Mehbooba Mufti’s close political aide and education minister Naeem Akhtar spoke to Governance Now in Srinagar. Read excerpts from the interview
Aasha Khosa | August 19, 2016 | Kashmir
Mehbooba Mufti’s close political aide and education minister Naeem Akhtar spoke to Aasha Khosa in Srinagar. Excerpts from the interview:
How do you see the current situation in Kashmir?
It is a very sad but familiar turn of situation in Kashmir. We have passed through so many dark tunnels in the past; this time will also pass. But honestly, we had thought this will never get repeated.
Many blame your alliance with the BJP for the current unrest. What is your take?
Our leader Mufti Mohammad Sayeed had gone for this alliance after much thought. This is the boldest ever political experiment in the history of Jammu and Kashmir. Through this the late Mufti had wanted to end the alienation at all levels. He believed that while we are talking of bringing Jammu and Kashmir closer to the rest of India, we could not achieve it without first bringing Kashmir and Jammu regions closer. Thus he had tried to explore new and hitherto unexplored dimensions of the possible resolution of the Kashmir issue. So far, we had been living with familiar track of events in this state – anything happening in Kashmir will elicit an opposite reaction from Jammu and vice versa. The state always stood divided and two regions were always at loggerheads. There would be constant talk of recrimination and discrimination between the two regions. The alliance is aimed at ending this.
Have things changed with the coming together of the BJP and the PDP?
The other day I was telling someone in lighter vein that today we do not have any one digit development in the state. It is now always double digit, or I should say it is either a zero or two. [Like J&K getting two central universities and two AIIMS – one for Jammu the other for Kashmir]. When Mufti Mohammad Sayeed went ahead with the idea of coalition [with the BJP] he had put in a lifetime of his experience of politics behind this idea. He had used all his experience in drafting the agenda of the alliance. Some people are even calling the agenda a new concept on which the relation between J&K and the rest of the country can be built on. It is so comprehensive that it takes care of all elements of what we see today as the Kashmir problem, like, for example, this even envisages giving greater access to borders, which will address the sense of siege that is prevailing in Kashmir. It also gives assurance about preservation of the special status of Kashmir within the Indian constitution. Now this addresses those who are spreading fear about the special status. Kashmiris are highly sensitive about this. Over all, it is such a bold and assertive political arrangement. He [Mufti] was aware that while J&K is an integral part of India with a special position within the Indian constitution, it has its own diverse social fabric, district topography and various climatic zones. He believed that J&K should be the showcase of Indian diversity. This was all based on his experience of a long public life. He, however, had told us that cynicism [against such an accord] in Kashmir will not go away in a year or so.
How did this trouble start?
There have been attempts in recent past to whip up emotional issues. Though we had tried our best to remove all misconceptions [regarding the alliance], but because there were repeated attempts and they just needed a trigger to create trouble, the disturbance started. The initial reaction [from mobs] was very strong, especially in south Kashmir, where most damage happened in the first two days. However, afterwards the casualties and fatalities have come down but the tempo of the agitation is still on. Some areas are more disturbed than others. I must tell you that the government has been showing a lot of restraint.
We are against the use of force as we believe it is a battle of ideas in Kashmir. We are telling them we also want azadi and we have a better idea of freedom which is a democratic state with a constitutional framework wherein people should feel benefitted to go with India. We are battling with a historic legacy. However, having said this I must tell you that the dividends of this arrangement [alliance] are already there to see. This time when there is trouble in Kashmir, the rest of the state is peaceful. This is a unlike the past when a situation in Kashmir would create a counter-reaction in Jammu.
Why are you not able to rein in the trouble-makers this time?
These elements are not in our control. Mufti sahib had always kept the interests of the people above populistic interests. He was also aware that initially this [alliance] would be an unpopular idea. He had no time for creating headlines. The agenda of the alliance is thus the only roadmap for achieving whatever different sections of people in the state aspire for. It includes even gradual and phased revocation of AFSPA, vacation of unauthorised occupation of private and public property by the security forces and even payment of regular rent by them. It also includes a clause on return of power projects by the centre to the state.
Mehbooba Mufti recently said some people who had sent their children outside the state are stoking fires in Kashmir. Can you explain this?
She was misquoted by the media. While interacting with a section of traders, she had talked about the compulsion of people to send their children outside for studies. She had said that while the rich had no problem, a common man could not afford it and therefore this was no solution. She was focusing on the government’s thrust on education. For the past one and a half years education has become a major movement in Kashmir. For the first time, students had agreed to forego their winter vacations and attended schools to make up for the loss of studies. Also, you must notice that it is not without reason that this time not a single school was targeted by the angry mobs.
Pellet guns have become a big challenge. How do you propose to deal with this?
The pellet gun is the legacy of the 2010 turmoil. We had been advocating against its use but this time the huge disturbances forced the security forces to use some sort of force and hence the casualties. Pellet guns are supposed to be non-lethal when fired from some distance. But when a huge mob suddenly tries to attack a security installation in a remote village, the forces do use these guns. Police is instructed to use minimum force. However, I agree that pellet gun use is a moral challenge for us. We are hoping to phase them out. The government of India has also formed a committee to find out an alternative to this. This will have to go as it is a blot on our system.
What are your guidelines for dealing with protests to the forces?
Forces are using a lot of restraint in comparison to what they are faced with. As a policy we don’t interfere if a procession does not indulge in violence. We understand that by allowing processions the state does not vanish. They are our own people, so we take care that minimum damage is done to the human lives, whether we use bullets or pellets.
How is Mehbooba dealing with the trouble?
I must say she has emerged as a very strong person in the crisis. She is facing a situation that had rattled seasoned leaders in the past. She has not wavered from the agenda of the alliance or the core philosophy of our party. I had known all along that she is a strong woman but what I didn’t know is that she can have so much compassion laced with her inner strength in such a crisis. It is because of her approach that the protests are dying down.
On the whole, how are you planning to end the protests and unrest?
We have to first think why we, in Kashmir, have a cycle of violence every five or six years. To deal with this we have to have a short-term and a long-term strategy. But there are several positive aspects of the current disturbance. For example, it was heartening to see parliament debating Kashmir in one voice. MPs cutting across party lines advocated that Kashmir has to be dealt with compassion. But our problem is that today our sense of history starts with breaking news like Burhan Wani’s killing. Once tourists start coming to Kashmir we tend to forget about our focus on the basic problem.
How is the Modi government handling Kashmir?
The central leadership of the country is aware that unless you address the problem politically it would continue to raise its heads in one or the other form.
(The interview appears in the August 16-31, 2016 issue of Governance Now)
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