In June this year, Saifuddin Soz, a veteran Congress leader and former union minister, published his book Kashmir: Glimpses of History and the Story of Struggle. A four-time member of parliament from the Baramulla district in Kashmir, Soz won his first election in 1983, as a candidate of the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference. He rose to national prominence in 1999, when he cast the deciding vote against the party’s whip in a no-confidence motion that resulted in the fall of the government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the prime minister at the time. In 2003, Soz joined the Congress party and served as the Minister of Water Resources. In 2008 and 2013, he also served as the president of the Jammu and Kashmir State Congress Committee.
In his book, Soz endorses the views of the former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf about Kashmir—specifically, that Kashmiris would choose independence from India if they could exercise their free will. This statement has generated controversy—the Congress party distanced itself from his remarks, and senior Congress leaders skipped the launch of his book in New Delhi. Over two interviews conducted this month, Hanan Zaffar, an independent journalist, spoke to Soz about his new book, the current political situation in Kashmir, the continued use of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and where the Congress has erred in the past.“The mainstream political parties are fighting elections, but elections are not the solution to the Kashmir dispute,” Soz said. “Mainstream politics right now finds little relevance.”
Hanan Zaffar: How did you transition from being an academic to a union minister?
Saifuddin Soz: I started as a teacher in Sopore college [in Kashmir’s Baramulla district]. I didn't want to leave teaching, but I was greatly influenced by [the National Conference leader] Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah. He is the reason for me joining politics. If I reached Parliament, it is because of him. Nobody can convince me that Kashmir has produced a leader who is close to his stature.
HZ: In your book, you say that it is “futile to look to the United Nations for any workable resolution” of the Kashmir conflict. But wasn’t it Congress that initially sought to resolve the dispute through UN intervention?
SS: The United Nations is not an institution that can find a solution to any problem. Which dispute have they settled? UN resolutions on Kashmir are especially not workable. Perhaps Pervez Musharraf understood the futility of these resolutions and called for bilateral engagement. He could see that there is no support for a merger with Pakistan. He could see Kashmiris are demanding independence, which is not possible.
HZ: Do you mean that independence is what most Kashmiris want but it is not possible?
SS: Definitely. It is not achievable. I have always vouched for a middle path. There are two extreme proposed solutions to the Kashmir conundrum and independence is at one extreme end. However, I don’t mean to say the Hurriyat or the Joint Resistance Leadership, which advocates for it, need not be taken seriously. In my book, I call for talks with them. But at the same time, I reiterate that their idea of independence—howsoever popular it may be—is not possible.
HZ: You seem to suggest that independence is desirable but not achievable.
SS: I simply say that it is not possible, and a merger with Pakistan is no choice at all. We have to strike a solution where we live with dignity and peace in India. We have a complex issue with people of three different regions—Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh—having different political aspirations. The central government must open dialogue and start finding a pragmatic solution. Right now, mainstream politics in Kashmir is in tatters with little credibility. So there is no choice but to talk to the Hurriyat.
HZ: What should be the basis of these talks with Hurriyat? Should there be any preconditions? How will these talks be different from the past?
SS: The dialogue should first and foremost be unconditional, from both sides. The Hurriyat is represented by the Joint Resistance Leadership manned by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umer [Farooq] and Yasin Malik. Let us try to talk to them unconditionally. It is they who have represented anger of Kashmiris in recent times and it is exactly with them that the Government of India has to talk. But it has to be a decisive dialogue. I firmly believe that if the government proceeds sincerely, it can find an acceptable solution.
There have been rounds of talks earlier during previous NDA and UPA regimes, but right now they want to suppress it only by force. By suppressing the voices of people, they may be able to bring peace, but it will be temporary. Let us first initiate a dialogue with the Hurriyat. It is later that the government can expand the dialogue to the mainstream.
HZ: But isn’t the insistence on talking to Hurriyat an admission of failure? Is the mainstream political process only meant for bijli, sadak and pani—electricity, roads, and water—while the Hurriyat leaders are the main stake holders? At present, the state is under governor’s rule, but the public seems to be happy. Has democracy failed in Kashmir?
SS: The Hurriyat is certainly a primary stakeholder. You can’t deny that they are a huge political force. They call for a strike and everyone follows with letter and spirit. They call for protests and everyone is on the roads. The mainstream political parties are fighting elections, but elections are not the solution to the Kashmir dispute. Democracy is important. Elections are important. But right now, Kashmiris are more interested in the settlement of the dispute rather than elections. Hence, mainstream politics right now finds little relevance. Electoral politics should not be the priority, understanding the pain of the angry youth should be. This situation has also arisen because of the PDP and BJP coalition. [The People’s Democratic Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party formed a coalition government in the state in 2016.]
New Delhi can only arrest the unrest in Kashmir by talking to the Hurriyat. The sooner it is done, the better. I am not undermining or demeaning the mainstream. I am telling you the reality. The only solution to the current impasse is an unconditional dialogue with the Hurriyat, to find a lasting solution that is also acceptable to the common Kashmiris.
HZ: You have criticised India’s muscular approach in Kashmir, called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) draconian and said there’s a need for “gestures of compassion.” Why did the Congress not scale back AFSPA during its years at the centre? What gestures of compassion did you try as the president of the state unit of the Congress?
SS: See, the government is always a running institution. If there were mistakes committed in the past, it is the present government that has to rectify them. [The former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister] Omar Abdullah fought a battle against AFSPA. I fully supported him. I worked with [the Congress politician and former union minister] P Chidambaram and he understood the ground realities. He tried to convince the cabinet, but it was the defence minister [at the time, AK Antony served in the position] who wanted to go by the advice of the generals.
India needs to understand that AFSPA is not solving the problem; it is deepening the alienation [of Kashmiris] with the Indian state. If you use more force, if you keep bringing more army and paramilitary forces, you will be fighting against your own purpose. Kashmiris will keep on proving their invincibility. You can never win this battle with force. Personally, I have always spoken against excesses by any side. I can’t suppress my conscience.
HZ: You speak of how the mainstream politics is “in tatters” right now, but how has the Congress approached the Kashmir unrest differently? During the 2010 protests, at least 120 civilians were killed in Kashmir while the Congress was in power. What we have been seeing since 2016 is no different.
SS: I have always opposed killings. We have to learn by the mistakes committed in the past. The 2010 killings achieved nothing, neither did the 2016. The only thing that can work for the union of India and people of Kashmir right now is talks. There were always talks in some form during the previous government, but right now, they are only showering bullets.
HZ: But how can you blame the BJP or PDP now? This has all happened during your government too. How can the Congress absolve itself of this?
SS: The question of comparison with our time doesn’t arise. There is a big difference. This dispensation has created fear in the minds of Kashmiris and also minorities throughout the country. Minorities are being suppressed. Dalits and Muslims are being lynched. This sends out a bad message for Kashmiris too. Kashmiris feel that they had acceded to a secular India, but I don’t feel those values are nursed these days.
HZ: In 2011, the Congress-appointed interlocutors led by Radha Kumar and Dileep Padgaonkar had submitted a report on ways to reduce violence in Kashmir. Why were their recommendations not implemented? Radha Kumar said that if the UPA government had implemented that report, the 2016 unrest may not have happened.
SS: I was party to those discussions and I talked to interlocutors. That brought a lot of hope. But yes, non-implementation of the recommendations was a mistake by the previous government. How can I exonerate them for this? [The interlocutors] did a very important exercise. Their recommendations should have been accepted and I have a grouse that they were not implemented. Things would have been better than before for sure. But you cannot count our mistakes right now. The current government needs to deliver.
HZ: You have endorsed Pervez Musharraf’s view that Kashmiris will prefer independence if given a chance to exercise their free will. The Congress has distanced itself from your remarks. The Congress leader P Chidambaram even refused to attend your book launch. Have you had prior disagreements internally? What can you say about differences within the Congress on Kashmir policy?
SS: So where did I go wrong? It is a fact that Musharraf told his generals that Kashmiris don't want to go to Pakistan, and want an independent nation. But I firmly believe independence is not possible, so we need to find a middle path, a solution acceptable to all parties and respecting the aspirations of the Kashmiri people.
Regarding my book launch, I have no grouses against anybody. I am a party worker. The party leadership always takes a decision that suits it. I won't go into the details about disagreements in the party on the Kashmir issue. There is a Kashmir Committee headed by [the former prime minister] Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram, and [the leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Ghulam Nabi] Azad. I work in the party within my own limits. I can’t answer questions which should be addressed to the party.
HZ: In your book, you say that former deputy prime minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel wanted Kashmir to go to Pakistan and had Pakistan been patient, there would have been no Kashmir issue. Are you blaming Jawaharlal Nehru?
SS: No. You have to understand the context. Sardar Patel wanted Hyderabad and Junagadh on the basis of demography and the will of the people. By that same rule, he couldn’t claim Kashmir, as it would mean contradicting himself. Many people in Delhi misunderstood me, as if I was running some campaign against Patel. It is a fact Patel had offered Kashmir to [the first prime minister of Pakistan] Liaqat Ali Khan. Even on the day when raiders invaded Kashmir, [Louis] Mountbatten was in Lahore offering Kashmir to Pakistan on behalf of the iron man of India.
In my book, I have also referenced Kuldip Nayar’s autobiography, Beyond The Lines, where he clearly mentions that had Pakistan been patient and not sent tribal invaders, they would have automatically got Kashmir. Even when Maharaja [Hari Singh] requested to accede to India, Patel had famously said, “We already have too much on our plate and should not get messed up in Kashmir.”
HZ: On the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, you have written that it was an “orchestrated event and somebody in authority had put a sizeable effort in executing it.” What did you want to convey?
SS: Governor Jagmohan Malhotra was responsible for the exodus. Many Kashmiri Pandits wrote letters from refugee camps in Jammu blaming Malhotra for their plight. A letter from a Pandit leader KL Kaul, which appeared in many Kashmiri newspapers, also held him solely responsible for the exodus. There is substantial evidence which suggests that transportation was provided by Malhotra. It was a planned event facilitated by him and his associates. However, let me be clear, there were some sectarian killings too that targeted Pandits. I can’t deny that. Many Muslims were also killed for their political affiliations—Maulvi Muhammad Farooq and [the Kashmiri separatist leader] Abdul Gani Lone to cite a few.
This interview has been edited and condensed.