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Swat extremism no threat to Kashmir, says Abdullah
By Ramesh Balan and Faheem Al-Hamid
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 25 - 04 - 2009

TALEBAN extremism spreading from Swat and threatening Islamabad will find few takers in Jammu and Kashmir, says Omar Abdullah, the Chief Minister of India's strife-torn Himalayan region border state over which India and Pakistan have fought three wars since partition in 1947.
“That is because there is no similarity between the Kashmiris and the tribals of the Pakistan Tribal Area,” Abdullah told Saudi Gazette in an interview here.
“The only thing they share in common is Islam – they believe in Allah and His Prophet (pbuh),” he said.
“Beyond that there are fundamental differences even in the interpretations and the practices of Islam. Our Islam is more in keeping with the sort of Sufiana (Sufi) culture that you see practiced in some parts of Central Asia, not what you see in Pakistan's Tribal Areas, Waziristan, Afghanistan and places like that. “
Nonetheless, the 39-year-old scion of Kashmir's “first family” who recently completed 100 days as chief minister and is hoping to make J&K “a model state” in the Indian union, said he was “deeply concerned” by the Taleban threat posed to Islamabad, which US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned last Wednesday was becoming an “existential threat” to Pakistan.
The Taleban, in a bid to expand their control from the Swat Valley, where President Asif Ali Zardari recently signed a deal allowing the implementation of Shariah Law, have now moved into the Buner district, just 100 km from the capital. The foray poses the biggest threat yet to Pakistan's fledgling civilian government as global concern mounts over its ability to rein in the militants.
“Any sort of instability in Pakistan cannot be to India's advantage,” Abdullah said, speaking over lunch at the Hilton Hotel here last Monday during a brief visit to the Kingdom to perform Umrah and visit the Prophet's Mosque in Madina.
“While in the short term it may create some sort of disarray in the (Kashmiri) separatist camp or in the militant leadership, in the long term you have to deal with the government of Pakistan. You don't have to deal with the forces in Swat, Waziristan or anywhere else. It is the dialogue and the discussion between New Delhi and Islamabad that will determine the outcome of what happens.”
No to Indian involvement
India broke off its dialogue with Pakistan over disputed Kashmir after the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November last year, which New Delhi blames on militants based in Pakistan. The tension between the nuclear-armed neighbors has the United States worried. The Obama administration has sought military and intelligence cooperation from India to help crush the Taleban and Al-Qaeda militants operating along Pakistan's troubled border with Afghanistan.
However, Abdullah sees no likelihood of Indian military involvement. “There is no support even within the political establishment in India or amongst the people for military operations in Afghanistan,” he said.
He believes that it would be wrong for any federal government in New Delhi to engage in joint military action.
“I can't predict the outcome of the general election and what that will do to foreign policy but, at this point of time, I'll be very surprised” if New Delhi sends troops to join America and Pakistan's war on terror, he said.
“I can't see it having a happy ending.”
Abdullah, who was junior foreign minister in the previous New Delhi government led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said the Indian political establishment is committed to stabilizing Afghanistan by actively assisting in its rebuilding.
“India has the largest program of any single country for actual reconstruction efforts – infrastructure, healthcare, education – the works,” he said. “To the extent that we need to protect those reconstruction activities, yes, we have put paramilitary forces in certain parts of Afghanistan, but those are purely to protect our assets and the manpower that is operating there.”
Bad experience with the BJP
Abdullah's National Conference (NC) led by his father, Farooq – and before that by his grandfather, Sheikh Abdullah, the Lion of Kashmir – had gone against the grain of their party's long-held secular tradition by joining the BJP-led coalition government in New Delhi from 1998 to 2004. The decision surprised many political observers who blame Muslim majority Kashmir for inflaming much of the extremism that has destabilized the region, including Afghanistan.
Explaining how that partnership came about and why it failed, the chief minister said: “My father believed at that time that we needed a good relationship with the Center (federal government) so that the state could receive all the assistance that it required. But we realized that there was a political cost to that arrangement that was perhaps getting too much to bear. There was never anywhere the possibility of us having some sort of an electoral understanding with the BJP because our politics was completely different. Even on fundamental questions of Kashmir there was no meeting ground. So we decided that it would be best if we part ways.”
Today, the NC is back in alliance with the Congress party which supports Omar's J&K government and backs his father's bid for a parliamentary seat from J&K in the current elections.
Emergence of young leaders
The Congress-NC relationship has stood the test of time since 1947 through friendships between Sheikh Abdullah and Nehru, and then Farooq and Rajiv. Now, Omar's personal equation with Rahul, son of Sonia and Rajiv, with whom he reportedly shares a love of computers and motorbikes, is keenly watched as a sign of the dynastic relationship developing further to India's benefit.
“Our families have always been well known to each other,” the chief minister said. “Right now, there is a political reliance developing as well. The personal relationship continues even when the political relationship is not there.”
There is speculation that a new generation of leaders from India's many political dynasties – including Milind Deora, Sachin Pilot, Jitin Prasad and Jyotiraditya Scindia, all Congressmen and all of whom are good friends of Omar and Rahul – could emerge to give the country's majority youth population a stronger say in New Delhi this time around.
However Abdullah does not think so.
“Not immediately,” he said. “The UPA has made it very clear that the prime ministerial candidate continues to be Dr. Manmohan Singh,” he said.
Moreover, he said, optimism about a youthful, educated and urbane set of leaders emerging from the current general elections is unfounded because rural India, where the majority of the population lives, still votes on caste, ethnic and religious lines.
He stressed, however, that the new-generation politicians, no matter what their political affiliation, have “common ideas” for India's progress.
“Sometimes there are differences of opinion on how one can go about those. But the realistic assessment is that we all belong to political parties that will determine to some extent the root we follow to achieve our vision. Clearly, if a young Member of Parliament from the BJP has a similar outlook to where he would like India to go, his way of getting there may be a little different.”
Abdullah is the youngest leader of India's most troubled state, and he appears to have a clear vision of how Kashmir can evolve into a “model state.”
“Our focus is on stopping the foreign militants from coming in, ensuring that we don't do anything that would make a youngster want to turn towards militancy – which essentially means that there are no acts of human rights violation and nothing that would stir up sentiment – ensuring that the youngsters feel that there is a better future somewhere – that even if they have to wait for a year or two for some sort of meaningful employment, that employment will come to them – and making education more job oriented, with vocational training as well.
“We can generate the investment but if labor comes from outside, it defeats the purpose. What we want is to create a bank of skilled labor in the state so that they can then work in these projects,” he said.
Militancy down, tourism up
Abdullah believes that he can do better as chief minister than his father simply because, after decades, home-grown militancy is receding in Kashmir.
“In all fairness to my predecessors, from my father onwards, there was no focus on any of these, because they were essentially trying to ensure every 24 hours that there was no major incident of militant violence.”
The chief minister feels vindicated by the participation of a section of the All Parties Hurriyet Conference in the current general elecions.
“It's a welcome change,” he said. “Basically what you see from the moderate faction of the Hurriyet Conference is a reflection of ground reality, which is that in the absence of militant violence, people will make up their own minds about whether they want to vote or not.”
“And that was visible last year (Nov.) in the Assembly elections. Even though the Hurriyet Conference ran a very aggressive election boycott campaign, people came out and voted.”
Abdullah, who has survived three assassination attempts from separatists, said home-grown militant violence is on the wane in Kashmir as a result of which its tourism industry is recovering.
“Unfortunately, it is the bad news that makes the headlines – you don't hear much of the good stories. The fact is that you have 10,000 to 15,000 tourists visiting Kashmir on any given day. I have thousands of tourists arriving in the Valley, including foreigners. My average is about 800 to 900 foreigners a day.”
Militants' ‘pyramid scheme'
Infiltration of foreign militants in Kashmir remains the problem, he said, not local militancy.
“You can't look at militancy in Jammu and Kashmir as one homogeneous set up. The militants come from different nationalities, with different ideologies, different interpretations of Islam. The home-grown ones are a very small part of the equation now. If you look at the statistics for this year, January up until now, the overwhelming majority of militants who have been caught or killed in encounters have been non-Kashmiri.”
He said the civil disobedience protests that the separatists organize on certain days find support largely because of poverty.
“It is nothing more than an organized economic activity now, wherein money is being paid for people to come and take part in this Friday disobedience thing. It is very well organized, like a pyramid scheme – I recruit you for a certain sum of money, you go and recruit three people and you get paid for those three people and I get paid because I recruited you.
“None of them are ideologically driven though I'm sure some of them are, but a large part of them are being taken advantage of for their poverty. Funds come from all over.”
Message to Muslim world
Appealing to the Muslim world, which has time and again expressed concern about the plight of the Kashmiris, Abdullah said:
“My message would be a very simple one. We want the Muslim world to recognize Kashmir's yearning for peace. Both countries, India and Pakistan, have recognized and accepted that a long-term solution to this problem has to be found through dialogue – it has to be through dialogue, not through the use of violence. Therefore, we hope that the Muslim world would help this process of dialogue which, ultimately, will benefit the people of Jammu and Kashmir.
“And secondly I would appreciate people coming and seeing for themselves. Jammu and Kashmir is not a no-go area. It is not closed to people.
“When was the last time you heard of a civilian being killed in Kashmir?” __


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