As Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee prepares to leave for Jammu and Kashmir for a public rally in Srinagar on Friday, April 18, the first by any prime minister since the advent of militancy in 1989, former minister of state for external affairs Omar Abdullah sees little significance in the trip.
In an exclusive interview with Chief Correspondent Onkar Singh at his home in New Delhi, Omar, who is also president of the National Conference, alleged that the Indian leadership lacked the political will to make pre-emptive strikes against terrorist camps in Pakistan.
Prime Minister Vajpayee will visit Kashmir on April 18 and 19. What according to you is the significance of this visit?
What so new is going to happen during Prime Minister Vajpayee's visit to Kashmir that has not taken place during his earlier visits? Most of these visits came when Dr Farooq Abdullah was chief minister of J&K.
This is not the first time that Prime Minister Vajpayee will be addressing a public meeting in the valley after the start of terrorism in the state. During our rule, Vajpayee addressed a meeting at a place that normally faces shelling from across the border. I see no change in the law and order situation in the state.
It is a hard fact that terrorist activities have registered a sharp increase in the past six months. People are petrified. The morale of the security forces has gone down as well. The economic condition of the state has weakened further. There is a change in the situation, but not for the good but for the worse.
Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, has been talking about his 'healing touch' policy. Do you feel it is making a difference to the people of the state?
A number of questions arise in my mind whenever someone speaks about the so-called healing touch. I do not get answers to these questions. What do you mean by healing touch? Mufti claims it is not a policy but a philosophy. Providing security to the people of the state, good governance and corruption free administration is part of this policy.
The ground realities are totally different. There has been no change. The man who talks of transparency was the first one to induct his relatives in cushy jobs. More people have lost jobs than those who have been given jobs. The security environment is deteriorating rapidly. On April 10 the terrorists blew up the Mughal Garden gate -- this is the same place where Bollywood film producers were asked to come and shoot their films. Yes, Mufti has undoubtedly benefited from this policy politically.
What should have been the priorities of the Mufti government?
His top-most priority should have been to fight terrorism. The problems of J&K are directly related to terrorism in the state. Dr Abdullah spent 90 per cent of his energies in fighting terrorism.
I do not know what the priorities of the Mufti government are. People are afraid of guns. That is why businessmen are afraid to invest in industrial ventures in the state. Tourists do not come for the same reason. If there is poverty it is because of terrorism. You should first ensure that the fear of the gun is eliminated altogether.
People are surrounded by guns. Terrorists have guns. Then the security forces have their guns. Last, but not the least, we have surrendered militants who have guns. People are sick and tired of the terror spread by the surrendered or Ikwani militants. No effort has been made to disarm them.
Do you think Mufti's government is making new efforts to sort out the Kashmir problem?
We have been accused of committing grave mistakes in the past. Maybe we did, but why doesn't Mufti spell out his road map? The healing touch is one part, but what about the rest? Mufti says he has disbanded the Special Operations Group. But the Centre says it is intact and continues to work as usual.
Kindly let us know where the truth lies. Both the Centre and state should take the National Conference in confidence about the road map to fight terrorism. How can you balance the healing touch on one side and fight terrorism on the other?
Mufti says you are now talking more about the hardships faced by the people because you are out of power. Is that correct?
Mufti can claim what he wants. It is a hard reality that the National Conference led by Dr Farooq Abdullah did whatever it could for the people of the state. We fought terrorism when it was at its peak. Mufti can now talk of disbanding the Special Operations Group because of what we had achieved during our tenure. Six years ago he would not have dared to talk in such terms.
What do you think lies ahead?
According to me the coming season will be one of the most dangerous phases of terrorism. They have already made a beginning. The Nadimarg killings of 24 Kashmiri Pandits on March 24 was part of this dastardly campaign. For six years our National Conference workers were targeted and killed. Now the workers of the ruling People's Democratic Party are at the
receiving end and they are getting killed. There is no clear-cut strategy to combat cross border terrorism.
Who is responsible for law and order in the state?
That is what I would precisely like to know. Constitutionally law and order is a state subject. But in the last couple of weeks we have seen that the state chief minister has handed over all decisions regarding law and order to the Centre. Even if it is a matter regarding the release of militants we have a Union government's representative in the screening committee. The security committee set up after the Nadimarg massacre is being headed by a top home ministry official. This has created confusion. Nobody knows what the heck is going on!
What do you think about the global war against terrorism that is being led by the US?
It is not a global war against terrorism. America is fighting its battle against terrorism. We should not depend on America to fight for us. We would have to fight our own battles and win them as well.
Do you think we should resort to pre-emptive strikes against terrorist camps operating in Pakistan?
Unfortunately, we do not have the political will to do so. Otherwise, after the J&K assembly was attacked on October 1, 2001 we should have launched pre-emptive strikes against terrorist camps operating in Pakistan.
After the December 13, 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi we moved our forces to the border. We kept them there for ten months and after elections in J&K, we moved them back. Why? I cannot understand.
N N Vohra has been appointed interlocutor to hold talks with political parties in J&K. What is your opinion about this initiative?
Vohra's mission would not be complete unless or until he holds talks with those who started the movement in the state. Unfortunately, he says he will not invite anyone to hold talks with him but those who come to meet him are welcome. He should have extended an open invitation to one and all including the All Parties Hurriyat Conference.
But your father Dr Abdullah was opposed to this concept. He refused to acknowledge the Hurriyat.
Times have changed. If you look at the voting percentage of the areas in the valley, you would admit that the Hurriyat Conference made a difference by giving a call of boycott. We have to talk to all concerned people. The Kashmir problem is not going to get sorted out by talking to shikarawallahs, truckwallahs etc. You have got to talk to Shabbir Shah [President, Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Freedom Party], to the Hurriyat Conference, besides talking to the elected representatives and the political parties.
What is your party's stand?
We are going to talk about revival of the state's autonomy. As and when we talk to Vohra we will raise the issue of autonomy. The solution of Kashmir is going to emerge from talks, not from the barrel of the gun. If need be you would have to talk to Pakistan sooner or later. Maybe after terrorism stops completely.
Photograph: Ami Vitale/Getty Images; Design: Dominic Xavier