April issue 2019

By | Interview | Published 7 months ago

We know your fingers were badly burnt on account of your tie-up with the BJP. Looking back, would you say it was an error by the late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s party to have gone with Modi? And if not, why?

Mufti Mohammad Sayeed rose to attain the highest possible chair that a Kashmiri Muslim ever can in India, when he became the Home Minister of the country. As Chief Minister, one of the things he oversaw was the process of historical decisions like the opening up of roads across the Line of Control (LoC). So to merely become the Chief Minister again and form the government in the state was not attractive enough for him. He wanted to catalyse the process of engagement between the two countries and help resolve the Kashmir issue by picking up the threads from where they were left after Vajpayee’s and his own exit from their respective offices.

It was a bold decision taken after due diligence. It stemmed from the belief that the issue of Jammu & Kashmir is essentially a political problem. And it needed strong leadership at the Centre to engage with Pakistan and the separatist leadership in order to get the people of the state out of the morass they were in. Based on Mufti sahib’s experience with Vajpayee ji, [he believed]  the state government/leadership could pave the way for such an engagement.

With the kind of strong mandate that Mr Narendra Modi had, as well as the fact that the BJP got 25 seats in Jammu division, it was only inevitable for Mufti sahib to try and seize the opportunity — not only to see threads being picked up from where Vajpayee ji had left them, but also to bring the two divisions of the state closer.

Mufti sahib took this decision despite criticism, knowing the danger of the misgivings it would come with. Unfortunately, Modi squandered this opportunity.

When you knew the serious trouble with the alliance, why did you wait for the BJP to oust you from power?

The PDP had allied with the BJP at great risk, putting everything at stake. All this was done only to serve as a facilitator and connection between India and Pakistan on the one hand, and the Centre and separatists on the other. It was done to try and get the state out of the quagmire it is in. In such a situation, how could it have been possible for me to give up without trying my best till the end to realise the very purpose for which the great risk was taken?

Therefore, I kept trying my level best to achieve the goal. Look at what all I did as the Chief Minister: I ensured that our pro-people and pro-Kashmir agenda was implemented — a unilateral ceasefire, the withdrawal of 12,000 FIRs against our youth, and the appointment of a cabinet secretary-rank interlocutor, are just a handful of examples. On the other hand, I thwarted all attempts aimed at a crackdown on the Jamaat and separatists, and on an onslaught on our special status, etc.

Your South Kashmir home-base turned into a flaming hotbed of militancy over the last few years during which the PDP was ruling in alliance with the BJP. How do you explain this? And what is your way ahead?

Given the track record of the Mufti Mohammad Sayeed-led government from 2002 to 2005, there were great expectations from our government this time around as well. They had seen the often called ‘golden period’ of J&K in recent times, and hence expected further movement forward on issues from where they were left at the time of the exit of Mufti sahib and Vajpayee ji from office.

The BJP did try to keep up with [honouring] the commitments as defined in the Agenda of Alliance, such as Mr. Modi visiting Pakistan, appointing a cabinet secretary-level interlocutor for Kashmir, and announcing a willingness to talk by no less than the Home Minister of India. But while all this was going on, incidents like Pathankot and Uri happened, which didn’t help the situation. The attitude turned confrontational and a Vajpayee-like conviction was lacking. This led to a sense of hopelessness that turned many youngsters to the extreme choice of violence. Since South Kashmir has always been our bastion, that area was affected the most.

Having severed ties with the BJP, do you plan to return to your 1990s hardline politics, almost close to secession?

Before the PDP was formed, the norm was that every party would toe the line of the Centre on the issue of Kashmir. Hence, the regional parties would advocate bombing Pakistan and drowning separatists in the  River Jhelum. The issue of Kashmir was only seen as an issue of separatism.

The PDP brought in a paradigm shift. We mainstreamed the issue of Kashmir and engagement with Pakistan instead of [threatening to] bomb them and tried talking to separatists instead of drowning them. We take pride in the fact that everyone has adopted this line now.

Such is our commitment to our ideas on reconciliation that our agenda became part of our manifesto and the basis of our alliance with the Congress and the BJP.

The fundamentals of PDP’s political agenda have remained unchanged, irrespective of whether we are in the government or not. The very formation of the government with the BJP was based on a written commitment from the BJP called the ‘agenda of alliance’ that clearly talked about dialogue with Pakistan and separatist leadership, gradual steps to remove AFSPA, etc. All of it forms part of PDP’s basic declaration. It was in the government that I withdrew FIRs against over 12,000 boys, I got Delhi to announce a month-long unilateral ceasefire, I asked forces to ensure that local militants, whenever trapped, must be given a chance to surrender. Whatever I am saying now is precisely what I said while heading the government.

Would you consider joining hands with the National Congress to save Kashmir’s constitutional privilege?

For a healthy democracy, the very existence of a strong opposition is paramount. Being the only regional parties, each of us has so far played the role of opposition while the other was in government.

As regional parties, we are entrusted by our people to safeguard the interests of the state. It was against that backdrop that we came together whenever we thought it was required. Recently we came together after the Pulwama attack, when the Kashmiris were being hounded at many places. We have also spoken in unison on the issue of the special status of the state. And when it comes to such times and issues, we could come together in the future too, but in electoral politics in the democratic space of the state, we will fight each other on the ground.

Your party is in disarray, many leaders have left. How do you propose to rebuild?

In politics, all parties go through ups and downs, but in the case of the PDP, it is our agenda that is more relevant today than ever before.

The PDP’s philosophy has been to facilitate the resolution of the Kashmir issue through dialogue and reconciliation, and that philosophy remains unchanged.

Yes, many people who had apparently joined us for the sake of power and not our agenda did leave, but many more have joined us to pursue the vision of peace and reconciliation. We are the only party that is attracting fresh young people.

Constant tension between India and Pakistan is believed to owe largely to the Kashmir dispute. What is the solution to that?

The issue of Kashmir is both political and emotional in nature. Any pragmatic and lasting solution needs India and Pakistan sitting together on a table and discussing a solution that addresses the aspirations of the Kashmiris and does not compromise the territorial integrity of either India or Pakistan.

Dialogue and engagement gives you an opportunity to offer a better idea to replace an existing one. For all pragmatic purposes, the foundations of solution are confidence-building measures and engagement, both internally and externally.

Not only should Jammu & Kashmir be opened up for the rest of the world through all our traditional routes to China, Central Asia and other geographical locations, but there should also be a sense of unification between the two sides of Kashmir wherein, without changing borders, they are made into a single unit for all practical purposes.

There is an indigenous movement in Kashmir. So is it right for India to keep accusing Pakistan of cross-border attacks? Isn’t it true that locals are joining militancy?

The movement is surely indigenous, but the fact remains that Pakistan – apart from moral, political and diplomatic support to it – also gives logistical support to the militants.

This is best explained by the indicator that when Vajpayee and Musharraf engaged in dialogue, that period saw a sharp decline both in infiltration from across the LoC, as well as militancy at large.

It is also a fact that in the absence of any credible forward movement in the dialogue process to resolve the issue of Kashmir, a sense of hopelessness creeps into the youth of the state, which in many cases leads them to take the extreme path of violence.

If the BJP comes to power again, will the situation in Kashmir get worse? Will a Congress government make a difference?

  It is not necessarily about the party. We have had the same NDA under Vajpayee making unprecedented moves for reconciliation through dialogue and engagement with Pakistan in the past. And we have also seen the Congress under Dr Manmohan Singh not taking that process of dialogue and engagement forward.

Again, the NDA and Narendra Modi got a decisive mandate that could have been utilised to pick up the threads from where Vajpayee had left them, but unfortunately that opportunity was squandered. So any difference in the situation can only be talked about once the new government comes in. Its composition may or may not decide how things change.

Do you have a strategy to internationalise the Kashmir issue? With the kind of atrocities taking place there, isn’t it time to internationalise this issue and raise your voice?

I think internationalisation of a problem doesn’t guarantee its solution. Palestine is a great example of this, which is the most internationalised issue on the global table. What has the international community done for it? Has that solved the problem? No.

In any case, with the recent confrontation between India and Pakistan, there is hardly anything left to internationalise the issue of Kashmir any further. For resolving the issue, the bottom line remains that the governments of India and Pakistan need to sit and discuss the issue and try and solve the problem, taking the people of the state on board.

What is your one message to Kashmiri youth beyond platitudes? 

My message to my youth is that one should live for a cause rather than die for it. The world over, violence hasn’t yielded much when used for achieving political goals. Non-violent democratic ways have done wonders and secured socio-political rights for the most marginalised of the world. In the scenario that we live in, we should strive to secure whatever is left of our special status first. Once that is done, we can strive for our other legitimate political rights through a peaceful democratic process.

Who is to account for the thousands of Kashmiris who are dead and many hundreds who have vanished or have been so terribly disabled during the last three decades?

It has become  the norm to point fingers and earn political brownie points. I won’t do that. I would say that whatever has happened, or is happening, is the collective responsibility of all of us. By us, I mean India, Pakistan and the leadership of Jammu & Kashmir.  All of us need to step back and introspect. Then I am sure we would get a fair idea of how each one of us has fared.

What, frankly stated, is your position on the Hurriyat, or groups committed by definition to Kashmiri independence?

 I am a democrat and I believe that the beauty of democracy is that it can accommodate varied ideas and points of view. In the complex case of Jammu & Kashmir, the  Hurriyat and other separatist parties too represent a sentiment and point of view. Without getting into how many people they represent, it is important to accept the existence of such points of view, even if one doesn’t agree with them. Any meaningful engagement would entail discussions with the separatist leadership, and no framework for the resolution of the state of Jammu & Kashmir can have legitimacy without taking such representatives and sentiments on board for discussion.

Where does the Pakistan factor figure in your politics and your conversation with your electorate?

The issue of Jammu & Kashmir has three undeniable links/dimensions: India, Pakistan, and the people of Jammu & Kashmir. My party’s basic declaration stands on our role as facilitators of dialogue and reconciliation. Pakistan has a very important role to play in the overall dynamics of the issue of Jammu & Kashmir. No framework that doesn’t take Pakistan into consideration and account for its importance, would ever be practical and result-oriented. That is what guides the positioning of Pakistan in my politics and my conversations with the electorate.

What is it that you can do to inspire people to come out and vote? Valley voter turnout has dipped alarmingly, faith in mainstream parties is clearly lacking.

It is a fact that we have seen a downward slide in voter turnout of late. But the question still remains,  has that stopped people getting elected and making it to public offices/representation? It was only when people voted for us that we were empowered enough to take unimaginable decisions like opening of cross-LoC roads and other initiatives to give people a sense of security. It was again the same vote of the people that empowered us to thwart any sinister designs of attacking our special status, allowing us to keep such forces at bay.

The right to vote is a weapon in the hands of every citizen. Now people will have to choose between not voting and leaving the space open for exploitation, and voting for the best possible party to secure our rights, as well as facilitating peace.

What do you fear most as a Kashmiri mainstream leader today?

My worst fear is the sense of hopelessness that seems to be creeping into our people in general, and the youth in particular. When they lose hope, it is only natural to see them drift towards extremes of violence. We have suddenly realised that the trigger to a nuclear war in the subcontinent may well be in the hands of a hopeless Kashmiri boy. We need to wake up and introspect.

What is your prescribed way forward from the situation Kashmir is in today? Autonomy? Self-rule? Achievable nationhood?

 Our party’s self-rule document, to me, is the best and only viable roadmap to resolve the issue of Jammu & Kashmir. It is the only roadmap that takes into account both the internal, as well as the external dimensions of the problem. Dialogue with Pakistan as well as separatist leadership, opening up the state of Jammu & Kashmir for people within, and making Kashmir a gateway to Central Asia, will go a long way in removing blockades. The two Kashmirs will have to be given a sense of unification without changing the borders through a greater opening up of routes, people-to-people contact, collaboration in education, culture, industry and tourism sectors. The gradual demilitarisation of civilian areas, rollback of laws like AFSPA, and establishment of a joint committee comprising representatives of both sides working together, could be a game-changer.

Would you say that political differences between the Valley, Jammu and Ladakh are irreconcilable now? Do you foresee a trifurcation of the state? Who is responsible?

 Historically, Jammu & Kashmir has had people and areas seeking to exhibit their uniqueness through various geographies and culture. While Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh have shown distinctiveness in geographies, culture and politics, all the units have remained part of a single unit called the state of Jammu & Kashmir, despite differences.

Vested interests, for their petty political gains, have for long been trying to divide us in the name of language, religion, culture, geography and politics, but we have withstood all those sinister attempts as a state living in harmony. We will thwart any designs of disintegrating the state in the name of trifurcation.