Omar Abdullah on BBC Hard Talk

by Haifa Peerzada

The BBC Hard talk with Omar Abdullah was quite intriguing, interesting and definitely elicits some reflection. In the first instance, what caught my attention was that the host, Stephen Sackur attributed the talk to the Prospects for Peace in Kashmir after introducing Mr. Omar Abdullah, the Chief Minister of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. So the impression that it gave me in the first place was that there would be an objective analysis of this long standing dispute with its chief minister. I was in fact hoping for it to be one of the milestone talks by Omar Abdullah that would create ripples in India and the world. Another thing that made it interesting was the location of the talk. This talk was held in front of an audience at Delhi. Though everyone told me not to expect much of objectivity from a politician speaking in New Delhi about “Kashmir”, yet I thought I must still watch it and without holding any pre-conceived notions I watched it. Following are some of my observations about the talk, which I thought I could share with everyone.

Media plays a very important role in forming perceptions and public opinions, which could be positive or negative. For forming positive perceptions which also helps in building positive peace, it becomes essential for the media to act responsibly. However, in the context of Kashmir, I have hardly seen any incisive and objective analysis in international as well as domestic media. Nevertheless, the media largely reverberates negativity since many people all over the world seem to be oblivious of the ground situation in Kashmir. They tend to believe everything that media portrait, for the reason that the place continues to be inaccessible in popular perception. This inaccessibility may be true, but that has been created and can be done away with, by portraying Kashmir in a less negative light. Objectivity in research on Kashmir remains elusive, not just in other parts of India but more so in Kashmir also.

This is where media intervention could play a more constructive role in peace building as far as Kashmir is concerned in bringing awareness and giving impetus to research and investigative journalism. But that continues to remain a far – fetched dream especially with mainstream Indian and Pakistani media. Their reporting of each other seems to be more of a blame game, rather than reporting based on ostensible facts. The Indian media generally analyses everything – even the talks or the speeches given by leaders be it Manmohan Singh, Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal or Narendra Modi. But in this case, not to my surprise there was no analysis and not even a mention, even though it was a discussion with the Chief Minister of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, at an international level.  It clearly implies and demonstrates that Omar Abdullah propagated the Indian position in his speech in front of an audience at Delhi, and therefore no question of analysing his speech arose, because there is and will never be any two ways in finding a solution to the Kashmir dispute. Neither India nor Pakistan would budge an inch.  In such a scenario, any analysis on Kashmir also becomes biased, which in anyway would not help in constructive peace-building. It would rather only aid in exacerbating the dispute and tensions among the stakeholders of peace. Speaking about this talk per se, I was quite disappointed at the way it was conducted. The way questions were answered spoke volumes about the incredible ability of Omar Abdullah as a tactful, crafty and an adept politician. However, his capability of speaking as a leader and an objective thinker for discussing prospects of peace in Kashmir remains in question.

A few excerpts of the speech from the perspective of discussing prospects of peace in Kashmir were quite out of tune and misleading. Some of the key points which warrant some clarification, precision and understanding are enumerated in the following paragraphs.

The fact that Kashmir is a disputed territory was not even discussed and to see the CM clearly dismissing the right of self determination of the people of Kashmir is disturbing. It’s a historically established fact that Kashmir is a disputed territory. Rather Omar Abdullah only reiterated the Indian stand which is that J&K is an integral part of India and instrument of accession is final. This is something and apparently even the only thing that everyone in India knows. He also added that the problem is with the issue of autonomy – which is basically propelling the cause for internal self-determination which is very different from what majority of the people in J&K, especially the Kashmir Valley want. They want complete independence and a separate statehood, independent of both India and Pakistan, which they consider as their right of self-determination. This is also known as external self – determination. These are the two views that are floating in Kashmir and the fact that there are two conflicting and incompatible views on the same issue means it needs to be addressed in an objective manner coupled with extensive research and analysis.

Omar Abdullah was also confronted with the question of the legitimacy of the Indian rule in J&K to which he again gave a very vague and imprecise answer yet in a very tactful and an eloquent manner. The answer was befitting with his poor impression mostly among the people in the Kashmir Valley and said, it is hard to quantify. Calling it “ebbs and flow” he asserted that it is only when protests happen that such separatist sentiments are aroused, otherwise there are spells of calm and normalcy. However this is not the case. The fact is that the conflict in Kashmir simmers under the rhetoric of calm and normalcy and such incidents only ignite the already present flame in the minds and souls of the people. The fact that people take on streets and protest against the state means that the legitimacy of the Indian state is under serious challenge which it seeks to curb by use of brutal force. Therefore it seems in Indian perception; India is able to have legitimacy of its rule through power, even if the power it possesses or uses is illegitimate and disproportionate.

Adding fuel to fire, the Chief Minister denied that human rights violations are systematic, while there is ample evidence to substantiate the assertion that they are systematic and institutionalised. Rapes, fake encounters, disappearances are used as instruments of state violence and the draconian laws like AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) provide a legal cover to such structural impunity. To suffice, calling human rights violations an aberration by the armed forces is quite disconcerting. Some human rights activists also assert that human rights violations take place even regardless of AFSPA and say that politicians in the state gain political points by speaking about its withdrawal.

In fact when he was confronted with questions on human rights violations, he immediately took recourse to the 5 army men who faced court martial in Machil encounter case. This clearly defies the basic principle of natural justice by justifying some progress on one encounter case with a complete failure in others. Justice should not only be done but seemed to have been done. And also injustice in any form cannot be justified, as he seemed to have said by saying that things are not happening as fast as we would want it to be, but things are progressing in the right direction. This is not to say that army is all bad and state does all the bad things, but the fact that things have to be viewed objectively and it’s our duty to disseminate objective analysis and information about this issue.

There was a contradiction of sorts when the Chief Minister said that “I am all up for a Truth and Reconciliation Committee, but that initiative should come from India and Pakistan”. As far as establishment of Truth and Reconciliation Committee is concerned, it was a welcome proposal by the Chief Minister Omar Abdullah. Yet his assertion that this cannot materialise without initiative from India and Pakistan seems flawed because truth and reconciliation committee was to correct the wrongs done in “J&K”.

This includes investigation of wrongs not only done by the state and the security forces within J&K but also atrocities committed by different ethnic and religious groups on each other. In most of the cases it’s generally localised. In fact the truth and reconciliation committee that Omar Abdullah proposed for reconciliation was in pursuit of bringing the Kashmiri Pandits back into the Valley. Therefore in this context, any such attempts at finding the truth and paving the way for reconciliation has to start from within the state because tensions among the people of various religions and ethnicities in J&K is its internal matter. Since the nature of the conflict is inter-state also and affects the intra-state axis, India and Pakistan shall also endeavor to pitch in.

Moreover there is a general perception that the Kashmir dispute has been there since 1947 and is the main bone of contention between India and Pakistan. While this may be true, there is another fact that the conflict in Kashmir predates 1947 and as Christopher Sneddon has observed in his book, it started off as an internal matter and Pakistan came in only later on which  exacerbated the crisis. He also puts emphasis on the people of Jammu and Kashmir and asserts that people should be allowed to decide their future. Since it began as a local conflict between the Hindu nation-state and the majority Muslim community, the resolution of the Kashmir conflict should begin from within. In that context, Pakistan bashing is also unwarranted which Mr. Omar Abdullah religiously indulged into during the entire course of the talk. This Pakistan bashing in front of an audience at Delhi won him great applause, which however did not suffice any purpose, except maybe inflated their egos.

However, giving some credit to the Chief Minister, it was quite an eloquent and tactful speech. One would probably not expect better answers from a politician speaking in New Delhi on such a sensitive issue, because emotions run very high in India about Kashmir if anyone dares to write a single point against the established Indian position. In such a situation where Omar Abdullah was, most of us would have probably played to the gallery of India thinking it to be the best option. None of the politicians speak pure truth. Even if they speak they say it in a manner that is not precise and comprehensible. Speaking all truth and bringing in objectivity would have led to his bashing in the same way as he did with Pakistan. And also one must not forget our Chief Minister can still claim legitimacy of his rule because of the support he gets from the Central Government in India. But the fact remains that charisma of a leader is not sufficient for bringing to rest a crisis situation. Charisma has to be coupled with transformational capabilities of a leader which is real power. Omar Abdullah seems to be lacking this power to claim legitimacy of his party’s rule in the state and by extension India’s legitimacy. No leader or any ordinary person in Kashmir so far has been so magnanimous, brave, fearless and charismatic to make a difference of almost a revolutionary kind.

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