In this Idea Exchange,J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah speaks about the clampdown after the Afzal Guru hanging,militant attacks and why “no other chief minister is expected to tom-tom his Indian credentials as much as the CM of J&K”. This session was moderated by Senior Assistant Editor Maneesh Chhibber
Maneesh Chhibber: Tell us of your journey in the last four years as Chief Minister.
Omar Abdullah: There have been some very good days,there have been some difficult ones and my colleagues and I have tried to steer the state through the difficult ones as best as possible. Has it been good enough? Time will tell.
D K Singh: What has your experience been with your coalition partner? Will you go with the same alliance into the next general elections?
Omar Abdullah: Ours was not a pre-poll coalition,it was a post-poll coalition. The National Conference Working Committee has co-authorised the party president to talk to the Congress and take a decision. There is no clear indicator one way or the other. Also,its not a decision the NC can take unilaterally. It is equally a question for the Congress. Unlike other states where alliances are more or less pre-determined because of party politics,in J&K,the Congress has the option of choosing between two regional parties… So,will that be a factor,time alone will tell.
Y P Rajesh: Looking from the outside,the Valley seems to suffer from a perpetual victimhood complex. People react very strongly as they did after the Afzal Guru hanging and with the CRPF killing incident.
Omar Abdullah: If you have lived through what the Valley has lived through for the last 25 years,you would have a victimhood syndrome as well. Life has not been easy for the average Kashmiri. A simple example: for many years,the decision to wear a watch or not was a life and death question. The militants dictated that you set your watch to Pakistan Standard Time. Indian security forces said,set your watch to Indian Standard Time… Has the time come to shake that (sense of victimhood) off? Yes. The situation is no longer what it used to be. There is a sea change between the early 1990s,early 2000 and now. But even if Kashmiris wanted to stop feeling like victims,enough political leaders will reinforce that feeling because their politics thrive on it. We have tried to give people a sense that greater normality is in their interest. And I dont think its ever been done as effectively as it was done last year. There is less appetite for public protest today in Kashmir,largely on account of an agitational fatigue because they saw nothing come out of it in 2008,2009 and 2010. Also,they have seen in the last year how much their lives can change for the better in terms of livelihood,childrens education,etc.
Ajmer Singh: The Afzal Guru hanging was done in a covert,hush-hush manner. How did you react when the Home Minister informed you?
Omar Abdullah: I understand the need to be a little quiet about it. What I dont understand is the circumventing of the judicial process. We were told that Afzal Guru was hanged because he had exhausted all his legal options. Yet,when you compare his legal options to those of Veerappans gang members,you realise that all the legal options had not been exhausted. The legal option of staying his execution,which clearly was available to other death row inmates,was denied to him. There are questions which the people of Kashmir deserve an answer to,on the way Afzals family was treated. It is basic human courtesy that you give the family a chance to meet one last time.
Ajmer Singh: Were you misled by the Centre?
Omar Abdullah: When the Home Minister and others tell me all the legal options had been exhausted,I took their words at face value. I am not a lawyer. I had been told that all legal options had been exhausted and that the date for the execution had been fixed because the President had turned down the mercy petition.
Y P Rajesh: Afzal Gurus hanging sparked off attacks from the militants. Do you see that continuing?
Omar Abdullah: We can expect militant activities from time to time for the simple reason that our neighbours need to keep the Kashmir pot boiling. They tried very hard to unite the Hurriyat Conference on one platform to capitalise on the Afzal Guru execution. They did not manage. There is a very limited appetite for public protest in Kashmir.
Manoj C G: The UPA government has accepted many of the demands of its allies in the last four years. Why havent you been able to get your way with the government on the revocation of AFSPA?
Omar Abdullah: Because it is not a political demand. I am not playing politics with it. If I was,then even I would threaten to walk out,stage dharnas… I believe this is an important confidence-building measure. It conveys a message that the situation in the Valley has improved significantly and there are areas where the Army does not need to operate. Clearly,there is a difference of opinion between what we are saying and what the Army is saying. That is why we are where we are today.
Mehraj Lone: Incidents at Machhil and places like Kunan,Poshpora,Sopore,Pathribal,Gawkadal have been reported,inquiries held but no one has been punished as yet.
Omar Abdullah: Which is why I am making the case for a review of AFSPA. Which of our standard operating procedures sanctions rape as an operational tool? So,why do you need to give it protection under AFSPA? All the cases you talked about are hanging fire because of AFSPAbecause civilian courts do not have a say in this matter. Even when the highest court in the land,the Supreme Court,takes note of Pathribal and passes strictures,even then it is almost impossible to take any action.
Ravish Tiwari: What percentage of area do you think is suitable for AFSPA withdrawal?
Omar Abdullah: I dont think you can put it in percentage terms,but you can definitely look at Srinagar and its immediate surrounding areas. A large part of Jammu too,much of which is free of militancy today.
Naveed Iqbal: The J&K interlocutors report was not accepted,there is no indication that your partys autonomy resolution will ever be taken up by the Central government. So what is the role of an elected government,an elected Chief Minister?
Omar Abdullah: A large number of the recommendations of the working groups have actually been fulfilled. A lot of what you see happeningthe rehabilitation policy,the return of Kashmiri Pandit migrants,employment opportunities for youngstersfind some reference in the working group recommendations or the interlocutors report. Its the larger things that have not been done. Autonomy has not been restored to J&K means that none of the working group recommendations have been fulfilled? Not true. What has happened is that we have done the easier ones,weve left the tougher ones for later. But we are now too close to the general elections to be able to pick up any of the difficult ones… The Central government doesnt call the shots (in J&K). It has the same sort of relationship with J&K as it does with any other state.
Y P Rajesh: Rahul Gandhi led a delegation of some top industrialists to the Valley. Has there been any follow-up in terms of proposals,investments?
Omar Abdullah: The success of this team would perhaps be weighed in terms of the investments flowing into the Valley. That would be silly because there isnt going to be any. I didnt expect any investment before the team arrived,and I dont expect any investment after the team has left. I have a lot of very bright boys and girls who dont really get an opportunity. So if the Tatas and Birlas and others start participating in our campus recruitment fairs,that will make a huge difference to us. If they come forward and participate in the Udaan and Himayat schemes for the skill upgradation of youngsters,that makes more sense for me because Im not going to get big investment into the Valley. Kashmir doesnt make sense for large investments because every bit of raw material has to be shipped in and all your finished products have to be shipped out. So why would they invest here?
Sumegha Gulati: Some of the reports after Liyaqat Ali Shahs arrest suggested that the J&K Police went to the Indo-Nepal border to receive him. Is that true?
Omar Abdullah: The NIA is looking into this. It has become a very messy tussle between the Delhi Police and the J&K Police and its not in either police forces interest to have this.
Sumegha Gulati: Is the Centre playing fair in this instance?
I think the fairest thing they could have done is not take sides,which is exactly what theyve done. Theyve given it to an objective organisation that will take the facts for what they are and place their conclusions for everybody to see. In the meantime,the government has said that there are coordination issues that need to be resolved,and one of the possible solutions is to to have J&K Police present at various points on the Nepal border so that identification becomes easier,coordination becomes easier.
Muhammad Zulqarnain Zulfi: On February 9,you tweeted that you had not been informed about the Afzal Guru hanging and you had to rush to Srinagar to deal with the situation there. Doesnt this show that the state government is helpless before the Centre?
Omar Abdullah: It is important to understand the difference between consultation and decision-making. There has been no shortage of discussion between the state and the Centre on the implications of hanging Afzal Guru. I made my concerns known to the government of India about the possible implications of hanging Afzal Guru. I was not a party to the decision,I didnt need to be a party to that decision. They didnt need my permission,as opposed to the case of Maqbool Bhat,where the warrant of execution had to be signed by the state government. Once the decision was takenand I would expect that the decision was taken pretty soon or reasonably around the time frame that I was informedI was told the night before that the next morning he was to be executed and we had to deal with the fallout. Thats it.
Muhammad Zulqarnain Zulfi: What about Tamil Nadu and Punjab,where cases of execution have not been allowed by the states concerned?
Omar Abdullah: J&K didnt allow it or disallow it. J&K didnt have a choice in the matter. If the warrant of execution had to be signed by the state government,it wouldve been a different matter. In Tamil Nadu and Punjab,the warrant of execution will have to be signed by the state government because the crimes for which those people have to be executed took place in those states. Afzal Gurus crime did not take place in J&K,it took place in Delhi. If we had to give permission,perhaps our state would have been the same as Punjab and Tamil Nadu.
Ravish Tiwari: During your four years as chief minister,have you ever felt that the Indian state is insecure about J&K and thats why its first instinct is always to clamp down on the state?
Omar Abdullah: Insecurity would be too strong a word. We have to keep reminding ourselves that J&K is a part of India,I dont know why. I havent seen any other state Assembly where members feel constantly obliged to reiterate that their state is a part of India. Its been engrained in us. No other chief minister is expected to tom-tom his Indian credentials as much as the CM of J&K. Unfortunately,the CM of J&K can never be Indian enough for Indians and he can never be Kashmiri enough for Kashmiris.
Mehraj Lone: You want AFSPA revoked but you also have a draft Police Bill and the PSA. Seventeen-year-old stone-pelters are being detained under the PSA. How do you reconcile the two?
Omar Abdullah: The Public Safety Act is a piece of legislation born long before militancy. It was born out of the need to take preemptive action in various scenarios,including timber smuggling. The only changes we have made to the PSA are to make it less harsh. Every law allows juveniles to be subject to the law provided you treat them as juveniles and not as grown-up offenders. But if a 16-year-old is a perpetual stone-pelter who wants nothing more than to create trouble,then the law should take its own course. Im not suggesting that a 16-year-old should be sent to jail,because then he will come out much worse than he went in, but we have juvenile detention centres. I would love not to have to pick up these chaps. As long as stone pelting doesnt happen,arrests wont happen.
As for the draft Police Bill,what is wrong with putting a draft piece of legislation up for public scrutiny? The draft Police Bill is the creation of an order of the Supreme Court where they wanted state governments to de-politicise the police. So we are looking to produce a good piece of legislation.
Ambreen Khan: In our country,we have only two young chief ministers: Akhilesh Yadav and you. Both of you have larger-than-life fathers.
Omar Abdullah: Akhilesh has a much tougher job than I do. I would freak out if my father made as many public comments about my governance as poor Akhileshs father makes about his. If Akhilesh is seen to be doing well,it will benefit his father. It doesnt help his fathers case if he himself makes a case that Akhilesh is not performing. Everybody says mine is the toughest job in the country but I think his is tougher.
Zubair Bhat: What do you as a Kashmiri think the people of Kashmir want?
Omar Abdullah: If there was a simple answer to this question,Kashmiris wouldve got it by now. There isnt a fixed constituency in Kashmir for what they want. I think Kashmiris recognise what idealistically they would like and what is realistically possible. In an ideal world,they would like to be free. Thats not going to happen. Therefore,they accept that the relationship of J&K with the rest of India is what it is. But when innocent people are killed in Pathribal or in Machhil,when people dont see justice follow on from that,then clearly suspicion sets in,disenchantment sets in. Then the constituency for a non-Indian solution grows. Its a reality that we have to live with. When things are good,normal,when life goes on well,that constituency shrinks. But when you have summers like 2010 or situations like the aftermath of Afzal Gurus execution,then that constituency grows for a while. And it is our responsibility to ensure that that constituency shrinks to the best extent possible. But dont ever expect a situation where 100 per cent people in Kashmir will thump their chest and say we are Indian because that will never happen.
Transcribed by Sumegha Gulati & Naveed Iqbal