Omar Abdullah
Chief Minister, J&K, 41

By Shoma Chaudhury 

Photo: Shailendra Pandey

LAST SUMMER, it seemed Chief Minister Omar Abdullah could do nothing right. As the Valley caught fire, every move he made seemed to escalate the crisis. He sent his police in to meet stones with bullets, piling death upon death as young boys threw themselves in spiraling rage at the forces. At the height of the crisis, he sent his aide Devinder Rana to seek bête noir Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s help. When the Valley was in most need of balm, he shut himself off and refused to wade into his people with soothing words. He did not know how to work the backroom with powerful players like the Jamaat; he did not know how to neutralise the opposition PDP. And he allowed himself to look like a puppet on the Centre’s string.

Sections of Kashmiris — opposition parties, journalists, intellectuals, even sometimes, the man on the street — criticise Omar severely for lacking emotion, foresight and political dexterity. He was supposed to be the new chapter, the young man who would bring something fresh, they say, but he completely lacks politics. He has no ideas that can rope people together and give them hope. In one of the most complicated corners of the globe, in a high-strung land that needs a master tactician to lead it, he casts himself as an earnest bureaucrat. Where people need drama and strategy and soaring words — and money — he does only the math.

But clearly, Omar took some lessons last summer. This year, there are a few things he seems to be getting right. Or, at least, is chipping away at correctly. He has a measure of himself and knows he can’t stitch himself into clothes that don’t fit. What he has, is good intent. And straight talk. And pragmatism. He is determined to make that count. On his terms.

THE SCENE in Srinagar airport is a shock. Last July, it looked a provincial outpost. Brooding, quiet, except for an occasional turnstile of visiting journalists and armymen. This summer the plane belches one into a teeming crowd. People yell exuberantly in Punjabi and Gujarati. Suitcases spill off conveyor belts. The ubiquitous Bengali is everywhere. Children run amok. There is not an inch of space to stand. Outside, the shops are brisk and cars run fender to fender into town. The cab driver is delighted. A hotel room is hard to get.

On firm ice Tourism is back in Kashmir
On firm ice: Tourism is back in Kashmir, Photo: AP

Kashmir has always been famously unpredictable. Last summer, seasoned commentators had warned that India was on the verge of losing Kashmir while even veteran Kashmir journalists were convinced the Taliban would have set up shop in the Valley by now. Instead, this summer has brought peace and tourism. A few days ago, in a significant move, Germany revised its travel advisory against visiting Kashmir, the first western country to do so in almost 20 years. “Kashmir is as peaceful and beautiful as I saw it when I first visited in 1982-83,” said the German ambassador, Thomas Matussek, “the situation has calmed down considerably.”

It’s long been a Kashmiri grouse that neither the media nor the Indian government engages with the Valley unless it is in flames. Peace, even fatigue, is taken for normalcy; wou nds, imagined and real, are papered over; and everyone hopes the status quo will hold. Until the next tinder catches fire.

It’s as important to read Kashmir in peacetime, then, as it is to report on it in times of conflict. Why does its anger move in cycles? Are its eruptions engineered only from Pakistan? What are the real grievances on the ground? What were the lessons learnt last summer from a 112 dead boys?

Many clues wait to be sifted in the Valley this season. Batches of young Kashmiris are leaving to study in America. A new generation is finding voice. Last June, shopkeepers and daily wagers were willing to shut shop and sit out losses for six months — and more — if this last push would bring azadi, but the separatists’ calendar yielded nothing. (Only Geelani’s son got to come home after more than a decade in Pakistan.) This year the common man has no patience for any calendars. A few weeks ago a shrill Facebook campaign forced a concert to be cancelled, deeming music to be “haram”. Hundreds of young boys who were arrested last year are still stumbling from police station to police station, embroiled in a labyrinth of cases. The Centre promised an eight-point plan, of which they have not walked even one-fourth. The AFSPA has still not been lifted from a single district. And when militants shot and killed a young woman in Sopore for laughing too much on her mobile, hardly anyone in the Kashmiri media reported on it. But a successful panchayat election was held in the Valley after 33 years. There are learnings in these disparate clues for everyone: mainland India, separatists, state government, opposition parties, Central government. Pakistan. And Kashmiris themselves.

But, perhaps, the man whose reading of the peace in Kashmir this season would be most fascinating is Omar himself. What do the tea leaves tell him? And how does he plan to turn it into a stronger brew?

Last summer Kashmir was burning. This summer it’s peaceful. How do you read this? What helped the situation?
Well, a lot of things have changed, but it’s too early to pass judgement. Just because the first six months have gone well, there’s no guarantee the next six will as well. I’m going to hold off patting ourselves on the back till 31 December. That having been said, normally, we have found over the last few years that if there was to be trouble it would already have started by now. The fact that we are in July and it’s not started yet is reassuring. But that’s no room for complacency.

We have done a whole lot of things — some big, some small. I think the big ticket idea would be the Panchayat elections as it changed the discourse. First people were amazed by the enthusiasm of the candidates. Then it was the enthusiasm of the voters. Now everyone wants to see just how much they will be empowered and what difference they will make.

On the administrative side, we’ve tried to condition our officers to realise that if you take care of small problems, the big ones inevitably take care of themselves. Responsiveness is the key. Small things like absence of electricity for an extended period of time, while it may not become a big issue in other states, has the potential of becoming a law and order issue here; same with the absence of healthcare and water. We are trying to tackle these issues.

Those who don’t see me as Kashmiri enough, never will. It’s not my fault I have a British mother. I’m not like my dad. I don’t throw myself naturally into crowds, but so what?

I have told people if they give me one season I will try and show them what difference we can make. We are trying to do that by spending money meaningfully and bridging the gap between the youth and police. We don’t want the youth to see the police as an authoritarian figure that will misuse its power at the first opportunity. Youth clubs are being set up so the police and the younger generation can engage with each other. We are focusing on sports and other activities. Job creation is also on our agenda. The Rangarajan Committee, set up by the prime minister, hopes to create 1.5 lakh jobs for youngsters.

Finally, our handling of law and order is definitely better: we are far more restrained in the use of force. We are careful in handling small protests because we know if handled badly it can snowball.

Is the Panchayat election a dual-edged sword for you? Enthusiastic response on the ground, but politically a hot potato. Your MLAs must be very wary with this.
Absolutely. It can work both ways — it can either be a great success or can blow up in my face. And when I say blow up, I mean in pretty significant ways. If the Panchayat is adequately empowered and they utilise their power correctly, it will be very useful both in terms of development and reducing low-level corruption. But if they are not empowered or don’t understand their responsibility, they can actually add hugely to the problems.

That’s one part of it. The other part is getting the establishment, both bureaucracy and elected MLAs, to understand they have to share space with other elected institutions. There is some discomfort amongst MLAs over how much we will empower the Panchayats and how this will reduce their importance. It’s a balance we have to strike. I am acutely aware that we haven’t had functional Panchayats here in 33 years. The bureaucracy is not used to Panchayats, nor are elected representatives, nor the public. The Panchayats themselves are not used to it. Today sarpanches are summoning government servants to their homes. Clearly, that style won’t work. Clearly, there will be lessons learnt, some mistakes made. But I am determined to empower them.

Was this your idea? Why did you pick it?
If empowering people and autonomy is my party’s slogan, this is one means towards achieving that. Autonomy does not just mean vis-a-vis the State. It means empowering people to take decisions that affect their daily lives. Clearly that’s not possible if they have to constantly go to ministers or district officials. Therefore the sarpanch becomes the first important point of contact. A fair amount of money flows from the Centre directly to the panchayats as a result of various Finance Commission awards. We lost out completely on the award of the 12th Finance Commission because we had no panchayats. I didn’t want to lose out on the 13th Finance Commission award, which runs into hundreds of crores a year for the same reason.

Isn’t that another dilemma for you as a Kashmiri chief minister? You need funds from the Centre, but your people resent being dependent on the Centre.
Well, we are linked to the Centre, there’s no point in denying that. If you ask me whether I’ll be happier not getting this money, the answer is obviously no. Money that flows directly to the grassroots makes my life easier because then you are able to provide more households with clean drinking water. Would I like more flexibility in deciding how to use my resources? Certainly. Any chief minister would say that. But that’s not the case. Maybe over time that will change, but not in the short term.

Why are you not paying the panches? There is criticism that if they aren’t paid, they will be more tempted to steal funds.
I love that logic! Every government official and minister gets a salary; some of the richest people are sitting in Tihar Jail. Does it stop them from being corrupt? Having money is no reason why you won’t want more! We are not paying the panches yet because of an absence of resources. But we haven’t ruled it out either. We are trying to find a method for doing it without overburdening an already over-burdened exchequer.

During the turmoil last year, you were criticised for not reaching out to people. What are your learnings from that?
It’s true I could’ve done more in terms of reaching out and meeting people. But I didn’t and it’s a lesson to be learnt — a lesson I believe I have learnt. That’s why you’ll hardly see me in office these days — which is not to suggest my work is suffering. So two or three days a week I am travelling in the state; rest of the days I am in the secretariat. It’s interesting to see that some of the people who levied that criticism against me last year are at the receiving end this year. That’s how life goes.

Why is it that the conversation in Kashmir is always between the separatists, the young and the police/army? Why don’t elected representatives play any role? Even in the corrective measures you were listing this year, it’s all about sadbhavana camps between the boys and the police.
Well, the police needed to correct certain perceptions about them. As far as the MLAs go, a certain complacency sets in when they think they have another three-four years before they go back to the people. Some of them are more visible now, some are incredibly active; but with some it’s difficult to even get them to visit their constituencies. That’s how it is. That’s why I think empowering the panches even at the cost of ruffling some MLAs is a win-win situation.

Last summer, unfair killings and the highhandedness of armed forces were not the only war cry. Every stone-thrower I spoke to was also hugely resentful about the power situation in Kashmir and the unfair equation with the National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC). National media does not focus on this because it is not as glamorous as conflict. What are you doing about this simmering discontent?
I understand the discomfort over the NHPC deals, but we don’t have the resources to develop these projects on our own. Also, until recently, because of the situation here, private players had no appetite to invest. We are working now to see if some of the NHPC projects can come back to us. In terms of the actual availability of electricity, I do understand the tremendous difficulties because of inadequate supply. But I’m also acutely aware of the annual hole in my budget — about Rs 1,700 crore because of power thefts. My entire plan size is Rs 6,500 crore, so a Rs 1,700 crore loss due to power theft is huge. If people were proactive about paying for what they use, the picture might be slightly different.

So much about politics is about the flamboyant gesture, catching people’s imagination. In Tamil Nadu, power was as big an issue as corruption. Why not here?
Well, we will make it an issue. By the time this government is done with its term, people will see just how much attention has been given to power. None of the previous two governments, headed by Azad sahib or by Mufti sahib, added any generation capacity. None. We are already working to add 2,500 MW in the next few years. We believe in the next 10 years, when all the projects in the pipeline bear fruit, we will easily add about 6,500 MW. This is huge because we will use 2,500-3,000 MW ourselves and will sell the rest, which will change our finances drastically. I really believe that is the future for this state. Everything else, tourism, handicrafts, agriculture, is secondary. The only possibility we have of redoing our balance sheet is power.

There is also the Kashmiris’ need to be the master of their own resources.
Well, it is in the interest of the Government of India to recognise the very legitimate concerns people have about the way NHPC has approached some of the projects here. If I am not mistaken, more than 50 percent of their profits come from Jammu & Kashmir. That’s a huge amount. We get 12 percent of the power generated; the rest goes out. We have to buy back the rest of what we need, which is fine up to a point because it’s they who invested in the project. But it is only right that the projects are transferred back to the state after a period. They can’t own them forever.

People say you are not Kashmiri enough in your emotional construct. How do you respond to that charge?
I don’t. I just carry on with whatever I am doing. For those who don’t see me as Kashmiri enough, they never will. It’s not my fault that my mom’s British. It’s because I manage to strike a chord with enough people that I am where I am today. Let’s face it — I have won four elections, and lost only one. You don’t do that without some sort of connect. But I’m not my dad and people need to accept that. I don’t naturally throw myself into crowds. I am slightly more reserved than he is. Would I like to be more effervescent and a bigger crowd-puller? Sure, every politician would! But you have to recognise your constraints and work within them. And I think I am doing fine.

Knowing your reserved nature, why did you join politics? What vision did you want to stand for?
I obviously want to stand for equitable development in the state, while, at the same time, not losing focus on the big question of J&K which needs to be put to rest once and for all — internally by creating some sort of political dispensation that would address the question of autonomy, selfrule. And also the whole bilateral issue between India and Pakistan.

Your manifesto talks of autonomy plus. Your autonomy speech in the Assembly last year got a lot of attention. But when you are actually in the seat, Kashmiris feel this discourse fades away. Why?
It’s not faded away. It’s one thing to talk about it as an opposition leader because you are talking only from the party’s point of view. Today I head a coalition that came into existence as a post-poll pact, not a prepoll one. I’m also not the president of my party. It is the party’s responsibility to keep this discourse alive. As CM, it will be unfair for me to actively promote one solution over others; I have to give fair play to all options, which is what we have been pushing the Centre to do. We have told them, look, there is no ideal solution: take the best options and work something out. The interlocutors are working on this. We are not trumpeting our position. There’s been enough talk; time for real action now.

For Kashmiris, there is a lot of emotional capital built into how independent their CM seems. Sometimes they fault you for looking like a lackey of the Centre.
Yeah, sure, I know they would prefer the theatrics of me getting into a running battle with the Centre. It’s a different matter that if I did that, all work would come to a halt here because we’d probably get our share of what is owed to us, nothing more. We can’t afford to survive on that. Barring stray instances that led to this perception — like when Central officials implied they’d be the ones deciding where curfew would be imposed and lifted — incidents the Centre should have been more sensitive about, mostly it’s been fine.

History’s line Panchayat polls were held after 33 years
History’s line Panchayat polls were held after 33 years, Photo: Abid Bhat

To get back to some burning issues last year: Machhil. Why haven’t you done anything about it?
Well, we have. But I admit this is something the Centre needs to be a little bit more sensitive towards — this perception that there’s no follow-up action. I believe the investigation has been completed, the report has been submitted. Now it’s for the army HQ to act on it. I don’t know why it hasn’t yet. The Centre has to be sensitive about this. It’s very difficult to rebuild confidence in institutions once it’s broken.

This doesn’t strictly come under AFSPA. These killings were purely criminal; they can’t be passed off as in the line of duty.
It does come under AFSPA because the army claimed the boys were crossing over and were killed on the Line of Control. But that’s why I am saying they must be sensitive and act on this soon.

But there’s been no action on the Anantnag case either, where three boys were shot in cold blood. Here the police were involved, so it’s more in your control.
The police has taken some action in this case. Some heads have rolled; things will be taken to their logical conclusion.

But I hear the SP of Anantnag has been promoted even after this incident?
No, he will be held accountable. There are certain service rules which one cannot bypass. But the investigation is ongoing and anybody who has to be held accountable will be held accountable. There are people who tell me that such action will lead to demoralisation but that’s not an argument I usually buy.

You set up two committees to review AFSPA. Why has nothing happened?
They are still meeting. I wanted the army and police to be reading off the same hymn sheet. This summer is important from a militancy point of view. We’ll see how July and August go and in September we’ll move forward on this. The window of opportunity has widened with the army’s recent statement that militancy in Kashmir is now at sub-critical levels. If that’s the case, they will have less ground to resist. But let’s get through the summer first.

The Disturbed Area Act (DAA) is in your jurisdiction. Why don’t you revoke it?
Yes, the AFSPA leads on from the Disturbed Areas Act. So we are not expecting the Center to revoke the AFSPA, we’ll just revoke the DAA from the regions where we feel AFSPA is no longer necessary. I expect to make some headway in autumn this year.

Is there tension between you and the army over this?
No, even the army has been trying to build goodwill and bridge the gap with the people. As far as AFSPA is concerned, they express some reservations. But my point is, either tell me militancy is still critical, which is why we can’t do this. But if you are going to tell me militancy is the lowest it’s been in 21 years, then people expect some sort of a peace dividend. And we should be willing to give it to them. Let’s just take the risk. If the DAA can be lifted, it can as soon be put back. Let’s assume there is suddenly a high spurt in militancy because we’ve removed the DAA . What’s to stop us from putting it back? It’s not a commandment from God. It’s a law.

You’ve been on the isles of Kashmir politics all your life. What is the greatest difficulty of the chair you occupy?
I don’t think you can reduce it to one or two. There is no shortage of difficulties.

In the name of my friend Stone-pelters last summer
In the name of my friend: Stone-pelters last summer, Photo: Abid Bhat

What do you struggle with the most?
I don’t struggle. But if there’s one thing that occupies a lot of mental space, it’s the India-Pakistan question. Osama dies and I have to ask myself what are the implications of his death for J&K? I don’t think any other CM was worried about Hosni Mubarak losing his job in Egypt, but I was. I was probably the only one who hoped he would hang on to the job because I didn’t know what it would do to mindsets here. There is a tendency to glamourise these things. They’ll tell you they took to militancy because they watched Omar Mukhtar in Lion of the Desert. You never know what spurs people on. With Tahrir Square, you had commentators, even mainstream political leaders, suggesting it would lead to something similar in Kashmir. There were columnists writing this even in your magazine. So there’s no shortage of things one has to worry about.

You did not see events in Tahrir Square as positive?
Well, I don’t know if the Egyptians thought it positive. All it turned out to be was a military coup in which the military didn’t have to get involved. Months later, are the Egyptians happy with what they did? That’s a question they have to answer. The point I was making is I’m the only CM who had to worry about events in the Middle East.

In hindsight, how do you view the stonethrowers? Do you still believe it was all orchestrated?
There is no pigeon-hole within which to categorise it. All sorts of vested interests came together in one melting pot. You had the separatist calendar. You had the mainstream opposition party which saw this as the best opportunity to get rid of me. (They obviously thought if I went out this way, so early in my career, I was finished.) You had areas where timber smugglers joined in because, for them, there is nothing like a little bit of uncertainty to quickly cut as much of the jungle as they liked. You had a campaign to dismantle the whole railway infrastructure here so that the private buses and taxis could make more in terms of business. There were so many little things that came together to make it what it was.

The army claims militancy is down to sub-critical levels. Then why resist lifting AFSPA? It’s not God’s commandment. If we can lift it, we can also put it back

You don’t feel there was any real grievance that triggered the stone-throwing?
There were a whole lot of different things being articulated. There was resentment about lack of job opportunities, about friends and loved ones dying in protests, about the imbalance of stones being met with bullets. All this added to the fire, otherwise it would not have spread with the sort of intensity it did. Every heavy-handed response to a protest that resulted in a death resulted in more protests and deaths. That’s why this year we’ve ensured no matter what we do, there is no heavy-handed response to any situation.

If you understand these grievances, why don’t you grant amnesty to the stonethrowers? That would go a long way…
Most of the boys are out. We have only a 100-odd in custody.

But lawyers say they are all trapped in innumerable police cases and the persecution continues. For boys grieving over the deaths of loved ones, isn’t this counterproductive, increasing their alienation? Can’t you free them of these cases?
In due course, possibly we will. Let’s see how it goes. I didn’t ask them to start pelting stones and set places on fire. In due course, we will take a sympathetic view, but there is a certain legal process that must be followed. I have instructed the Home Department to gradually review all the cases and do away with the least serious ones. Gradually, we’ll work our way up the chain. Whether I like it or not we had four-and-a-half months of agitation. A certain amount of legal action has to follow. Otherwise what is the deterrent? How would I stop them from doing it next year if they go scot-free this year?

There is the reverse logic. You might build goodwill…
I understand, which is why I’m saying, except in the most hardened cases, I do not intend to follow these cases to their logical conclusion. But I am not given to grandstanding. I’m sure there are people who would happily make a huge announcement and lap up all the adulation. But that’s not my way of doing things. While I understand their angst, I also understand the responsibility I have, that goes with the office. I have to balance the need to be populist and the need to do things correctly. I’d rather do it quietly and methodically.

 Mind the bridge Omar Abdullah greets the PM
Mind the bridge: Omar Abdullah greets the PM, Photo: Abid Bhat

Geelani is a known and hardened separatist. His son has lived across the border for more than a decade. Yet, he’s allowed to come back to India and live peacefully without any questions. Others have a tough time returning and being rehabilitated. People here have a lot of questions: what’s the deal that has been struck?
I think that’s a question for Geelani more than me. Allowing or not allowing people to come back; who gets a passport, and who doesn’t; who comes on what visa —these are all decisions by the Government of India. I don’t decide these things.

You don’t have a point of view on it?
I do, but would I like to express it here? Maybe not.

Is there nothing you can do to improve the rehabilitation policy for the militants who come back? Most of them are made to work with the police or security forces.
No, there’s no such thing. We are looking at how we can further improve our rehab policy for surrendered militants. Life for them is the toughest because they don’t get passports, it’s almost impossible for them to get government jobs, and therefore economic opportunities for them are extremely limited. As a result, they get recycled very easily, either back into militancy or stone-pelting, like we saw last year. We are trying to work with the Government of India to see what we can do for them.

You had some good ideas — the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; the Accountability Commission. These things are in your control, but nothing seems to have come out of any of them.
The Reconciliation Commission is not in my control. We need to go back all the way to 1988-89. To the botched elections, the whole cycle of rapes and deaths and torture that followed. Clearly, this cannot be done at the level of the state government alone; it involves both India and Pakistan. It’s one of the confidence-building measures I would like to create. As far as the Accountability Commission goes, we have put that in place, it’s just a question of finding a head. Unfortunately, the criteria set for that position has made our selection pool rather limited. But this month we should have two judges in place, and hopefully one more in the next few months.

Final question. Last summer, there was this huge fear that Kashmir is getting radicalised. What is your own sense of that?
There has been some evidence pointing in that direction. You must have heard of the Facebook campaign against a music concert here calling it haram. But an overwhelming number of Muslims in Kashmir are still rooted in the Sufi Muslim idea of Kashmiriat. I hope that continues.

Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka.