Not since 1989 – year the firestorm of a Pakistan-backed violent, secessionist movement broke out in Kashmir – has the valley seen such a long spell of relative calm as in the last two years. This summer has particularly been awash with signs of normality: a chart-bursting tourist season, an all-time low militant violence and a subdued separatist sentiment. But, such interregnums of lull in Kashmir are known to be deceptively short-lived, invariably punctuated by outbursts of turmoil. No one perhaps knows the potential pitfalls of this mercurial matrix of violence-weary Jammu and Kashmir better than its chief minister Omar Abdullah – a lesson that he learnt the hard way by the bloody summer of 2010 in which 110 people were killed.
Half way past his six years at the head of the National Conference-Congress coalition government, the third generation scion of the formidable Abdullah dynasty faces the challenges of consolidating the security situation and keeping his promises on the development front. His major bets, however, are on the revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and an internal dialogue on the roadmap suggested by the Centre’s interlocutors – the two issues that hold the key to stabilising Kashmir, that is now again on the front burner of the India-Pakistan dialogue, and Omar’s political graph. In a free-wheeling interview with Resident Editor Ramesh Vinayak and Kashmir bureau chief Toufiq Rashid at his office in the heavily-guarded civil secretariat in Srinagar, Omar was at his candid best, fielding a range of questions. Excerpts:
Q) What do you count as the highs and lows of your rule so far?
Clearly, the prevailing situation in the state is one that gives some cause for satisfaction. Development works are going on at a decent pace. We had two good, undisturbed work seasons that have allowed us to utilise resources better than we had been able to in the past. It also enabled us to focus on things other than just the security aspect, such as legislation that will empower people. The Public Services Guarantee Act is one such landmark legislation. Equally significant has been the successful conduct of the panchayat elections after three decades. We are now rolling out the process for elections to panchayati raj institutions and local bodies by December.
In terms of lows, I don’t look beyond 2009 and 2010. They were difficult summers and ones that I don’t look back with any degree of fondness at all.
Q) Do you look at the record inflow of tourists as a barometer of a durable normalcy?
Let’s not make the mistake of co-relating tourism with return of normal bearings. Doing that automatically makes targets out of tourists. Tourism is just an economic activity. Yes, tourism grows the constituency for peace. This year, perhaps more than any other period in the past, we have grown that constituency because we spread the benefits of tourism much wider. This is the first season when Kashmir ran out of rooms and people converted their spare bedrooms into home stay. The beneficiaries would obviously want to continue to earn in the next tourism season, too.
Q) What do you think are your major challenges ahead?
The prime challenge is to continue having an upper hand on the militancy front. When we started dismantling security bunkers in Srinagar, there were apprehensions that it would turn into a war zone again. That hasn’t happened. There have been stray incidents but these were largely financially driven.
Q) Your efforts to get AFSPA revoked have seemingly not reached anywhere?
Yes, it’s still a work in progress. It’s one of my disappointments that we were not able to begin the process. I never suggested that AFSPA will be removed from Jammu and Kashmir in one shot. My logic is: look, there are certain areas in the state today where the army is not conducting anti-insurgency operations. There, you can safely hand over the charge to the state police and the CRPF. But we hit a roadblock.
Q) So, what’s the stumbling block?
The political leadership in Delhi doesn’t want to overrule the army. I believe the army’s concerns are misplaced. The senior brass of the army is being overly conservative. I need to convince them and I am working on that.
Q) Any timeframe on the AFSPA rollback?
I am hopeful that the process would start during the term of this government. Talks on the issue are more productive than they were in the past.
Q) Does it bother you that you are unable to have your way despite law and order being a state subject?
AFSPA was brought in as an enabling provision to deal with insurgency and not law and order. The revocation of this Act should be seen in relationship with the successes on the anti-militancy front. Law and order is a state subject but on combating militancy, the responsibility is shared between the state and the Centre.
Q) You have been focusing on development but will it help resolve the Kashmir issue?
Never. The root of Kashmir’s troubles lies in its politics, not economics. My state has one of the lowest poverty levels in the country. Development will help disincentivise picking up the gun but will not lead to a lasting solution. That’s possible only through a two track dialogue: one with Pakistan, and the second between the state and New Delhi.
Q) Do you see an internal dialogue on the horizon?
Well, it’s not happening. I continue to be hopeful that the report submitted by the Centre’s interlocutors can form the basis of some sort of sustained dialogue process.
Q) But the report has not recommended the autonomy that your party swears by?
There are recommendations in the report that my party and I vehemently disagree with and will never accept. But still it’s an important document that can pave the way for at least dialogue if not a settlement in one shot. It does have some recommendations on which a consensus can be arrived at to break the impasse on Kashmir.
Q) What specific recommendations do you find unacceptable?
The regional councils that the report has recommended go completely against the National Conference’s stand on regional autonomy. Also, the report doesn’t go as far as we want on the question of autonomy. It doesn’t address our demands in terms of the pre-1953 position.
Q) Yet you believe the report offers a way forward?
That’s because no other report has been formed with such a lot of work done behind it. The interlocutors visited every district of the state and met more than 700 delegations from almost every school of thought. It’s impossible to form a report that everybody will agree with. On the table, we can try and narrow down our differences.
Q) Even four months after the report, there is hardly any movement on this?
Clearly, it’s not a priority in Delhi at the moment. I wish it was. Knowing the problems the UPA is grappling with, I don’t envy the Prime Minister at all. Given a chance, the PM will like nothing more than this dialogue process to start and reach somewhere.
Q) Why is it important to move on the report now?
We risk frittering away this opportunity because Jammu and Kashmir is at the cusp of normalcy it has not seen in many years in the past. Unfortunately, such opportunities don’t come very easily. Today, the situation is not forcing us to talk. It’s an opportunity to talk without a gun put to your head.
Q) Will such talks make sense when the separatist Hurriyat Conference is not on board?
Nobody has stopped the Hurriyat from coming to the table. To my knowledge, the Centre had asked the Hurriyat to make recommendations in writing but they never did. So, their opinion on the report doesn’t matter a bit.
Q) Do you consider the Hurriyat a factor?
Whether you like it or not, the Hurriyat is a stakeholder here. To what extent do they exert influence on public opinion is open to discussion.
Q) Given the bitter, bipartisan politics at the national level, where is the atmosphere of consensus that is critical for discussion on the interlocutors’ report?
The biggest stumbling block for forward movement on Kashmir is not the absence of will on the part of the Centre but a cussed mindset that the BJP is in today. They (the BJP) are determined to, by hook or by crook, shoot down any initiative on Kashmir. It’s very similar to the opposition I face here in the state from the People’s Democratic Party.
Q) But the BJP has already trashed the interlocutors’ report?
Because they want political capital to take advantage of in the 2014 elections. The BJP has never put national interest before party interest. I don’t for a moment expect them to rise above partisan interest. For the BJP, Kashmir has always been an election issue – whether it’s Article 370 or planting a flag at Lal Chowk in Srinagar.
Q) In such a political scenario, aren’t you betting too much on AFSPA and the interlocutors’ report?
The door on AFSPA is still open. Nobody expects a miraculous solution out of one meeting on the report. Let’s take the report to the all-party meeting. We may not agree on big-ticket recommendations such as a constitutional review committee but there are a whole lot of recommendations that can be agreed upon to roll out as confidence-building steps to solidify the gains on the security front in Kashmir. I have been cautioning all along that you can’t afford to take your eye off the ball here.
Q) But the ground-breaking confidence-building measure of opening the Line of Control for trade in 2005 has been reduced to tokenism?
That’s because Pakistan has been dragging its feet on converting the barter trade into banking trade on letter of credit. Right, they send us 30 trucks of oranges and we reciprocate with an equal number of trucks of apples. Also, we need to reverse the current practice of trade on positive list to negative list. Both steps will dramatically alter the trans-LOC trade.
Q) Does it worry you that in the absence of political initiatives, the situation may slide back?
I am not worried but it will be foolish on my part to completely ignore the possibility. There is a concerted effort being made by separatists to provoke sectarian violence, which we are guarding against. Two years ago, I wouldn’t have been bothered about what they do. Now definitely I am. The separatists’ constituency widens enormously when things are a bit unsettled here. Their importance is inversely related to the happiness of people. So they want people to be unhappy to be more relevant.
Q) The opposition accuses you of not doing enough to stem rampant corruption?
That’s not true. We have institutions such as the State Accountability Commission and the Vigilance Commission to deal with corruption. Why don’t they take the complaints and evidence to this body? There are hardly three or four Vigilance cases waiting for prosecution sanction. We have taken the transparency in transfers, tendering and procurement to a level that never existed before. But, if you ask me whether corruption has been curbed completely, the answer is no. It’s a deep-rooted disease.
Q) Your alliance partner, the Congress, has been sniping at you?
Only one or two leaders on both sides have fondness for going to the newspapers. But, if you look at the cabinet functioning, there is a lot less friction than what was in the previous PDP-Congress dispensation. There is no Mamata Banerjee in our coalition.
Q) So, you will remain with the UPA through the 2014 elections?
That we will decide close to the elections but there is a lot of meeting of minds with the Congress.
Q) As the youngest president of the NC, have you thought of re-inventing the party to induct fresh blood?
Re-inventing as old a party as the NC can trigger trouble. This is what my father tried doing overnight when he took over the baton from my grandfather, and faced the consequences in 1984. I believe in a gradual generational transition.
Q) Do you still believe you are in the hot seat?
The seat heats up once in a while. It’s not permanently hot.