Omar Abdullah interview: ‘Don’t think any sensible Kashmiri has found justification for 1990…We have greater responsibility to make minorities feel safe’

In a wide-ranging interview, former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister and National Conference (NC) leader Omar Abdullah tells The Indian Express that the recent attacks on Kashmiri Pandits and outsiders show that Article 370 was not the root cause of terror and violence in the region. He also talks about the “widening” footprint of militancy, and the message the majority community in the region should send out to minorities.

Excerpts:

IE: What is your understanding of the Union Territory administration and the Centre’s handling of the current situation in J&K?

Omar Abdullah: The claims that were made in the immediate aftermath of August 5, 2019, that Article 370 was essentially the root cause of terror, violence, separatism etc. And that it was essential to completely hollow out this part of the Constitution for J&K to normalise. A lot of people bought into that argument and we are now almost three years into that development but none of that seems to have been borne out on the ground. Violence is where it is today, targeted killings are a reality that we are struggling to come to terms with.

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IE: Are you surprised that this is where the UT is in terms of security?

Omar Abdullah: I am not surprised because I know that Article 370 was not the root cause of all this. It was a part of the Constitution. The people who have been at the forefront of this, whether those on the political or the violent side of the separatist argument, none of them have any faith in the Constitution. So why would a particular article of the Constitution either spur them on or stop them? So to my mind, it was always a risky argument to make. Unless you were absolutely sure that you would be able to control things, which, you haven’t been able to. It’s a worrying situation. And there is palpable unease.

IE: You have argued in the past that when you bring a lot of attention to an issue, you incentivise attacks. Would you say that is true of the recent attacks as well?

Omar Abdullah: It is impossible to individually protect everybody. And in terms of the amount of attention that these sorts of attacks are able to generate … Let’s face it, if an unarmed civilian belonging to the majority community were to be shot, the reaction in the rest of the country generally is far less, than it is when a member of the minority community is shot. I guess when these organizations are planning their attacks, this would be a low cost, high benefit option for them.

Whether this can be linked to any one particular thing, I don’t think so. Because this is not the first time this is happening. Yes, the frequency with which this is happening is a lot more alarming. We have had spurts of this last year as well. Unfortunately, the government now seems to believe that because last year, this petered out, the same thing will happen this year as well. It is always dangerous to make those kinds of commodities in Kashmir.

In terms of trying to unite people, the BJP, and by extension the Union government, hasn’t exactly covered itself at glory. To take a factually incorrect piece of propaganda and convert it into the gospel truth where your spirit of nationalism is on display; When you can claim to have watched that particular piece of propaganda in which you have essentially demonizing an entire community, you’re not helping the situation.

I don’t think any sensible Kashmiri has ever found a justification for what happened in 1990. Nor have we been in denial about it. But to project it as something that the entire community was hand in glove in with, or was celebrating, was extremely unfair. It certainly didn’t help. I’m not going to go so far as to say that it is a contributing factor to what is happening but it didn’t help.

IE: In the recent spate of attacks a teacher, a bank employee, an artist have become victims of violence. Does this widening canvas of targets worry you?

Omar Abdullah:It is worrying. It clearly appears that there are few if any red lines for them (militants). They’ve attacked unarmed civilians of course, but in that they’ve had no hesitation in children being collateral damage. That is unacceptable.

IE: Kashmiri Pandits whose return was incentivised through government jobs are now concerned enough about their security to leave Kashmir along with their families. Do you think the administration was able to read the gravity of the situation?

If you take two extreme positions, one with the Pandit employees saying we will take our jobs and leave, and with the administration saying we won’t let you, we are not going to facilitate another migration. Then there is no common meeting ground. If you step away from these extreme positions, wherein, the migrant employees are willing to sit down with the government and say — move us from far-flung areas, closer to district headquarters or to Srinagar. Then if the administration sits back and says we are not going to do that, then yes I can understand that only the administration is to be held to an account.

Unfortunately, in this, both have taken extreme positions and the tactics employed by the government. When all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.

IE: What about the PM’s employment package for Kashmiri Pandit migrants?

Omar Abdullah: I was part of the government that brought this (PM’s employment) package in and implemented it. Its failure, I will consider my failure. I may not be in office now but I identify my tenure with the move to bring these employees back. Every single one of the employees who goes back from here, I consider a personal failure on my part. I would be the last person who would want to see them leave. Yes, it may give me a short-term political handle with which to beat the BJP but, not everything in J&K should be weighed in terms of its political benefits and costs. There are some things that are far more important. This is one of those.

IE: Is anyone from the Center or the UT reaching out to you?

Omar Abdullah: From time to time. Recently, the leadership of the PAGD (People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration) called on the Lieutenant Governor. On the sidelines of Parliament meetings, you’ve had our MPs having conversations with some of the people in government. There are these attempts.

IE: What about the militant footprint across Kashmir, has it increased or declined?

Omar Abdullah: The militant footprint has widened and the attacks are bolder. Just look at the nature of the attacks. You have a Kashmiri Pandit government employee killed in his office. You have a bank manager, killed sitting in his branch. The way in which Amreen (Bhat) was shot point-blank. Similarly, with off duty police personnel. The brazenness with which this is being done, this is our reality.

It’s very easy to say Pakistan is the root cause of all this. Yes, Pakistan has fished in troubled waters in Jammu and Kashmir and this is what we have always known. This is not a new fact. But all this was supposed to have been impossible for Pakistan to do after August 5, 2019. Why are we refusing to accept the reality of young Kashmiris joining the ranks of militants today? These attacks are not all happening at the behest of foreign militants who are infiltrating. These are locals who have not even gone across (the border) for training. Unfortunately, a pistol doesn’t take much training in terms of use.

IE: You’ve been visiting the homes of the victims of recent attacks, what’s the one thing that you hear from the families?

Omar Abdullah: A deep sense of anguish and oftentimes, they are unable to comprehend, as to why them? And in more muted tones, distress at the government being unable to recognise their concerns with regard to security. Unfortunately, in the environment that we are in today, truth has a very heavy price attached to it. People are far less willing to speak today than I think they’ve ever been.

IE: The administration often quotes development statistics to counter questions on security.

Omar Abdullah: Development has never been a solution to militancy here. Which government hasn’t tried to bring about development from 1996 onwards? There isn’t a single government that you can point to and say — they did nothing on the ground. Every government has had its own flaws which are more political in nature but there is no government about which you could single out and say they did nothing on the ground vis-a-vis development.

I don’t think that a single one of the militants with guns, if caught, is going to say, ‘I am unhappy because I didn’t get a road to my village.’ What is driving them is a lot deeper than that. And this is what we are unwilling to discuss.

I don’t understand why we are refusing to learn from past governments. You have to go no further than (Ghulam Nabi) Azad sahab’s government. I still remember he started talking about tourist arrivals to suggest that we had turned a corner. And then there was a spate of attacks against tourists.

IE: You have been traveling in both Kashmir and Jammu, what are you hearing from your cadre in terms of governance or any impending elections?

Omar Abdullah: The general sense I get is that people want an election. People want a government that they can have contact with. There is a palpable disconnect between people and the government. Again, not helped by the steps that the government takes. You had panchayat elections and the DDC (District Development Council) elections and then you lock up the representatives.

I understand that there is a security concern, but this is tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bath water. These are people who have been elected because they are supposed to have grassroots contact. No such contact is taking place. So, there is this sense that people want to have a government that they can have more interaction with.

IE: The Union Home Minister has spoken about the possibility of the removal of AFSPA from Assam. How do you view this shift in approach?

Omar Abdullah: I would have wanted them to have a similar approach to J&K but I think at the moment they’ve missed that bus. If the situation wasn’t conducive for dialogue about this in 2013-’14, it definitely isn’t now.

IE: What explains the NC’s muted response to the final recommendations of the Commission?

Omar Abdullah: The recommendations of the Commission are not up for change and we know that. There is only so much energy and political capital one can expend on an issue. You have to choose where to use it. I think it is best when its utilization can actually bring about change. If anybody tells me that being more critical of what the Delimitation Commission has done, we could change something, I will be the first person to do it. We have been critical about August 5 because we believe that’s something we can change. We have taken it to the Supreme Court because we believe that we can expect justice from there. Delimitation Commission reports by their very nature are not open to court challenges. So if that’s not the case, what we say about it isn’t going to change anything. So, we have expressed our unhappiness with it and our job as a political party that was part of the commission was to make sure that for the record, our objects are part of the commission’s discussions and paperwork and are there for posterity to see. It is better to ensure that the motives behind it are rendered unsuccessful.

IE: There is some criticism that the majority community is not speaking out against the killings or showing its support for the minorities. How do you counter this?

Omar Abdullah: By telling them that they are not alone. We are all in this together and that literally, we sink or swim together in this. It’s not for me to tell them to put their lives at risk. It would be singularly wrong on my part to do that. And I think, as the majority community, we have a far greater share of the responsibility to make people from the minority communities feel safe here. And in that some of the sermons that I saw delivered on Friday, they do form some foundation for that. It is reassuring to see some of the speeches. I hope these are words that are repeated more often.

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