Pattan, Baramulla, Apr 20: National Conference (NC) President Omar Abdullah today expressed disappointment over Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad's recent statement in which he ruled out talks with the militants and criticised the NDA government for holding negotiations with the Hizbul Mujahideen in 2000.
''I was disappointed with the Chief Minister's statement that talks will not be held with the militants. He also criticised the NDA government for holding negotiations with the Hizbul Mujahideen in 2000. I think that was wrong,'' Mr Abdullah told UNI in an exclusive interview here.
He said the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government held talks with the Hizbul Mujahideen only after the militant outfit declared an unconditional ceasefire in July 2000.
''Anybody who is willing to announce an unconditional ceasefire must be spoken to. We cannot have this policy of non-engagement,'' the National Conference President said.
Mr Abdullah, however, endorsed Mr Azad's view that talks could not be held with anyone carrying guns.
''But, the option of ceasefire must remain open...and that was an option the NDA did manage to use,'' he added.
The NC Chief said the NDA did not talk to the Hizbul Mujahideen with guns, but spoke with it only after the militant outfit announced a comprehensive ceasefire.
''This distinction must be recognised. It is highly unfortunate that Mr Azad chose not to recognise this distinction,'' he added.
It was on July 25, 2000, that the Hizbul Mujahideen, the single largest indigenous militant group operating in Jammu and Kashmir, declared a unilateral ceasefire for three months and held talks with the representatives of the then NDA government.
However, the truce was called off on August 8, 2000 following India's refusal to include Pakistan in any trilateral talks over the Kashmir issue as proposed by the Hizb.
Mr Azad at a function here on April 17 said it was a ''shame'' that the NDA government held talks with ''masked people''. He also ruled out talks with ''gun-wielding and nakab-wearing (masked) people'' and asked the militants to lay down arms and join the ongoing dialogue and peace process.
Mr Abdullah spoke to UNI on several issues during his campaign trail in three Assembly constituencies of Pattan, Sangrama and Rafiabad in Baramulla district, the by-elections for which will be held on April 24. About Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's second round-table on Kashmir here in May, the NC Chief said he was waiting to see the level of participation in the conference.
''If this round-table is used again to call those who are largely irrelevant in the eyes of the people then unfortunately the conference will deliver little or nothing,'' he added.
Agreeing with Mr Azad that the invitation list for the second round-table need to be rationalised, the NC President said the conference of about 60-70 people holds absolutely no weightage.
''There is also the need to look harder at the representative character of those who are being invited. The token separatists will not do. The separatists actually carrying some appeal need to be engaged and not those who have already sold themselves to one agency or another,'' he added.
Mr Abdullah expressed the hope that moderate Hurriyat Chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) Chief Yasin Malik, heads of both the factions of the Peoples Conference -- Bilal Ghani Lone and Sajjad Ghani Lone -- would participate in the round-table conferennce.
''All these separatists have representative characters and carry appeal in their areas,'' he added.
The NC Chief said efforts should be made to engage breakaway Hurriyat Chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani in the dialogue process.
''Mr Geelani probably will not participate in the round-table, but there should be efforts to engage him in talks,'' he added.
About the disgruntled youth who had crossed over to Pakistan- occupied Kashmir (PoK) for arms training and were now willing to return and join the national mainstream, he said, ''We have time and again raised the issue. We have raised it in the state Assembly and will do so in Parliament as well.'' Mr Abdullah alleged that ''hypocrisy'' of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was seen in the Assembly when its legislators negated and defeated the resolution moved by CPI(M) leader Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami and supported by the NC.
''On the other, PDP Chief Mehbooba Mufti goes around saying during her campaigning that I spread my hands in front of the Prime Minister to allow the youth to return from PoK. This is hypocrisy.
She is trying to exploit the sentiments of the people,'' he added.
To a question on the recent statement of his father and former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah in which he had stated that India was trying to convert entire Jammu and Kashmir into an Army cantonment, the NC Chief said there was a point to be made and a concern to be aired for the amount of land gradually coming under the occupation of the security forces.
''If you see the extent of the fenced area occupied by the armed forces prior to 1989 and now...I think the statistics speak for themselves,'' he added.
Mr Abdullah said the Mirwaiz has also voiced concern over the Indian Air Force decision to acquire about 7000 kanals of more land for expansion of the airbase at Awantipora in south Kashmir. ''This is a lot of land. Even in Kupwara and other parts, the Armed Forces have occupied more land and are gradually expanding the area of their influence,'' he added.
The former Union Minister of State for External Affairs called for having a re-look at the amount of land under the occupation of the security forces. ''The circumstances dictate temporary encampments, but when these are overtaken and converted into permanent fixtures there is a problem,'' he added.
Mr Abdullah demanded return of the land occupied by the security forces since 1989 to the state. ''What has been acquired before 1989 was a security and a strategic requirement. But, the land occupied after 1989 should be restored to the state. Because, it is our land and circumstances forced the Armed Forces to occupy that.'' The government was now claiming of a significant and fast improvement in the situation and if it is so there should be no problem in restoring the occupied land to the people, he added.
The NC President said he would also raise the issue more vociferously.
''I have always been raising the issues. Fortunately, my dress and line of arguement has not changed whether in Srinagar, Jammu or New Delhi. Therefore, I have nothing to worry about,'' he added.
On his recent visit to Pakistan, Mr Abdullah said there was a definite change in the mindset of the leadership there.
''Unfortunately, that change has not been exploited on the ground here in New Delhi. I believe there is a possibility of flexibility on moving forward which we have not been able to capitalise on fully. I was heartened by the Prime Minister's speech in Amritsar. I would like to see further action on those sentiments and hopefully there is some direction in the Srinagar round-table,'' he added.
The NC Chief also said that his party has never shied away from dialogue and would raise the autonomy issue at every forum.
''There is no hypocrisy. We are clear on our agenda. We believe that restoration of internal autonomy is the way forward. We will press for this claim in Pakistan and New Delhi as well,'' he added.
On the by-elections, Mr Abdullah expressed the hope that the ''turncoats'' would be voted out..
He said the PDP has failed to deliver on its poll promises and the people have seen a lot of exploitation in the past three years.
Mr Abdullah said the poll-boycott campaign by separatists would affect the chances of his party's candidates only if it was selective in the NC stronghold.
''If the anti-election campaign is carried out uniformly, then I don't believe it will have significant impact on the overall vote pattern. But, if it is selective, then definitely it will be a cause of concern,'' he added.
The NC Chief said they have urged the Election Commission to ensure free and fair elections and the people must be given a chance to exercise their franchise irrespective of who they vote for.
''But, we will not consider these polls as free and fair if there is a definite trend in boycott. If there is an overall low voter percentage that is something we can accept,'' he added.