April 04, 2020
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“I’m Here. I Haven’t Run Away. I’m Ready To Admit Mistakes”

In the hot seat for over a year, the current round of violence marks J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah’s biggest test.

“I’m Here. I Haven’t Run Away. I’m Ready To Admit Mistakes”
Jitender Gupta
“I’m Here. I Haven’t Run Away. I’m Ready To Admit Mistakes”

Full text of the interview, excerpts from which appear in print:

How would you explain this explosion of rage in the valley?

It’s not quite an explosion of rage. At this point I would call it a simmering anger. It did explode some days ago, the mood was very raw but we were able to contain it. The turning point was the death of this young woman, Fancy, in Srinagar (On July 6) She was leaning out of her window, watching the protests in the streets. The police fired in the air and she took one of the shots. There’s an emotional reaction to the death of a lady that doesn’t happen when it is men involved.

We have reached the point where Kashmir is permanently simmering -- and it exploded in 2008 when things were worse and hopefully we won’t get there. Since then, there are ups and downs. Things became quiet for the elections, then there was simmering anger against Shopian, then the spate of deaths we have had in dealing with law and order disturbances. Obviously, that has had an effect on people’s psyche. I believe even the Macchil fake encounter by a person from the army has had a deep impact. Three people are lured by promise of jobs by a person who was financially rewarded. Then these people are projected as militants and killed. All of this came together to create what you would call a perfect storm, I think, and we have been dealing with such a storm.

The FIRs have not been lodged in many of these cases of civilian deaths. That only adds to public anger.

We are aware of this and recognize now that the wording of the FIR has a bearing on the people’s reaction. And when a death, by all accounts, has taken place because of police firing and the FIR says "unidentified men" then that is going to cause more problems. In the case of the J&K police, I have told the DG that we have to be more sensitive in the wording of the FIR. The FIR is only a first information report. It is not a chargesheet, so I don’t know why we should be sensitive about what goes into an FIR because, after that, the investigation may prove something completely different. I have told them that if, at that time, the FIR is filed properly, people will have some satisfaction that, yes, cognizance has been taken.

A culture has developed over the last 20 years in the police of trying not to say anything. So if something happens, you say it was done by the "enemies of peace" which is a great phrase used by even some mainstream political parties. The "enemies of peace" can be anyone or anything. For the mainstream, the enemies of peace are the militants, for the separatists the enemies of peace are the security forces. So you say something without saying anything at all.  That culture has crept into the wording of FIRs, but we will correct that.

But not having been lodged was my question

That is something that could have been handled with more tact. I will be giving written instructions that not only must a FIR be lodged it must take cognizance of what the initial versions are.

With army, J&K police and CRPF all over, are you helpless as a politician in a situation like Kashmir?

No Chief Minister should claim the defence of helplessness because then you have no business being there.  So "helpless" is not the reaction that comes to mind. Ok, a sense of frustration, certainly, and I’d have to be inhuman if that was not a reaction that would creep up once in a while. But we have to accept that incidents -- whether its Macchil or killings on account of law and order disturbances -- are aberrations rather than the rule. There is this transition we are going through from an insurgency to a law and order problem. And, in that, we need to make a transition of mindsets, training, equipment, the transition of deployment and that’s something recent events will ensure that the pace speeds up.

Every political reputation gets destroyed in Kashmir. You have four more years…

Let’s put things into perspective. I’ve had two bad weeks. It’s a year of 52 weeks. While we should be concerned over what we saw in Kashmir over the last two weeks, it is important to maintain a perspective. We seem to be very quick to judge and most of the judging is done by people who seldom, if at all, visit the valley. Recent events have posed some questions but I’m here. I have not run away. Whatever erosion of reputation there has been will be shored up. Would you rather have a person who lives in denial? I am willing to admit mistakes and call a spade a spade.  

Is New Delhi fully behind you? There’s one impression is that they are making overtures to Mehbooba in exhorting her to attend the all party meet as if that would solve the problem.

You know and I know that no one person or party can solve the problem. It was perhaps felt that mainstream political parties should talk in one voice. Clearly PDP felt that was not the appropriate course of action.  This is the party that talks of self-rule but they want Delhi to solve the problem.

People here have reacted to Home secretary G.K. Pillai giving facts about curfew in Srinagar as if he was making decisions.

I’m not going to join issue with G.K. Pillai or any remarks from the ministry of home or defence or anywhere else. There are sensitivities when dealing with Jammu and Kashmir that need to be kept in mind and we should never give the impression that with an elected government here things are being remote controlled by New Delhi. Decisions to relax or impose curfew are not taken even at the level of the chief minister. They are operational decisions taken by the district collector in consultation with senior officers in headquarters. I am kept informed. New Delhi didn’t issue an order. They unfortunately gave the impression that they were making recommendations.

Do you see stone throwing as a form of insurgency or protest?

It is impossible to pigeonhole it as any one thing. J&K is not about black and white. It is about various shades of grey. What shade of grey you see depends on which side of the fence you are sitting on. For someone it will be frustration and the desire for Azadi. For others it will be frustration on account of limited economic opportunity and lack of jobs. For others, it is paid for. The truth is there are elements of all this in what you see. And the mix of what you get depends on circumstances. What you saw at Sopore in the beginning was the result of the death of a local militant there. But by last week there was rage over the death of Fancy. Now to suggest that was militant-backed or paid for is not right. It was pure anger. As much as somebody may like to believe it was me and my government, in this entire series of protests, when were the slogans against the state government? Or against my person or where my effigy was burnt? Who were the protests against?

You mean it was all against India?

It is important to see that. I am accused of frittering away the mandate of 2008. Please put it into perspective that areas where protests spread from are areas that still didn’t participate in the 2008 elections. I’m suggesting that the sentiment you see today in some pockets existed in 2008 as well and it is the failure of the system that we haven’t been able to get them in the system but we have not alienated them further.

What does azadi really mean today and what can you deliver to the people? There are kids today who shout about Azadi.

Can you blame them? For 20 years, these two generations have grown up only on this. When you don’t have jobs you shout, “Hum kya chahte hain? Azadi” (What do we want? freedom); when you don’t have electricity you shout Azadi. This is not new. I remember, in my childhood, when electricity went during a popular TV serial, people people represented to a UN office here. That is the dichotomy in our system. Azadi is the magic cure for any and every problem here. What do people mean by Azadi? is it sustainable? that is a question for people who have sold this dream to the public. It is a question for the separatists.

The NC has said that restoration of the autonomous position J&K had is the most appropriate way of dealing with the political situation.  You have all positions from the BJP’s “scrap article 370” to the separatists who say "go beyond the four walls of the constitution". Where the contours will lie depends on a sustained dialogue with Pakistan. That has not been happening. People need to feel there is a better tomorrow, some solution. From time to time they get that sense then it gets taken away from them. That hope was at it’s strongest when General Musharaff and Manmohan Singh were talking to each other. It started with Vajpayee’s initiatives  but Manmohan Singh took it ahead.  People want to see talk on soft borders, autonomy, meaningful substantial things that can lead to a final resolution of this problem that they have been brought up on.  Let’s face it, J&K was first internationalised as a result of the Shimla agreement where it was  agreed to resolve all outstanding issues between Indian and Pakistan including Jammu and Kashmir. I was two years old then. I am 40 now. For 38 years I live in a place that still has to be “resolved” between India and Pakistan. I am as much part of the mainstream as it is possible to be. Imagine those who are part of the fringe or of a separatist mind set. Imagine what plays on their minds.

Look at the context in which we survive. How do you possibly have an independent J&K straddled between three nuclear powers and crucial rivers flowing both eastwards and westwards through this land when experts tell you that the next battles will be over water? I don’t think any Chief Minister in this country has to deal with the kind of forces I have to deal with. External factors about India and Pakistan impact my state and I have no way of contributing to that process.

Many Kashmiris say they are constantly under occupation?

We tend to narrowly look at this in the perspective of last 20 years. Look a little beyond that. J&K has always had security forces though how visible they are depends on the situation and there is no doubt their visibility has gone up astronomically because of the internal situation here but will improve when things are better and they don’t have to be in your face so to speak. But please don’t forget, we share a border with both Pakistan and China, both countries India has gone to war with. J&K cannot suddenly become a demilitarised island in a neighbourhood like this.

Your family is part of contemporary history. Both your grandfather and father are said to have made great blunders also. Do you now find yourself part of that legacy?

I always will be part of that legacy and there are both advantages and disadvantages. Some people will always hate me because of the family to which I belong, and I have to accept that. People focus more minutely when things are going wrong. I am in a situation governing a state where almost everybody has an opinion about what I’m doing. My grandfather and father took several conscious decisions that shaped the future and had to live with the consequences. Some people who believe they can do what I am doing better say my decision to call the army in was a historic blunder. I made the decision and will live with it. 

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