Kashmiri politician Mehbooba Mufti has urged India to start a dialogue with Pakistan and separatists in Kashmir to defuse tensions raised by February's attack on CRPF personnel in Pulwama that was claimed by the Jaish-e-Mohammad, a Pakistan-based militant group.
Mufti, who governed Jammu and Kashmir in alliance with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) until they split last year, said an ongoing crackdown on militants and those supporting secession could further alienate the people.
The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) president spoke to Reuters on Friday. Here are excerpts from the interview:
Q: Do you fear the ongoing crackdown in Kashmir will lead to the radicalization of local youth and that militant recruitment will rise?
A: Once you start choking the space for dissent in a democracy, people feel pushed to the wall and then it leads to further dissent and alienation. Suddenly in the last few years, Kashmiris are looked at with suspicion. Anything happens in the country, Kashmiris get harassed in hotels and everywhere. What has been happening since the Pulwama attack in which more than 40 CRPF personnel were martyred is very bad, condemnable and a Kashmiri has nowhere to go after all this. If you choke his space, ill-treat him, harass him within the country, where does he go? So this is bad and I am happy that the intervention of Supreme Court provided some relief. Unfortunately, there was another incident couple of days back. Today I heard the prime minister himself has condemned and has given directions that Kashmiris should not be harassed. I hope people will listen to him.
Q: What would be its impact?
A: Once these guys come back, they carry heartburn. It’s heartburn for them when they go to the rest of the country. They are ill-treated and harassed. Once back, they feel more alienated and pushed to the wall.
Q: There was a PM’s scholarship programme for Kashmiri youth aimed at integrating them with the rest of India. Do you think by harassing Kashmiris outside the state, the efforts of the Indian government have gone down the drain?
A: I would not say it has gone down the drain. But it has had its impact because the people of Kashmir, in spite of the political problem, alienation between them and the rest of the country, people still showed their trust on the country with their children. They trusted the country by sending their kids to the rest of the country for education. If the country is not able to take care of these precious lives and their dignity and humiliate them by teasing, taunting, and harassing, it is going to alienate them more. It will invite more trouble and increase the gulf between the Kashmiris and the rest of the country. They will come home with very bad experiences. They should be the ambassadors of peace. When they return home, they should bring a positive message and be the ambassadors of the rest of the country. If you harass them, ill-treat them, it is going to be a different story.
Q: How do you assess the situation in Kashmir? Do you think it can be defused? If so, how?
A: It is quite bad at this point in time. There is tension both internally and at borders. There are crackdowns inside. And with Pakistan, we are in an eyeball-to-eyeball contact at this point of time. It seems anything can happen anytime. It is quite bad. We need to restart the political process where Vajpayee and Mufti saheb left it. When the political process was on, the dialogue was going on with separatists and Pakistan. There were discussions about the opening of routes (between divided Kashmir). So we need to go on the same lines and implement more confidence-building measures within the state and outside. With the improvement of the situation, we have to see that we do not hold too many people in jails, except if somebody is seriously involved. Otherwise, this general crackdown on people is not a good thing. You cannot imprison an idea. You have to fight it with a better idea. Instead of fighting it with a better idea, you are trying to jail it. You can jail a person but not his idea. You have to address it.
Q: Do you think there is a risk of the situation worsening?
A: If we do not address the issues, the situation will worsen. We saw a young Kashmiri boy - maybe he felt hopeless - who blew himself up resulting in the death of 40 CRPF personnel. This shows desperation and hopelessness among the youth. It brought two nuclear powers on the brink of war. So we need to take care of it now. God forbid, if something like this happens again, I do not know what is going to happen because this time there was some kind of statesmanship shown by Pakistan PM Imran Khan by returning the pilot and trying to defuse the situation. Maybe it won’t happen next time. So we need to understand it and try to address the problem internally as well.
Q: What role are you playing as a former chief minister to contain the worsening situation?
A: It is not about the profile one holds. Even if I was not the chief minister, I would have done the same thing that I have been doing for the last 20 years. Even as a chief minister, I tried my best to impress upon New Delhi to initiate dialogue. Because our agenda of the alliance was based on the resolution of Kashmir, dialogue with Pakistan and separatists, review and revocation of AFSPA (armed forces special powers act), withdrawal of troops from the civilian area. All this is part of a political process and our alliance (with the BJP) was based on it. When I met the prime minister and home minister, I insisted upon the same thing. That you need to have a dialogue with separatists and that is the reason an interlocutor was appointed. Even Home Minister Rajnath Singh offered dialogue many times. You need to have a dialogue with Pakistan. So I strongly feel that there has to be a dialogue process internally (with separatists) as well as externally, with Pakistan. The situation is going to get worse if some kind of political process is not initiated on the ground now.
Q: There was an agenda of alliance (between BJP and PDP) where you insisted for dialogue. Why did it not happen?
A: Well, the thing is that the home minister offered dialogue three-four times, but we need to understand that we cannot have dialogue in Kashmir while having a confrontation with Pakistan and vice versa. It is a three-pronged strategy wherein you address it internally with separatists and externally with Pakistan. If we recall, during Vajpayee’s time there was a composite dialogue process with Pakistan at the level of the prime minister and (Pakistan President) Musharraf and an internal dialogue was going on with separatists and deputy prime minister at that point of time. Only then we were successful to get Pakistan and separatists on board. Unfortunately, that did not happen this time. Prime Minister Modi visited Pakistan and Pathankot attack happened and the whole process was put on the back burner. This confrontational attitude - no talks, no discussion - has an impact. Whatever relationship we have with Pakistan, it has a direct impact on Jammu and Kashmir and we are the worst sufferers of this animosity.
Q: Are you in touch with the separatists, army or former ally BJP on the issue?
A: No. I am not in touch with anyone. We feel at this point of time, we are being selectively targeted by the BJP in many things like withdrawing of security to our people.
Q: Are you repenting your alliance with the BJP?
A: I can’t repent as the decision was taken by my father with a vision. When we got the mandate, the BJP had already entered the state. Then my father thought what could be the best arrangement for the people and the state, sidelining his own interests. For him, the best arrangement would have been to join hands with Congress and be chief minister for six years. But he chose otherwise, as we have a mixed population wherein Muslims and Hindus live together. One reason behind his decision was to maintain communal harmony. Had he isolated the BJP by not forming a government with them, they would have created problems with their 22 seats, which would have been bad for the mixed population.
The very important thing was my father wanted to take threads (of the political process) where Vajpayee had left. Even Modiji has said many times that he wanted to start a political process where Vajpayee had left it. That is why it took us two months to form an agenda of the alliance. I also took three more months after my father’s death to stress on the agenda of the alliance. So it was done with a noble cause and sincere intentions to resolve the Kashmir problem. As you know, the PDP was formed with the intention that Jammu and Kashmir is going to be bridge between India and Pakistan. And at that point of time, the mainstream parties, including the regional parties in Jammu and Kashmir, were not taking name of Pakistan without abusing it. We changed that trend of abusing Pakistan. We stopped abusing Pakistan and separatists and that trend changed after that. You know that is why we took some heat and risk while aligning with BJP. My father thought beyond himself and the party.
Q: What went wrong? What led to the fall of the government?
A: They were never happy about my withdrawal of FIR against 10,00 -12,000 boys. Then there was the 2016 unrest. In 2016 unrest, they wanted me to crack down - what India is doing this point of time - which I refused at that time. They wanted, you know these Jamaat-e-Islami people to be booked. And you don't have any proof against them and what are you going to do? You can't do like this. You don't like the clerics for the kind of politics they are talking about at times in the mosques. They wanted me to crack down on them. They again were very unhappy with the FIR I lodged in Shopian against the army guy. And one more FIR against CRPF in Srinagar. Similarly, they were unhappy when I asked them to drop the ministers who sided with rape accused and on ceasefire. They were not happy when I persuaded the government of India for ceasefire. So it seemed to them, you know that PDP agenda is moving forward, but their agenda - whether Article 370 or Article 35A, that I let the prime minister know that it's not good. I told him we can't continue to be with you if you start fiddling with Article 35A. We cannot go with you. I met the home minister and he assured nothing is going to happen to it (Article 35A). He said that it can go to the court and be put there in courts for trial and nothing is going to happen. Then only we continued, otherwise I was ready to pull out at that time.
So I was expecting that they were going to run away because 2019 election is coming and they would like to take very tough line, very harsh line on Kashmir and also vis-a-vis Pakistan because at that time I said to the prime minister to hold dialogue with Pakistan. It did not suit them. I insisted them on dialogue with Hurriyat Conference. And I was insisting (with) them on confidence-building measures -- the withdrawal of security forces from certain areas like in Anantnag high ground, Tattoo ground. You know I was all the time insisting for implementation of the agenda of alliance. I didn't allow them to build Sainik colony or a separate colony for Kashmiri Pandits in Kashmir. I said if we have to build colonies for Kashmiri Pandits, it has to be composite, it can't be separate. Whatever they wanted me to do, I didn’t do that. I did what I liked to do. Somewhere I succeeded, somewhere I didn't.
Q: The divide between Kashmir and Jammu regions seems to be widening. Do you think that the grenade attack in Jammu will further widen it?
A: I hope not, but I think somewhere there are some people who are trying to reverse the situation. If you recall during my tenure, there was an attack in Uri, there was an attack on Amarnath Yatra. There was 2016 unrest. But we did not allow the situation in Jammu to be out of control because BJP was in the power. Otherwise you can imagine, the attack on Yatra was worse. It was equally worse as an attack on CRPF. But things were made to cool. It was like kind of holding them back. The power held them back from doing what they are used to do. The grenade attack which happened is again - I don’t know who they are - but it is again an effort to communalise the situation in Jammu. Of course, they are trying to polarise the situation as they have done last time. They have done today. They are trying to polarise by beating Kashmiris outside the state and then the way they are talking and their leadership in Jammu is talking nothing else than trying to polarise. They are trying to polarise the situation.
Q: Are you in touch with the opposition party over what is happening in Kashmir?
A: It is too early to be in touch with the opposition party because everybody is busy with election process. Elections on their mind and nothing else is in the mind of NDA. When this incident happened - the prime minister at that time was busy with campaigning. It is important for them and their priority. Elections are priority at this point of time. So I think it’s not a right time to be in touch with them. Maybe after the elections are over.
Q: Are you in touch with regional parties in Kashmir?
A: I have been in touch with Omar saheb and other leaders about how do we go when there was this amendment (35A). When there was this issue of Article 35A, so we are in touch with each other. I feel if there is a situation wherein you know it is about Jammu and Kashmir's interest and at that point of time we need to be together. We need to speak in one voice.
Q: Any plans to have an alliance with regional parties in Kashmir?
A: I think it is too early to think about such an alliance. I think we need to get together to safeguard the interest of people and power is one of them.
Q: Do you feel there is still a threat to Article 370, 35A?
A: See, the thing is that unfortunately Article 370, Article 35A have been given much hype. There is so much disinformation in the country about it. And they are trying to build mood within the country for scrapping it. Nobody understands it. It is a bridge that connects it to Kashmir. Because without this bridge, what do we do? How can we fight elections, under what Constitution, if they attack the very basis of our relationship with the rest of the country. So nobody understands that it is the only bridge. They are trying to manipulate it and mobilise public opinion that once Article 370 is gone, all the problems will be resolved. So I still feel there is threat to it.
Q: What efforts are you making to safeguard Article 370, 35A?
A: There is not much at this point of time. When I was the chief minister, I got best lawyers to fight it. Again, you know it is in the court. Supreme Court had already given their verdict a couple of times. They had given decision, it shouldn't be tinkered with. But again, going to Supreme Court and attitude of Attorney General is something you know it is not good. It is quite negative. We are also trying to fight but at the end of the day it is there. I have full faith in Supreme Court. It shouldn't come just as the Afzal Guru hanging that was done to satisfy the collective conscience of country, something like that. It shouldn't happen - which is going to be last straw in the relationship of India and Kashmir.
Q: You are protesting against the ban and arrest of Jamaat-e-Islami leaders, would you continue it?
A: Yes, of course. It is part of our political thinking that democracy is a battle of ideas. You have to fight it democratically. You can’t jail everybody. I have heard that they have released some elderly leaders and they are going to release some of them after some time. You know in democracy you can protest peacefully and I’m sure you know it will have at least some kind of impact. You need to raise your voice. If you can’t do much, you know, but at least raise you voice. Raising your voice is something you need to do. You can’t keep quiet and let them do what they are doing.
Q: What is your assessment of the present situation in Kashmir?
A: It is quite bad and if we don’t start some kind of political process to reach out to the people, it is going from bad to worse.
Q: Do you think the situation will improve with the crackdown?
A: It is not going to improve. There will be some calm on the surface by these crackdowns and arrests, but it is not going to last long. We should not be happy if there is surface calm for some time after this. Peace can’t be forced, it has to be restored.
(Editing by Tony Tharakan; This interview is web-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission.)