PDP senior leader Muzaffar Hussain Baig

Now everyone is talking of autonomy not independence, says PDP patron

Former J&K Deputy Chief Minister and PDP patron Muzaffar Hussain Baig’s decision to unfurl the national flag at the party office in Jammu on January 26 was in defiance of PDP president Mehbooba Mufti. Emerging as a new face of the mainstream parties in J&K setting an “achievable agenda”, Mr. Baig speaks on how politics was shaping up after the dilution of the special status.

Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) president Mehbooba Mufti made two speeches in Delhi and Srinagar where she warned that “there will be no one to unfurl the tri-colour in case Article 370 is touched” and “those hands will burn too.” You recently unfurled the flag at the PDP office in Jammu.

I am patron of the party like Mufti Muhammad Sayeed. A patron is supposed to give advice on the policy matters of serious implications on the situation in J&K. Both these statements were made without my knowledge. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to describe them. Initially, I thought these statements were made in anger and out of some emotional disturbance. On second thought, it came to my mind that a person who has been a chief minister would not make such statements unless somebody had misled her into making them. I wish I could talk to her and at some stage we meet and she apprises me of the situation which led her to make them. Those statements did not help the State of J&K. Article 370 was on the BJP’s agenda but downgrading of the State to UT, I fail to understand the circumstances. Maybe they were annoyed by certain postures of the NC and the PDP. Both decided against participating in Panchayat and municipal elections. Maybe, the Centre was annoyed by this.

Of late, you have been arguing that the discourse on J&K has changed. How?

There was a time when the discourse on J&K was [about] plebiscite. Today (Pakistan prime minister) Imran Khan says Kashmir should have autonomy, even the U.S. says autonomy. The discourse has changed from independence to autonomy. I am of the view that J&K should get what is possible within the Constitution.

Your recent statements have set a new premise for mainstream politics in J&K. Do you suggest that once the incarcerated regional leadership like National Conference (NC) president Dr. Farooq Abdullah, vice-president Omar Abdullah and the PDP president are released, they need to start anew?

The release of the three leaders will not help. Instead, all the leaders, who have participated in the elections, won or defeated, in the past, and braved the situation, should be released. Once released, they (the leaders) should sit together and in a civilised and responsible manner assess the situation we are in. The current situation is that Article 370 and Article 35A, safeguarding land and jobs, do not exist. The issue is before the Supreme Court. If the final judgement is in favour of the Centre, then we need to come up with practical solutions, taking into account all religious, regional and linguistic groups. So that there will be some degree of safety achieved, dignity and reinstatement in their own eyes. The North-East in fact has a special provision under Article 371, which gives protection on land and jobs somewhat like Article 35A. The same benefit should be extended to J&K. Besides, the sooner the better for statehood to be restored in J&K. In a Union Territory (UT), most powers rest with the Centre and the Lt. Governor, who may or may not consult the Council of Ministers to take the decisions. A UT offers a disempowered structure for the elected representatives to take decision on economic, employment, social and development issues. We have to be unanimous in our demands.

Are you suggesting all regional parties need to come together?

Yes, all, including people from Jammu, should sit around a table and rise above partisan politics and opportunism. We have ethnic identity groups like Dogras, Gujjars, Paharis and Kashmiris in J&K and Article 371 precisely addresses their insecurities.

Will you reach out to other political parties on this?

As soon as they [leaders] are released, it will be my attempt to request them to get together and apply their mind in a responsible and sustained manner. The Centre as well as Members of Parliament (MPs) who voted in favour of degrading the State of J&K to UTs need to be approached. One needs to work hard with patience, perseverance and politeness. No government anywhere will succumb to pressure. A government needs to be persuaded. The demand, however, should be practicable.

We did see the coming together of the regional parties on August 4 when the Gupkar Declaration was signed? Where does that declaration stand as of now?

The Gupkar Declaration was overtaken by the events thereafter. The declaration perhaps did not reach the Prime Minister’s Office. Now, it all depends on the Supreme Court and its final judgement on Article 370 and Article 35A.

Altaf Bukhari, a former legislator, is also thinking on the lines you seem to propagate. Are you two joining hands in the future?

It took them two months to repeat the ideas I floated earlier. I welcome their support though. We did meet once since August 5 but did not discuss what his intentions are and his politics is. I know of my view and the reasons why I hold certain viewpoints now. I can’t peep into their conscience. Yes, the suggestions I had given earlier figured later in their statements.

J&K’s mainstream also has to face the Hurriyat at some point?

I can’t predict the future, even prophets could not. I don’t see the Hurriyat Conference playing any important role. I think they have seen where the path of confrontation can take us. There was a time in 2010 and 2016 that a parliamentary delegation, comprising all political parties, was mandated to talk to the Hurriyat, listen to them and find an honourable solution. Unfortunately, in 2016, the doors were not opened even to the parliamentary delegation. I hope if the Hurriyat wants to play any role now it must be practically achievable, otherwise human lives are wasted. Our trade and tourism is gone and our youth are unemployed and education has suffered. Development is very poor. The politics of confrontation will result in frustration and not happiness in the lives of people of J&K.

Your party always stressed addressing the external dimension of the J&K problem, which is Pakistan?

My view is based on history. After the 1971 Shimla agreement, India and Pakistan have committed to each other to sort out differences on J&K through the process of dialogue. I hope sooner or later that is what happens. Besides, out of 84,000 square miles of erstwhile J&K, 42,000 sq miles are with India, 30,000 sq miles with Pakistan and 12,000 sq miles of the most strategic importance is with China. So when we talk about the resolution of J&K nobody talks about China and the territory under it. In future, the time may come when all the three countries find ways to sort out the differences so that the people of J&K in all the three regions live in peace and prosperity.

The PDP saw cross-Line of Control (LoC) trade and travel as means to address local aspirations. It stands closed now.

It was indeed in the self-rule document. The background was that former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had gone to Pakistan and even PM Manmohan Singh was reaching out to Pakistan. At that stage, I requested late Mufti Muhammad Sayeed to see if we can make any suggestions since we are the affected party. I wrote a document, called self-rule, at that time, as it was assumed that Article 370 and 35A will continue. So a lot of suggestions were made. We also pushed for desirability of open routes, trade and exchange of teachers and students. But things have changed, and will now depend on the outcome of the judgment of the SC. If the SC restores the pre-August 5 position, that will be one situation in which we have to look at things again. My position is that we must learn lessons from Europe and all the three countries — India, Pakistan and China — should sit down and resolve the issue of erstwhile J&K.

Do you see reunification of Ladakh with J&K?

I don’t see reunification happening. I was Ladakh Affairs Minister in the past. I don't think people of Ladakh would like to be under the old arrangement, having strong feelings for other arrangements.