We are young, we see Kashmir in a new light. Hopefully, from that will emerge solutions that have not been looked at so far...
Omar Abdullah talks to Ashwini Bhatnagar
WHAT is the National Conference position on autonomy?
The starting point of our discussions is the pre-1953 position. I don’t want to pre-suppose where the dialogue is going to end. It is going to be a continuous process. I think it has received a boost now with the Mirwaiz giving the statement that short of azadi we are willing to discuss anything with the Government of India. It is like jumping straightaway from the azadi and Pak platform to the autonomy platform and we can make people rally around the autonomy dialogue. So something meaningful will come out of it.
The Hurriyat Conference chairman has said that the choice is between India and Pakistan and not either of the two and/or azadi?
I think that the Hurriyat is imploding from within. It is on a self-destructive mission. The Lone brothers have put up dummy candidates in north Kashmir. Then you have the Mirwaiz refusing to give anti-election statements and now the Hurriyat chairman is saying you have either India or Pakistan but no azadi which puts the JKLF in a slightly miserable position. I can’t imagine Yasin Malik being very comfortable with this sort of a statement. I think it is of little use for the Kashmir Committee to talk to the Hurriyat. The Committee should start a dialogue with individuals because the Hurriyat is now far too divided to represent a unified position. It will be much better if the Committee discusses it individually with the Lone brothers, with Shabir Shah, with others and see what they can bring out of a dialogue like that.
What is causing these contradictions to emerge within the Hurriyat?
Fundamental contradictions always existed within the Hurriyat. There were those who were pro-azadi, there were those who were pro-Pakistan but somehow in their fight against India they managed to keep that on the backburner. Now, all of a sudden these contradictions are coming to the fore. It is a fact that the promise of the Government of India for a meaningful dialogue after the poll made the younger generation in the Hurriyat far more keen to come forward and show its support. This is why you have this curious situation with proxy candidates of the People’s Conference in the first phase. I believe that the divisions in the Hurriyat on the participation in the elections were so strong that after that it has become very difficult for the leadership to sit together and issue one united statement.
You have now actually got into real-time politics because being a Union minister is different from being involved in a state at the grassroots level. How has the experience been?
It has been an eye-opener. For, once I took over as the party president I was under the impression that the most difficult phase for me would be the actual campaigning and getting our message across. However, I was soon to realise that the difficult phase was not the campaign but who to campaign for and the selection of candidates. It has been a learning experience and it’s been a very steep learning curve. I am sure it will be very useful in the days ahead.
During these days in politics, did you ever feel that you were in the wrong place?
Fortunately not. In the four years that I have been in politics, there has not been even one day when I have said that I wish I hadn’t done this.
Rajiv Gandhi sometimes felt that he had been caught in a wrong situation...
I think there is one crucial difference. Rajiv Gandhi was never inclined towards politics. He came into politics because of the tragic death of his brother. My decision to enter politics was my own decision. I am not a victim of circumstances. I have made my own circumstances, taken my own decisions and I have nobody else to blame but myself if things don’t go well. And so far, touch wood, there hasn’t been a single day when I have got up in the morning and said: I wish I wasn’t in this.
You have inherited a political legacy. How does it sit on your shoulders?
The weight of it is obviously something I am constantly reminded of. It would be difficult not to be reminded of it as my family’s history is intrinsically linked with the history of J&K. But I also understand that I am my own individual. I am not a carbon copy of either Sheikh Abdullah or Farooq Abdullah and, therefore, it is my job to take whatever I have from this legacy, inherit whatever dreams this legacy gives me but also use my own (mind). To believe that I am only here to fulfill the legacy that has been passed on to me is incorrect. Coming from a new generation as I do, I obviously will have new ideas, my own beliefs, my own way of wanting to do things and this would gradually become clearer as the days go by.
After 13 years of militancy, Kashmir is at a point of time when you are young, many of the leaders in the Hurriyat and other parties are young. Do you think that the generation next has another viewpoint on the Kashmir issue, its development and its future?
To that extent, Kashmir in the entire Indian political scenario is unique as people across the political spectrum today are those who, under Indian circumstances, would be categorised as political children. Take the Kashmir valley. In the Valley, the Congress has no role to play. The fight is between the NC, PDP and certain sections of the Hurriyat. Now look at the age demography in this. I am 32. Mehbooba Mufti is in her 30s. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq is not even in his 30s yet. Sajjad Lone is perhaps 34/35. I think this sort of a scenario where this kind of intense election fight at such a young age is going on is unprecedented. Now what you are looking at perhaps is the future political make-up of Kashmir over the next two decades. This make-up is of the people who are now fighting elections against each other.
Are you optimistic about the scenario that is emerging from the generational change?
I think one has to be optimistic. The new leadership that has emerged both on the secessionist side as well as in the mainstream is one that is educated, has travelled, has seen the world outside the state of J&K and even beyond India. We have seen a lot of the world and perhaps have a newer way of looking at situations. Yes, a lot of times we will tom-tom the same political messages but the fact is that our experience, our travels, our generational difference will perhaps mean that we will look at Kashmir in a different light. And from being able to look at it from a different light will emerge solutions that otherwise one has not been able to look at.
Hypothetically, if the NC doesn’t get a majority will you form a coalition government?
The NC will not be a part of a
coalition government. The verdict of the people will be clear. And, God
forbid, if the NC does not get a majority, it won’t have the right to
form the government. You cannot abuse the verdict of the people.
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq: The founder Chairman of the separatist Hurriyat Conference believes in a phase-wise dialogue to resolve the Kashmir issue. He is of the opinion that ultimately the solution has to be through tripartite talks—India, Pakistan and the representatives of Jammu and Kashmir. Bilateral talks would ultimately lead to tripartite talks. Mirwaiz, the chief priest at Jamia Masjid, the main mosque of Srinagar, holds that at present the focus should be on the process of dialogue with New Delhi, as some Kashmiri separatist groups, including the Hurriyat Conference and Shabir Shah’s Democratic Freedom Party (DFP) have held negotiations with the Kashmir Committee led by former Union Law Minister, Ram Jethmalani.
Born on March 23, 1973 at their ancestral house in Rajouri Kadal in Srinagar city, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq is the youngest prominent separatist Kashmiri leader. He got his matriculation from the prestigious Burnhall School in 1990. He took over the reigns of the party, Awami Action Committee, founded by his father, Mirwaiz Moulvi Mohammad Farooq, after the latter’s assassination on May 21, 1990. He got his MA in Islamic Studies from the University of Kashmir about two years back as a private candidate. Presently, he is working towards a M.Phil degree. He has visited Iran and other Islamic countries in connection with his field of research. The Mirwaiz was the founder Chairman of the separatist Hurriyat Conference, that was constituted on December 27, 1993 and held the position for two consecutive terms of two years each. As the prominent leader of the APHC, he has visited the US, Morocco and other Muslim countries and is attending the OIC meet for the seventh time.
Muzaffar Shah: Born in 1956, the son of former Jammu and Kashmir Chief minister, Ghulam Mohammad Shah, has been actively engaged in politics. Muzaffar believes that only a political solution can be found to the Kashmir problem. Towards this end, he presently heads the organising committee of the proposed Intra-J&K Conference for Peace and Solution. A science graduate from the University of Kashmir, Muzaffar was trained by Tata Steel, Jamshedpur. He worked as an executive in various positions in Jamshedpur and Calcutta from 1976 to 1980, married in Jamshedpur and has one son. He heads a large business enterprise specialising in mining of coal, heavy transportation and earthmoving in Bihar and Jharkhand. He was a minister in his father’s ministry between 1984 and 1986. Politics is in his blood since his mother is the daughter of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and his father was a close associate of the Sheikh for several decades. Reared in an atmosphere that was politically charged, Muzaffar was closely associated with his grandfather, grandmother (maternal) and father since 1972. He stood by his father in the event of the split of the National Conference to constitute the Awami National Conference in 1983.
Shabir Ahmad Shah: Shabir Ahmad Shah, chief of the Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Freedom Party (DFP), has the distinction of being the first among Kashmiri separatist leaders to hold a meeting with the Centre’s interlocutor, K. C. Pant, last year, and the Kashmir Committee led by Ram Jethmalani recently. Shah was declared as a ‘Prisoner of Conscience’ by the Amnesty International in 1992. He believes that the time is ripe for a resolution of the Kashmir issue and this can be effected only through talks. He is of the opinion that a Indo-Pak dialogue on the Kashmir issue is a must. This dialogue, he feels, could be held in December-January next, after the October elections in Pakistan are over. He holds that Kashmiris should also be given a chance to hold talks with the Indian and Pakistani leadership afterwards. He feels that violence and war can offer no solutions. Flexibility of approach, which alone can solve the problem, has to be ensured. The 48-year-old separatist leader has spent over 22 years in jails. He was first jailed at 14 in 1968 because he was a strong supporter of the Youth League. After that he was imprisoned because he was a supporter of Mirza Mohammad Afzal Beigh, a close associate of Sheikh Abdullah, who established the Plebiscite Front with the objective of conducting a plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir. He was jailed several times in the 1970s as well since he was an active member of the People’s League constituted in 1975 after the Indira-Abdullah Accord of 1975. He was last arrested on May 28, 1988, along with his close associate Nayeem Ahmad Khan, and released after a long spell on October 16, 1994. He was again jailed for over six months under the PSA. Having spent most of his youthful years in jails, he could not continue his studies beyond Class XI.
Mehbooba Mufti: Mehbooba Mufti, 42, is the daughter of former Union Home Minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. She was first elected to the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly from their home constituency of Bijbehara in Anantnag district in the 1996 elections. She was elected as the leader of the Congress Legislature Party in the state Assembly, but she resigned from the membership of the Congress and the Assembly on July 23, 1999. Her father, after quitting the Congress, constituted his own party, the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Mehbooba has been elected as the vice-president of the party. Married in 1984, she had a divorce within five years and since then (1989) has been living with her father, and her two daughters, Irtiqa and Iltija. She is the only daughter to having plunged into politics with her father. Her two other sisters, Mehmooda and Rubaiya, are doctors and are married and settled abroad. Rubaiya was kidnapped by militants and released later in 1989, when Mufti Sayeed was the Union Home Minister.
Mohammad Yasin Malik: The Chairman of the pro-independence Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) was born in 1966 at Maisuma, Srinagar. His introduction to political activism started when he was still in school at the age of 16. In 1986, he became a founder-member and general secretary of the JK Islamic Students League. He began to organise demonstrations and distributed literature advocating a comprehensive solution to the J&K problem. He later joined the JKLF of which he is now the Chairman. He advocates the restoration of the independent status of Jammu and Kashmir. In 1987, he was arrested, taken to an interrogation centre and later detained for over one year under the Public Safety Act (PSA). It was during this period that the four core activist members of the JKLF—Abdul Hamid Sheik, Ashfaq A. Wani, Javed Mir and Yasin Malik met to form the famous HAJY group, an acronym of the first letters of their first names. Frustrated by the "intransigence" of the government to consider a debate on the status of the state, they resorted to an armed insurgency. One of its primary objectives was to bring the Kashmir problem to international focus. Two members of the HAJY group, Hamid and Ashfaq were killed during the early periods of militancy. Yasin Malik and Javed Mir were caught, imprisoned until 1994. In that year, Malik was released on grounds of ill-health. Soon after his release, he announced a unilateral ceasefire on the part of his party. He continues to stick to his commitment of reverting to a "non-violent struggle". He has toured extensively to the USA for treatment of heart ailments and returned last year. "During his stay in the USA Yasin Malik spent most of his time on a diplomatic mission and generating public awareness," it is stated. He was arrested in October, 1999 under The Public Safety Act and detained in Jodhpur jail. He was last arrested in March this year and is lodged in Kot Balwal jail near Jammu under POTO.
Bilal Lone: The elder son of the assassinated People’s Conference leader, Abdul Ghani Lone, has come to the political forefront following the latter’s killing on May 21 this year. Born on July 8, 1964, he had his early schooling at the prestigious Burn Hall School in Srinagar and later graduated from A.S College in 1986. Married to Farhat, Bila, he has two daughters. He is carrying on the "mission" that his late father believed in, alongside politics. He was nominated as the representative of the People’s Conference and given the executive membership of the separatist Hurriyat Conference, the position his father left, following the latter’s assassination. The People’s Conference has constituted a Supreme Council of the party of which Bilal is the chairman. He says: "Whatever he (senior Lone) wanted, I wish to accomplish that."