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'You can't win hearts and minds with a gun'

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April 24, 2007
The last time I met Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was shortly after daybreak on a cold winter morning in 1984. He was then president of the Congress party in Jammu and Kashmir, and the state was still recovering from the aftermath of then prime minister Indira Gandhi's decision to abruptly dismiss Farooq Abdullah as chief minister.

The troubles in the Kashmir valley, that really began after the abduction of Sayeed's elder daughter Rubaiya were five years away, but it was apparent even then, in 1984, that Srinagar was in deep ferment with marked distrust between the city's dominant communities. It was an uncomfortable place to be in. The mood was dark, forboding, with fear clearly in the air.

I have not visited Srinagar since. I understand that despite the relentless violence and the thousands of deaths of the last 17 years, that mood has lifted somewhat and many people in the Kashmir valley believe that their long day's journey into the night of despair is about to end.

An astute reader of the popular mood, eager to cash in on this sentiment of political optimism at next year's assembly election, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed made the first move last month, demanding that the Indian Army reduce its presence in the Kashmir valley.

For most of March, his People's Democratic Party, which is part of the coalition government in Jammu and Kashmir, boycotted state cabinet meetings, threatening to withdraw from the alliance if the central government did not give into its demand.

After three meetings with the prime minister and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, the Centre announced a mechanism for Jammu and Kashmir, which satisfied Sayeed who asked his PDP ministers to return to the J&K government fold.

In a conversation conducted one Friday morning at his daughter Mehbooba Mufti's New Delhi bungalow, the man who was once India's first Muslim Union home minister discussed with's Nikhil Lakshman why he wants a reduction in troop levels in the valley, next year's assembly election and the future of Jammu and Kashmir.

A three-part interview, of which we publish the first part today, the day the Government of India conducts its third roundtable on Jammu and Kashmir.

Muftisaab, why did you stake the future of your coalition government on the issue of demilitarisation?

No, it is not a stake. I think forward movement is there -- towards peace, reconciliation and democratisation of the process, with so many elections, civic elections, panchayat elections, assembly elections. In the last five elections more than 77 percent people participated. So people have faith in democratic institutions, so as a part of conflict lessening measures we say the role of the army has to be reduced.

The protests have declined, the number of militants and insurgency has decreased. So it is part of the peace process that we should reduce the role of our armed forces as far as dealing with internal security is concerned as it was done in Punjab.

On the outskirts of Srinagar city, the entire municipal areas of the Kashmir valley, Baramullah, Anantnag and so forth, the army is not there. It is the local police and CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force). Why is it that where the army is there, there are human right violations? The powers which we have given them (the army) under the Disturbed Areas Act that on mistaken identity they can kill anybody and nobody can do anything.

So we thought that there should be gradual, responsible withdrawal of the army from those places.

I think it is a genuine demand which will help the peace process, which is part of the peace process. I think there is some misperception that we said the army should demilitarise. That is separate. The reduction of armed forces as far as internal insurgencies are concerned is a separate question.

I made this point at my meetings with the prime minister and with Sonia Gandhi and others so they made a mechanism whereby they will assess all the three issues -- reduction of armed forces, review of the Disturbed Areas Act and the vacation of armed forces from orchards, agricultural lands, state lands and other institutions' lands (in Jammu and Kashmir). They have taken measures which I acknowledge.

It is a time consuming process which will take some time, but I think it is heading in the right direction.

But there is no time frame for it.

No time frame. They said when the defence secretary of India is involved, when the defence minister is involved, you cannot time them. They may have their own priority though to do it as fast as possible.

Do you think you were able to get your point across to the prime minister?

Yes. I have got a response. They also understand. The job in Jammu and Kashmir is to win the hearts and minds of the people. Both the Congress and PDP together had a common minimum programme which was the healing touch policy. They said POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) will be removed. So there was some relaxation as far as people are concerned.

They (the Centre) understands that you can't win the hearts and minds of the people everywhere through a gun.

Alienation has to be addressed. People have developed faith in the democratic process -- in spite of the threat of the gun, they came out to vote in greater numbers in Jammu and Kashmir than elsewhere in the country. So we should have confidence in them (the people). Democratic institutions should grow. I think it was very much acknowledged there (at his meetings with the prime minister).

At your first two meetings with the prime minister he didn't seem too amenable to your view...

At the first two meetings with the prime minister we put our viewpoint very strongly so they also recognised that this is in the interest of the country, in the interest of the good image of the country that you cannot keep people by force alone.

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Was it the threat that the PDP would withdraw support from the coalition government in Jammu and Kashmir that finally 'persuaded' the prime minister to consider your demand?

No, it is the paramount interest of the Congress high command, especially Sonia Gandhi and the prime minister, that the coalition should survive. That was one consideration.

The other consideration was whatever we said was in the interest of the people of Jammu and Kashmir and the good image of the country. So it was registered and acknowledged.

So at your third meeting with the prime minister...

At the third meeting he gave me the conclusions. At the first meeting we put our views across. At the second meeting he told me that he has to consult people, after all, this is a democratic country.(Mufti Sayeed takes a call and asks about the Allahabad high court's decision -- later overturned -- that Muslims are not a minority in Uttar Pradesh.)

A year ago your party's Deputy Chief Minister Muzaffar Beg ruled out demilitarisation, saying the conditions were not right for the army to withdraw from the Kashmir valley. What has changed since then?

I was just talking to him. When did he say this?

January 10, 2006.

The situation has changed since then.

What has changed in Jammu and Kashmir?

Number one, the internal situation has changed as per the records of the Government of India and the state government. Violence is on the decrease, insurgency is on the decrease, militancy has reduced.

'Normalisation in J&K has gained momentum'

Number two, we are holding negotiations with Pakistan. There is a possibility of a breakthrough so we have to do our initiative, whatever action we can take. I think that this (reduction in the level of armed forces in Jammu and Kashmir) is in the best interests of the country.

So you are actually looking at a reduction in troop levels in the valley?

Yes, reduction, reduction (of troops) and reviewing the Disturbed Areas Act, which gives the army the license to kill. The army should be as accountable as any other civil authority.

Security experts feel that whenever the army has declared a ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir, there is a corresponding increase in cross-border terrorism...

(Interrupts) They (the government) will give their report. After all, this is a political decision. They will also sit and discuss. There was complete peace in Punjab after the army was withdrawn. More than two thirds of Jammu and Kashmir is now out of the control of the army. It is only in those areas where the army is there, there are incidents. Militants find targets. So they (the government) will discuss it I think. Let us see what their report will be.

As a former home minister of this country do you feel the situation is conducive for a reduction in troop levels?

The situation has definitely changed. You can have a beginning.

What about elements like the Lashkar-e-Tayiba who have absolutely no stake in the peace process?

They are sitting there, what can you do to them? Lashkar is there, the army is there, everything is there. But my experience is that when the armed forces are less, incidents are less. Srinagar was the most affected city in 1989-1990. Now there are no incidents.

Before your third meeting with the prime minister you said you could not wait till the summer (for the Centre to assess whether infilitration of terrorists from across the border had truly reduced and then take a decision about reducing the number of soldiers in the valley). Why did you change your position and agree to an indeterminate time-frame?

Summer is not the question. I say every day counts. Because now there is a change in the situation, even the mindset of the people has changed, people are for peace. God forbid, if something happens, the whole thing will go. So we should not wait for sometime, for years, or for months.

What do you mean 'if something happens'?

Something, some incident, some excess by the army. You know about the fake encounters. Five or six incidents were there. A number of people came for protests so some incident may happen. So you can't wait. So discuss it -- ask people or different agencies and the security force, they will come to the conclusion -- for the gradual, responsible withdrawal of the armed forces.

What if the government committee rejects the demand for the withdrawal of the armed forces from the valley?

This is a hypothetical question. I will not discuss it.

Your political adversary Omar Abdullah of the National Conference says your demand for demilitarisation -- or what you call a reduction in troop levels -- would have had greater credibility had you made the demand when you were chief minister.

At that time the situation had not improved as it has now. Because we have some breakthrough with Pakistan and we are trying to have a breakthrough with Pakistan there is a change in the situation. I told you more than 77 per cent people participated in the by-election. There is a change now.

What is the reason for this change?

The change has come about because of the measures taken by the Government of India. Democratic institutions are flourishing. There were municipal elections, assembly elections, by-elections. There has been a general improvement in the condition of the people, there is a change in the attitude of Pakistan.

Do you mean Pakistan has stopped...

Yes, yes, that is our information, there is a decline in infiltration, there is a decline in the number of militants.

How much of this change has come about as a result of your efforts?

Not me alone, there are a number of parties. This coalition government has done something, other parties have also contributed. Those who are in the political process they are doing some political activity, having public meetings, addressing people, discussing issues so a number of parties are there.

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What about economic progress in the region?

Economic also. The reconstruction programme which was announced by the prime minister in 2004, worth Rs 24,000 crores.

Many observers say this demand for demilitarisation is linked to the assembly election in the state.

Not at all. It is not linked to the elections. Elections are far away.

No, it is not linked with that (the assembly election). It is linked with the peace process, it is a part of the peace process. It is a part of the resolution of the problem.

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Don't you think your demand essentially takes one of the Hurriyat Conference's major demands away from it?

No, the Hurriyat Conference is separate. They want demilitarisation... Faujion ko bhagao (Drive the soldiers away), they say. We (the PDP) say reduce forces as far as internal security is concerned. The armed forces will be there. They may not be in the field, they may be somewhere in the background. There is a difference. People do not distinguish between the two. This misconception goes on.

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