‘If troops can fire in self-defence in Chhattisgarh without AFSPA,why not in J&K?’

J&K CM Omar Abdullah responds to the barrage of criticism over the handling of the Afzal Guru situation and the clampdown and curfews that followed

2013-04-13 in Politics
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Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Photo: Shailendra Pandey

EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW

The Afzal Guru hanging became a major flashpoint. Why didn’t you adopt a resolution in the Assembly two years ago seeking amnesty and why did you stop short of a resolution now seeking the return of his body?
We didn’t stop short. The Assembly discussed the return of Afzal Guru’s body. The state government is on record with a formal letter written to the prime minister asking for the body back. Whether the Assembly passed a resolution or not is not relevant. If somebody can categorically tell me that a resolution in the Assembly would have changed anything about the way the Centre handled the Afzal issue, I will be the first to stand up and apologise publicly for not having steered a resolution. But it’s one thing to grandstand; another to deliver results. Look at Tamil Nadu. They passed a resolution; the DMK has quit the government; all sorts of other dramas have been enacted. Has anything changed on the ground for the Tamils in Sri Lanka? (DMK supremo) M Karunanidhi was the first person to accept nothing has. So there are many things one can criticise about the way the Afzal execution was handled, but I don’t think a resolution would have changed anything in the way the Centre approached it.

Insofar as democracies are at least about political gestures, putting stakes in the ground, would you admit your responses were insufficient?
We put enough stakes. As chief minister, both on record and off record, I told the Centre about our concerns of how things would unfold with Afzal’s execution. But the Centre obviously assessed the situation and went ahead as they saw fit.

But the Punjab and Tamil Nadu governments have been able to stave off the hanging of Beant Singh and Rajiv Gandhi’s assassins.
It’s important to understand that in both the Rajiv Gandhi and Beant Singh assassination case, the state governments have to give permission for those executions because those crimes took place in those states. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in Tamil Nadu; Beant Singh in Chandigarh. Afzal’s crime did not take place in J&K, it took place in Delhi. There is no case registered against him in J&K. So, much as we may have wanted to, the state government had no role to play, except an advisory one, in stopping Afzal’s execution, unlike the Maqbool Bhat case, where he was hanged for a crime committed in J&K. This is why the Punjab and Tamil Nadu governments have had a greater say in holding off the executions.

Having said that, I think both the National Security Adviser and the Centre must ensure this impression doesn’t go out that we cherry-pick executions that will have the least political fallout. If that’s the case, it will be a huge tragedy not just for J&K but the country as a whole.

The severe crackdown in the Valley after the execution was completely undemocratic. Is there no other way?
There is no way to get around it. Our experience of the summers of 2008-10 led us to believe that it’s better to be slightly tougher in the beginning rather than escalate our response on the basis of the public reaction. Our actions may have seemed very excessive and unnecessary to observers outside J&K, but it was actually driven by our experience and I think the results speak for themselves. In any democratic society, imposing curfews and restrictions of the nature we had to, is difficult to explain. But the fact that the protests were not more widespread, I think justifies our decision.

You broke down in the Assembly over the killings in Baramulla. The frustration or helplessness you were expressing…
It wasn’t helplessness. It was a combination of anger and disappointment.

What is the nature of that frustration, Omar? Removing AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act), at least partially, is one of the key demands people have. You yourself have been very vocal about this. In our last interview two years ago, you had said if the army doesn’t agree to lift it, you would exercise your jurisdiction to remove the Disturbed Areas Act from certain districts and then almost automatically the AFSPA would cease to be operative. What stops you from doing that?
Well it’s not as cut and dried as that. My understanding is that the Disturbed Areas Act is no longer applicable in J&K. It expired some years ago, yet AFSPA is still invoked there. So it’s only an order of the state Cabinet or the Centre that can remove AFSPA. The State Cabinet would recommend its removal and send it to the governor; the governor would then carry it forward. So, yes, I could recommend it but I would have to be pretty damn sure that my Cabinet is behind me, which, in a coalition system… See, I might as well have the Centre behind me, in that case, because it is not a coalition of two regional parties, it is a coalition with the Congress. Now, if I have the Congress on board on a decision in the Cabinet, it means I have them on board in the Centre — which means I could easily do it that way too.

But why aren’t you even attempting such a decision in the Cabinet?
Then the attempt would be just optics, which means I’m playing politics with the issue. But I don’t want to play politics with it, which is why you don’t see me leading processions in the street or threatening the stability of the coalition or threatening to withdraw my MPs from the Centre. This demand is not political. I’m looking at it purely from a security and a strategic point of view and that’s what I want the Centre to look at it from.

I’m a bit confused when you say this because you have often asserted that you are convinced AFSPA can safely be removed from some districts. You have said it’s not a god-made law; that if things escalate, it can always be clamped on again. Why are you hesitating to build political pressure on it then?
I’m building pressure but I don’t want to play politics with it. That would be the worst thing one could do, because one will get trapped between the UPA and the NDA over it. As it is, unfortunately, the BJP has politicised the issue to some extent by saying they will never allow the revocation of the AFSPA. They need to look at it beyond just the narrow political prism of the 2014 parliament election. So, yes, I’m talking to the Centre about it, but the biggest disservice I can do to this issue is to play politics with it.

Why is the army so resistant when the number of militants is almost negligent in some districts?
The problem is they don’t really have a logical argument. When I say AFSPA can be reintroduced if the situation changes dramatically, they don’t have an answer. They just say it’s not so easy to put it back, but don’t explain why. Secondly, they say they need it for self-defence. But they didn’t need it in Jammu for quite a few years before they imposed it. You still have the army operating in Doda, Kishtwar, Poonch, Rajouri, and these districts didn’t have AFSPA. You also have air force helicopters being shot down in Chhattisgarh; you have air force commandos in those helicopters. If they come under fire, will they not fire in self-defence? Will they wait for AFSPA to be given to them first? So if the troops can fire in self-defence in Chhattisgarh without the cover of AFSPA, why not in J&K? If there is a logical answer to these questions, please give it to me because I haven’t heard one yet.

Omar, I’m pushing this question because verbally you have been very passionate about it. So I’m still unclear why you won’t up the ante on it. After all the state Congress in J&K…
Let’s just say this is not the time for it.

But if you did, the state Congress would, in turn, feel the need to put pressure on the Congress in the Centre.
No, it’s a national party. The state unit of the Congress is not going to put pressure on the central unit of the Congress. It’s the other way round. The central unit of the Congress will decide what the position of the state unit is on issues like this. In any case, I don’t believe this is the right time to politicise the issue. If in the future I’m still beating my head against a stone wall, then I will reassess. Right now, the conversation is on.

But when P Chidambaram was home minister, he too wanted it lifted.
Yes, that’s true. But it’s no secret that there was a divergence of views between the defence ministry and the home minister. It’s as simple as that. The army says they are doing this internal security duty very reluctantly; well, we are giving them an option to reduce the scale of that engagement and hand it over to the police and paramilitary. It’s not clear why they won’t take that option.

The interesting part is that when there are genuine encounters in which militants are killed, locals don’t protest. Communities rise up only when there’s mala fide action. In those cases, one would imagine it’s in the interest of the army to take action and keep up its morale and self-respect.
But that never happens. Look at the two biggest incidents where innocents were killed: Pathribal and Machil. What has happened? You might wonder why somebody in my position gets frustrated. But when people ask me what has happened in those cases, what am I supposed to tell them? How is it in the army’s interest to cover up Pathribal and Machil? Because then everything else you do is suspect. If you so lack transparency on these two critical cases, how will anybody believe anything else? When you stand up and say you have investigated all allegations of human rights violations and 98 percent of those are bogus and only 2 percent are true, who will believe you? In the two cases we know to be true, where even the Supreme Court in one case has almost damned you and the CBI has found evidence against you, even in those cases you are not willing to move forward. Is it any wonder that people on the streets don’t want to believe you? Is it any wonder that I feel I’m hammering my head against a wall?

But what about your new Police Bill? Contrary again to your very public positions and discomfort with aspects of the AFSPA, there are clauses in the Police Bill that draw from AFSPA and, even more dangerously, they provide for the creation of civil militia like in Manipur and Chhattisgarh and special security zones.
Well, hang on. I think in this case there is either an absence of will among reporters to understand or an inability on our side to correctly communicate the position. The Model Police Act is the creation of the Supreme Court because they wanted to protect the police from political interference and make it a better functioning organisation. Various formulations of the Model Police Act were created and passed on to the states. In every single security conference that Chidambaram chaired as home minister, the implementation of the Model Police Act was one of the key issues on the agenda. States such as Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Assam, etc, have implemented various versions of this Police Act. We are also in the process of considering what Police Act to implement. We have taken the Police Act given to us by the Supreme Court, looked at various other components implemented by other states, and put them altogether as a first draft for public scrutiny to see what aspects are acceptable and what aren’t. Clearly, there are aspects of the legislation that just won’t fly; people are rightly uncomfortable with them. So, we will drop those aspects. They may work for Kerala; they won’t work for J&K. But there is not a single area you have talked about that other states have not implemented in their Model Police Act.

Now, rather than criticising us for coming up with a draconian legislation, we should have been complimented for putting it in the public domain for feedback. I have a majority in both the upper house and lower house. I don’t need your permission to pass an act if I was comfortable with it. No amount of headlines in newspapers would stop my MLAs from voting once a whip is issued. So if I was interested in this piece of legislation as it stands, a) I wouldn’t put it up for public scrutiny, b) I would have passed it in the ongoing Assembly session and there is nothing you could have done about it. But this is just the draft and by the time it is put through the elaborate process of being passed as a piece of legislation, many clauses that make people uneasy will have been dropped. So, why the halla over it?

This is a related question. As chief minister and the home minister, the police is under your jurisdiction. During those stone-pelting summers, the police often resorted to excessive action, shooting to kill rather than at the leg. Why has there been no action against them?
Each and every one of these cases has now been ‘chalaaned’, barring maybe a handful of cases from 2010. It’s now for the judiciary to take over. We have made our facts known.

What loopholes did the Liaquat Shah case throw up in your militant rehabilitation scheme?
It has exposed a couple of coordination issues that need to be resolved. The original rehabilitation policy did not envisage or allow for return via Nepal. It talked about return via Chekundabad, Udi, Muzaffarabad, but those routes need the active support of authorities on the other side of the Line of Control (LoC), so it was clearly a non-starter. Therefore, the Nepal route kind of just evolved. Until now, while it was not a route sanctioned by the policy, we allowed it to go on because it was the only way to get them back. The Liaquat case has shown that because we are using the Nepal route where other states are involved, particularly Uttar Pradesh, there is need for much greater coordination. That will emerge from this, I think. Because of the publicity around this case, the Centre has called various stakeholders to ensure coordination is better managed.

Apart from the issue of the route, the surrendered militants find it hard to repatriate themselves with jobs, etc.
Well, I don’t guarantee them jobs. Please understand, I think it would be incredibly unfair on my part to incentivise these chaps to go across the LoC, come back via Nepal and guarantee them a government job! If I do that, what do I tell those youngsters who didn’t go? My job is only to bring them home and, to the best extent possible, rehabilitate them. Possibly, over time, we can reduce the number of visits they have to make to a police station. But initially, they have to make regular visits because I cannot be certain they are coming back with bona fide intent. It is possible that Pakistan will try and slip a few through who are actually coming back with a purpose of militancy. My job is to identify those chaps because, god forbid, if one actually manages a successful attack, it will call the entire rehabilitation policy into question.

So yes, I can’t guarantee them government jobs, but I can help them with skill upgradation, soft financing and selfemployment schemes. We have a problem where education is concerned. We have asked the school education department not to insist on a transfer certificate because it’s not possible to bring one from across the LoC but you can’t produce your BCom-going son and tell me he needs a college admission. How do I do that?

I think the biggest thing is that we are actually bringing them back home. Until a year or two ago, they had absolutely no hope of coming back. The best option they had was to try and infiltrate back without a weapon and hope the army doesn’t shoot them. Now they are coming back legitimately. It’s not going to be a walk in the park for them, but that’s fine, we will live with it.

You have twice brought up the issue of accession in the Assembly. What was your intent? And one always hears that we need to find a ‘political solution’ to the Kashmir issue. What is that solution?
Well, I still believe you will have to restore, to the greatest extent possible, the autonomous position that J&K enjoyed. Of course, this has to be a part of the dialogue process, but I think it’s fair to say it’s not possible to turn the clock way back to 1953. There are certain institutions whose purview having been extended to J&K has benefited the state — the Election Commission, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Supreme Court, etc. But there are so many others that can be relooked at. Again, this is not a conversation that can be had through the pages of a magazine but when they say that lines cannot be redrawn, there can be no territorial give and take, then the only real thing you are talking about is the political and constitutional relationship.

You have had two relatively good years in between. Why is it that one hears of the ‘political solution’ only when there’s a flare-up on the street. Forget Pakistan. Just between J&K and the Centre, there seems to be no conversation about political solutions. It’s a conversation reserved for the separatists or street anger.
Yes, that’s unfortunate. It does seem that the only time the state gets engaged meaningfully is when there is trouble and when things are quiet, we tend to convince ourselves there isn’t a need for it. That is wrong. The best time to talk is when things are actually better rather than when you are fighting. You are right, the dialogue has to take place between the Centre and the state.

Last question. For Kashmiris, it’s important to feel they have a strong and independent chief minister who stands up to the Centre, but there is a sense that for many reasons, including funds, you are more subservient to the Centre than other states. Is that an optic you would like to fight?
It’s obviously something you can’t escape from. That having been said, I have always said and done what I have felt is in the best interests of the state. I have not mortgaged the interests of the state at the altar of Delhi at any point during the tenure of my government and I won’t. That’s the way it is. Political or otherwise, opponents of mine will disagree and that’s fair enough.

shoma@tehelka.com

1 Comment

  • indian April 8, 2013 - 7:13 pm Reply

    Madam,
    No government ready to wipe off Kashimiris tear. No government ready to see why this people asking separation. When Kashmir is the issue, why all the party joined together to give opposed voice. We will continue to hang more Kashmiris for no resaon, then how to stop their rift mind? Until we have a humanic approach towards each and every Kashmiri, we can’t solve the issues. You talk about Kashmir, next moment another voice can hear that pundits exodus blah.. with baseless arguments. Until these are stopped we can’t see united voice to support and bring all Kashmiris (including pundits) to our mainstream Indian politics.

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