Home Minister P Chidambaram (65) deals with multiple fires across India. He handles the Maoist insurgency, and before he sat down for an interview with the Hindustan Times at his North Block office in New Delhi, he was in talks with the Naga National Council. The paramilitary forces deployed in Kashmir report to him every day. He spoke to Indrajit Hazra and Samar Halarnkar.
Is Kashmir predominantly a security issue or a political issue?
The problem in Kashmir is essentially a political one. In the absence of a solution, it has given rise to serious security concerns.
The basic problem in Kashmir appears to be that India's political drift and inaction has been so acute that the current set of separatists, even the hardliners, are looking like moderates, because the emerging set of young people taking charge are radicalised and more united than ever in their call for azaadi. How should the government of India handle this swiftly changing course of events?
I would not agree with you that these these young protestors are more radicalised or organised. Certainly today’s protestors are a very different group of young men, women, and, in some cases, children. It is clear that what we’re seeing now in Kashmir is a qualitatively different kind of protest. We do need to recognise this. The protests are certainly more widespread and there is significant alienation. One would have to examine carefully what exactly triggered this sense of alienation.
You have had dialogues with some separatist leaders, including Syed Ali Shah Geelani, even if they do not want to admit it. How have those gone?
Yes. I have been in closed-door dialogue with separatist leaders too for a while. It wouldn't be much of a closed-door dialogue if I said what we talked about. But after the militants assaulted Fazal-ul-Haq Qureshi (moderate Hurriyat leader injured in a militant attack in December 2009), all such interactions stopped.
Is New Delhi willing to talk with someone like Geelani while he remains in the picture?
Everyone is focusing on the Armed Forces Special Protection Act (AFSPA) in Delhi. But it's barely an issue in the Valley. It makes sense to protestors only if AFSPA is repealed and accompanied by the withdrawals of the Disturbed Areas Act and the Public Safety Act under which many are detained without trial. What are your thoughts?
It’s the media that are focusing on AFSPA. The Government of India is not. As for the Disturbed Areas Act, the notifications have not been made under the Act but under the J&K Armed Forces Special Powers Act. In the case of the Public Safety Act, only a small number, some 200 people have been booked under it, according to the Chief Minister. I have to take his word for this. In any case, the large majority of those who have been arrested are bailed out and released the very next day. If there have been instances of more people being detained unlawfully, why hasn’t anyone complained specifically? It’s a standard procedure and easy to find out. Nothing on this count has been brought to my notice.
Why do you think security forces have been killing unarmed protestors? What are the actual orders to the forces?
The security forces are under clear instructions to act with maximum restraint. They have been given non-lethal weapons. However, according to security forces, firing action is taken only as a last resort. Prima facie, it appears that firing has been done in self-defence or to protect a police station or a camp/headquarters of the security forces.
Does that mean I look into every incident of death? No, I don’t. But on the basis of what the State government and the security forces inform me, only a handful cases have been found to be cases of possible excess action. The forces have to provide cause for opening fire; forces all over India have to adhere to this. There is nothing different in J&K. Some instances of firing are being inquired into by a Commission. We should await the report of the Commission.
One major reason for growing alienation on the ground seems to be how people are treated by the security forces —being slapped, getting a few lathis, other random acts of humiliation. The security forces are also under a great deal of stress. How will you address this?
There may certainly be some cases of excesses, but I don't think this is so widespread. But this can only be fixed on the ground by trial and error. If there are fewer protests there will be fewer occasions to impose curfew, fewer occasions for citizens in Kashmir to encounter security forces. People tend to forget that last year there has been substantial demilitarisation. 10,000 paramilitary forces have already been removed from Kashmir and 30,000 [army] troops have been moved out.
How much autonomy can Kashmir have? More than now? And to what extent?
Autonomy is a demand made by many sections of the people of J&K and many political groups. They refer to accords and agreements reached in the past. The content of the demand for autonomy is a matter for dialogue and discussion.
Do you think it is time for India to redeem its promises to the people of Kashmir? If yes, what promises?
Yes, over the years, several promises have been made to the people of J&K and we should act on those promises. Based on the agreements and accords of 1952 (Delhi Agreement), 1975 (Sheikh-Indira Accord), 1986 (Rajiv-Farooq Accord) we must address these promises.
Are you referring to the P-word? Plebiscite.
No, I am not. As I said, any promises made based on 1952, 1975 and 1986 agreements can be considered The plebiscite is history. Much has changed since. We have to look at things as they are now, not rake up the past, if we are to move ahead. All things must be based on the talks between the parties: the Govern-ment of Jammu and Kashmir and the Government of India.
The plebiscite was one of the issues on the table in 1952 and stayed there for some time. You hear the plebiscite issue in the ongoing crisis as well. That hasn’t been the case at all. That is not what I meant. There are many other issues that need to be examined and addressed. I have not heard any demand for plebiscite from any quarter.
So, plebiscite is not something that will be on the table?
No, not at all.
Mr Chidamabram, in the current climate, what would be your message to Kashmir’s youth?
My message is: Be part of the India story. Your future is secure in India. You can build a vibrant and prosperous Jammu and Kashmir, as a part of India.