Exclusive: Pakistani journalist Mehr Tarar's interview with Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah Print
Written by Mehr Tarar   
Tuesday, 21 January 2014 00:00

[From India Today] New Delhi: Below are excerpts from this interview. The full interview can be read at the link above:


MT: Your answer is connected to my next question. Are episodes like the discovery of mass graves cast into the proverbial abyss of denial or is there a desire to bring the perpetrators to justice, and heal the wounds of the survivors amongst the victims?

OT: I understand that you [Pakistan] believe these things to be true. Now the problem is as we see it these are not what you would traditionally call 'mass graves'. They are unmarked graves. There sis a difference. See now what you traditionally associate with when you hear the word mass graves, you think of Pol Pot, where there are pits with dozens and dozens of bodies just lying there. These are individual graves; they are unmarked. Almost all these graves have a police First Information Report associated with them. Now, as we understand it, these are graves essentially of infiltrators who have been killed either during infiltration or encounters with the security forces.

MT: They were buried...

OA: Yes, they were buried. And they were buried with the knowledge of the local community as per Islamic rites. Now the reason these graves are unmarked is because we don't have the identity of these people. Please understand that if there were tens of thousands of dead people in unmarked graves, you don't think people in Kashmir would have come [forward] and said, look these are the people who are missing. The talk [about the graves] started in the last few years, but the graves, the earliest graves are from 1990.

. . .

MT: The tragedy of Kashmiri Pandits. How did it happen? What was the background of the build-up to the events of 1989-90? What steps did the government of that time take to step the exodus? And what is the approximate number of affected people?
OA: I'm not in a position to answer this question because I wasn't in government then. I wasn't even in politics then. I was a schoolboy when militancy broke out. And therefore to ask me what the build-up to this situation was or what the steps taken were…I would not be in a position to answer these questions. All I can tell you is what I know from talking to the people at that time, what one has gathered. That is that there was a concerted effort to drive the Kashmiri Pandits out. There were targeted by militants; there were a number of high profile Kashmiri Pandits' casualties of militancy. Also, mosques were used to instill fear in them; loudspeakers in mosques were used to, sort of, for sloganeering and shouting, and things like that. And a concerted effort was made to strike fear in their hearts. And some of them left at that time; the number wasn't that significant. But then after that during the course of militancy there were some high profile massacres of Kashmiri Pandits over the years, right up to, if I'm not mistaken, 2002. And that is what resulted in the Kashmir valley now having a very small number of Kashmiri Pandits who live there. Most of them became migrants, and moved out.

MT: I'm just trying to understand. The first prime minister of India was Nehru, a Kashmiri Pandit. Does that have anything to do with the fact that only this particular community was targeted or were there other people who were also targeted? Or was it just Kashmiri Pandits?

OA: I think there were Muslims who were targeted. There were Kashmiri Pandits who were targeted. I cannot speak for the reasoning. Clearly, you would have to try to speak to those who were actively involved in militancy at that time, including, amongst others, Yasin Malik, because he's well known for some of his activities at that time. And he would be the right person to ask why they did what did at that time.

MT: Were there ever any announcements by the militants why they were doing what they were doing?

OA: Well, there were tanzeems who took credit for what they did, whether they also justified their actions or explained them I wouldn't know. I don't have any recollection of that.

MT: Okay. I read something that there were reports of the properties [of Kashmiri Pandits] being sold. Have the owners been informed about their properties being sold?

OA: Again, it's a mixed bag. There is no uniform answer to that question. There are those who sold their properties and most of them who sold did it because of the situation. I don't think there are very many of them who sold them willingly; most of the sales because they did not feel they would be able to return. A number of them sold them because of economic distress. So there is no uniform reason why they sold. Some sold because they didn't think they would be going back; some sold because they didn't want to go back because the circumstances under which they left were so harrowing that they didn't think they would ever want to go back to the Valley. And for some it became an economic necessity because they had been away from their homes now for two and a half decades.

MT: Are there still some Kashmiri Pandits living in some camps? I keep reading about camps where they are living in very bad conditions.

OA: There are no camps, as such, in the Valley. We have target accommodation in the Valley, from where we hope that Kashmiri Pandits will begin to move back to the areas that they originally inhabited. There are camps in other parts; there are camps in various parts of Jammu; there are Kashmir Pandits now in parts of Delhi, in surrounding areas. So yes, there are still camps where Kashmiri Pandits reside. And those that live in camps are, by and large, the ones, I think, who hold on to the hope to go back the strongest, because their lives have really been the most miserable ones in the last two and a half decades.

MT: Refugees in any other country are those who come from other countries. And these [Kashmiri Pandits] are people who are from the area, and they have all these houses and properties all over Kashmir, and they have been forced out of their places because of militancy. What are the steps that you, Omar Abdullah, the Muslim Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, plan to take for the rehabilitation/return of Kashmiri Pandits?

OA: The most important thing any chief minister can do, and I'm not unique in that respect, is to try and restore their sense of security.

MT: Absolutely.

OA: I'm well aware of the fact that the Kashmiri Pandits can't be forced to go back, nor should one try to force them to go back. They left because their sense of security was snatched away from them, and they will only begin to consider going back when that sense of security is restored. So, obviously our effort and our aim is to ensure the defeat of forces of violence, that militancy becomes a thing of the past. And the more successful we are in that the more likely we are to be able to create conditions in which the Kashmiri Pandits can consider coming back. In the interim, recognising there is an obvious economic necessity that needs to be, sort of, addressed, we have reserved a certain number of jobs in the government. But those jobs are only available to Kashmiri Pandits who want to go back to the Valley, and so far 1000-1200 have gone back. There are a number of other posts that are in the process of being filled, and we hope that in not so distant future, about four to five thousand young Kashmiri Pandits boys and girls, men and women, will go back to the Valley, and take up jobs there. And that will begin the gradual process of some of these Kashmiri Pandits returning to the Valley.

MT: In the camps, wherever they are situated, how do they live? How do they manage to earn any living?

OA: Some of them have found meaningful jobs elsewhere. Some of them continue to be government servants. All registered migrants receive an allowance from the government to tide them over, and we try, as far as possible, to make basic facilities available to them.

MT: Have they ever been attacked since they have been living in camps? Have there been any incidents of violence ever since they moved to camps all over Kashmir?

OA: As far as I can recall there have been no attacks on camps, but that's largely because camps have been in parts of the State where militancy has not been such a major problem, particularly areas around the winter capital, Jammu. The last targeted massacre of Kashmir Pandits took place during the BJP government in 2002.

MT: Does a Kashmiri Pandit, not at a forum, or in a delegation, but just somebody, for instance, on a road, some 'ordinary' Kashmiri Pandit, say something to you? Is there a particular demand? What is expected from you?

OA: You see, there are two sets of Kashmiri Pandits. There are those who left the State before militancy; they moved out for various reasons, but their reasons for leaving the State was not militancy. So that is one lot of Kashmiri Pandits. And then there is the other, which is the far larger number, those Kashmiri Pandits who left as a result of the fear that was instilled in them. Amongst those Kashmiri Pandits who left as a result of militancy, almost universally, the one sentiment that one gets is Hum wapis kab jayain gaye. When will we able to go home? Will we able to go back to our homes? That is, I think, the hope that's keeping them going…the hope that they go back home. And increasingly I find that more and more Kashmiri Pandits are able to visit the valley and they stay for longer and longer. The one major event in their calendar every year is a visit to the Kheer Bhawani in Tullamulla area of the Valley. And increasingly, you find more and more Kashmir Pandits with their family members and friends make an event out of this, whereas in the past they would just come to Kheer Bhawani and quickly leave, and they would be escorted with a heavy security presence. Now they come of their own accord; they stay longer at the Shrine and they travel to other parts of the Valley as well. So that is an encouraging sign. Obviously, one wants to take it further and take it to the point where they start considering the possibility of moving back.

MT: So basically when they say they want to come back what they are looking for is the knowledge that, yes, this is the place, where I am from; this is the place where my roots are; this is where my home is; this is where I grew up. And so even if I don't live here, and I live in Timbuktu, or I live in Sydney, or I live in London, I should have the knowledge, I should have the sense of security that I can always come back. And I can own a house here...

OA: They want the option to go back when they want to. They want to be able to make that decision.

MT: Exactly.

OA: We haven't yet created those circumstances but we want to. We are trying to.

MT: Like I know that if I have a house in my village, and I don't visit it for 20 years, I know that the house is there. And nobody is going to burn it in my absence, or nobody is going to harass me if I'm back. So that's what the Kashmiri Pandits want...

OA: Yes.