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Encounter

'If Geelani is going to be one of those people, so be it'

Omar Abdullah, Chief Minister of Indian administered Kashmir says that no solution to Kashmir problem is going to be acceptable to 100 (hundred) per cent of the people. He talks in depth about various issues including quite dialogue between New Delhi and Separatists with Karan Thapar on CNN IBN programme Devil's Advocate.

Karan Thapar: Chief Minister, there are widespread reports--first broken by The Hindu--that the Home Minister had two secret meetings with the Hurriyat leadership, and in particular with Mirwaiz Omar Farooq. If these reports are accurate, do you as Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir welcome such talks?

Omar Abdullah: If they are accurate then yes we certainly do. We have been advocating a sustained dialogue between New Delhi and various shades of political opinion that is not represented by the mainstream political parties. I think the best way to carry out the initial stages of that engagement is away from the glare of the media. I think it is unfortunate that we already have this story break on the front page of The Hindu but I hope too much damage has not been done by that.

Karan Thapar: You began by saying if they are accurate, but you ended your answer almost as if you believed that they are accurate. What is the truth? Are they happening?

Omar Abdullah: I think it would be futile to deny a story that has not been denied by anybody else. We have been advocating a dialogue; the Home Minister has recognised the need for a dialogue and he has talked about quiet diplomacy. When you put these three points together, I think the answer should become self-evident.

Karan Thapar: I will take that as confirmation. Let me raise with you the manner in which the talks are happening. The Home Minister has emphasised silent talks away from the glare of the media, but members of the Hurriyat Conference--like Naeem Khan himself--have said quiet diplomacy could lead to deceit, transparency is a more honest and accountable way. Do you think that there may be truth in that, given the awkwardness of the Kashmir situation?

Omar Abdullah: Certainly. If quiet diplomacy was to suddenly result in an outcome I would be suspicious as well. I think quiet diplomacy is necessary for both sides to feel each other out, to see where the lines in the sand can be drawn, what they expect from each other and a certain amount of confidence building.

Once that is done then the rest of the discussion will take place within the glare of all the publicity and attention that would follow. But I think for the time being a little bit of quiet won't hurt anybody.

Karan Thapar: But you are also suggesting that the second the talks begin to become substantive and there is a real possibility they could result in an outcome, then they need to become open and transparent.

Omar Abdullah: I believe so. I think it is important that the people gain confidence in the system of dialogue. I think it is also important they understand that there is no underhand deals going on, no backroom operations and no selling out. The worst thing will be nay sayers--and there will be a lot of them--getting an opportunity to say 'this was done secretly, it is a deal, it is a sellout and the interests of the people of Kashmir have not been kept in mind."

Karan Thapar: So to guard against the naysayers undermining things, it is important that at a critical point the talks become open and public.

Omar Abdullah: I believe so.

Karan Thapar: Let me put to you what Mirwaiz Omar Farooq has said. He says that "flexibility is the need of the hour, we have to be open to all new proposals on Kashmir" and then he adds "a hawkish attitude will get us nowhere". More importantly he says I am not looking at a one-off solution at one go. I am looking at incremental progress. How do you assess the thinking and the position that lies behind that statement?

Omar Abdullah: I think a lot of thought has gone into that line of thinking. I think it is the most realistic line we have heard from the Hurriyat in a very long time; and given the rather chequered history we have of having engagement with them I think this provides us a great opportunity for a graded sort of march towards the final solution we are looking for rather than a one-off agreement that everybody has to sign off on.

But again the Mirwaiz is just one individual amongst a large number--no doubt perhaps the highest profile among them - a decent support base but he is one individual in the moderate Hurriyat faction. There are others--both at the top tier and as well as the second level--that also need to feel part of the process. Otherwise all they will do is jump on to the hard-line bandwagon and threaten the process.

Karan Thapar: Let us for a moment concentrate on the Mirwaiz's view. I take your caution that he is only one voice, albeit the most important in the Hurriyat, but do you think his statement indicates a significant shift in his thinking and position.

Omar Abdullah: As I said I think he has obviously given it a lot of thought. He does recognise that his is not the only voice in the Valley. It is not the only voice in the separatist camp; it is not the only voice in the mainstream camp. It is a well-thought out position and it is a position that allows us room to manoeuvre.

Karan Thapar: A second voice from Hurriyat is that of Abdul Ghani Bhatt, a former chairman of Hurriyat Conference. He has gone a step further and he has said that Hurriyat is interested in triangular talks and not tripartite talks, by which he means that they will talk to India and Pakistan but separately.

Do you think this is a neat way of finessing the stand-off between Delhi and Islamabad?

Omar Abdullah: I think again (it is) realistic. You are not going to get a situation where New Delhi, Islamabad and the Hurriyat are going to be sitting at the same table--it is not going to happen. Therefore, if you can work a system wherein you engage with Islamabad and you engage with New Delhi, both at the same time, I see no harm in it. We have done it from the mainstream point of view. I have had engagement with the government of Pakistan as well as the government of India, and I don't think anything harmful has come out of that.

Karan Thapar: You have used the adjective realism to reflect both the thinking of the Mirwaiz as well Mr Bhatt. Realism, in a sense, has begun to dawn on the Hurriyat, hasn't it?

Omar Abdullah: I believe so, at least in a section of the opinion makers in the Hurriyat Conference.

Karan Thapar: Abdul Ghani Bhatt has said another interesting thing. He has actually called upon mainstream parties, like your National Conference and the PDP, to join hands with the Hurriyat. How do you as president of your party and Chief Minister respond to that sentiment?

Omar Abdullah: Well it is one thing to join hands; it is another thing to engage with. We have never had difficulties in engaging with the leadership of the Hurriyat Conference, whoever it may be. Joining hands has a completely different connotation. It means either they have to accept our line of thinking, or we have to accept theirs. It is a little premature in the process to (join hands).

Karan Thapar: But engage you are willing to do?

Omar Abdullah: Engage we never had a problem with them. I have publicly and privately engaged at various fora and would be quite happy to do so.

Karan Thapar: The fact that they are labelled separatists doesn't put you off?

Omar Abdullah: No, absolutely not. They are part of the political landscape of Jammu and Kashmir. How much of a role they have to play is open to individual interpretation. But they have a role.

Karan Thapar: Therefore, do I also sense a change of attitude in the government of Jammu and Kashmir toward the separatists? Previously they were kept at arm's length, now as Chief Minister you are prepared to engage with them.

Omar Abdullah: I believe my predecessors also have been (engaging).

Karan Thapar: Not so openly.

Omar Abdullah: Perhaps time has changed and attitudes need to change along with those times.

Karan Thapar: You accept that, in a sense, its happened with you? You have crystallized that.

Omar Abdullah: I think that's important given the desire on all sides for a negotiated settlement to this problem. It's important that we all keep an open mind and we all are willing to be flexible. Being rigid is not going to get any of us anywhere.

Karan Thapar: You talk about a need for an open mind and need to be flexible. Now both you and the Home Minister of India have separately said that all shades of political opinion need to be embraced by the talks. But is it possible to bring someone like Syed Ali Shah Geelani on? After all he has laid down rigid conditions for talks. Can New Delhi meet them?

Omar Abdullah: At this point, no. I think the goal post that he has set would make a dialogue with him almost impossible. But then never say never again.

Karan Thapar: If he has set a goal post that makes dialogue with him impossible, can talks without him be meaningful?

Omar Abdullah: Sure, no solution is going to be acceptable to 100 (hundred) per cent of the people. We should have the willingness to accept that. Therefore there are going to be those people, who will not accept, whatever the outcome of this dialogue is. If Syed Ali Shah Geelani is going to be one of those people, so be it.

Karan Thapar: But if these talks come close to some sort of solutions would it stick, if Geelani is not part of the process? Mehbooba Mufti for instance says it wouldn't stand the test of scrutiny.

Omar Abdullah: Well, she has a different equation with him than we do. Perhaps, that's her political compulsion and necessity. He does not represent Kashmir, he represents a selection of opinion in Kashmir. If that section of opinion chooses to remain out of the process, you can't force them into it. But they are not the majority of the people. If the majority of the people are willing to go with whatever solution has been worked out that is what will happen.

Karan Thapar: So the talks can proceed without Geelani ?

Omar Abdullah: I believe so. For the time being I think yes.

Karan Thapar: Let me quote to you something you said at the All India Editor's Conference in Srinagar, just about six weeks ago on October 13th. You said "it is necessary to engage all political forces, listen to each view, and take all sides of opinion into consideration". Does that also include, militant groups like Hizbul Mujahideen?

Omar Abdullah: If they are willing to... move from a path of violence. We have done it in the past and I see no reason, why we can't do it in the future. We have engaged, the government of India has engaged, the Hizbul Mujahideen in the year 2000--

Karan Thapar: That was a BJP government?

Omar Abdullah: It was a BJP government with a National Conference government in the state.

Karan Thapar: So presumably it should be that much easier for today's government to do the same thing.

Omar Abdullah: Well, BJP has a history of opposing everything that they did in government once they are in Opposition. So I wouldn't expect-- support.

Karan Thapar: But could you, if the situation reaches that point, as Chief Minister invite them to join the talks on the proviso that they lay down arms and put away violence.

Omar Abdullah: Well, if they are willing to, as I said, shift from a path of violence. Then sure I believe it would be possible for the state government to ask the government of India to engage them and if necessary for the state government to engage them as well--- let's understand that they are really not looking for anything from the state government. So our role is of a facilitator.

Karan Thapar: A facilitator?

Omar Abdullah: We would be happy to facilitate.

Karan Thapar: But you're prepared to play that role not just for people like the Hurriyat, who are just separatists, but possibly even for the Hizbul Mujahideen

Omar Abdullah: As long as they give up the wrong side, the path of violence. Yes, I don't see any problem because we have done that not only in J&K, as I said, but also in the other states.

Karan Thapar: Anything that brings peace and a solution to Kashmir you are prepared to try to do?

Omar Abdullah: I am prepared to be flexible but sure it can't be completely unconditional.

Karan Thapar: Chief Minister, let's come to the key question that has under laid the discussion until now. Has the time come for New Delhi to resume its interrupted dialogue with Pakistan over Kashmir?

Omar Abdullah: New Delhi has already resumed its dialogue with Pakistan, they did it in Egypt in Sharm-el-Sheikh. It's been subsequently interrupted again because of the furore that the joint declaration resulted in. But I think it is necessary that we continue our engagement with Pakistan. The problem is- I think the Prime Minister himself brought it out- the multiplicity of power centres in Pakistan makes our task much more difficult.

Karan Thapar: It's very interesting that you should have said New Delhi has already resumed the dialogue at Sharm-el-Sheikh, using the word dialogue. Because officials in the Prime Minister's office and in particular the Foreign secretary of the day, they have made it clear that those were talks not dialogue. You actually see it as dialogue.

Omar Abdullah: I am not a diplomat. So I am sorry, I don't cross my Ts and dot my Is with as much care as others do. If I did, I would be a foreign office official and not the Chief Minister of J& K.

Karan Thapar: When one is talking it is dialogue and let's not play around with words.

Omar Abdullah: When you're talking, you talk. You call it whatever you like but you are talking to each other.

Karan Thapar: Let's come to the position that the Prime Minister articulated in your capital Srinagar on October 30. He said there were no pre-condition to talk or dialogue with Pakistan but he added that it was essential that effective control be exercised over terrorist groups that target India.

The alternate view is that given that Pakistan itself is experiencing terror, it might actually help Pakistan to exercise that control if talks or dialogue were to be resumed. Of those two views which do you incline towards

Omar Abdullah: I think there is no doubt that it would definitely help Pakistan to exercise control over the forces that have in the past been used against India particularly in Jammu and Kashmir. So it's a win-win for both sides. Pakistan excising control over militants helps them domestically and it also ensures that India is able to get engaged with them in a sustained long term dialogue and that, ultimately, is what both sides want.

Karan Thapar: Do you think the time has come, one year after 26/11, for India to perhaps find a way of resuming that dialogue? Because not just is Pakistan's own internal future at stake but in a sense the future of Kashmir is standing still and marking time. So has the time come for India to put out some feelers and start the process?

Omar Abdullah: I believe India has already put out feelers and started some sort of a process in Egypt and then you had the Sharm-el-Sheikh declaration. It's a different matter that there was a backlash.

Karan Thapar: Yes the backlash---

Omar Abdullah: It didn't go down very well at all back home which probably resulted in some amount of pulling back. But I believe it is important that we engage Pakistan. I think it definitely is in the interest of the both countries.

Karan Thapar: So, it's time for another try?

Omar Abdullah: I believe so. We must always keep trying and there is no time like the present.

Karan Thapar: And in a sense for Kashmir in particular it's important that you keep trying.

Omar Abdullah: You will not get a solution if the dialogue is only focused internally. Whether we like it or not an external dialogue with Pakistan is also part of the entire process and that's why I have always maintained that both need to go on almost simultaneously for us to be able to arrive at something realistic.

Karan Thapar: So do you agree with the view of The Hindu newspaper- "Islamabad's support for the dialogue process within the state must be secured"?

Omar Abdullah: No, I am not talking about support from them. I'm talking about a discussion, a dialogue and a talk with Pakistan aimed at easing their parts of the problem as well. Let's not forget Kashmir is not just an internal issue, it's been brought on the international stage as a result of the Simla agreement.

Karan Thapar: We can't forget that it has this international dimension.

Omar Abdullah: It does have. It's been accepted by us on paper.

Karan Thapar: In fact that's a fact you can't run away from today

Omar Abdullah: you can neither deny nor you can run away from it.

Karan Thapar: So, if in a sense Islamabad or Pakistan is kept out in the cold then the hope of a meaningful dialogue with groups in Srinagar, particularly the Hurriyat, will not really materialise.

Omar Abdullah: It will reach a point beyond which we will not be able to drive it further.

Karan Thapar: This reminds me of what your father said publicly when news that talks with the Hurriyat was on the anvil first became public. He said that it was essential that the process is taken to its logical conclusion and he made no bones about the fact that he was referring to talks with Islamabad. Do you think within the cabinet he is also putting pressure on the Prime Minister to find a way of starting such talks?

Omar Abdullah: I think that would be a question for him to answer. I don't know nor have I ever asked him, what he has said in the cabinet about this. But he is that sort of person. He is quite happy to say the same things outside that he does inside. So you're inference could very well be correct. But I haven't asked him.

Karan Thapar: One last thing. When ever there is a serious possibility of resuming dialogue with Pakistan, the security situation ends up bedeviling things. Recently there has been this discovery of Tahawwur Hussain Rana and David Coleman Headley and it seemed to have scuppered the possibility of a resumption. How does India get out of this bind?

Omar Abdullah: I think, you come back again to what the Prime Minister has been saying that no preconditions but it would help if these sort of forces are controlled. That's probably the only way we can get a sustained dialogue and be able to withstand these sorts of security shocks.

Karan Thapar: So it's a tight rope you have to walk and you have to hope you keep your balance on both sides?

Omar Abdullah: Yes and get a very long stick to hang on to.

Karan Thapar: Chief Minister, a pleasure talking to you.

Omar Abdullah: My pleasure.

(Kashmir Newz)

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