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'Normalisation in J&K has gained momentum'

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April 09, 2007

Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and a partner in the ruling coalition with the Congress, tells Aasha Khosa that peace efforts could turn Kashmir into a tourist hub.

You have scored a political victory over Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad by making the Centre agree to a review of the deployment of the army in the state. Has Azad lost the game?

It is not correct to say that. Maybe he felt this was not the right time for withdrawal of troops from the state. But sooner or later it had to happen as political normalisation in the state has gained momentum like never before. Srinagar, which was the fountainhead of militancy, and all other major towns are already being policed by the state forces and the CRPF. The violence graph in all these towns has declined drastically. So what auspicious moment were we waiting for to start troop withdrawal?

You mean the army is not really required on the ground?

Today, people in the state have developed a taste for and confidence in the political process. They came out in unprecedented numbers to vote in the municipal elections. The bye elections saw around 77 per cent polling.

And the good news is we did not have to use the army in the bye elections this time. The elections were conducted with the help of the police and the CRPF. Even the army chief has admitted in his communication to the home ministry that infiltration (from Pakistan) has come down and the incidence of violence is very low. So the time has come for the withdrawal of the army as was done in Punjab. This is also good for the image of our country.

The chief minister did not seem so euphoric about the Centre agreeing to your demand. Where do you think the Congress-People's Democratic Party government is headed?

I would say our coalition has come out stronger than ever before. The prime minister and (Congress president) Sonia Gandhi took personal interest in the issues I had raised in public interest. The coalition has to continue at any cost.

How would you describe the ground situation in Kashmir?

The situation has undergone a sea change.There were some misconceptions about our demand. Some quarters said the PDP had sought demilitarization of Kashmir. We had actually asked for a gradual, responsive, responsible withdrawal of the army.

But frankly, somewhere, the tone and tenor of discourse seem to have hurt the troops. There is a feeling that the army is sitting in orchards and government buildings to fight the militants and they should not be spoken of as if they are an occupation army. Unfortunately, a series of fake encounters and cold-blooded killings by the army in Kashmir has made people feel as if they were an army of occupation. Lately, seven such encounters have been reported. This has affected the credibility and image of the army.

Then, the army enjoys vast powers under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and we cannot prosecute them. Why should they continue to occupy, say, a 40-room guest house in Srinagar University, two premier clubs of Srinagar and hundreds of acres of orchards? If troops are sitting in one orchard, economic activity in the neighbouring 5-10 orchards is affected. The farmers must be compensated for this.

This stance of yours makes people wonder whether you are speaking for the militants...

It is just the reverse. The militants have everything to lose by the

normalisation of life in Kashmir. They would prefer an atmosphere full of tension. Normalcy, which I am trying to bring about through these measures, does not suit these people (the militants). I am sure they are annoyed over this.

Elections in J&K are just 18 months away. Will the PDP-Congress government continue?

Our alliance has withstood many challenges like the transition of power from the PDP to Congress. Small differences between individuals (of both the parties) do occasionally crop up but we have continued our common programme of giving a healing touch to the state. Our alliance is very much the need of the hour. Also, we are seriously exploring the possibility of fighting the next elections together.

Your idea of turning Kashmir into a free trade zone sounds utopian.

Kashmir turning into a free economic zone in South Asia is inevitable. Whether we say this openly or not, the fact is that India and Pakistan are moving towards this. For example, we have a Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service for divided Kashmiri families. Today, you require a visa, security clearances and a blood relative across the border to be able to board the bus. Both India and Pakistan are working on removing obstacles to visa clearances and are likely to extend the service to students, tourists and mediapersons. Then, the proposed truck service on the road

which will carry goods between two Kashmirs will be exempt from customs duty. This understanding has already been reached. So free movement of people and goods is already a reality. This is what a free economic zone is.

You sound impossibly optimistic. What next on Kashmir?

I am very optimistic of great times ahead for the region. I foresee the prime minister convening a third round table conference on Kashmir in which separatists could also participate. New Delhi will also have to talk to Pakistan to implement some of the recommendations of the five working groups set up by New Delhi to look into problem areas of Kashmir. There is a huge scope for joint Indo-Pak projects in Kashmir's power sector. Disaster management is another area where we could work together.

Lastly, a personal question -- usually, sons and daughters of

politicians don the mantle of their parents. Your daughter Mehbooba Mufti started out as an exception. How do you feel?

Mehbooba came into politics under sheer compulsion. When the Congress wanted candidates for the assembly elections in Kashmir in 1996, as party leader, I found there were no takers for tickets. I saw Mehbooba's name in the electoral list and requested her to file her nomination at least.

But much to my surprise, she worked hard, established contact with people more intensely than anybody dared those days. She proved her mettle. I have never directed her work or politics. Her style of reaching out to people has actually even influenced me to a great extent. Mehbooba has proved her detractors wrong by sticking to her instincts and not bothering about the campaign that she is in cahoots with the militants.

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