Opportune time to restart talks with separatists, says J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti

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Mehbooba Mufti

Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister says dialogue or engagement should not be confused with appeasement as the exercise is for reconciliation

In her first interview since the Amarnath attacks in which eight yatris were killed, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti says the widespread condemnation of the attacks showed Kashmiriyat is still most important for Kashmir, and advocated restarting the dialogue with separatists.

There had been several reports and intelligence on a possible attack on the Amarnath Yatra. Where does responsibility for the security lapse, lie? 

I don’t think this was a lapse, and unfortunately it is not the first time militants have attacked the Yatra. The militants see yatris as the most vulnerable and their intention is to create a communal tension, not only within Jammu and Kashmir, to divide Jammu v/s Kashmir, but to divide throughout the country. Despite the sentiment, different ideologies, the fact that everyone came together on the same page on this issue, this should be seen as an opportunity. The way people, be it separatists, or the common man, youth, traders, civil society were all anguished by the Amarnath attack, It shows that even now Kashmiris value their Kashmiriyat much more than anything. And Home Minister Rajnath Singh has made a mature statement, appreciating the people of Kashmir, this should be taken to the next level. Unfortunately dialogue or engagement is confused with appeasement. As soon as one says the word dialogue, electronic media and others say you are appeasing the separatists, appeasing the other side. Dialogue is engagement for reconciliation.

You mentioned Kashmiriyat, but where does that Kashmiriyat go when a Deputy SP is lynched in Srinagar, his alleged killer’s body is wrapped in an ISIS flag? We see images daily from Kashmir, like videos of cricket teams singing the Pakistani national anthem instead of the Indian one. 

I would say that there is a very strong and deadly reaction to what is coming out from both the social media and mainstream media. On one side we see radical ideology being preached on social media, on the other electronic media is giving no options, it is “my way or the highway.” Every night and through the day, the debate is anti-Kashmiri, is so negative. There are positive stories too, but they never speak of them.

You’ve blamed the media before, but surely there is something happening on the ground too… 

Well the electronic media is powerful and its images have an impact. Kashmir has success stories too, young boys and girls becoming entrepreneurs, excellent sportsmen and women, kids winning international awards, students excelling in IIT and NEET and competitive exams… but what we see on TV 24X7, is only the same images of a dozen odd young boys with their faces covered, pelting stones. This also encourages the stone pelters, as they see that gets them attention. Kashmiris feel offended by the debates on TV that pits India against Pakistan and paints Kashmiris badly, and that adds to their alienation.

Even if the intention of the media may be good, but not understanding the situation on ground, they tend to get carried away.

Are you saying law and order is not the issue here? There are reports of several districts becoming no-go areas for Central security forces, particularly your own area of South Kashmir. 

It is not like that. Two weeks ago I went to several villages in Gund and Anantnag, and this is a false idea. Of course we are going there, maybe Ministers aren’t visiting as much, but our workers are there. But if you follow national electronic media, you would think every part of Kashmir is like that. I don’t think it should be shut down, but someone needs to explain to them that they are not helping the country in anyway with these aggressive debates and putting Kashmiri youth in a bad light. I was really shocked when I heard someone asking, “Why do Kashmiris have pink cheeks” and raising questions about their ancestry. It can’t get worse than that.

After your meeting with Rajnath Singh, you said that foreign powers are behind the attack and now even China is meddling in our affairs. What did you mean? 

Whenever there is an external threat, whether it is from Pakistan or from China, or any other country, the whole country gets together like, in the current standoff, all the Opposition parties met and assured the government that they are behind them. Kashmir is the place where everything is centred — first it was Pakistan, and now with China too, when they find nothing else worked in the [Doklam situation], they have picked up the Kashmir stick to beat India with. My point is, in the rest of the country this is seen as a national threat, where everyone is united. But when it happens in Jammu and Kashmir, it becomes the State government’s fault. As if there is no external factor, no infiltration, no problem other than a law and order one. How can you ignore that there has been a problem in J&K for 70 years? Everyday our security forces and civilians are sacrificing lives, why not see that?

In 2016 when there were months of violence and stone-pelting, we didn’t see you come out publicly as much, meet people as much. You did, however, meet the yatris attacked the same evening. Is it because of the realisation, that some of the alienation is because of your own shying away? 

That too is a misperception. I went to Amarnath, Kupwara, Budgam and have met families everywhere, each and every district. The previous government was never questioned as to why they didn’t go out in 2010. I accept though, that I do need to come out more — that is the truth.

There is also the perception that the political alienation in the valley has grown because of the PDP-BJP alliance. This was in a sense a decision by your father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, but do you think the PDP’s standing in the Valley has suffered because of the alliance?  

When you have a larger objective in mind, which my father did, he put everything at stake: his leadership, credibility, the party he worked so hard to build, all because he wanted to bring the State out of the mess of so many years. He thought that Mr. Modi, with such a huge mandate, was the one person who could follow in the footsteps of Mr. Vajpayee, and create again that magic of 2002. I think Mr. Modi has tried all around, he even went to Lahore, but unfortunately it wasn’t reciprocated in the same manner. And I have to do the same.

You have called for a time-bound implementation of the Agenda for Alliance document. A few months ago, your senior colleague said you should resign if you feel the BJP-PDP agenda isn’t being implemented. Has the alliance failed to implement its agenda? 

Well I take heart from how the GST bill was passed, the way our honourable President has affirmed the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and Article 370 in his GST ordinance, maintaining Section 5 of the Constitution of J&K, but extending the benefits of GST here. I think that is exactly how we should work. How two parties — the BJP and the PDP — that are poles apart can come together to create something good. After a long time, we have been able to restore the credibility of the Assembly, which debated the issue, and both the Union Cabinet and President respected the process [of Article 370]. That is a ray of hope, and the way forward in restoring the faith of people in mainstream politics in the State. Normally, we were accused of being at the beck and call of New Delhi, but this one step has changed that perception.

You mentioned GST as a ray of hope, but there is a full list of issues in the agenda that have seen no movement. What about the transfer of power projects you demanded, removal of AFSPA, repatriation of Kashmiri Pandits and West Pakistan refugees?

Unfortunately our government didn’t have time to stabilise. It was hardly three months before all hell broke loose [with Burhan Wani killing]. With this situation and the violence, it became more difficult to identify places for example, for Kashmiri Pandits to move back to. Again, we have discussed the transfer of power projects: it will give Kashmiris a real sense of achievement about the alliance, but it is taking time to persuade people in Delhi.

When will the projects for Kashmiri Pandits be completed? 

Very soon, we will hand over more transit accommodation in the next 2-3 months. The Pandits have said they would prefer to live in the locality they are already living in. We will also build new colonies that will be mixed, with all faiths, and presently two-three families share one flat.

What about the ₹80,000-crore package the Centre had promised? Until April only 19,000 cr had come in. When do you expect the full amount, and where has it already been spent?  

Infrastructure mostly: roads, colleges, power projects. Since last July the pace of work came to a standstill and we have only just restarted. When there is insecurity and instability, governance does take a backseat. In the first three months of my tenure I tried to establish some good measures, but suddenly the trouble started and while we continued work in Jammu and Ladakh, we could not have the same pace of work in the valley, which was further pushed to a standstill due to Code of Conduct. I tried to have the [Srinagar Parliament] election postponed but they went ahead, and the events then set us back.

Even so, the BJP and PDP remain poles apart, as you said, in ideologies. We saw that play out in how the Centre lionised Major Gogoi for tying up a Kashmiri Farooq Dar to his jeep during the election to avoid stone pelters, but the State government said it would compensate Dar… Did you raise this case with the Centre? 

First of all, it is not the State government, but the State Human Rights Commission that recommended compensation to him. If you look at the basic fundamental issue of how our Army works, it is the world’s most disciplined Army, and for the first time with this kind of picture all over the world, it got us a very bad name. Certain people may say that there was no alternate option, but it is simply not acceptable. Of course we raised it, but I think the bigger issue is reconciliation, how to restore Kashmir to its original glory. These events are important, but we have to overcome them. I am still hopeful of the alliance, because my father’s decisions have always proven to be correct over a period of time. I have faith in his decision on the BJP-PDP alliance. Without it, maybe Jammu and Kashmir would have taken a turn for something worse.

Many in the BJP have even suggested that in order to deal with these differences, Jammu and Ladakh should be separated from the Valley. How do you react to that? 

I don’t think that will solve anything. When we speak of the integrity of India, the integrity of Jammu and Kashmir is also important.

Will the alliance complete its full term, especially given that many in the BJP in the Centre and State have openly called for your dismissal? 

I don’t think there is any reason for the alliance to break, except unless we totally fail to implement the Agenda for Alliance, which is our roadmap. Then we won’t just fail the PDP, we will fail both Jammu and Kashmir as well as the idea India. We don’t have options but to follow this agenda, my father formulated after years of experience. My father always said you can’t kill an idea; you can’t put it in jail. What you can do is come up with a better idea. We need to break the mental siege of Jammu and Kashmir. We were once at the centre of trade, commerce, culture and education and then suddenly we lost all connectivity. We need to find a way to reconcile with our neighbours and restore our traditional trade routes and CPEC can be one of them.

You’ve said it before, and obviously it is controversial, as the Centre has rejected CPEC for sovereignty issues in Kashmir itself. How can you still suggest this? 

We need to open our eyes and look around. Things are changing all around the world and it is now a global village. Pakistan is taking advantage and reaching China and Central Asia, we should too. In terms of the sovereignty issues, I remember Dr. Singh saying that territories will never exchange hands, but we can make borders irrelevant, opening roads, allowing more people to cross, that is the solution.

But how is resolution and dialogue possible even if it is in the agenda with Pakistan or the Hurriyat?

Well the PM did make an effort by going to Lahore in 2015 December, but unfortunately that was not reciprocated. And in 2016, the Home Minister, the Finance Minister and many other leaders came to Srinagar, went from door to door to try and talk. I have not given up. What is the other option for us? Even if we go to war, what will change? I hope some part of the government may be reaching out to them.

How about governance in the State? Joblessness is crossing seven lakh this year, hospitals; public works are all in bad shape. 

Unemployment is an issue since private investment is not forthcoming the way it should which could generate opportunities; therefore the youth are depending only on the government for jobs, which has already reached a saturation point. But I am hopeful with improvement in situation on ground, more opportunities will be created for our youth. As far as functioning of the hospitals is concerned, it is not true. Our medical staff is working day and night despite all the trouble, as was appreciated by the injured yatris recently.

The larger question is reaching out to the citizens of Jammu and Kashmir. Here the Opposition has not been much active in reaching out. The government is trying to do things on its own and reaching out wherever it can. But unfortunately in the larger picture, mainstream politicians and political workers seem to be ceding space to other forces and ideologies, which is not a permanent feature.

Another allegation against you is of nepotism. Your younger brother is not elected, nor is he part of the government, but seems to wield a lot of power in the civil secretariat. Why? 

He is not in the civil secretariat. If he has ever set foot there, I would put in my papers. He is an internationally acclaimed cinematographer. Yes he is a coordinator in the Chief Minister’s grievances cell, and deals with people who have problems, and maybe he ruffles some feathers when he asks for action to be taken. He works without a salary, but he is very attached to Kashmir and cares about environmental and public issues. It’s too early to say what his future role will be, we don’t even know when the Anantnag election will be held [that he is the PDP candidate for].

How about other parts of resolution, like improving cross-LoC trade, rehabilitation of former militants, these seemed to move father in the previous NC government…?  

I have taken up these issues with the centre often. On cross-LoC trade, it is our fault as till date we have been unable to install body scanners to scan the trucks coming in, we don’t allow banking or communications. The barter system is ad-hoc at best. When it comes to security, we need better systems, but we can’t use that as an excuse to shut down trade. After all, more than 100 kg of drugs came through the Wagah border some years ago, but the trade still goes on. I have also taken up with the Home Minister about opening up more routes. Not just for trade, but for tourism, pilgrimage. I asked him to take up opening of the route to Shardapeeth [along the Neelam river in PoK] for Kashmiri Pandits to go to. Because ultimately, we need more people-to-people ties, and we will need a good relationship with Pakistan if we want to bring Kashmir out of this siege.

Is the four-step solution, spoken of a decade ago, still relevant?  

I think there is no way out, but to open Jammu and Kashmir to the whole world. Why can’t we have, for example, an advisory council between the two Kashmirs, who meet once or twice a year and discuss trade, tourism and environmental issues? I know it sounds unrealistic, but I don’t see a better solution. The healing touch is also important; we have to reach out to our youth. When people speak of Governor’s rule in the State, will that solve the 70-year-old problem?

How worried are you about communal incidents in the rest of India, and of Kashmiri students being targeted, in the backlash of events in J&K? 

Here is where the BJP-PDP has served a big purpose. I would say hats off to the Home Minister for his statement supporting the people of Kashmir after the Amarnath attack, because that sent a message out to the rest of the country. PM Modi has also said that Kashmiri students should be taken care of wherever they are.

Conversely, do communal incidents that the BJP is often accused of instigating, play out in Jammu and Kashmir? In that sense, do the BJP and PDP’s differing ideologies clash? 

Of course they do. It does have an impact, a very negative impact there, the images are seen in Jammu and Kashmir, and we discussed them with the leadership. After a long time there is a PM in Delhi with a huge mandate, who has taken bold decisions like going to Lahore, and he expressed his desire to follow Mr. Vajpayee’s footsteps. This alliance’s formation goes beyond government formation. My father really wanted to play the part of a bridge between the people in the rest of India and the people of J&K. When we got this mandate, it was a divided mandate and a divisive mandate, with BJP in Jammu and PDP in the Valley. He saw it as an opportunity, thrown together by destiny and an electoral mandate, and if they could cross their initial obstacles this could do wonders.

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