Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the 79-year-old PDP leader who is set to become the next Chief Minister of J&K, is a fabulous host and a great conversationalist. Drawing on a wealth of experience as a fighter for the Kashmiri cause who opted to experiment with democracy, Sayeed spoke to Managing Editor PR RAMESH on a range of issues for over three hours at his home in Jammu—from the tragedy of errors committed by the past rulers of Delhi to the ‘historic opportunity’ that a PDP-BJP coalition now would present. Excerpts
Is the alliance between the PDP and the BJP workable and politically saleable?
This is an opportunity to build bridges between Kashmir and Jammu and the state and the rest of India. It will also provide an opportunity to improve relations between India and Pakistan. The alliance will provide political heft to the Prime Minister’s vision for entire South Asia.
But sceptics say that it cannot work…
I have heard people saying that the two parties stand on two poles— South and North. But India has seen several experiments where parties forget ideological differences and work for the cause of the nation. Let me remind you, the Government of Morarji Desai [in 1977] was supported by parties from the Right to the Left. And more recently, the Janata Dal Government [of 1989] was backed by both Left and the BJP. During those years, there used to be weekly coordination panel meetings attended by leaders of the Left parties and the BJP.
The positions on issues such as AFSPA seem irreconcilable.
The campaign against AFSPA should not be seen as part of a partisan political fight. There are genuine concerns of the people against the law. There is evidence to show that the law is being misused by the armed forces. I must commend Prime Minister Narendra Modi for getting the Army to conduct a probe into the killings of two youth in Chattergam area of Budgam district. The probe found that Army personnel killed innocent youth and they have been punished.
What is the way out?
I am not asking for the revocation of AFSPA tomorrow. Let’s agree on a staggered timeline. One year for the Act to go or something on those lines. Similarly, our demand for the Army vacating occupied land is quite legitimate. They can operate on the land allotted to them or from the area acquired by them. All that we are asking is please vacate land illegally occupied by the Army.
Is the BJP ready for a fresh look at the situation?
Jammu & Kashmir needs an out-of- the box response from Delhi. It is a window of opportunity for the Prime Minister. I will say that it is a historic opportunity for Mr Modi. He has the political and moral authority to take big steps to correct mistakes of the political class since 1947. A paradigm shift is required in framing political response to Jammu & Kashmir. If you want to be inclusive, there cannot be any tinkering with the existing scheme of things. The present status of Jammu & Kashmir is conferred by the Constitution of India.
Would people of the Valley accept a PDP-BJP coalition?
There is a section that talks about ‘azaadi’. That is not new. It has been there since the accession of Jammu & Kashmir to the Indian Union in 1948. They will have to be engaged. However, the large-scale participation of the youth in the political process shows that we can take initiatives that will improve the situation in the Valley. The new generation does not carry any baggage. The participation of people in the political process suggests that the trust deficit is ebbing. Prime Minister Modi should sieze the moment to get the state out of a siege mentality. When Rajnath Singh, Ravi Shankar Prasad and a leader of the RSS met me two years ago, I told them there was a need for them to engage with a mainstream political force in Jammu & Kashmir.
Who should take the blame for the crisis in the state? For decades, the people of Jammu & Kashmir have been excluded from the democratic process.
Sheikh Abdullah, Jawaharlal Nehru, the political dispensations in the state as well as the Centre committed several mistakes. Harsh methods were used against the people in the state in the 50s and 60s. Remember Prime Minister Nehru telling Parliament that he was not aware of the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah?
So, you consider the state’s ruling elite responsible?
Successive state governments have used their leverage with the Centre for personal benefits. Problems cannot be solved if we continue with a client status. The Congress did not do enough. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao said the sky was the limit. But on the ground, there was little action. We have been asking the Centre to implement a recommendation of the Rangarajan Committee report on water and power. The state has suffered due to the Indus Water Treaty, as the interests of the state were not kept in mind while inking that agreement. If we want to build a canal here, we have to get inspectors from Pakistan. There are 10 power projects that just do not benefit us. All that I am saying is return at least two—Dul Hasti and Salal—to Jammu & Kashmir. And this was one of the recommendations of the Rangarajan panel. Steps must also be taken to strengthen cross-LoC trade and travel. This has helped in removing misconceptions about our state. The Uri-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawalkote [trade sector] has to grow beyond its barter character and it needs to be institutionalised by providing banking facilities, and the people of the state will benefit from free trade. Mind you, this was the caravan route in olden times. Kashmir is a show window. Let people see development and the right enjoyed by the people of our state. You will see more people gravitating towards us.
What is your impression of the BJP?
Leave aside the fringe elements and their loony demands, there is a section in the BJP that thinks only about the well-being of the nation. They are patriotic people. If Vajpayee was not the Prime Minister, there would not have been a fair election in the state. Even my own party leaders were not willing to contest the 2002 polls. They had told me that there was no point in contesting elections as we would be declared defeated by the government. And that did not happen.
You had a good equation with the Congress. What went wrong?
The Congress wanted the J&K Chief Minister’s post to be rotated when my party was in alliance with it. I was called to Delhi for consultations. I met Pranab Mukherjee at his Talkatora Road residence [in Delhi]. Ahmed Patel was also there. At the meeting, Mukherjee told me that the Government and the party are against changing horses midstream. When I met Sonia Gandhi around noon, she repeated the same thing. That they have no intention of foisting a partyman on Srinagar. I returned to Srinagar the same day. But later in the evening, Mehbooba got a call from 10 Janpath and Sonia Gandhi had changed her line. She wanted me to vacate the Chief Minister’s post. Sonia Gandhi also spoke to me. I told her that I was grateful for her party’s cooperation and that I would put in my papers.
But the state leaders did not want you to continue as Chief Minister…
Ghulam Nabi Azad did not have the vision to steer the state. The Amarnath land row worsened the situation and turmoil returned to the Valley. The state government headed by him was a money-making machine. It was corrupt.
How do you propose to address the larger Kashmir issue?
The Kashmir issue will not go away unless it is resolved. It cannot be resolved through force or economic packages. It cannot be resolved through paving the streets with gold or exhausting every bullet in ordnance factories. It will have to be resolved through negotiations and reconciliation.
How do you rate the Vajpayee period?
Atal Bihari Vajpayee showed statesmanship. His approach was not that of a political partisan. He genuinely wanted to solve the problem. From the Red Fort, he had said that ‘in our search for a lasting solution to the Jammu & Kashmir problem, both in its external and internal dimensions, we shall not traverse solely on the beaten path of the past. Mindsets have to be altered and historic baggage jettisoned’. He promised a free-and-fair election in the state and he ensured that there was no rigging. Pakistan had an opportunity to repair relations with India. It had an elected government headed by Nawaz Sharif. But Musharraf [Pakistan’s army chief who took charge in 1999] sent him to jail and then deported him. Musharraf betrayed us. When he came running to India, he did not have the legitimacy to do anything. I must tell you the Vajpayee Government’s loss in 2004 was Kashmir’s loss. He would have been able to find a lasting solution. The present Government at the Centre should emulate Vajpayee. Prime Minister Modi will get all credit for it.
Many agree there was normalcy in the Valley when you headed the state government.
During my stint as Chief Minister, normalcy had returned to the Valley. The Prime Minister visited the Valley thrice. When Vajpayee visited the Valley, [the then RAW chief] Dulat asked me whether there would be a public meeting. I said, ‘Of course, yes.’ He addressed that meeting, and [for the first time] in the history of the state, there was no hartal during the visit of the Prime Minister.
Do you face resistance from within over the alliance with the BJP?
There are reservations over a pact with the BJP. A well-wisher told me that the NC will exploit the political fallout of the alliance. Let them. After all, theirs is also a mainstream party like ours.
Will it be easy for both sides to operate?
I can understand the difficulties of the BJP. They have been campaigning on the slogan of ‘Ek Vidhan, ek Nishan aur ek Pradhan’ (one country, one emblem, one prime minister) since 1953. But what is required now is a political response that can reconcile conflicting voices and demands in the state. In any case, we are not talking about a rule under Sharia, but sticking to what the Constitution had conferred on the state. There were many in the BJP who had misconceptions about my party and my government. I remember one episode when a Congress delegation led by Sonia Gandhi visited the then Home Minister LK Advani over the killing of a Kashmiri Pandit family. Advani told them that the government in the state is soft [on] militants. When Advani visited the state, I told the DGP that I will not travel with him to the site of the killing. Then Taragami [the CPM MLA] told me that I should accompany the Home Minister. Later, I briefed a senior Central Cabinet team that comprised George Fernandes and Yashwant Sinha about the strategy adopted by the state to deal with the problem. Advani was satisfied with what we had been doing. At the end of the meeting, Advani said, ‘Mufti saab is taking the right steps.’ So people change their views when they see our track record.
Is this the riskiest step in your long career?
This is a historical opportunity for both parties. We will be faulted by our future generations if we don’t act at this juncture.
When did your party’s negotiations with the BJP begin?
I was in Gulmarg on New Year’s Eve, and an emissary of the Prime Minister rang me up. I spoke to him for an hour. I told him the PDP’s position on the alliance. He asked me to nominate PDP negotiators, and it all began after that.
But the Congress came to you with a proposal for a grand alliance…
Soon after the election result was announced, a person close to Sonia Gandhi spoke to me. This was followed up by a call from Ghulam Nabi Azad. He spoke about a grand alliance comprising the PDP, NC and Congress. He said two members of Sajad Lone’s party could also be part of the alliance. He said that all these MLAs, five independents and two nominated members will take the tally to 49. I said that it will not work as the Congress does not have any support in Jammu. I don’t want to lead any government that will exclude Jammu. I want ties with Jammu intact.
How do you propose to address another critical issue: that of Kashmiri Pandits?
The migration of Kashmiri Pandits was a blot on the state. It was an attack on the diversity of the state. It represented a setback for our culture and civilisation. Turning the clock back is not easy. But we will take steps to make the Valley retain its diverse character.
How do you propose to address the grievances of those who voted for you in the Valley?
Why can’t every stakeholder be involved in the negotiations? I must tell you that the NDA Government of Vajpayee was forward-looking. It was not a prisoner of slogans. Advani held two rounds of negotiations with the Hurriyat. They all returned to the Valley satisfied. All voices in the Valley should be engaged in talks. Let’s remove this feeling of mistrust. It is a population that rejected the two-nation theory. Its patriotism should not be doubted.