Q. What was your reaction when you heard about Burhan Wani’s killing and the subsequent deaths of people who came out in massive numbers to protest at the hands of security forces?
MM: When I heard the news, I think it was around 6:30 and 7:30 after magrib nimaz (evening prayers). I was sitting with my sister and brother-in-law. Suddenly I got a call that Burhan Wani was killed. My first reaction was that please take care, please tell CRPF people, tell others to exert maximum caution, try to impose curfew at sensitive places so that we are able to contain the situation and nobody gets hurt. This was my first reaction. I was also surprised in the sense because it was something I had not anticipated will happen, and it was happening. Burhan Wani was a person who was seen by many youngsters on social media. I knew that it would have repercussions in the sense that young boys may come out to go to his funeral etc. But it will go to such an extent, I had never thought about it. One, it was a surprise. Secondly, my concern was how to control the situation in a way that there is no casualty and nobody gets hurt. That was the only focus.
Q. When you heard that the police and CRPF killed around 30 people on the first day, what did you think?
MM: It is not that 30-40 people died on the first day. News of deaths started trickling in, and the numbers started adding up in the first three days because a number of people who were injured died subsequently. It was such a feeling that I can’t even express because I had never imagined that there is going to be a day when I am going to be at the helm of affairs and something like this can happen. It was a shock. I had never comprehended in my life that something like this is going to happen. I don’t have words. I was totally taken aback. At times your mind goes blank… You are doing everything, you are imposing curfew, you are seeing to it that people don’t come out. You are talking to security guys all the time, telling them please observe restraint. You are constantly telling them, please don’t do this, please don’t do that. And again something happens and people get injured and killed. It was helplessness at that point of time. I was also anguished because I thought I must have seen these boys so many times. I thought they must have clapped at my rallies — may be they were too young when I would go through those areas. Many a time, I would meet these boys on my way and at times they would have complaints against a police or Army camp. I used to see to it that I am able to help them. I have been to each and every place there (in south Kashmir). Those days I had only one PSO (personal security officer). Sometimes even the policeman wouldn’t dare to go to those places but I would go. These young kids would surround me and accompany me to those far-flung villages. It hurt me also because I thought these are the boys who must have been holding their mother’s hand or may be some of them were slightly older when I saw them. I must have seen them or they must have seen me. I tried my best along with my father. We tried to take fear out of their hearts because, if you recall, there was a time that when these young boys, men and women would pass a security forces camp, they were asked to run. They could not walk, they had to run, and they were scared. Many a time when a new camp came up, they would gather these young boys to build the camp. So I would go to the (security) camps and take these boys out. I felt sad because I was the one who tried to see to it that they got their confidence back. When Mufti sahib was CM or even earlier, I would visit the Army camps and talk to the concerned officer and ask him why have you brought this boy there, why are you calling him to the camp. Not only Army, I would plead on behalf of these kids before the Task Force (of J&K Police). So when I heard that these boys have come out on the roads and are going towards police stations and camps, trying to attack them and that they were getting hurt and killed, I thought, my God, this was not my purpose to get them out of that fear psychosis, which existed during those years. I wanted them to live a happy healthy life, play like any other kids. I think that the problem that we have in Kashmir is not child’s play. It is for the elders to work towards finding some solution. It is not fair to allow your kids to get involved in this problem and get consumed by it.
Q. Did you feel any remorse?
MM: I felt angry. I also felt very helpless, very sad. I mean there were so many emotions at the same time. I was angry. How could people allow their kids to go out in such a charged atmosphere, when there is a hartal call, there is a chalo (march) call, there is curfew, security forces are out to take control of the situation. How can you allow your kids to go out?
Q. Were you angry at the State machinery at any point?
MM: I was at times angry of course. At times, when I would feel they could have been more cautious. At times. But it is also easier said than done because when you are sitting at a place (away from the spot) and you feel why did they use this pellet gun or why did they use tear gas shell, you don’t know what is happening at that time there. While so many people were injured and killed, at the same time a good number of policemen also got injured. But then I would get upset and angry because I feel police and security forces are disciplined forces and they are elders (adults). Maybe, by being a little more cautious, we would have saved some lives.
Q. Will there be an investigation into the killings, blindings, allegations of excess?
MM: Of course, I am going to pursue these cases. Wherever there has been anything that was brazen, definitely there is going to be some kind of mechanism, because I personally feel this is something that has gone beyond. I am personally convinced. We also got feedback. It is not what people feel alone, I am myself convinced we need to do something about it. It won’t be swept under the carpet, particularly the cases I have been talking about — the ATM guy ( who was killed while driving his motorbike home), the Zewan fellow (the lecturer who was beaten to death by the Army), and other similar cases. I have a relationship with the people. It is not like I am the Chief Minister and they are the people. I have a relationship with them. My father would always say that I am brutally frank. Whenever he had to introduce me to someone, he would say meet my daughter, she is brutally frank. So when I talk, I talk my heart out. So when I tell something to the people, I am talking to the people, I feel I am talking to my own. It is very difficult to explain my relationship with the people and how I feel, but it (the relationship) is close-knit.
Q. In 2008, 2010, you were vehemently opposing all the measures that your government is now taking since July. Many of your supporters say that they would never have thought that under a PDP government, scores of people would be killed in protests, injured by pellet guns, around a thousand blinded, a newspaper banned… So when you go to the people now, go to your supporters, how do you regain that trust?
MM: For me, it is not about just restoring the trust of people. It is not about that. My philosophy, my commitment, my conviction is about my father’s commitment to reconciliation. I have never ever for even a second given up on that. I am here as Chief Minister with the BJP and the basic reason for that is that we want reconciliation. We want to take J&K out of what you have seen during the last five six months. This is the basic purpose. It is very challenging. My father, when he was on the hospital bed, even then he was thinking about reconciliation. He was asking me about PM Modi’s visit to Lahore and he was very pleased about it. He was so upset when Pathankot happened. A person, who is on his death bed and if he is at that time so committed to reconciliation, how can I being his daughter be committed to something else? But some things were thrown at me. Encounters have been happening but never ever had I imagined that there is going to be this kind of public upsurge of emotions wherein some elements are going to use young boys as a shield. If you look at the age group of the people who have died or got injured, a majority of them are very young boys. But the people who were behind the scenes organising it — who were moving during the nights organising the chalos — are all elderly people. The people who got injured and killed were young boys. This emotional upsurge was used by some people to achieve their own ends. There were some elements behind the scenes seeing to it that there should be some kind of reaction (from the police) that leads to a death or an injury. Otherwise why would you first block a road and after seeing that the policemen have come out of their vehicles to clear the road, you start pelting stones at them. I think there were people, I don’t know who they were, who planned it very well, and unfortunately they used these young children to do their work.
Q. It wasn’t quite that simple. I was reporting on the ground from south Kashmir. And almost everyone we spoke to was talking about azadi. There was clarity in their demand. Burhan Wani’s killing was a trigger and there wasn’t any evidence to show that someone was pulling their strings. It was spontaneous.
MM: I am not denying the issue. I am saying that some people used death and destruction to highlight it. And unfortunately I feel over the years it has become a norm to see death and destruction and violence as an end in itself. They think more the casualties happen each day, the issue is alive. For any kind of reconciliatory measure or whatever, you need to create a conducive atmosphere. The people who you say want resolution of the problem are there but people in general would like to see an end to the violence. But there wasn’t enough time given to me so that we could create a conducive atmosphere. In spite of everything, the all-party delegation came from Delhi and tried to meet them. I wrote a letter (to the Hurriyat). It is a process… If you go back to 2002-2003 onwards, when roads started to open up, delegations started to come and dialogue started, it was a process. If you recall, then deputy prime minister L K Advani asked the Hurriyat to give something in writing about their ideas. The Kashmir problem isn’t something that has happened yesterday and will be resolved today. I always keep on saying that it is an idea, you need to address that idea or come up with a better idea to replace that idea. But if you feel that creating violence, creating death and destruction is the solution to the problem, you are wrong. I don’t think it is good to go for death and destruction only for the sake of keeping the (Kashmir) problem alive. I think it is weakening the case instead. If you look at the whole world, nobody is ready to stand by violent means, the gun, no matter how genuine your case may be.
Q. During the protests, the groundswell for azadi was clearly visible. For the last five months, the state goverment’s response to this was as if it was a purely security issue. The BJP government at the centre also saw it this way only. This is also one of the worst times in the India-Pak relationship. The Line of Control is hot again. You insist that your party is committed to its agenda of reconciliation, how are you going to pursue that?
MM: Do you think things are worse than when there was Kargil invasion? Do you think things are worse than when Parliament was attacked? Do you think it is worse than when we had the Mumbai attack? No. We have seen these ups and downs in India-Pakistan relations but at the end of the day, there has to be, there has been and there will be a meeting ground because there are no other options. It was unfortunate when Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Lahore was not followed by a Lahore declaration, which happened during PM Vajpayee’s time. Or when (Pervez) Musharraf said that militants won’t be allowed to use the Pakistani soil. We had peace on the borders and again the spadework for opening of routes was done. It was unsaid understanding that we can’t change the borders but we will make them irrelevant. That was also carried forward by Dr Manmohan Singh. Unfortunately, nothing happened during 2005 to 2014. Prime Minister (Singh) couldn’t even visit Pakistan though he wanted to. When PM Modi went to Lahore, it wasn’t reciprocated in the same way that Musharraf had done during PM Vajpayee’s time. Instead, it was followed by Pathankot, Uri, Nagrota (attacks). If we expect that dialogue will start with Pakistan tomorrow, it is not possible (in current circumstances). After Kargil, after Parliament when PM Vajpayee extended a hand of friendship to Pakistan, it was reciprocated. This time, similar reciprocation hasn’t come from Pakistan. But ultimately, it will happen. I think we need to focus on those confidence building measures that bind us together first. For example the Indus Water Treaty. It is a water-sharing arrangement which benefits both the sides, no doubt at the cost of J&K. It is there. You have the Wagah border trade. Whatever happens, it continues. Similarly, we have this small Muzaffarabad and Rawalakote trade and in spite of everything, it continues because people seem to have developed stake in this trade. We need to look into such things where people on both side have stake. That’s why before this unrest started, I met the Home Minister and had discussed Kargil-Askardu, Nowshehra-Jangarh, Jammu-Sialkote, Gurez Astore road and many other things. For example, can we take up with China so that we have this Leh-Mansarovar Kailash Yatra from Ladakh. Again (I talked) about ex-militants coming through Nepal and (wished to) make it easy for them so that once they come, they are not harassed. They are arrested. Their kids are put in one jail, wife is put in another jail. This programme (to allow ex-militants to return home via Nepal) was started during the UPA time. I have been discussing all these things with them (New Delhi). Unfortunately, this unrest happened. So I have been working on it and I have not given up on reconciliation because I don’t see any other way out.
Q. Don’t you think that the key to reconciliation is how you politically address the basic issue? The renewed public legitimacy that the demand for azadi has got… How do you explain the massive crowds that hit the streets after Burhan Wani’s killing?
MM: When you say the basic issue needs to be addressed, then you need to build a conducive atmosphere. You cannot resolve anything while you are shouting at each other. You can’t even hear each other’s voice. That is what had happened in 2003 — there was a conducive atmosphere on the ground, people were relaxed, things were happening. But this time, they didn’t allow anything to happen. It was barely the third month after my government was formed. We were busy with Assembly, then there was Ramzan and I was also busy with my own election. As soon as I started, unfortunately hell broke loose.
Q. What do you think will happen now?
MM: When it comes to Pakistan and New Delhi, it may take time. Nagrota is a very recent thing. Then unfortunately, there is this infiltration business and each day there is an encounter and a militant from Pakistan gets killed. It may take time but there is no other way but to sit together and talk. When I talk about opening of roads like Kargil-Askardu or Gurez- Astoor, we have to have Pakistan on board for that. I would now like to see that measures are taken. We have to apply balm. There may have been some people who used these boys to serve their idea of projecting the Kashmir issue but majority of the people were affected by these five six months.
Q. Delhi says this mass uprising was Pakistan-sponsored, you say that some elements used young boys. When you were in the Opposition, you and your party vehemently rejected such explanations. In fact, you had come up with a roadmap to resolve the political issue, which talked about self-rule, joint management, dual currency etc. Where has that map gone?
MM: I don’t deny that there is an issue. I don’t know why people don’t understand. The crux of self-rule is in working group reports; the crux of working group reports is in the Agenda of Alliance. So where have we forgotten anything? What is self-rule? Opening of new routes, revocation of AFSPA, evacuation of land by security forces which is no longer needed by them, transfer of power projects, then there is (setting up of) this group of people from PoK and J&K who will make a consultative committee where they can do tourism and trade together. This is what we call self-rule. This is what were the recommendations of the working groups. We had taken all these proposals to round table (conferences on Kashmir organised by the UPA). That time PM Manmohan Singh set up those working groups. We have also incorporated status quo on Article 370 in our Agenda of Alliance. The only thing we haven’t included is the consultative committee, which would have members from PoK and J&K. This was also what PM Manmohan Singh and many eminent personalities like Vice-President Hamid Ansari had endorsed. Unfortunately, the word ‘self-rule’ is seen as something ‘anti’ in the country. If it was so, then the members in the working group from the BJP, Congress, NC, Panthers Party, and Gujjars, Bakerwals, Paharis, Kashmiri Pandits also would not have endorsed it. Revocation of AFSPA (can happen) at some point of time. When things start getting better, you need to start revoking it in certain areas. Our position is also to have an elected governor.
Q. When would be that ‘some point of time’?
MM: Can you talk about this (revocation of AFSPA) at this point of time? That is why I am saying that whatever happened during the last five-six months hasn’t helped. It has rather had a very adverse effect on everything, including the government, because we would have been somewhere else at this time. But these five-six months have taken us back on many things.
Q. Why does it seem that on the ground the PDP has ceded a lot of political space to the BJP to stay in power? Are you really expecting to move forward on your old politics — self-rule, revocation of AFSPA etc — while you run this coalition government with the BJP? They (BJP) don’t even want article 370. They (BJP) always talk of complete integration. Have you ever discussed the PDP’s self-rule with the Prime Minister, because the BJP looks at it completely differently?
MM: We stand for each and every word that is in our Agenda of Alliance, but there is also the time factor, which is important. There is time for each and every thing. Self-rule isn’t anymore the PDP thing now. When you talk about working group being the crux of our self-rule document, it has been endorsed by everybody. My problem is that the word self-rule has been used to propagate something different, which it is not. I have been talking about working group reports. During the unrest also, many Parliament members like Sitaram Yetchury etc have talked about working group reports in Parliament. You should understand that for my father, now for me, the purpose of being with the BJP goes beyond my party and me. It is for larger interest, very large. I am confident because of my father’s conviction that at this point of time, with this government in Delhi, with such a huge mandate, we should be able to come out of this turmoil. My father never believed in undermining the sovereignty of India and then finding a solution to the Kashmir problem. That is not possible. He was a mainstream politician. He believed in Indian nation. He was sure that this country has the potential, it has the vision and accommodation to take care of the aspirations of our people to the maximum. PM Modi is very ambitious about India and I think Kashmir is a hurdle for the country internationally. We are also bleeding internally because of the Kashmir issue. This is exactly why he would want this issue to be resolved once and for all. And I am sure PM Modi will go to any extent. He had started that journey by going to Lahore.
Q. What do you see as a solution to the Kashmir issue?
MM: (The solution is) to make the borders irrelevant. They are talking about a dozen routes to be opened. It is not only to connect with PoK. They are talking about the Kargil-Askardu road so that we can reach Central Asia. They are talking about the Leh-Xiangyang road. If China is building an economic corridor on the other side of Kashmir, we are also centrally located and our country can use this door to reach out to other countries through J&K. We are so strategically placed. This is again endorsed by working group reports. This is part of our agenda.
Q. You want a parallel to China’s economic corridor?
MM: I’m saying why can’t they (New Delhi) think of J&K. Why can’t we get connected? Why can’t our country connect us? Why can’t they think about all these routes endorsed by working group reports and work on them? Because today Syria is an independent country, but look what is happening there… So independence has changed its meaning. It is more about globalisation, more about economy, how much you can go around. It is about free borders.
Q. Your critics say the PDP alliance with the BJP is a sellout for power? They say that when you agreed to take over as CM three months after your father’s death, you completely abandoned your stated political agenda and posturing.
MM: We did it for something very huge. Being in power wasn’t important for my father. We would have been very comfortable with the Congress; they were ready. I would like to be sold hundred and ten times — my party and me — if we are able to end the miseries of Kashmiris and find some kind of honourable solution to the Kashmir problem and live a life of honour and dignity and prosperity, if we could become a bridge of friendship between the two sides (India and Pakistan) because we get most affected because of their animosity. The kind of respect they (the BJP leadership) give to me, even to our ministers and MLAs, is beyond anybody’s expectations, especially the way they meet us, talk to us. During these five months they haven’t raised a finger without talking to me. There is no interference. If there is any such perception, it is wrong.
Q. What do you think about the BJP’s politics on issues like beef, cow vigilantism and the general sense of unease among minorities caused by its hyper nationalism?
MM: This is why my father had said that it is the coming together of North Pole and South Pole. For my father, the urge to resolve this problem of our state consumed him so that he was ready to go to any extent. For me, PM Modi going to Lahore is much more important than anything else. A group of parliamentarians coming during this unrest when there was so much provocation from the other side is important. We have an understanding on the Agenda of Alliance and that’s what concerns us. In 2010, curfew was announced from Delhi. Today everything is discussed and I may say yes, I may say no.
Q. Do you think you are as powerful a CM as Mamata Banerjee or any other CM?
MM: I would say that. Because of the situation that I witnessed, I am much more powerful, despite the fact that we are in a coalition government, which comes with its own constraints. I think power doesn’t come from Delhi; it is about how confident you are.
Q. There are people who think there is a rise in cultural majoritarianism and communalism. Do you think India will stay secular?
MM: I don’t think communalism is ever going to succeed in this country because people are secular and parties will have to mould themselves to the times. I don’t think India is going to become a State that belongs to only one religion. That is never going to happen.
A few days ago somebody said that Muslims are being adversely affected by demonetisation because there are no banks in Muslim areas. The Congress party has been ruling for the last sixty years and if there are no banks and ATMs in Muslim areas who are to blame for that.
Q. Did you ever rethink your decision to go with the BJP in these months?
MM: No, not at all. It is out of question for me to question my father’s decision. You can’t believe, even during his last days, the conviction and commitment I saw in him. He would repeatedly say ‘Mehbooba, this is the only way, there is no other way’. I could have never imagined that after the loss of so many lives and so much destruction, I would be still there. It is only because of his conviction that you have to be there. I think it is my duty that I should try my level best. I am cent percent convinced that my father’s decision to align with the BJP is full of possibilities to get Kashmir out of this turmoil with honour and dignity for our people and permanently end this pain. The day I feel that I have failed in this purpose, I will not take even a second to give up. I will leave politics and prefer to stay at home.
Q. The case against human rights activist Khurram Parvez fell through. The Court called his detention abuse of power and illegal. What are you going to do about the rounding up of people under the Public Safety Act (PSA)? You and your party were vehemently opposing detentions under PSA while in opposition?
MM: The impression that a large number of people are in custody isn’t correct. There aren’t a large number of people booked under the PSA either. But we will review these cases, especially that of students. And if the person is not a chronic stone-pelter or hasn’t been doing it again and again, we will release them. In fact, we had started a review of these cases from 2008. We wanted to review all the cases till 2014, but then this unrest happened. Of course we are going to review all those cases.
Q. How long will the daily Kashmir Reader stay banned?
MM: We are looking into it. We will lift the ban soon.
Q. There are reports almost every week that a local boy who had recently joined militancy, mostly after Burhan Wani’s killing, has been killed in an encounter. How do you see this phenomenon? Are you doing anything about that too?
MM: In my last Unified Command meeting, I told the police and other security agencies that please contact the parents of these local boys so that they are persuaded to return. During five encounters, the parents were called and they were successful in persuading their boys and their lives were saved. We need to have a plan of action. A majority of these boys (who have joined militancy) haven’t killed anybody. We need to figure out how to integrate them back so that they can lead normal lives. We are also differentiating local (militants) and outsiders. I am hopeful that we will be able to create a positive way forward.
Q. Will the government make a talks offer to the Hurriyat?
MM: At some point of time, everybody has to be engaged, including the Hurriyat. First of all, there should be a conducive atmosphere. I will have to make a conducive atmosphere. Sometimes there are problems because both sides aren’t on any common level. One side wants to do something and the other side is doing something else. Had the Hurriyat responded to the all-party delegation, we may have moved forward. Besides I think when the situation is normal, that is the time to engage because when the situation goes out of control, nobody listens to anybody.
Q. What you were saying in 2010 as opposition leader, when Omar Abdullah was in power, the National Conference is saying exactly the same thing against you today, while you are in power and they are in Opposition. Isn’t it hypocritical?
MM: It is absolutely wrong to compare us to the National Conference. It is a wrong analogy. There hasn’t been an iota of change in our stance. Omar Abdullah was external affairs minister (Union minister of state) going around the world saying that Pakistan is committing terrorism. They were demanding that Pakistan be bombed. Now they are saying a completely different thing. What happened during the last five-six months in Kashmir has happened for the first time in the history of J&K. It hasn’t happened ever since 1989. When has a crowd, thousands of people, gone and attacked a police station or run over a security force camp earlier? Besides, there was a reason behind people taking to streets in 2008, 2009 and 2010. There was a fake encounter in which civilians were killed that triggered protests in 2010. Similarly, a schoolboy was killed, before people came out to protest. This time, nothing of that sort happened. Encounters have been taking place always. When the NC had a two-third majority (in the Assembly), Omar joined the NDA government as a minister. They couldn’t do anything even when they had a two-third majority and they have the audacity to question us. When the NC aligned with the NDA, they didn’t have a common minimum programme. There was no understanding when they aligned with the Congress and formed a coalition government. We have gone with the BJP despite stiff opposition because we have a plan. We have to convince people that the issue can be resolved through good relations between the two countries (India and Pakistan). My father convinced PM Vajpayee and we saw a forward movement and we opened roads that were shut for decades.
Q: You have been saying that one of the reasons for your alliance with BJP was to bring Kashmir and Jammu provinces closer to each other and thus strengthen the bond between the majority Muslims and the minority Hindu population in the State. The reality on ground seems to be contrary. People say while BJP has a strong say in larger policy decisions, they don’t allow you to take any decision in Jammu province, not even about posting an officer. Your critics say you can’t post a deputy commissioner or a SSP who is from Kashmir, especially a Muslim, in districts like Jammu, Sambha, Kathua or Udhampur?
MM: I don’t think that is a problem. We can post any officer anywhere in the State and I don’t think they will have any objection. Local officer serving closer to their home has been happening for a long time. It has been happening. We are thinking to post Kashmiri officers in Jammu and officers from Jammu in the valley.
Please recall what had happened in 2008. There was unrest across Jammu too. There was communal violence in Kishtwar. This time nothing of that sort happened. While so much was happening in Kashmir, Jammu was calm. It is only because we are in alliance with BJP.
Q. Senior BJP leader and Former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha is in Kashmir for the second time and he is meeting people, Hurriyat leaders, traders etc?
MM: Yes he is meeting people. I know about it. Lets see what comes out of it.