New Delhi: Full transcript of Barkha Dutt's interview with J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah
Barkha Dutt: It's been an extremely tense and fraught week, not just for Kashmir valley but also for Chief Minister Omar Abdullah who today has spoken about the need for a political resolution to J&K, but how long will the tenuous peace in the valley hold and what is the path ahead for peace in J&K. Joining us now is CM Omar Abdullah himself. Thank you so much Omar for talking to us in the midst of what is and has been an extremely difficult time for you. Now, I know that since you have taken over as the CM of the state, this isn't the first time that you have seen violence, this isn't the first time that you have seen pressure but would you describe the last week and in fact the last 2-3 weeks as in a sense as perhaps one of the toughest phases since you took over as CM.
Omar Abdullah: Without a doubt, this was the toughest phase and I hope I never have to deal, I hope the state never has to go through a phase like this again. Obviously, we live in uncertain times and my colleagues and I will do everything possible to ensure that things like this don't happen and for that we are going to need the support of all the parties that are involved with J&K and that includes the government of India.
Barkha Dutt: Now Omar, in your press conference, in your first comments on this week of violence, in the valley, you asserted that what had happened was not a result of the failure of governance, that this wasn't because your administration had failed to govern, let me put it to you slightly differently, would you concede that what has happened is at least, partially the result of a failure of a political dialogue, a political process within J&K.
Omar Abdullah: Absolutely, I think the single largest factor today is that people don't see a light at the end of the dark tunnel that they were hoping to see. Obviously, my government is doing everything possible to address their day to day concerns, roads, bridges, health, schools, everything else. But I mean we must understand and this is the point we are making privately and publicly for years now that the issue of J&K did not arise unlike say, the Naxalite or the Maoist movement because of economic problems, it arose largely because of the politics of J&K and until we address it politically. We will always have a problem here, regardless of who happens to occupy the CM's office in the Secretariat.
Barkha Dutt: So, you concede that there hasn't been that kind of momentum to the political dialogue but where do you pin the responsibility for that, do you believe there is a gap in the understanding between New Delhi and Srinagar, are you not getting the kind of support on this from New Delhi, as much as you would like, where is the reason for this failure of political dialogue?
Omar Dutt: No, I don't think New Delhi is to blame here, the Home Minister tried through a quiet dialogue, and I think that was the right way to go about it because one of the biggest problems we have had in our dialogue process is that it has been so public and it has raised so many expectations that it's never been able to live up to the hopes and the expectations that were aroused by the beginning of the dialogue process.
Therefore perhaps, doing it quietly this time was the right way to go about it, I think where we failed was that, there really was no dialogue going on between India and Pakistan at that time and I think it would naïve to assume Pakistan would allow a sustained internal dialogue between government of India and separatists, in the absence of a dialogue between New Delhi and Pakistan.
As much as we might like to believe that J&K is and the dialogue here is divorced from what happens between India and Pakistan, it's not and clearly that has results, I mean we can't, I mean how can we forget that certain moderate separatist leaders who have always and I think even today remain in favour of a negotiated settlement to this problem. They visited the Pakistan High Commission and unfortunately after that whatever dialogue process was even talked about that ground to a halt. So now that our governments are talking to each other, we have had a successful meeting between our Prime Minister and the Pakistani Prime Minister most recently, Mr Chidambaram has met his counterpart and others in Islamabad, perhaps now we can begin to put the foundation right for a dialogue between New Delhi and the state.
Barkha Dutt: Now Omar, in his press conference, the Home Minister also spoke about how you needed to combine a political approach along with using the security forces to enforce a curfew across the valley, he also advised you personally to visit many of the disturbed areas. I want to ask you, how did you feel when Mr Chidambaram advised you in that manner at a public press conference, did you feel in that sense that it undermined your autonomy in decision making?
Omar Abdullah: No Barkha, whatever I may feel about what the Home Minister had to say during his press conference, I think it's best that I share that with the Home Minister privately, either when he travels to Srinagar or when I meet him on a subsequent visit to Delhi. As far as the Home Minister's advice was concerned, he wasn't wrong, I mean obviously these sort of situations have to be handled politically as well but in that I think, it is also important to understand that we didn't wait for this advice to come. No sooner had the trouble flared up in Pahalgam, four days ago, that evening itself, 3 of my ministers and my advisor flew to Pahalgam and they have been camping there since then. Senior ministers of mine have made a visit to Baramulla and a visit to Sopore as well. Therefore, there's a political dialogue between the government and the civil society in the affected areas and it hasn't broken down, it's been going on. The elected representatives from Srinagar have continued to remain in Srinagar, have called people, spoken to them, we have talked to all interested parties and all those people who would want peace to return quickly, so there hasn't been a political vacuum. I think it's also important to understand that a CM can't rush into every troubled area, sometimes rushing into an area is counter-productive, it could create more trouble than actually resolving any. So, there are times when there is a graded response that is necessary and I think my government has been very careful in ensuring that there is no vacuum but we also don't create more problems than we solve.
Barkha Dutt: Omar, you have been targeted by sections of the local media and also by the opposition for not being proactive enough, many people are arguing that you could have done much more when violence was erupting in the valley. People sometimes scrutinize how you spend your personal life, how you spend your spare time and have made the argument that you should have been using your spare time better, do you believe that this fair game now for you to be scrutinized for how you actually spend your free time when there is violence in your home state?
Omar Abdullah: Barkha, I am a public representative, people will want to know what I do and people will want to comment about it, I have also reconciled myself to the fact that I will largely have to deal with a hostile media. Most of the hostility that I have is largely inherited because of either the family that I belong to or the party that I belong to. It's something I have come to accept, I mean if during a crisis or during a difficult period that the state had had to go through, if newspapers can devote entire pages to whether I should sit in a meeting wearing a gap t-shirt or not, is something they feel is important, then so be it. My job is to remain focused, I have a wider responsibility not to the media but to the people of the state and I would like to believe that I am doing my best to discharge that responsibility.
Barkha Dutt: Fair enough, but I do want to ask you and I ask you this because I know you are one of our plain spoken politicians, do you look back and feel that you could have handled this differently, do you concede that there was perhaps something else that you could have done or if you had to do it all over again, you would do it differently.
Omar Abdullah: Barkha, I think it's too early right now to get into a sought of analysis of what went wrong and what didn't. I am definitely going to do that, I mean there are lessons to be learnt from every situation no doubt, this one will have important lessons for us and I'd be more than happy to have an objective and I think the key word there is objective. An objective critique of the situation, how it developed, how we handled it and how perhaps we could have done better. on the face of it, I know how inside it's 20-20 and things always could be different with the advantage of high insight . But where I am sitting right now, I can't think of anything that we could have done differently or better that could have avoided the situation. Perhaps there are people who know better than I do and I would be quite happy to hear from them.
Barkha Dutt: Now I want to ask you, in your press conference, you said, speaking about the security forces that it took 2 hands to clap, basically making it rather risky, politically risky statement, given that the rhetoric in the Kashmir valley at the moment is very anti-security forces, when you look at the behavior of the CRPF, the fact that there have been civilian deaths in CRPF firing, do you see the CRPF in the past week as a perpetrator or as a victim?
Omar Abdullah: I think Barkha, it's been both, it has been part of the problem in areas like Srinagar, where one of the boys was killed with sticks and rifle butts but then I think it's also been a recipient of a far greater share of both media attention and attention from the protesters as well , so I don't think it would be possible, I mean these sort of things are never black and white, they are always various shades of grey and how dark the grey is depends on which side of the political situation you are sitting on. As far as the statement I made, being politically risky, that's just the way it is. I mean I am not here to tell people what they want to hear, I am here to tell people what they should know. And if somebody doesn't like that, so be it, I have never been the sort of person to sugar coat what I have to say and I don't think I am going to start now.
Barkha Dutt: What about the role of the army Omar, you spoke earlier right after the fake encounters controversy erupted on how you thought the army could not be judgejurian and executional, do you believe that the failure of the government to push through the repeal and even amendments to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is part of the problem we are seeing in the valley?
Omar Abdullah: Well that again is completely independent from what we have gone through these last few days and I think it's important that people understand that the trouble we have gone through has not been connected to anything that army has done or the encounter or the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, sure statement from time to time from various quarters have not made things easier for us. Sometimes it's often better to let the politics be left to the politicians and let other things be left to the experts who are supposed to do it. But we tend to, once in a while, cross those boundaries which creates more problems than it solves. But that have it been said, I still believe that there is scope for an amendment to the armed forces special powers act which will be a huge confidence building measure, not only in J&K but also in the North-Eastern states as well, I am sure that the government of India is actively examining this. Obviously there will be resistance from certain quarters, that's but natural and our job is to overcome that resistance while still letting the armed forces know that they are not going to be held out as scapegoats , it's just that accountability will have to be brought into the system in a more transparent manner.
Barkha Dutt: What about the genesis of the controversy in a sense of the violence that has taken place in the valley in this past week, stone pelting, stone-pelters in the valley position themselves as kin to Palestinian protesters , they say this is the David Goliath battle, they call themselves peaceful protesters. How do you see stone-pelters because this is the raging debate in the valley right now?
Omar Abdullah: Barkha again, it's not a black and white issue, for me to tell you that all stone-pelters are paid for would be wrong, for me to tell you that all stone-pelters are ideologically inclined to pelt stones would also be wrong, some do it because they don't have anything better to do, so it's a mix and honestly how you want to see them depends on which side of the line you are sitting on. The only point I have to make to them is that in 20 years of violence, gun driven violence, not an inch of territory has changed here. Why would they expect, just because stones are being thrown, situation would change, realistic sense has to prevail on people, there is a need for a political dialogue as I have said, what shape that political dialogue takes, how the map of J&K looks at the end of the political dialogue, that's a completely separate issue, but believe me, stones and guns will not have an impact on how that map is going to look, it's the weight of that political argument that you bring to the table that will make all the difference.
Barkha Dutt: Your statement today speaks about your heart going out to the young people who have been killed in firing by security forces during these protests in the past 10 days, through this medium, are you assuring the families of these people some sort of judicial enquiry that will look into what happened and whether it could have happened any other way?
Omar Abdullah: Barkha we haven't yet decided whether there is a need because as I said, these incidents weren't one incident, I mean there were three separate incidents, Srinagar was separate, completely different causes, completely different situations, Sopore was different, Sopore emerged out of an encounter in which the militants tried to use the people as a human shield so to speak , Anantnag's case is completely different, so now whether we look at these three incidents differently or separately, whether we should look at them as one as an extension of the other and have one enquiry to look into them and to learn lessons from them, to be honest with you, at this point of time, I and my colleagues have been busy getting the situation back to normal. Once normalcy is completely restored, the state is completely free from any sort of curfew or trouble, at that point in time we will sit down and decide what the next logical step should be and then will take it.
Barkha Dutt: When can we hope for the curfew to be lifted in the valley?
Omar Abdullah: Well, now the biggest challenge for us was Friday as we have all seen, traditionally Friday post prayers is the period of maximum protests and unrest, today we even had an Idgah chalo call, which we had to deal with, now that that is behind us, my senior officers and I will be sitting down and will look at the areas under curfew and will try in a graded manner, try and give the people some relief, so that they can come out, pick up essential supplies, obviously those areas that behave well as in where crowd trouble is minimum, where people go about their normal business in an orderly and organized fashion, will have no hesitation in removing curfew from those areas. Obviously, it will happen in the next couple of days.
Barkha Dutt: Now, of course the Congress is in coalition with you in the state, Centre has been endorsing your statements, Home Minister spoke about endorsing every word you said, but do you believe a section of the state Congress is playing a different kind of politics?
Omar Abdullah: No absolutely not, obviously what happens internally within the Congress is the Congress's own affair and it's not for me to interfere in that, having been said, I have received nothing but categorical support from the government of India and the Congress party and even the state leadership of the Congress party. I don't think there have been any dissenting voices from even the state leadership and the Congress about situation and how we dealt with it, we have all come together, it's been a collective responsibility, a collective leadership and collectively we have dealt with problem and are dealing with the problem at hand.
Barkha Dutt: One last question, every time you go and meet the Governor, a section of the local media starts speculating that you are going to hand in your resignation, in these past 10 days or fortnight, did you ever contemplate resigning?
Omar Abdullah: No, I would be lying if I say that the pressure did not get to me at all, I am only human, this sort of a situation is bound to create its own pressures but if you are asking me that did I sit down and write a resignation and decide whether I wanted to hand it over or not, no. I mean it was a situation and I had to deal with it and I am not the sort of person to run away at the first sign of trouble. People have given me a responsibility, they have put me in a place where they expect me to discharge that responsibility and that's what I am going to do. So, anybody here thinks that I am the sort of weak person who will run away at the first sign of trouble, they have got another thing coming, I can understand the frustration this causes in some of my political opponents, they were counting on the fact that I was weaker than actually I am, I think they now know slightly better than that.
Barkha Dutt: Well Omar Abdullah I think it's fair to say that you hold one of the toughest jobs in the country and we all hope that peace will hold in the valley and across the state at a time also when there are anxieties around the Amarnath Yatra that has just kicked off this week, thank you so much Omar for talking to us.