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The Rediff Interview/National Conference President Omar Abdullah
July 22, 2003
When National Conference President Omar Abdullah announced July 12 that his party was withdrawing from the National Democratic Alliance he was merely completing a formality. His party had been reportedly toying with the idea of pulling out of the NDA after his father Dr Farooq Abdullah was denied a place in the Union Cabinet.
In an exclusive interview with Chief Correspondent Onkar Singh, Omar Abdullah denied this, saying, "We had given the party ticket to Dr Abdullah for the Rajya Sabha on the clear understanding that he would not join the Cabinet."
How do you assess the statements issued by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, chief of the Jamiat Ulema e Islami, last week that India and Pakistan should solve the Kashmir problem under the Simla accord?
His visit has been useful so far and the noises that he has been making are the kind which should be made in India. I welcome his stand on Kashmir that the Simla agreement should be the basis of solving the problem of Kashmir. I also welcome his statement that the Line of Control should be converted into an international border. But the problem with Pakistani leaders is that once they cross over to Pakistan they speak a totally different language. So we will have to wait and watch what happens after he goes back to Pakistan.
Sonia Gandhi convened a meeting of Opposition leaders on the eve of the monsoon session of Parliament. Are you disappointed that you were not called for the meeting?
Not at all. Neither was an invitation sent to us nor were we expecting one. We have just got out of our alliance with the NDA and it would be too premature to forge another alliance so quickly. We have our own stand on Jammu and Kashmir which we would like the other parties to appreciate.
Do you think it is a good move for the Opposition parties to close ranks?One tea party does not close ranks. We have to wait and see what happens next.
Why have you withdrawn support to the NDA? Don't you think you should have done this earlier?
Yes, we should have done this much earlier. This was a decision that has been pending for a long time. Since last October we have been busy trying to figure out the reasons for the National Conference defeat in the assembly election. One of the factors which led to our poor show in the polls was our alliance with the NDA government. The other factors which forced our hand to take this drastic step is the way the situation is developing in the state and the manner in which the National Conference was being sidelined by the Vajpayee government. Particularly decisions taken regarding the state of Jammu and Kashmir in which we were totally ignored or sidelined.
You have said it was a mistake to have worked as a minister in the Vajpayee government after the Gujarat riots. Why?Yes, it was indeed a mistake. And this mistake became apparent with the passage of time. I had resigned as minister. I was told to continue and we were given assurances that the guilty would be punished. We were assured in Parliament that justice would be done. One, of course, was the crime related to the burning of the train in Godhra. The other was one related to the riots that followed the Godhra incident. The promises came from the top-most level that the law would take its course and justice would be done.
Muslims who were arrested after the Godhra case were booked under POTA (the Prevention of Terrorism Act). We said it was fine with us. But those who indulged in riots were also terrorists and should have been booked under POTA. What is worse is that those involved in rioting like the Best Bakery case are being set free one by one. Not because
they are innocent but because nobody is bothered to make out cases against them and fight them in the courts.
Are you upset by the Best Bakery case?
I think anybody who wants justice to be done must have been hurt by this judgement. Of course, nobody wants an innocent man to be hanged for someone else's crime. We want the law to follow its course. If the judges say this is a travesty of justice, if the National Human Rights Commission says this is a travesty of justice, we expected the Union government to rise to the occasion and do something about it.
We in the National Conference have never made an unreasonable demand. We had asked that the Central Bureau of Investigation take a look at these cases. We did not have faith in the police and law and order machinery of Gujarat and hence, we wanted an independent agency to investigate these crimes. We did not hear a word about our demand from the Union home ministry or the government.
We realised we were allies as long we were only seen and not heard.
Did you feel embarrassed that you were still part of the government, particularly after the Gujarat riots?There was no doubt that as an individual I was feeling uncomfortable about it. That is why I had persisted with the idea of my resignation. I had put up this proposal to the party high command but it decided we should continue to be part of the government and register our protest about the manner in which the central government dealt with the situation.
Unfortunately, I would have to keep this to myself. On hindsight I would say what we had done was not enough and I should have persisted with the acceptance of my resignation. This is something I have to live with and there is nothing that I can do about it now.
You said your party was being marginalised by the Centre. In what manner you were being sidelined?I find it strange that the National Conference's views were sought whether Indian troops should be sent to Iraq or not. But when it came to taking a decision on Jammu and Kashmir our views were never sought. How is it that my opinion on Iraq is more important than my views on Jammu and Kashmir? We were allies of the government and yet the prime minister thought it fit to share a platform with Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, rather then with Dr Farooq Abdullah or Omar Abdullah. Do you think he could do a similar thing in Haryana and ignore his NDA partner, Chief Minister Om Parkash Chautala, and share a platform with Bansi Lal? Or do this in Punjab, neglect Parkash Singh Badal and address a public rally with Amarinder Singh? I don't think so.
So why is it that he comes to Jammu and Kashmir and addresses a rally with Mufti Sayeed and neglects the National Conference completely? As partner of the NDA we would have thought we would have a role to play. They behaved as if we did not exist. He made no mention of the contribution of six years of National Conference rule. Not a word about Sheikh Abdullah, the towering personality of Kashmir but for whom Jammu and Kashmir would have been part of Pakistan long ago.
Do you think this was deliberate?Whether it was deliberate or not, but it has happened. What transpired was unfortunate. I cannot say this was deliberate. The fact of the matter is it happened.
Did you take up the matter with the NDA leadership?Why just take up the matter with them? I wrote about it in The Hindustan Times.
Did they respond to you?Why should they? I have just five members of Parliament. We are not as big as the Telugu Desam. We were a small part of the NDA.
There was a time when you were flaunted as the Kashmiri face in the Indian government. Do you feel they don't need a Kashmiri face now?Of course, they need a Kashmiri face and they will find one. There is no shortage of Kashmiri faces who would be too happy to be flaunted around the world. I did my job to the best of my ability. I was given a responsibility by Prime Minister Vajpayee and I would like to believe that I lived up to the responsibility.
What next?I have greater responsibility towards my party and the people of the state. I will carry out that responsibility now. I plan
to resurrect my party.
How?The first thing we needed to do was restore the credibility of the party. By pulling out of the NDA we have managed to restore our credibility which we could not have done by continuing to remain a part of the NDA. I would have been forced to take a stand that was different from the one taken by the Government of India, particularly in respect to Jammu and Kashmir.
I sincerely believe that the talks being held by N N Vohra, the government's interlocutor, are pointless unless they include those who hold a different point of view. I mean the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference, I mean Shabbir Shah and others who differ on the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to the Union of India. Hence, it was better that we pull out of the government and speak openly against its policies which we would have not be able to do so effectively if we had been part of the NDA. This is just one of the many steps we have to take to resurrect our party.
The BJP says you pulled out of the government after your father Dr Farooq Abdullah was denied a place in the Union Cabinet.
This is not correct. We had given the Rajya Sabha ticket to Dr Abdullah on the understanding that he would not join the Union Cabinet. Do you think they could have denied him a place in the Cabinet if we had wanted one?
What do you make of the changes in the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference?The election of Maulvi Abbas Ansari is a new and good development. Already, we see some change in their attitude. They have rejected mediation by the US and UK. They want to meet Prime Minister Vajpayee directly. I do not think it would be proper for them to meet the prime minister straightaway. They would have to meet someone else before (that). May be N N Vohra before their meeting with the prime minister.
If the Government of India can talk about give and take with Pakistan then they could certainly do some give and take with the people of Kashmir. I am not saying for a moment that the government should give independence to those seeking it. They could settle for something less. Something within the framework of the Constitution of India.
Photograph: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty