Omar Abdullah To NDTV On The Controversy Over AFSPA

Omar Abdullah To NDTV On The Controversy Over AFSPA

2 November 2011
NDTV


New Delhi: Amidst a raging controversy over a partial withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Jammu and Kashmir, the state's Chief Minister has said that the time has come to stop waiting for an elusive consensus and take a chance with his peace proposal. In his first detailed interview since the debate erupted, Omar Abdullah told NDTV that he has stuck his neck out and he stands by his intention. Asked about accusations of unilateralism and not taking the Army along with him, the Chief Minister said he would call another meeting of the Unified Command to discuss the issue formally. Here's the transcript of the interview: Barkha Dutt: Omar, in an announcement by you, you said in a few days there will be a partial withdrawal of the AFSPA from some areas of the state. It has triggered a national debate. Do you stand by the announcement? Omar Abdullah: Well, I announced an intention and I stand by that intention. I didn't announce a decision, as there are two areas where this has to be discussed before a final decision is taken. And then the Governor is requested, because the law requires that the final notification be issued by the Governor. Those two bodies are the Unified Command and the State Cabinet, so I was very careful to announce an intention, not a decision. In the run up to the final decision both the Unified Command as well as the State Cabinet will be consulted and a suitable decision taken. Barkha Dutt: When you say it was an intention and not a decision, do you mean that the final word is not spoken? Omar Abdullah: Well, my intentions are clear. I would very much like that the benefits of the growing peace percolate down to the people who deserve to see some advantage flow into them from this. And I do understand there are reservations. But if you wait for the final gun to be silenced before you start doing anything, then I think it's going to be an awful long wait. As a result of what I said, there has been a debate. But I think that's a good thing. Any debate is healthy and there are pros and cons to every position that gets taken. As I said there are two bodies that will discuss this. And ultimately a decision would be taken. I think it's also important to understand that what I said I didn't say it in isolation. I've had numerous discussions at various levels both with the state and central government leaderships. So it isn't like I woke up one fine day and decided to shoot myself in the foot or mouth off as some people would like to believe. What I said was a considered statement on the basis of some pretty long-term discussions that were going on. Barkha Dutt: But when you look at the uproar this announcement has created, do you feel you shouldn't have gone public with the intention till it was a decision? Omar Abdullah: Then the uproar would have followed after the decision. Both ways I would've lost out. Then people would have said that my decision was dictatorial or wrong or whatever else. This way at least the public mood has been prepared one way or the other. Barkha Dutt: How firm is your intention, especially if the other stake-holders, primarily the Army, resist this? Omar Abdullah: Well, I'm not going to get into a debate with the Army over the media. I've had discussions with the Army, formal and informal. I'll continue to have those discussions. Beyond that I really don't want to get into any sort of public debate because it will become a 'he said', 'she said' sort of a scenario. And if I say something the Army will come back at me. And it doesn't really behoove the institution of the Office of the Chief Minister or the institution of the Army to get into a public slanging match with each other. Barkha Dutt: One of the things that have been suggested is that there has been no meeting of the Unified Command yet. Would you chair with the AFSPA in the agenda? Your critics would then turn around and say whatever your intention you can't be unilateral in a state like J&K. You have to consult the Army. Omar Abdullah: Well, first and foremost I'm not being unilateral, formal discussions have taken place on various levels. There have been discussions in the Unified Command. A Unified Command is usually not called to debate or discuss a single point agenda. But to suggest that the AFSPA hasn't come up in the Unified Command would be incorrect. The decision to set up two committees with the co-commanders, state Home Secretaries, the state DG as a part of those committees was a decision that flowed from discussions in the Unified Command. Well as I've said, before a final decision is taken the Unified Command will be convened. Barkha Dutt: You are saying that this has been formally discussed in the Unified Command. But that was a long time back. It was the beginning of this year if I'm not wrong. Omar Abdullah: Well, sure, that just shows how long it has taken to actually get some forward movement in the term of discussions for the longest of times. Unfortunately these committees didn't meet. I had to then again raise this issue in the Unified Command. And instruct these people that they should meet and discuss this issue. I believe there have been some formal and informal meetings as a result of these committees. Barkha Dutt: These committees were announced in Delhi as a part of an eight point... Omar Abdullah: No they weren't. These committees were very much a part of my decision. They had nothing to do with Delhi. The decision for wider consultation between the state government and the Army was very much my decision. It had nothing to do with Delhi. Barkha Dutt: Why haven't the committees met frequently? Omar Abdullah: Possibly because of the divergent views in terms of whether the AFSPA should be removed or not. Barkha Dutt: There have been some incidents of violence, grenade attacks or so on, may be five in the last 7-8 days. A senior leader of your party Mustafa Kamal suggested that the Army was behind... Omar Abdullah: This is exactly what I don't need. Unfortunately, not only is Dr Mustafa Kamal a senior member of the party, he also happens to be my father's brother, which puts me in an extremely awkward position. But I can't tell you the number of times I've requested my father to please tell Dr Kamal to think twice before he issues statements, because not only does he shoot himself in the foot, he puts me in an extremely difficult and awkward position. God knows he has enough people to target politically, which he should be doing as the Additional General Secretary of the party. We have opposition both in the main stream as well as in the separatist camp. I don't think he now needs to issue statements about the Army or about the alliance partners. It's not his mandate. Honestly, it does make life difficult for me. Barkha Dutt: Do you regret his statement? Omar Abdullah: I do regret his statement. I do wish he hadn't said it. He did clarify it. But let's face it. By then the damage had been done. And I ended up making an enemy up in the Army I didn't need. And I did try to put things into the correct perspective with my own statement, but like I said, to some extent the damage had been done. Having said that, you people are also guilty of some amount of drawing of correlations. The fact that there have been a certain number of grenade attacks, since I announced the intention, would suggest that there haven't been grenade attacks before that. There have been grenade attacks from time to time. It has happened. Nobody has said militancy has completely ended. Nor did anybody suggest that there would be no militancy after this. All I'm saying is perhaps it is the time we start considering, and again at the end of the day, these sort of things have also been discussed in the highest forum of the Cabinet Committee on security. So it isn't an isolated opinion or an isolated view. Barkha Dutt: But here is the cold fact. The cold fact is at the Cabinet Committee on Security, the Home Minister on one side and the Defence and the Finance Ministers on the other; they weren't able to push it through. So there is no consensus even with the highest level of authority. Given that absence, should you be proceeding, should you be going ahead? Omar Abdullah: If we waited for consensus on every single issue before we moved forward, where would we go? Was there actual consensus on the civil nuclear deal? There wasn't, but you went ahead with it. Has there been unilateral consensus on economic reforms? There haven't been but you have gone ahead with it. Is there a consensus on how to deal with the Naxalite problem? There isn't. There isn't a consensus in our domestic or foreign policy. But we go ahead anyway. The idea is that you must try and forge to the best extent possible a consensus. After that I think you just have to go ahead with what you think is right. Barkha Dutt: Do you believe it is a leadership test for you? How much can you stick to your own individual conviction? Omar Abdullah: It isn't an individual conviction. Barkha Dutt: As the Chief Minister of the state there is a certain philosophy that says this will create a peace dividend. There is another competing philosophy that says this will make the state vulnerable. We know where you stand, but is this important for you to go through? Omar Abdullah: It isn't an ego hassle and I'm not looking at it through a paradigm or prism of political benefit. I'm looking at it purely as a strategic security sort of decision. When you turn around and tell people that there will be dividends that will flow to you from a piece that you helped create, don't you think you owe it to those people? Compare Srinagar last year to this year. See how the people have cooperated in building peace and allowing normalcy to return. Don't you think they are owed something in return? I mean let's face it. At the end of the day you are declaring an area to be free from disturbance. What's the big deal? It is free from disturbance. When was the last time you had Army operations in this area? I understand there is this concern that suddenly these areas, where this act has been lifted from will become hubs of militancy, safe havens, that would require a monumental failure of both of LoC checks and balances, as well as our security and anti-insurgency grid in the rest of the state. Let's face it. After Gurez they still have to get through a large part of the Valley before they get to Srinagar, which means in the entire area our counter-insurgency grid has entirely failed, which allows them to move so freely all the way up until Srinagar. So while I understand the concerns I think we should and can address them in a more balanced way. Barkha Dutt: One of the other arguments made by one of those who are extremely nervous of this happening is that in the Valley places are interconnected. You can't treat Srinagar or Pahalgam or Gandarbal in isolation to other areas. They may not be as volatile as Sopore but things are interconnected, the intelligence networks are interconnected. And therefore to selectively or partially withdraw this act could interfere with the intelligence. Omar Abdullah: Is it your case that you can only setup an intelligence grid in areas that are under the AFSPA? Because if that's the case, then should I assume that there is no intelligence grid in Kargil or in Ladakh, which are areas bordering both Pakistan and China? The AFSPA was invoked in Jammu after it was invoked in Kashmir many years later. Is it your case that for those years there was no intelligence setup in Jammu? And what about the rest of the country? You have a massive border in Gujarat, in Rajasthan. Is there no military or intelligence setup there? Your entire border with China, Bangladesh; how many countries should I name that you border where there are no AFSPA in place? Are you telling me there is no intelligence setup there? I understand operational constraints. I can't understand the argument that you can't have intelligence setups in areas where AFSPA doesn't exist, because then that would mean pretty much the entire country has no intelligence setup today. Barkha Dutt: The Army has issued a statement saying J&K isn't in a post-conflict stage, but in a state which is also called the conflict stabilisation phase. There is also an argument that this could be a tactical pause. You can't presume there is no externality to this conflict. After all last year was a terrible year for internal as well as for external reasons. You know as anybody else that in Kashmir it takes just an hour or a day to change the ceasefire. How do you respond to this concern of the Army? Omar Abdullah: Did the AFSPA or its presence help last year? Barkha Dutt: But you did call in the Army at some point... Omar Abdullah: I had to go by what other state chief ministers had to. They didn't take recourse to the AFSPA when they came in. They asked for a formal letter from the Chief Secretary, handing over authority to them which some would question was constitutionally wrong. So inspite of the AFSPA in place we had to take recourse to what any other chief minister would have to do when they call in the Army in Aid to Civil Authority. So what changes? Barkha Dutt: What is your own assessment? Do you believe the state is in a post-conflict stage? Omar Abdullah: Well, worst-case scenario and I'm talking hypothetically here. Let's assume we remove it from an area. We don't get the cooperation of the people that we want. Militancy re-ignites there. Has this message been carved in stone, by God, that it can't be reversed? The same way I'm lifting it today, what stops me from bringing it back tomorrow? I'm saying the worst-case scenario that is unlikely to happen. I don't believe that scenario would emerge. I truly don't, but at the end of the day if I'm designating an area as not being disturbed, it can be reversed. I'm going to reiterate, I don't see that situation emerging. But for those who take the worst-case scenario, why don't you look at this scenario as well? Barkha Dutt: But if it goes wrong? Omar Abdullah: It won't go wrong. I'm pretty damn sure it won't go wrong. Yes there will be the odd stray incident, but they will be there even with the AFSPA in place. Has the presence of that law stopped militancy from taking place? It hasn't. There will be this odd, stray attack and we will deal with them. But in the hypothetical worst-case scenario, even when an encounter took place, let me remind you, go back to Lal Chowk a year and a half, two years ago. Didn't the J&K police and CRPF deal with that? It was a Fidayeen attack. They occupied the building. We didn't ask the Army to join. The Army asked us whether we needed their help. We said we could deal with it ourselves. J&K police and CRPF dealt with it, in the heart of Srinagar. Barkha Dutt: Are you suggesting the Army is no longer required? Omar Abdullah: I'm not suggesting even for a moment the Army isn't required. We are still in a situation. If I thought the Army was no longer required I would remove the AFSPA in one go. It isn't possible at this point in time to suggest that the Army doesn't have a role. I'm saying that perhaps we have reached a point where we could reduce the role of the Army selectively and carefully, in a calculated manner. Barkha Dutt: Why is it important for the people who may not know the state well to send out this message? You made the point that you are going to create an incentive for people. What is it about this Act that you believe that lifting of it would change the message? Omar Abdullah: You would essentially convey there are parts of the state that are no longer as disturbed as they were, and are no longer as abnormal as they were. And perhaps could begin to be more of a part of the national mainstream than they have been for the last more than twenty plus years. And I think that is an important message to send out. That a citizen of Srinagar, or wherever else this Act is lifted from, would be no different in the eyes of the law than a citizen in most other parts of the country. Today that difference is very clear, stark and apparent. The sort of protection that should be available to you as per the Constitution isn't available yet. Why can't we start restoring that protection back to them? Barkha Dutt: What aspect of this Act bothers you personally? Omar Abdullah: It doesn't bother me personally. Barkha Dutt: The fact that some call it draconian, others call it contentious. How do you call it? Omar Abdullah: Well there are aspects in this Act that give unquestionable immunity, which I think is dangerous as immunity is abused. It gives you the ability to function with impunity. And that's something we need to guard against. It isn't something that is happening now but it has happened in the past. And it doesn't take long to jog memories. That having been said, it is fair to say that the Army has been a very balanced force in the recent years, in terms of their commitment to human rights. There have been aberrations. But I think the aberrations have been the exceptions rather than the rule. Barkha Dutt: Do you think AFSPA has become a symbol? A 'psychological messaging' that needs to be changed because it bothered many. The way they got treated at a check post, the way they were spoken to, the tone. Do you think we are confusing AFSPA to reducing the bunkers from the city? Omar Abdullah: Well, I'm glad you talked about the bunkers, because the same people who are talking today about AFSPA, were also saying about the bunkers. That by removing the bunkers we are going to create safe havens for militants in downtown Srinagar. It didn't happen. So sometimes it doesn't hurt to stick your neck out a bit. And see what happens. Well, to some extent the debate over AFSPA has got a little confused, but at the end of the day not without reason. There is some reason for people to have this kind of strong reason that they do about this particular Act. Barkha Dutt:On both sides or only on one side? Omar Abdullah: I would suggest on both sides. The Army feels that they need this Act to be able to operate. My case has been that in the absence of removing it, modify it and make it less draconian. Sure they need a legal cover to operate. We will be more than happy to give that legal cover. But that legal cover has to lead to a sort of immunity that it provides, is perhaps a question that can be debated. Possibly we wouldn't be having this discussion about lifting it, if we have had the discussion about modifying it. And actually take that to its logical conclusion. If the Act had been made less draconian in perception, possibly we wouldn't be having this discussion in a while. Barkha Dutt: You said that it isn't an ego hassle. You don't want to be a unilateralist. And you don't see yourself being one on this issue. Saifuddin Soz says you had consulted the Congress. The Congress in Delhi said they were willing to look at it, while others said they didn't support this issue. Don't you need to take into account what your alliance partner says? Omar Abdullah: Of course I do and I certainly will. I've done, I'll continue to do. It has come up for informal discussion on the Cabinet. It'll come up as a formal agenda item in a subsequent Cabinet meeting as well. I don't think any of my Cabinet colleagues from my alliance partners can ever make this allegation against me, that anything I've done in the last almost three years has been unilateral or without adequate consultation. I think it is also important to understand that it is a security-related matter. It can't be discussed in just any forum with anybody. I'm constrained by the oath of office to discuss this with people who have taken the oath of office and secrecy. I can't just discuss it in open forums and places like that. And I've every intention. I've informally had certain discussions. Formal discussions will also take place. Barkha Dutt:What do you say on Mr Soz's take on this? Omar Abdullah: Like I haven't got into any public slanging match with the Army, I haven't got into any with Soz Saab either. He is a senior member of the Congress Party, was a senior member of the NC before that. He guided me through my first few days in the Parliament. So surely I can understand where he is coming from. And I'm not going to get into any sort of public debate with him. Barkha Dutt: Do you think you have the backing of the Congress in this proposal? Omar Abdullah: It isn't for me to speak on behalf of the Congress Party. That's obviously not my mandate. Barkha Dutt: There are many ifs and buts in this proposal on the table. The Army says no and the Congress hasn't been able to reach a consensus. It isn't a secret. That's quite clear. So the question is when you put the proposal, are you being a strong leader or are you being a unilateralist? Omar Abdullah: More often than not strong leaders are seen as unilateralist. The moment you are strong you are seen as unilateralist. Barkha Dutt: But it is delicate when it involves the Indian Army. It is the Army of the country... Omar Abdullah: I hate the way it is being sold as Omar Abdullah versus the Indian Army argument because that's counterproductive, to both me, and the Army. This is not about me versus the Army, it never has been, it will never be. It is about the benefits of the actions we have jointly taken, the Army and the Civil Administration, and translating that as a peace dividend for the people. That's all this is about. This is not about a battle or an argument or an ego hassle on one side or the other. It is purely about creating a peace dividend that I think is needed. It isn't something that needs to be feared or worried about. Barkha Dutt: One of the debates that have come up is whether you have the authority as the elected Chief Minister of the state to go ahead with this proposal if it is resisted by the other stake holders? Omar Abdullah: I very much like then that the decision be taken at the Central level. But please remember that in numerous briefings the Union Home Minister has made it very clear that this does fall within the domain of the state. Now unless someone can tell me otherwise, a state government, headed by an elected Chief Minister, is the one that is authorised to make a recommendation to the Governor, who then acts on the basis of that recommendation. So unless there is something in the Constitution that I'm missing out on, I believe it is the state government's domain to make such a recommendation. Barkha Dutt: Is it awkward with Imran Khan leading a rally in Lahore saying the Indian Army should move out of J&K, and for completely different reasons you too want to get to the point where few soldiers have to be put at the front Omar Abdullah: I'm not the only one. The Indian Army wants to get to that point. The Army would be the first people to tell you that they would like to reach that point where they are no longer required here. I'm trying to move that process along. So this becomes dangerous when you sort of start putting Imran Khan and my statement in the same sentence. I know you won't, but I can imagine a whole lot of people on Twitter will immediately think that I'm getting my instructions from Imran Khan and his public statements. Barkha Dutt: It is a very precarious balance you are walking on. Omar Abdullah: Jammu and Kashmir always is. It is a balance between regions and sub-regions, identities, individuals, the Centre and the State. There are so many tight ropes that one has to walk here. Barkha Dutt: The last time we met in the wake of the unmarked graves controversy you spoke about the exasperation and not getting justice deliverable in two high profile cases. The Army wants to take those cases over. But the state government hasn't really responded to this plea. Omar Abdullah: I would suggest again, without getting into any debate or discussion with the Army, please check the legal position. Who went to court and got the whole process stayed. That I think would answer your question. Barkha Dutt: The last time we met you said you had written to the Defence Minister. What has been the response? Omar Abdullah: I've had an acknowledgement to my letter. Barkha Dutt: Is it frustrating for you? Does it become very difficult to politically justify because these cases become perceived in a wider... Omar Abdullah: Well sure, when you debate AFSPA you end up having to explain Machil and Pathribal. Barkha Dutt:Pathribal is coming to the Supreme Court this week. There again a very strange situation as CBI has one view, another wing of the government has a different view. The Army Chief has made it clear that their officers can be prosecuted in this case. How do you intend to navigate one of the oldest and high profile cases? Omar Abdullah: Well obviously given that the matter is sub-judice I'm not going to be able to comment on what we plan to do or don't plan to do, except to suggest that justice shouldn't only be done, but should seem to be done. And this is again an instance where there doesn't seem to be any sort of consensus. Barkha Dutt:You have said it puts you in an embarrassing situation Omar Abdullah: It puts any elected government in an embarrassing position when you don't have answers when these sort of questions are posed to you. Barkha Dutt: In conclusion the larger debate is about accountability and justice for ordinary people here. What is the progress in the enquiry in all of those cases? Omar Abdullah: Well we are now awaiting the final legal advice that is how we should proceed in this matter, and since then there have been some other recommendations that emerged from the State Human Rights Commission. My open offer that is DNA testing still stands and we are willing to move forward on that. Barkha Dutt: The controversy involving the death of Yusuf is something that you have spoken at a length about. It hasn't been taken off. The Supreme Court is looking at the case. Why haven't you been able to setup...? Omar Abdullah: Well partly because of a Supreme Court ruling that sitting judges wouldn't be spared, and taking recourse to that ruling the State Chief Justice has express his inability to spare a sitting judge. In light of that, and in keeping with my commitment to a transparent and a fair enquiry, I have now asked the Union Law Minister to give us a retired judge of the Supreme Court. I could have opted for a retired judge of the state High Court, but then I would've been accused of cherry picking a judge to suit my convenience, which I didn't want to have to explain. So I have asked for a retired judge of the Supreme Court, one who had no connection with J&K who will come and we hope in the next few days... Barkha Dutt: Do you have a timeline? Omar Abdullah: Well, my letter to Salman Khurshid has gone a few days ago. I've been left to understand that they have been more or less finalised on a couple of names. I'm hoping in the next few days we will be able to issue the notification and the enquiry will start. Barkha Dutt: Looking a few days ahead, you will be calling a meeting with the unified Cabinet? Omar Abdullah: I've already asked the DG of Police because he is the one who issues the notices. I've asked him to convene a meeting of the Unified Command in Jammu the week that office is open, that will be followed by a meeting of the State Cabinet. In between I've discussions with the Home Minister and we will take it from there. Barkha Dutt: Do you believe that this time you will be able to go ahead with this? Omar Abdullah: If I say I'm going to go ahead with this you will accuse me of being a unilateralist and a dictator. My mind is very clear and I've made my mind now. Barkha Dutt: But you said you had an intention, if you had to follow... Omar Abdullah: Obviously I can't announce a decision here, because like I said, it has to be discussed in two places. My intention is very clear. I would like to go ahead with it. Barkha Dutt: How much are you going to fight for your intention to go through? Omar Abdullah: It would sound very glamourous if I lay down the gauntlet. Meri kursi bhi chalee jaye to main phir bhi karunga. I'm not going to give such grandiose statements. I've stuck my neck out. I don't see a reason why I should pull my neck back in. Barkha Dutt: So you are still saying there will be an announcement in a few days? Omar Abdullah: I'm saying I'll take the process of consultation further and go on from there. But my intention stands. Barkha Dutt: Thank you Omar


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