Pakistani journalist Mehr Tarar’s interview with Chief Minister Omar Abdullah

AS THE CAR drove into the Jammu & Kashmir House on Prithivi Raj Road, New Delhi, on a cold December evening, the first thing that struck me was the unassuming look of the building. Dimly lit, there were no fancy cars parked inside, no milling nondescript many that one sees in any VVIP house/office, no air of self-importance. As I thought about the questions, clutching a steaming cup of tea, I had no idea what to expect of the man I had travelled from Lahore to interview, who governed the one disputed state in India that Pakistan referred to as the Indian-Occupied Kashmir, and which was the root of most of Pakistan-India ‘animosity’ since 1947 to date. I had seen glimpses of him on TV, read his statements in newspapers, and followed his tweets, but keeping in mind the background of the interconnectedness of his family with the State of Kashmir, and all its very complex issues, each affecting the Pakistan-India relationship status quo, there was considerable skepticism about his views toward Pakistan. When the 43-year-old Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, walked into the room, dressed in a simple cream-coloured sweater and pants, his trademark prescription glasses on, my first thought was how he did not fit the stereotypical image of an Indo-Pak politician looking more like a lead character of the West Wing.

There is an aura of humility, self-effacement and real-ness about Mr Abdullah that sets him apart from most prominent politicians on both sides of the border, and his ability to see the lighter side of things, a sharp sense of humour, and the obvious lack of narcissism makes him instantly likeable. The thing that I found most conspicuous of all (present in only a couple of other politicians I have talked to) is an absence of the laser-focused charm that politicians turn on-and-off as if flicking a switch; there seems to be no reflective need to make everyone love him. To him, individual self-interest is anathema, and his desire is to see his political contribution to have constant meaning and relevance. Mr Abdullah’s most noteworthy qualities mark themselves by their absence, because a great deal of what one expects from a politician is absent. The two hours that I talked to him (my many questions punctuated with my incessant chatter about what we can do to change the dynamics of Pakistan-India relationship!), my biggest surprise was the lack of antagonism in Mr Abdullah’s tone and words vis-a-vis Pakistan, its government and people. The forthrightness with which he talked about Kashmir, its issues with Pakistan, the role of Indian Army, the demilitirisation of Kashmir, the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, the State Subject Laws, the allegations against his governance, the future outlook of the two countries that would favour both, his political aspirations, and his yellow Ducati, was a refreshing change from the self-centred diatribes one associates with politicians who have uninterrupted flashlights, microphones and attention focused on them.

Mehr Tarar: Mr Chief Minister, you took a tough line on Pak-India relations when you were Minister of State for External Affairs in 2001-2? Does that attitude-stance affect your attitude to Pakistan as Jammu and Kashmir’s Chief Minister?

Omar Abdullah: No, it doesn’t. I think my attitude at that time was, one, reflective of the job I was doing. It was reflective of the alliance that I was a part of. It was an NDA alliance led by the BJP with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and it was indicative of the circumstances that prevailed in our relationship. Let’s not forget that militancy in Jammu and Kashmir was at its peak. You would have incidents like the narrow escape that my own father had in the attack on the Assembly complex in Srinagar. You had the attack on Parliament here in Delhi. And I think there was a whole host of other factors that contributed to the stance that one took, but at the end of the day one has to realise that when you are a minister in any particular government, you take the government’s line. Once you have taken the oath of office, then your personal views are secondary to the government’s position, and that’s the way it was.

MT: What are your views on the reported progress towards a Kashmir solution between the then Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf and the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh? Were you aware of the details of their negotiations?

OA: I wasn’t aware of the too many details because I was a junior minister in the External Affairs Ministry, and therefore, I wasn’t privy to the discussions that took place in Agra, or elsewhere. Obviously, one heard bits and pieces of what happened, and what didn’t happen. There were two points of view; one is obviously the Indian point of view, and the other the Pakistani one, which was bound to be the case because the dialogue didn’t result in anything significant. So, no, it wasn’t as if I was part of the backroom discussions or anything like that.

MT: Is there in your view any prospect of reviving that or a similar approach?

OA: I think there are possibilities not so much from what transpired in Agra, or elsewhere, but I think there are opportunities that presented themselves with the four-point programme that General Pervez Musharraf put forward, because for the first time he stepped away from stated positions. I think what happens is that India and Pakistan’s relations are hostage to stated positions. Stated position from the Indian side is that the other side, what we call the POK, Maqbooza Kashmir, for both sides. The stated position is that both sides have to vacate the occupied part. Now that is clearly not going to go anywhere. He (General Musharraf) moved it from there; he said, look, leave that aside, we can have, sort of, no-territorial give-and-take. The Line of Control can be irrelevant. You can have de-militirisation on both sides. You can have some sort of mechanism, whereby…

MT: Did you believe him?

OA: I think if he lasted longer, and he had not got into the scrap with the Supreme Court Chief Justice, there is every possibility that we would have moved forward. 

MT: You went to meet him.

OA: I did, I met him twice. Initially, I think the response of Government of India was a little slower. 

MT: It always is!

OA: I think we didn’t know how far we could trust him. We saw him through the prism of the Kargil War. While there was the overall history of Pakistan, there was his personal history. I mean here was an Army chief who did not come and meet a visiting Indian prime minister when Prime Minister Vajpayee came with the bus to Lahore, and in turn, we fought a war in Kargil. So, I think, our, sort of, assessment of him, of General Musharraf, was tainted by that.

MT: What in your view is the outline of a future feasible settlement of the Kashmir question?

OA: Look, stated positions will not get us anywhere, so leave that aside. And when you move away from stated positions, what are the options available to you? Can Pakistan surrender any of the territories it has right now? No, right? Same way, I think Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has made it very clear that no Indian Prime Minister gets elected to surrender territory. That having been said if you were to create a situation wherein the lines while in existence but irrelevant, I think that is the only situation. Wherein if you start from Kashmir and then you widen it, we have this grand vision of a South Asian Free Trade Area, SAFTA, which essentially would mirror what you have in the E.U. Wherein to move from, let’s say, Bangladesh to Pakistan via Nepal and India would not require you to cross any frontiers.

MT: It sounds like a dream!

OA: It does, it does! But I believe that is the only way forward. The moment we get into territorial give-and-take we will get nowhere. We have not so far. The problem of Jammu and Kashmir has plagued our relations since 1947, and it will continue to plague our relations.

MT: Why have you let go the Kashmiris’ right to self-determination, which was conceded even by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru?

OA: I think it’s not so much of a letting-it-go as to recognising the reality of the world we exist in today. The fact of the matter is that the circumstances that were required for that right to self-determination to be given to the people of the Jammu & Kashmir were never created. Time has moved on. Life has moved on. And even now my only argument with the people who keep raising this point is why you are only interested in the right to self-determination for the people of Jammu & Kashmir on the side of India. Why do you never talk about the right to self-determination on the people on the other side?

MT: Most people in Pakistan don’t even talk about this point.

OA: Yes, that’s exactly it. There is a whole host of reasons why this is an unrealistic, sort of, position, to take. I think there are more realistic, as I said in the beginning, solutions that we can look at. This is not the one that will go anywhere. Because it never beyond a certain point. It was about seven-eight years ago when [even] one of the former Secretary Generals of the United Nations said that these resolutions are no longer relevant.

MT: You said on Twitter in response to someone’s tweet that Kasmhiri Pandits left Kashmir because of the militancy supported by the ISI to which I responded that if-as per the alleagations — external forces manage to expel a certain community out that means they were aided and abetted by the natives.

OA: My exact response to that person was Kashmir didn’t throw them out; that it was done by militants.

MT: Would demilitirisation of Kashmir increase the political space for leaders like you? You have been trying…

OA: We already have sufficient political space; there is no problem with [our] political space. But definitely demilitarising, ultimately…

MT: You have talked about it…

OA: I have talked about it…

MT: A lot of Indians don’t like you for that. Do you get flak for that?

OA: That’s not a problem. I think it’s important to understand that there are parts of Jammu & Kashmir where de-militirisation, at this point of time, is inconceivable. Let’s remember that Jammu & Kashmir shares a frontier both with China and Pakistan. Both are countries that have fought wars with India. Currently, both are countries that have very aggressive militirisation programmes, as does India, thus demilitirisng those areas unilaterally is not possible. The demilitirisation I talk about is the demilitirisation of those areas where military numbers went up as a result of militancy. With the decline in militancy one hopes to reduce the footprint of the security forces, where ultimately the security duty will be handed over to the paramilitary forces, and subsequently, to J&K Police. I believe that we are heading in that direction; levels of violence are reducing; and when we reach that goal, yes, we should be able to have the area with less troops’ presence. 

MT: Even from another angle, you wouldn’t even want to be the Chief Minister of a place that looks like a police state.

OA: Even the Army recognises that their job is not internal security. Their job is to protect the frontiers. It’s [taking care of the internal security] not something that they want to do, and we want to create the conditions wherein the responsibility can be handed on. That’s the only thing.

MT: Do you think impunity of security forces needs to be curbed to build the common man’s confidence in the leadership’s capacity to mitigate his sense of insecurity?

OA: These are very valid points, and I have always maintained that security forces cannot do things with a sense of impunity. This is not just for the Army. Often time, when I say this I’m accused of being, sort of, disloyal, or the fact that I am taking up cudgels against the Army. This is for all security forces.

MT: Anyone carrying a gun…

OA: Anyone. Even for civilian authorities, you cannot conduct your job with a sense of immunity, and that’s why I keep saying it that even though because of the requirement for the Army to conduct the internal security operations that require the legal cover, that legal cover should not necessarily mean impunity. If you have done something wrong you should be punished for it. If here has been a misuse of force then that misuse of force has to be punished. Rape cannot be condoned. 

MT: We don’t really get to hear a lot being done about that…

OA: The thing is there is a lot of perception that has been built up about human rights abuses in Jammu & Kashmir. Now, I’m not going to take the position that there have been no violations of human rights. Because in 25 years of fighting militancy there will have been incidents where human rights have been violated. But I’m also not going to take the position that every accusation that has been made against the security forces is valid. Now the thing is how do you determine or distinguish between correct allegations and those that are made for political purposes. I don’t think either India or Pakistan can objectively take a position on this because of their positions vis-a-vis Jammu and Kashmir. And which is why I have always, or at least for the last ten years or so, maintained that without the declining levels of violence, if the governments of India and Pakistan want to give the people of Jammu & Kashmir one CBM, they should give them a Truth & Reconciliation Commission. And that Truth and Reconciliation Commission should be asked to look at the entire gambit of what has happened in Jammu & Kashmir on both sides of the Line of Control since 1990. This includes militancy.

MT: You are an idealist.

OA: Well yes, there’s no harm in being an idealist, because there are a whole lot of questions that cannot be reasonably answered. Why did militancy start? These unmarked graved in Jammu 7& Kashmir. Who occupies those graves? What were the circumstances surrounding those graves? The exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits. What happened and why? The targeted killings of political workers. There is any number of issues on which questions need to be answered. There are open wounds that need to be healed.

MT: Your answer is connected to my next question. Are episodes like the discovery of mass graves cast into the proverbial abyss of denial or is there a desire to bring the perpetrators to justice, and heal the wounds of the survivors amongst the victims?

OT: I understand that you [Pakistan] believe these things to be true. Now the problem is as we see it these are not what you would traditionally call ‘mass graves’. They are unmarked graves. There sis a difference. See now what you traditionally associate with when you hear the word mass graves, you think of Pol Pot, where there are pits with dozens and dozens of bodies just lying there. These are individual graves; they are unmarked. Almost all these graves have a police First Information Report associated with them. Now, as we understand it, these are graves essentially of infiltrators who have been killed either during infiltration or encounters with the security forces.

MT: They were buried…

OA: Yes, they were buried. And they were buried with the knowledge of the local community as per Islamic rites. Now the reason these graves are unmarked is because we don’t have the identity of these people. Please understand that if there were tens of thousands of dead people in unmarked graves, you don’t think people in Kashmir would have come [forward] and said, look these are the people who are missing. The talk [about the graves] started in the last few years, but the graves, the earliest graves are from 1990.

MT: In this time of modern means of communication one would expect people to be able to report stuff even if there was a great deal of restrictions on them.

OA: Of course. We do have a problem with some people who are termed as ‘disappeared people’. Now again, it is not my, sort of, argument that there have ben no extrajudicial killings. There must have been. I’m willing to accept that in the course of this fight against militancy, in custody there must have been people who have died. At the same time, I think it would be wrong on the part of our friends in Pakistan to assume that during the course of people training in camps in the side of Kashmir on the other side of the Line of Control nobody has died. It is not possible for me [to believe that]. There are two sides to every story.

MT: Of course.

OA: The problem is that we choose the side that suits us. And, therefore, in India we are happy to take the side that we give…

MT: But that’s what we do as human beings too.

OA: So that’s it. But the truth is never as cut-and-dry as that. Jammu & Kashmir is not about black and white. See, that’s the mistake we make. Jammu & Kashmir is various shades of grey. What shade of grey we choose is the one that suits us.

MT: What is your take on the efforts to increase connectivity between the two Kashmirs, and its [connectivity] vulnerability to the vagaries of Pakistan-India relations in regard to the Line of Control?

OA: I don’t think we have done enough to improve connectivity. I think while some steps have been taken they have not been allowed to naturally grow. The bus [service] between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad has largely been for divided families. Now while the State of Jammu and Kashmir is a divided state, there aren’t as many divided families as you would expect. So, that’s it. So while there are more divided families around the Poonch area, there aren’t as many divided families in Kashmir, except for maybe a handful in Uri. At the moment we keep this bus basically for the divided families; [whereas] its ability to grow is limited. Plus, permissions to travel haven’t been as readily available as we would have liked. Now while the bus has still managed [to survive], trade has not grown.

MT: Which [trade] I think is the most important thing…

OA:  Which I believe was a great opportunity. And the reason why trade has not grown is for three reasons, as I see it. One, we have kept this trade limited to barter trade. You send me apples, I send you oranges. You send me almonds, I send you walnuts. Now there is a limit to how much trade can grow this way. Unless you start paying in money for goods…you can’t go to a market and tell your shopkeeper ke janab mujhe aik packet chai de dou, main iss ke badle aap ko aik bottle coffee de dounga, and carry on like that. It doesn’t work like that. One, what we need to do is to figure out a way to make this trade on Letters of Credit, on banking relations. Now, again given the, sort of, dynamic of our relations between the two countries, maybe it’s not possible to use banks within our two countries for this trade. Let’s go to Dubai. Let’s look at Dubai. Let’s look at any of those places. Dubai is now a global financial hub, I sure we can use Dubai as a means of this trade. That is one. 

Two, trade between our two regions of Kashmir is done on the basis of what’s called a ‘Positive List’, which is, that we say that you can trade in A, B, C, D and E, but you cannot trade in F to Z. Now again the scope for trade becomes very limited because you are keeping the basket of trade items very small. What we say is that turn that on its head. Trade on the basis of a ‘negative list’, wherein you say that you cannot trade in A, B, C, D, E, but other than these everything else is available to you. Then the basket grows.

Thirdly, and this is not something Pakistan is responsible for, this is our own restriction.  We do not allow free communication by telephone between [the two countries]. We do not allow it. Sitting in Kashmir you cannot call Pakistan. So while technology allows some leeway through Skype and things like that, still for trade a simple phone call make life a lot easier.

MT: But you do need to understand that you need to keep it that way for a while?

OA: I do understand, but one hopes that in due course these things can be corrected. Let’s hope so. I think if we can make progress on these things…

MT: How long has it been, this phone [restriction] thing?

OA: This has been the case as far as I can remember.

MT: Is the reported Indian desire to freeze the status quo by declaring the LOC an international border a realistic proposition, given Pakistan’s and Kashmiris’ opposition to it?

OA: One, this is not the stated position of the Government of India, though as I said earlier, it seems to be the most realistic one. You will never find a solution that will satisfy a hundred percent of the people on both sides of the Line of Control. If that is your goal, then forget it. Your aim has to be the maximum number of people on both sides. And I think the maximum number of people, when they realise the futility of sticking to past positions, will be a little bit more realistic. The fact is how many more generations do you want to live like this? My generation is not a product of the Partition; my generation came into existence log after both India and Pakistan were settled as countries. Therefore, we don’t carry the baggage of Partition as our forefathers might do. But why should we continue to carry baggage based on unrealistic positions? I keep saying that our countries are hostage to just too much that we can do away with. I think there is more that we have in common than we have what separates us. We are born of the same womb.

MT: Will a BJP electoral victory spawn more sabre-rattling on Kashmir, or can we expect a breakthrough?

OA: I really don’t know. And the reason why I say this is because the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate is an untested entity. I mean we don’t know what the weight of his office will do to his public pronouncements. Had this been an election in which we were electing Atal Bihari Vajpayee, or somebody of that sort, we would then know what we are getting. In the case of Mr Narendra Modi, I honestly cannot predict what he will do. That having been said, I think we can be realistic enough to know that he’s not going to take our country to war. So that’s one, sort of, positive. How much sabre-rattling he will do, I don’t know; I hope that the weight of his office will bring with it the required maturity. And that he will look to resolve these problems. That he will follow the example set by his predecessor, who very, sort of, bravely extended the hand of friendship and took it forward.

MT: Agreed. Should Pakistan and India build upon the Sharif-Vajpayee Lahore Declaration, or is some more innovative and out-of-the-box thinking required?

OA: Well, we clearly need to move forward, and I think we have foundation in some of the pronouncements of the previous leaders. We have made a start in the past, and we can carry it forward. Nothing stops us from thinking out of the box. And I think of the advantages one has in the BJP is that traditionally, the BJP criticises everything when they are in the Opposition, and are quite happy to do it when they are in the office. So even if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had come close to a solution with Pakistan, the BJP would not have allowed it to go through. Possibly with the BJP in office, we might be lucky.

MT: Some people say to me on Twitter…remember how Vajpayee was vis-a-vis Pakistan, and if the BJP comes to power it will be good for Pakistan.

OA: I still hope it will be a UPA government. I mean it’s probably a little simplistic, but from time to time one hears this refrain that for Kashmir to be resolved, you need a BJP government in India, and a military dictatorship in Pakistan!

MT: Really, they say that?!

OA: That’s what they say. As I said, it’s simplistic but who knows.

MT: But they also say the faujis are the troublemakers!

OA: But if the faujis don’t agree to the solution it’s not going to happen.

MT: There is no belligerence in your tone about Pakistan; there is no open hostility…

OA: Despite of everything that has happened I really don’t bear any hostility towards Pakistan. I mean I bear some hostility, some resentment, about what has happened in our state, and the extent that external forces have aided that, but I bear no hostility towards Pakistan, and its people. I believe that scratch the surface, and, by and large, people in Pakistan want what we want, which is to be able to live in peace, and have good relations. So how I see Kashmir may differ from how they [Pakistanis] see Kashmir, but I have no reason to dislike the people.

MT: Would it be correct to say that white New Delhi likes to draw upon your political capital, it does not take your take your advice wholeheartedly?

OA: No, that’s not true. Obviously, to suggest that Delhi would accept everything I say is wrong, because they have their own constraints as well. That having been said I have absolutely no complaints from the support that I have received from the Central government during my five years as Chief Minister. Wherever I have needed their support, and their help, they have given it. Obviously, there have been areas on which I would have wanted to make progress, particularly on the Armed Forces Special Powers’ Act (AFSPA), where we haven’t been able to [progress]. They [the Centre] have certain constraints, and we will try to address those.

MT: Your father’s (Former J&K Chief Minister, Farooq Abdullah) statements [when he was in power] seemed to have a different tone…

OA: I understand where my father is coming from; my father has been conditioned by circumstances, and I guess also by some of the people into believing that he will always be suspect in the eyes of people here unless he continues to clarify his nationalistic credentials. To be honest with you, I don’t give a toss. As far as I’m concerned I don’t feel the need to wear my Indian-ness on my sleeve. If the fact that I am a Muslim from Jammu and Kashmir, you expect me to give a certificate of my nationalism every passing day, I m not going to do it. I refuse to be treated any differently than you will treat any other citizen from any other part of the country.

MT: Your grandfather (Sheikh Abdullah)…

OA: I was 12 when he died so I had spent some time with him I remember the time I spent with him. Obviously, none of that was political.

MT: The tragedy of Kashmiri Pandits. How did it happen? What was the background of the build-up to the events of 1989-90? What steps did the government of that time take to step the exodus? And what is the approximate number of affected people?

OA: I’m not in a position to answer this question because I wasn’t in government then. I wasn’t even in politics then. I was a schoolboy when militancy broke out. And therefore to ask me what the build-up to this situation was or what the steps taken were…I would not be in a position to answer these questions. All I can tell you is what I know from talking to the people at that time, what one has gathered. That is that there was a concerted effort to drive the Kashmiri Pandits out. There were targeted by militants; there were a number of high profile Kashmiri Pandits’ casualties of militancy. Also, mosques were used to instill fear in them; loudspeakers in mosques were used to, sort of, for sloganeering and shouting, and things like that. And a concerted effort was made to strike fear in their hearts. And some of them left at that time; the number wasn’t that significant. But then after that during the course of militancy there were some high profile massacres of Kashmiri Pandits over the years, right up to, if I’m not mistaken, 2002. And that is what resulted in the Kashmir valley now having a very small number of Kashmiri Pandits who live there. Most of them became migrants, and moved out.

MT: I’m just trying to understand. The first prime minister of India was Nehru, a Kashmiri Pandit. Does that have anything to do with the fact that only this particular community was targeted or were there other people who were also targeted? Or was it just Kashmiri Pandits?

OA: I think there were Muslims who were targeted. There were Kashmiri Pandits who were targeted. I cannot speak for the reasoning. Clearly, you would have to try to speak to those who were actively involved in militancy at that time, including, amongst others, Yasin Malik, because he’s well known for some of his activities at that time. And he would be the right person to ask why they did what did at that time.

MT: Were there ever any announcements by the militants why they were doing what they were doing?

OA: Well, there were tanzeems who took credit for what they did, whether they also justified their actions or explained them I wouldn’t know. I don’t have any recollection of that.

MT: Okay. I read something that there were reports of the properties [of Kashmiri Pandits] being sold. Have the owners been informed about their properties being sold?

OA: Again, it’s a mixed bag. There is no uniform answer to that question. There are those who sold their properties and most of them who sold did it because of the situation. I don’t think there are very many of them who sold them willingly; most of the sales because they did not feel they would be able to return. A number of them sold them because of economic distress. So there is no uniform reason why they sold. Some sold because they didn’t think they would be going back; some sold because they didn’t want to go back because the circumstances under which they left were so harrowing that they didn’t think they would ever want to go back to the Valley. And for some it became an economic necessity because they had been away from their homes now for two and a half decades.

MT: Are there still some Kashmiri Pandits living in some camps? I keep reading about camps where they are living in very bad conditions.

OA: There are no camps, as such, in the Valley. We have target accommodation in the Valley, from where we hope that Kashmiri Pandits will begin to move back to the areas that they originally inhabited. There are camps in other parts; there are camps in various parts of Jammu; there are Kashmir Pandits now in parts of Delhi, in surrounding areas. So yes, there are still camps where Kashmiri Pandits reside. And those that live in camps are, by and large, the ones, I think, who hold on to the hope to go back the strongest, because their lives have really been the most miserable ones in the last two and a half decades.

MT: Refugees in any other country are those who come from other countries. And these [Kashmiri Pandits] are people who are from the area, and they have all these houses and properties all over Kashmir, and they have been forced out of their places because of militancy. What are the steps that you, Omar Abdullah, the Muslim Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, plan to take for the rehabilitation/return of Kashmiri Pandits?

OA: The most important thing any chief minister can do, and I’m not unique in that respect, is to try and restore their sense of security.

MT: Absolutely.

OA: I’m well aware of the fact that the Kashmiri Pandits can’t be forced to go back, nor should one try to force them to go back. They left because their sense of security was snatched away from them, and they will only begin to consider going back when that sense of security is restored. So, obviously our effort and our aim is to ensure the defeat of forces of violence, that militancy becomes a thing of the past. And the more successful we are in that the more likely we are to be able to create conditions in which the Kashmiri Pandits can consider coming back. In the interim, recognising there is an obvious economic necessity that needs to be, sort of, addressed, we have reserved a certain number of jobs in the government. But those jobs are only available to Kashmiri Pandits who want to go back to the Valley, and so far 1000-1200 have gone back. There are a number of other posts that are in the process of being filled, and we hope that in not so distant future, about four to five thousand young Kashmiri Pandits boys and girls, men and women, will go back to the Valley, and take up jobs there. And that will begin the gradual process of some of these Kashmiri Pandits returning to the Valley.

MT: In the camps, wherever they are situated, how do they live? How do they manage to earn any living?

OA: Some of them have found meaningful jobs elsewhere. Some of them continue to be government servants. All registered migrants receive an allowance from the government to tide them over, and we try, as far as possible, to make basic facilities available to them.

MT: Have they ever been attacked since they have been living in camps? Have there been any incidents of violence ever since they moved to camps all over Kashmir?

OA: As far as I can recall there have been no attacks on camps, but that’s largely because camps have been in parts of the State where militancy has not been such a major problem, particularly areas around the winter capital, Jammu. The last targeted massacre of Kashmir Pandits took place during the BJP government in 2002.

MT: Does a Kashmiri Pandit, not at a forum, or in a delegation, but just somebody, for instance, on a road, some ‘ordinary’ Kashmiri Pandit, say something to you? Is there a particular demand? What is expected from you?

OA: You see, there are two sets of Kashmiri Pandits. There are those who left the State before militancy; they moved out for various reasons, but their reasons for leaving the State was not militancy. So that is one lot of Kashmiri Pandits. And then there is the other, which is the far larger number, those Kashmiri Pandits who left as a result of the fear that was instilled in them. Amongst those Kashmiri Pandits who left as a result of militancy, almost universally, the one sentiment that one gets is Hum wapis kab jayain gaye. When will we able to go home? Will we able to go back to our homes? That is, I think, the hope that’s keeping them going…the hope that they go back home. And increasingly I find that more and more Kashmiri Pandits are able to visit the valley and they stay for longer and longer. The one major event in their calendar every year is a visit to the Kheer Bhawani in Tullamulla area of the Valley. And increasingly, you find more and more Kashmir Pandits with their family members and friends make an event out of this, whereas in the past they would just come to Kheer Bhawani and quickly leave, and they would be escorted with a heavy security presence. Now they come of their own accord; they stay longer at the Shrine and they travel to other parts of the Valley as well. So that is an encouraging sign. Obviously, one wants to take it further and take it to the point where they start considering the possibility of moving back.

MT: So basically when they say they want to come back what they are looking for is the knowledge that, yes, this is the place, where I am from; this is the place where my roots are; this is where my home is; this is where I grew up. And so even if I don’t live here, and I live in Timbuktu, or I live in Sydney, or I live in London, I should have the knowledge, I should have the sense of security that I can always come back. And I can own a house here…

OA: They want the option to go back when they want to. They want to be able to make that decision.

MT: Exactly.

OA: We haven’t yet created those circumstances but we want to. We are trying to.

MT: Like I know that if I have a house in my village, and I don’t visit it for 20 years, I know that the house is there. And nobody is going to burn it in my absence, or nobody is going to harass me if I’m back. So that’s what the Kashmiri Pandits want…

OA: Yes.

MT: As per some Muslim Kashmiris, in 2010, 126 Kashmiris were killed by the State forces during protests. Not a judicial action has been taken, and there are many such cases. How do you respond to something like that?

OA: Every single one of those cases has been investigated, challan-ed, and is a matter for the courts now. Not as single case has been buried. Every single incident that took place in 2010 resulted in an FIR been filed, resulted in a charge sheet been prepared, and the cases are now being monitored by our courts.

MT: Another allegation: Why are the elections in Kashmir labelled ‘rigged’? 

OA: Elections in Jammu and Kashmir are not rigged. I mean I understand that there are question marks about the 1987 elections, and it would not be appropriate for me – considering I was not even in politics at that time – to give, sort of, any lengthy explanation about what I think happened or didn’t happen. But as far as I know, since I have been an active politician, and contested my first election in 1998…within the constraints the subcontinental elections place on us – I’m not confining this to just Jammu and Kashmir – I’m talking about the subcontinent on the whole. Elections in Pakistan, in India, in Bangladesh, elections in other places. I don’t think elections in Jammu and Kashmir are any worse than elections that take place in any other part of the subcontinent. In fact, I dare say that they are better than some of the elections that take place in a lot of other places. So I think this is a convenient tool that is used by those by those people who are inimical to the constitutional relationship that Jammu and Kashmir shares with the rest of India. And they are quite happy to use “elections are always rigged”, sort of, handle to beat us with, but as far as I’m concerned there is very little truth in that.

MT: Why are you accused of being out of touch with ground realities as you seem to be off the ground most of the time in the State chopper? 

OA: There is nothing to talk about this. I mean, Jammu and Kashmir is a state that has a very difficult terrain, and in order to make the best use of my time, and to also ensure that I’m able to travel to remote areas, to ensure that the quality of governance that people receive is good, we make use of the facilities, and I do it without any, sort of, apology. I don’t misuse them; I don’t use them for my personal pleasure; and it is a tool that is available to me to improve the quality of the work that I do, and I make no apology about it.

MT: That’s exactly what I thought that in a place like Kashmir it would be easier for the chief minister to go from one place to another in a helicopter. It even makes sense to somebody like me who’s not familiar with the region.

OA: Exactly.

MT: Would you ever consider having a regular open forum, an interactive platform, where you talk to just regular Kashmiris just to get a clearer picture of what the issues of the awaam are?

OA: How can anyone imagine that as an elected representative one can win elections without being in touch with people? I mean I’m not some dictator sitting in some palace somewhere, ruling by force. I’m an elected representative; I am first elected by people as an MLA, as a legislative member, and then I become a chief minister. How is it possible to get elected by people again and again if I’m disconnected from reality, or disconnected from people? I think this bogey that is bandied about often times — disconnected from reality, not in touch with the man on the street — is absolute rubbish. Or I don’t get elected. As far as I’m concerned I’m really satisfied about how much contact I’m able to establish within the constraints that my schedule and my job places on me. How much contact I’m able to establish with the people whose wellbeing I’m responsible for.

MT: You do understand that the Abdullah-Kashmir dynamic is a reality. It’s very intricate and it’s very complex. One takes the name of Kashmir, and the name Abdullah comes with it.

OA: We have never said that we will rule Kashmir indefinitely, or that we deserve to, or that we should, but the fact is [in] Jammu and Kashmir, up until now, from ’47 onwards, my family is intrinsically linked to it. And whether we are a part of the political structure or the power structure or Jammu and Kashmir, that aside we will always be part of Jammu and Kashmir. So you can’t wish that away…

MT: That’s my point that since the two – Kashmir and Abdullah – are so interconnected so interwoven that somehow there is the onus of the name. Everything that happens here, the good or the bad, will always be connected to your family.

OA: I’m also well aware of that. That it is something that is a fact. You take the good with the bad. So sure if you get the credit for things that go well, then obviously, you will have to take the blame for the things that people believe are not good. And that’s fine. I’m quite comfortable with that scenario.

MT: Do you ever feel pressurised by this? Do you ever feel there’s a great deal of unfair criticism as compared to the credit you should be getting? And it is simply because of who you are…

OA: I am aware of the fact that I tend to inherit enemies that I haven’t made myself; that there are people who dislike me not because of anything that is wrong with me, or there is anything wrong with what I have done, but they dislike me purely because of the family that I belong to, and the history that my family has. But then as I said, I mean who am I to choose the advantages that are accrued to me belonging to this family, and that I complain about the negative? I take both with an equal measure.

MT: In all honesty, at the end of the day, it’s not really about anybody but you, and your conscience. You cant really say in 2014 that what you do as the chief Minister of the most controversial regions in the world is not connected to who you are, not connected to what you are all about, your values. It can’t be about power; and it can’t be about holding on to a position. It has to be more than that. As long as you think what you are doing is whatever you can do to the best of your ability for the betterment of your people, that’s all that should matter. Do you have that satisfaction?

OA: I know I do. That’s why I mange to sleep easy at night. I sleep easy with the sense that I’m doing the best that I can. And that’s all that I can expect from myself. It may not be whatever everybody expects from me; it may not be as much as everybody expects from me, but as far as I’m concerned I’m doing the absolute best that I can. And that’s all I can expect from myself.

MT: You tweeted about Article 370.

OA: The problem I have with people on this is that their understanding of Article 370 is very limited. Article 370 has nothing to do with the State Subject Laws. That is what people refuse to understand. Article 370 is the Constitutional provision that allows a relationship between Jammu and Kashmir and the rest of the country. You remove Article 370 the relationship is over. It has nothing to do with the State Subject Laws. The State Subject Laws came before Article 370.

MT: So if a Kashmiri woman married outside Kashmir…

OA: No, that rule is no longer in place.

MT: So if I’m a Kashmiri, and get married to a non-Kashmiri…

OA: Until a few years ago, you would have lost your right to own property, and your children. Now the things have changed for the woman, but not for the kids, because the kids still take the domicile of the father.

MT: I’m trying to understand it as a laywoman. Is it the trust issue, Kashmir being…Kashmir?

OA: It has got nothing to do with the trust issue. It is connected to the history of the State Subject Laws.

MT: So Sara’s (the CM’s sister) children can’t inherit…?

OA: No, they would not be able to.

MT: But why…?

OA: But Sara can inherit property, Sarah can then sell it; well, she can sell it, or the family can work out some sort of an understanding.

MT: But what is the logic behind this?

OA: I’ll explain it to you. During the Maharaja’s [Hari Singh] time, the economy of Jammu & Kashmir was not as healthy as the economy of Punjab. Now, particularly the Dogras of Jammu were very concerned that the rich Punajbi industralists would buy up large tracts of land, and render them landless. They appealed to the Maharaja to introduce a law that would protect their property, and not allow others…Particularly for the Jammu people, the Maharaja extended this State Subject Law, wherein he said that only those who were domiciled Kashmiris, of Jammu and Kashmir, [could own land]. That’s it. That is the logic behind it.

MT: That does make sense.

OA: It has nothing to do with what people say. A lot of people look at it from the accession point of view. Nothing to do with it. Some people look at it from the point-of-view of the India-Pakistan dynamic of the relationship. Again nothing to do with that.

MT: Or women being subjugated…?

OA: Or Islam being perceived as unfriendly towards women; it has nothing to do with that. This [the State Subject Laws] is the result of the Jammu people feeling threatened by Punjabis, and making an appeal to the Maharaja. This is the history of it [the law]. Ergo, those people who misunderstand or misrepresent Article 370 to connect it to…[the State Subject Laws].

MT: Are the people, the Kashmiris, fine about it? Do they say anything to you? Especially the Kashmiris in Kashmir.

OA: No, I think they are very comfortable with the position the way it is. Even the Jammu people, I have yet to have any, sort of, interaction with a large section of people where they say yeh jee hata dijaye.

MT: As you said, the women can sell their property…

OA: I understand the angst when women were not allowed to inherit, but that has been overturned by the Court.

MT: So it affects those who have huge land holdings in the area…

OA: Because of the land reforms almost every individual in Jammu & Kashmir owns at least some land. And for the poor people, even some land makes a difference.

MT: Have your sisters ever objected to this law?

OA: No, I think they realise that this was something that they would have had to pay a price for…

MT: And they are fine with it?

OA: Well, now of course, they don’t have to [give up their share of inheritance]. The laws having being overturned, they will now inherit. They’ll inherit, and then they’ll see [what they want to do], that’s too far ahead.

MT: And their children won’t inherit?

OA: Because the children get the domicile of the father.

MT: Did you ever feel having a non-Kashmiri, non-Muslim wife was a handicap in your political aspirations?

OA: I honestly don’t want to [talk about it]…I mean I understand, but the fact that I have won as many elections as I have done… three Parliament and one Assembly election…

MT: What you tweeted about Nelson Mandela was very moving.

OA: That’s a meeting I’ll never forget. But I can’t sit here, and claim that I have been inspired by him because that would be a lie. He’s a very inspirational figure, but I can’t for a moment suggest that my life has been [influenced by his]. He was a great individual; we should all aspire to be the example that he set; of the forgiveness that he practised.

MT: Who has affected you the most in the formation of who you are in a positive way?

OA: I have never consciously conditioned myself on any one person. A lot of what I am is unconsciously, sort of, conditioned. Consciously never, because as far as I’m concerned there is no perfect individual, and if you try and condition yourself on one particular person then you will get their imperfections as well. Your imperfections will always be your own. You might as well try and take the best of as many people as you can. I can’t claim that a particular incident in my life or a meeting with a particular individual has affected me. It would make a very nice story that I met so and so, or this event happened in my life, but that would be too Hollywood.

MT: Do you have aspirations beyond Kashmir? Might you seek higher office nationally? Many see you as more pan-Indian than purely Kashmir.

OA: I am also very realistic. I don’t think – I know, sometime, I take flak for this – but I’m not sure that this country is quite ready for somebody like me on the national stage. Umm, for any number of reasons. I don’t fit the traditional mould of a politician… Let’s be honest. I belong to a minority community, which is not too much of a problem. I’m perceived as – whether I like it or not – coming from a slightly more affluent section of society. I’m English-medium educated.

MT: You look a certain way…

OA: Yes, I don’t look Indian. I don’t — very often — dress Indian; I don’t put on this whole, sort of, dikhava, of wearing khaadi. I mean there is any number of reasons. But, most important, perhaps is that I come from a state, that at the end of the day, contributes only six seats to Parliament. Let’s face it, at the end of the day, politics is a number game; possibly – I’ll be honest with you – if I was from Uttar Pardesh, and I had 30 MPs, maybe, somewhere at the back of my mind I might think that yes, there is a wider stage for me.

MT: But there are people who think otherwise…

OA: That’s very kind of them.

MT: Do you think the part of the attention that you get is because of who you are, the state you come from?

OA: Well, I definitely get more attention than most other Chief Ministers. Again for more than one reason.

MT: Some reasons being superficial…

OA: One is the colour of my skin, and the rest of it! But then Jammu & Kashmir receives more attention than most other states. And, therefore, as Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir, and that is not unique to me. All Chief Ministers in Jammu & Kashmir have received more attention than their counterparts.

MT: But we don’t even remember their names! 

OA: In this case, I’m talking more from a domestic point of view. Possibly, umm, in terms of international media attention, I have got more attention, particularly from the media in the UK. But that’s because I was born there, and because my mother is from there. So they see a British connection.

MT: The impact of social media…

OA:  As I say, if social media was the representative of the entire country’s point of view then Imran Khan would have been the unchallenged leader of Pakistan!

MT: You have an amazing Twitter presence, and you seem to be willing to say things others in your position are not. I remember an exchange with Shashi Tharoor about chocolate cake! Do you never censor yourself?!

OA: I do. I must confess I do (increasingly!) think a few times before I tweet. I think social media is — I mean how do I put this – it’s too dangerous a medium for a person in my position to use and unrestrained. For the simple reason that one wrong word…there is no way you can take it back. And within seconds, it’s out.

MT: I read your tweet about India’s Mars mission!

OA: For me, it’s not about the cheapest technology, or whether our Probe can do anything or not. The fact is that no country has succeeded in reaching Mars in the first attempt. If we reach on our first attempt, khali dabba bhi bhaijen, I don’t care as long as we reach there!

MT: There was one time in which you said something on twitter that various people advised you to delete, and you did. So your ‘offending’ delete disappeared but the advice to delete did not. What was that all about?

OA: Well, that’s social media for you! I don’t remember the tweet now, but there has been more than one occasion when I have deleted a tweet. The thing is deleting a tweet does not really serve a purpose because people have either taken a screen shot or they have re-tweeted it. It goes out in seconds. I saw it just today. I posted something on Twitter, and within seconds, I saw there were already five retweets! I try not to say too much about Kashmir, because if I keep my Twitter to just work-related stuff then it’s boring. I won’t be able to do it. There are two things I don’t do on Twitter; one is I don’t retweet the mentions of mine. Because then if I retweet my praise, I would have to retweet the abuse too, which I don’t want to do! Two, I don’t tweet about work too much; I do occasionally mention things, but I like to balance things.

MT: Do you watch movies? We grew up on Indian films!

OA: Yes, I do. And we grew up on your Pakistan Television serials! Though I only remember one, which was Tanhiyan. Absolutely loved it. In my teenage years watched it twice. My sisters, particularly two of my sisters, love the Pakistani dramas. I have three sisters; one of them lives in Kashmir, one in England, and one in Delhi. Two of my sisters watch all your latest Pakistani dramas on YouTube; they know all the names! We used to watch Pakistani plays, and I remember distinctly that the women in my family would wait for the latest drama to come so they could see what the Pakistani fashion in shalwar kameez was, and then show the tailor!

MT: Where are your parents right now?

OA: My father is in Kashmir. My mom spends time in England with my sister, and she also spends time here.

MT: Your sons.

OA: I have two sons, Zahir (16) and Zamir (14).

MT: Do you have cousins, gora cousins?

OA: Yes, I have cousins, spread all over the place.

MT: Do you spend time with them? Do you get along with them?

OA: We get along… whenever we are together, except that it’s very rare.

MT: Ab tou time nahin hota ho ga?

OA: That’s right.

MT: You are obviously very fond of cricket? Do you support the Indian team? How do you feel when India and Pakistan play against each other?

OA: I have no problems! I’m a keen supporter of the Indian cricket team, of all sports teams. I don’t have a problem when India is playing against Pakistan as I do when India is playing England! Because then I have to choose which country I want to cheer for the loudest! But, no the truth is I actually look at India-Pakistan situation currently of cricket-wise because I’m a Chief Minister, and every match brings its own, sort of…

MT: Your recent picture on twitter about shooting and scoring…

OA: It was basketball!

MT: Did you score?

OA: I managed! But as I confessed on Twitter, it was on my third attempt, which is still not bad! Technically not bad!

MT: Do you still have a Ducati?

OA: No, no! I did have one, it wasn’t mine, it was a friend’s, who left it in Srinagar for me to use (which I did use!). 

MT: That’s my dream bike!

OA: Yes, it’s a very nice bike! I used to ride it for a while, but then I gave it back.

MT: Did you wear a helmet? Did people know who it was? 

OA: Well, everyone recognised the bike; it was a bright yellow, really loud! You can’t hide it! 

MT: What to you is the quality you admire the most in people?

OA: Well, it probably sounds very simplistic but you can’t beat honesty. It’s best to tell someone exactly what you think at the cost of…

MT: Lying is the worst possible quality.

OA: Obviously you can’t go through life without an odd white lie here and there, but that’s completely different, but to tell lies to hurt somebody, or for an ulterior motive, that is something I would rather avoid.

MT: So the opposite of that would be the worst thing you would find in a human being?

OA: Well, yes, obviously. I think…deceit and dishonesty [are the worst qualities]. I am in a profession where it seems the order of the day is the day one must learn how to play games.

MT: Well I think being politically correct and being a liar are too completely different things…

OA: That’s true. And I think politics does not have to revolve around lies. Should not revolve around lies.

MT: Come to think of it, you have made it work…[speaking the truth]

OA: I do largely. Let me put it this way. I would not lie…[or] I would rather not say it [at all]. If you want me to lie about something then I won’t say it [at all].

MT: Your next election.

OA: I’ll be fighting the Assembly Elections at the end of the year (2014).

MT: If you weren’t a politician…

OA: I would have wanted to be a Formula 1 driver!

MT: That’s awesome, I for some reason thought you would say that! Did you see the F1 in Delhi this year?

OA: Not this year [I didn’t]. I didn’t come because I saw the first two. This year, honestly, I mean the atmosphere and everything aside, you get to see more of the race on TV, and if I’m going to sit in the venue and still watch it on TV, then I might as well be at home!

MT: I think people go [primarily] to socialise.

OA: That’s it. First two years, I socialised! This year I watched it at home!

As I exchanged Khuda Hafiz with Chief Minister Omar Abdullah on the steps before I got in my car, his “See you in Kashmir one day” expressed his positivity to see an altered status quo between Pakistan and India more than the thousands of words he said to me during the interview. Here’s to a new chapter in the Pakistan-India dynamic, with the renewed hope that the simmering as well as the obvious hostilities between the two neighbours thaw with a continued bilateral dialogue, and an end to the exchange of fire at the LoC, wasting precious lives on both sides.

(New Delhi, December 23, 2013)

Reproduced with permission from Mehr Tarar

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