‘I have taken a step back so that I can hit harder’

Accused of involvement in a sex scandal, J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah tells Harinder Baweja that he is in an honour battle

Photo:  AP

Kashmir is a political landmine but did you expect an allegation of involvement in the Srinagar sex scandal?
Well, I knew that my Opposition would do everything possible to rattle the government. But I didn’t expect them to stoop as low as this.

Why now? The scandal is three years old. How do you explain what the Opposition has done?
They are obviously panicking. We have our problems but we deal with them in a far more transparent and timely manner than they did. They are seeing the support we are getting from the government of India. They are, in desperation, willing to fling mud everywhere and hope that something sticks.

People feel you have reacted emotionally rather than politically.
If we divorce politics from emotions then there is nothing to separate a politician from a robot. We are still very sensitive to allegations of moral corruption as opposed to financial corruption or administrative mistakes and things like that. I don’t think there was any other way of reacting to it and I am actually glad that I have done it.

So would the state now have to stay without a chief minister?
The state is not without a chief minister. I have 22 very competent ministers who are going about their work and it’s not as if we have suddenly left a vacuum.

What would you say to people who are saying that you don’t have the stomach for a fight?
They just have to look at my record over the last six years of surviving in the Opposition when Mufti [Mufti Muhammad Sayeed] did everything possible to destroy us. I fought. If I didn’t want to fight this, I would have quit and said I’ll go abroad. I haven’t left the ring. By taking a step back, I am in a position to hit back harder.

Only a few months ago you heralded hope as a young, clean politician. Now you are in the thick of controversy. And I am referring not just to what happened in the Assembly, but to Shopian as well.
Nobody expected Kashmir to be an easy state. It never has been, it never will be. But even if Shopian was my worst mistake, I don’t think that’s a bad track record. What happened in Shopian and the way the government reacted could have been better, but there have been lessons learnt.

You spoke a new language of development, of employment, of janta darbars. Do you think you have been judged too soon?
No, I have always maintained that the people will sign my report card in six years from now when we go back to them for a fresh mandate. Till then, the media is welcome to judge me as much as they like.

Was Delhi better than Kashmir?
If by better you mean easier, sure. Delhi is a cushy place to work. The blame falls on the prime minister and the ministers get away scot free. Here the buck stops at my table. So just because something is easier doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s better.

Do you regret your statement about the Shopian case, that “it was death by drowning”?
I did not make a statement. I arrived at that press conference to announce a judicial enquiry stating very clearly that we are dissatisfied with the initial findings. The mistake I made was only in answering the question about the initial findings.

Justice Jan has created a controversy by saying that the police have actually added a report to his report, which he does not stand by.
As far as I know what was released and what was acted upon was the report that came to me in a sealed envelope from the Justice Jan Commission. If anything has been added to this report, then Justice Jan needs to explain how a report was handed over to me without him verifying what went into it.

But we still don’t know who raped and killed those women.
We will do everything possible to arrive at those facts but we have lost two or three crucial days of evidence-gathering partly because of the local involvement in the covering up of the evidence, which Justice Jan has alluded to in his report, and partly because of the circumstances that were created there in terms of the civil unrest.

So clearly the police does have a lot to hide, right?
This is now a matter for the special investigation team to find out.

There is criticism that you spend more time in Delhi than in Kashmir.
None of my visits to Delhi are without justifiable reasons. Without the intensive lobbying that I did in Delhi, it would have been impossible for Jammu and Kashmir to get a jump from Rs 4,500 crore to Rs 5,500 crores. My work is not suffering, my files are not piling up. If my trips to Delhi are being used as a stick to beat me with, so be it.

You also have detractors who say you lack political experience.
The only thing I lack is age because I have as much, if not more, administrative experience than a number of chief ministers. I had spent almost 11 years in politics by the time I became chief minister. Give the Devil his due.

In the middle of all this, Kashmir is suffering. One of your main promises was to seek cooperation from Delhi to dilute or to get rid of the AFSPA.
Trust me when I tell you, nothing is suffering. What frustrates my political opposition is that nothing is stopping me from doing what I am supposed to do.

Is Delhi paying attention to the larger problem of Kashmir, now that you are in coalition with the Congress and reportedly close to Rahul Gandhi?
The real issue is political and I have been making this point from the very beginning, including in the prime minister’s roundtable initiative. The genesis of the Kashmir problem lies in its politics and a dialogue is essential. Even the home minister has realised this and has talked of a political engagement. To expect Delhi to have a homogenous opinion is impossible but the prime minister recognises the need for engagement.

So are we soon going to see a phased withdrawal of troops?
Commenting like this gives the impression to the troops here that somehow they are an unwelcome force. There is a need to strengthen the role of the J&K police and reduce the footprint of the other armed forces. But it won’t be done in a hasty manner.

Muzaffar Baig has said that if his allegations turn out to be false, he is willing to go to jail
Well, he is welcome to go to jail. I am not bothered. Let’s not forget until six months ago, he was law minister under the leadership of Ghulam Nabi Azad. I am only going to remind him of a statement he made sometime in 2006 when he told a Srinagar news agency that the women involved were willing to sell themselves for Rs 250.

Farooq Abdullah has said that you are fighting a battle for honour. Is that how you see it?
Absolutely. It’s a battle for honour, a battle for my selfrespect, and I am not going let people snatch that away from me.