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'We didn't anticipate such a reaction from Jammu'
Aasha Khosa in New Delhi

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August 10, 2008

It was the timing of the land allotment for the Amarnath yatra [Images] that led to the present crisis in the state, Ghulam [Images] Nabi Azad, former J&K chief minister, tells Aasha Khosa.

To put it bluntly, you politicians have created a mess in Jammu & Kashmir.

Frankly, no politician would like to create a situation as it is today. What led to the present crisis was an action taken by my government in good faith. Nobody realised then that things would come to such a stage. I feel that had it not been for the coming elections in the state, the cabinet decision (to allot land to the Amarnath shrine board) would not have been even noticed. It was the timing of the decision that resulted in a bad situation.

Looking back, don't you feel that it was lack of understanding of the ground situation on your part?

I feel the decision of the cabinet was a routine one. The land was sought in good faith and it was sanctioned in the same spirit. In fact, all over the country, during the last five-six years, transfer of forest or government land for infrastructure projects has become a routine administrative exercise. There is not much need to be cautious about it. On that day too, there were four to five other land transfer cases and I didn't feel anything was amiss in this particular case.

It has become a blame game between you and the PDP, when till recently, you were allies. Why?

The fact is that it was Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's government that first transferred 40 hectares to the shrine board in 2005. The order was cancelled after three months as it was felt that proper procedure was not followed. Neither the separatists nor the political parties raised a finger then.

Now, before the PDP pulled out from my government on this issue, the separatists started the propaganda that the land was being allotted permanently to the shrine board. They said India had plans to set up multi-storied apartments and fancy buildings on this land, where NRI would be settled, and it would change the demography of Kashmir in five years.
The PDP suddenly thought why not encash this emotive issue. Mehbooba Mufti had her eyes fixed on the coming elections and she thought such a stand would get her votes.

Your detractors are saying that things came to such a pass because you did not have enough administrative experience and political understanding.

I know that behind these detractors are nobody but PDP leaders. Mehbooba Mufti feels her rhetoric will mislead the people on this. She is too inexperienced to realise that all government orders and decisions are in files and in black and white. I have exposed her duplicity as I circulated a white paper on the role of the PDP in the (land) transfer order.

It was the forest minister, belonging to the PDP, who had been diligently working on the proposal for three years. It is he who sent the proposal to the central empowered committee of the Supreme Court for clearance. Then, the deputy chief minister, also from the PDP, who was also my law minister, okayed it on legal grounds.

The two PDP ministers, in fact, defended their decisions at two separate press conferences before Mehbooba Mufti landed up in Srinagar [Images] from London [Images] and asked them to shut up.

It is convenient to blame the PDP while you, being the chief minister, also could not defend your decision
Where was the time? The PDP gave a deadline of June 30 for withdrawal of support. On June 28, I held meetings with all PDP ministers, first separately, and later together. Meanwhile, news came that the PDP has withdrawn support two days before the deadline. It was nothing but betrayal and cheating.

It now appears that in Kashmir, and later in Jammu, there were rumours that led to agitations. Why did your government fail to counter these?

I did try to set the record straight. In Kashmir, the agitationists got emboldened by the stand of the PDP and the National Conference against the decision. It was a shot in their arm. However, in Jammu, people's reaction was so sudden that they were apparently in no mood to listen to logic and facts.

Mistrust between the Congress and the PDP was also one of the causes of the present crisis

Let me reveal a hitherto unknown fact of history. It was a quirk of fate that brought the PDP and the Congress together after the 2002 elections. In fact, I was elected leader of the Congress, which was the second largest party with 20 members. Other 22 independents and smaller parties extended their support to me.

I was set for my swearing in when I thought why not take Mufti Mohammad Sayeed along? I called up Mufti Sahib and he was ready. Though I gave the names of MLAs supporting the Congress to the governor, I rushed to Delhi [Images]. It was the National Conference, which offered unconditional support to my government and warned us against tying up with the Muftis.

Then Madam (Sonia) Gandhi agreed. After we worked out a power-sharing formula, the Mufti started complaining. He told Madam that it would be an insult to him if he was not given the first chance to head the government. I remember Madam Gandhi magnanimously saying yes to the Mufti's proposal.

Being the first chief minister of J&K from the Jammu region, why did you fail to read the anger brewing there before ordering cancellation of the land transfer?

I agree we did not anticipate such a reaction from Jammu. I believe the people of Jammu saw a gang-up in Kashmir against their religious sentiments. They would not have minded the Hurriyat opposing the land transfer but when parties like the NC and the PDP joined in the protests, the people were shocked, and hence the reaction. Initially, the Jammu agitation was based on religious sentiments, but now it has turned into a regional issue. It's unprecedented and unfortunate.

Political pundits have started writing the obituary of the Congress in J&K after this agitation.

It's too early for that. Raising passions and organising protests is one thing and running the government is another. When they decide to vote, the people will surely keep in mind that it was during my tenure that 550 development projects were undertaken. I can claim to have ushered in work culture in the state. This cannot go unnoticed by the voters after the dust settles. The Congress will come back to power in the state once again.

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