Ultra-nationalists call us separatists; treated as nationalists in J-K: Omar Abdullah
A year after a constitutional change nullified its seven-decade-old special status and bifurcated it into two Union Territories, the political environment in Jammu & Kashmir is in flux – again. At the heart of the churning, spurred mostly by the release of frontline mainstream political leaders from months of preventive detention, are Farooq Abdullah and his son Omar Abdullah of the National Conference (NC). Last week, Farooq, 83, emerged as the prime mover and pivot in the formation of a conglomerate of the Valley’s six parties – some of them sworn rivals – that has posed the first challenge to the Centre by reaffirming commitment to the Gupkar Declaration, pegged to the demand for restoration of J&K’s special status. The father-son duo, both former chief ministers and the second and third generations of Kashmir’s formidable Abdullah dynasty, is actively galvanising dormant cadres. On Friday, a day before the party’s first political affairs committee meeting in a year, the Abdullahs spoke to Ramesh Vinayak at their home in Srinagar in their first joint political interview. Edited excerpts:
Ramesh Vinayak: How will you take the Gupkar Declaration forward?
Farooq: We are not users of guns or stones. We will protest peacefully like Mahatma Gandhi did. Every constituent in this [six-party conglomerate] has its own agenda. But on the restoration of statehood, Article 370 and Article 35A, we are together. Whatever action we take will be joint. It won’t be only of Farooq Abdullah or the National Conference.Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his Independence Day speech, said the delimitation exercise is underway and assembly elections will follow
Q: Will you contest the elections?
Farooq: Any decision [on contesting] will depend first on my party and we will take a call subject to the situation. We will talk to other stakeholders in the Gupkar Declaration. If we are united in this exercise, we will take them on board and decide.
Q: But your party has opted out of the delimitation commission.
Farooq: That’s because we told them on their face that we don’t believe in your delimitation. The BJP has a certain purpose. It wants that in J&K, a Hindu majority emerges, and the Muslim majority goes down. Can you beat what the government of India is trying to do here? The state assembly, when I was chief minister, had decided to go for delimitation along with the rest of the country in 2026.
Then, why has the Centre suddenly brought it forward? They want to divide us on Hindu-Muslim lines and create Hindu dominance. That will never happen.
Omar: It’s not just that. The delimitation commission is a product of the changes brought about on August 5 last year. When we don’t recognise those changes, how can we recognise this panel?
By participating in its proceedings, we will essentially be lending credence to the J&K Reorganisaton Act, 2019. When we are fighting this Act, there is no question of participation. The commission’s membership doesn’t grant you the power of veto. Our three MPs may have been able to share their views, but that would not have been binding on the commission. Our participation would’ve been used as a rubber stamp.
Q: You are betting on a legal fight in the Supreme Court that may take years to conclude.
Farooq: The legal battle is just one fight. We will also fight it politically.
Omar: We are a mainstream political party. We will fight using legal means at our disposal which are two — one is the power that the Constitution gives us to challenge the decisions in the court; and the second is forums available, including Parliament, media, social media, and public meetings. We have three MPs to take the voices of the people of J&K to the highest platform of democracy. We are not a party that has ever subscribed to violence as a means to achieving our end. In fact, if anything, the NC has always been the victim of violence.
Farooq: Let me also remind you of 1984 when Jagmohan was sent as J&K governor to dismiss me (as chief minister). He told Indira Gandhi (the then prime minister) that Farooq Abdullah would put the state to fire. I said I don’t want the blood of people on my hands. I believe that today also. I’ll fight for their rights even if it takes my life but I’m not going to take their lives.
Q: But New Delhi expects you accept the new reality that Article 370 is history and move on.
Farooq: (laughs) They want us to accept that through the gun. I’m not going to do that.
Omar: The new reality doesn’t mean we can’t argue against what has been done. If dissent is the essence of democracy, then what we are doing is strengthening democracy. We are dissenting against a government decision by democratic means.
The fundamental premise in the August 5 decision was that Article 370 was discriminatory, impeding development, promoting corruption and dynastic rule, breeding separatism, and obstructing the state’s integration with the country.
Farooq: All that was [said] to sell a lie. I’m living in this house since 1974, when my father was not prime minister or chief minister of J&K. We sold our ancestral property and with that money my father was able to buy this house for me when I was in England. Eighteen members of our family own that (the ancestral properties). Are we that corrupt? And they said, Farooq Abdullah has homes in Dubai, Paris, London and America. Show me where all these houses are, so that I can go and occupy them? My wife is an English woman. She has a home there (England). She is entitled to her home. Then, they said development suffered. Thank God, Ghulam Nabi Azad was able to prove in the Rajya Sabha that J&K is far better than their great state of Gujarat. What we are suffering from is their (the Centre’s) lack of support. To this date, rail has not arrived from Katra to Banihal.
There is more separatism now than before August 5 last year. Every day, guns are booming and people are giving up their lives. It’s not the Pakistanis who are dying today, it is the Kashmiris.
Who has created them [militants]? Not Farooq Abdullah. I was in jail. They [the BJP government] created them.
The hatred they have created between Hindus and Muslims in the rest of the nation… do you think it will not have an effect here? It will.
Q: But what if the SC upholds the abrogation of Article 370?
Omar: You are asking me to give a categorical answer to a hypothetical question. The arguments are yet to begin in the Supreme Court. Our petition makes an incredibly strong case on a simple point: a governor cannot assume the powers of an assembly, and an assembly cannot assume the powers of a constituent assembly. Because if an assembly can assume the power of a constituent assembly, tomorrow what stops a state in the North-east that has a simmering discontent from converting their assembly into a constituent assembly and then saying, ‘I have the constituent assembly’s powers as demonstrated by J&K and therefore I’m redrawing our relationship with the rest of India’. There is a fundamental flaw to what New Delhi did on August 5, 2019. You can wish away the merit of our case politically, but not legally. The government’s case is all political and emotional. If J&K has suffered, it’s not because of its special status but because of militancy. Either militancy is the product of Pakistan or it is product of Article 370. How can it be both? When we talk to people on the Gupkar Declaration, we will make an emotional argument. Let’s see where it takes us.
Q: A broader national consensus has endorsed the nullification of Article 370 as fait accompli.
Omar: I agree that we are on the losing side of public opinion. In J&K, we are losers because we are mainstream political operatives. We lose out elsewhere as well for being the proponents of special status. Article 370 has never been explained in its correct context to the rest of the country. It was always seen as a barrier to buying land in J&K. That is not the nuts and bolts. There are still parties that lend their voice to us, particularly the Left, DMK, and TMC. Would I like to see more? Yes. But we take what we can get.
Q: There is a sense that the August 5 move has constricted political space for mainstream political parties in Kashmir?
Farooq: Mainstream parties were always taken by the people of Kashmir to be mouthpieces of Delhi. They always thought they are not a part of us and they don’t stand by our emotions. That is so even today. When we (NC) fought the 1996 assembly elections, on what basis did we fight? Narasimha Rao ji, as prime minister, had on the floor of Parliament promised us that sky is the limit and there is no azadi. We never asked for azadi, but we wanted back what has been taken away from us. Where was the BJP at that time? Where was any other party except Farooq Abdullah’s NC. We lost our workers and ministers because they were standing by the nation. But did the nation stand with us?
Omar: You have to understand how difficult it is for us. We get fixed from both sides. The ultra nationalists in the rest of country treat us as separatists. But here in Kashmir we are treated as nationalists. Please tell me what we are.
Q: What is your reading of the mood on the streets in Kashmir?
Farooq: If you want to know the honest truth, they are not part of India. This is God’s truth. You ask an ordinary person, he does not want to be Pakistani. Let’s be frank about it. He is not a Pakistani, but he is not an Indian today after what they (the Centre) did.
Q: Will the six-party conglomerate become a joint front in the elections?
Omar: There is no possibility of an election in J&K before 2021. Thankfully, the Government of India has willy-nilly given us this breathing space to work together on the Gupkar Declaration which is not an announcement of pre-electoral understanding.
Q: But there are ideological contradictions between the constituents.
Omar: We have different political ideologies, but for the time being, these have been set aside for a larger goal. We wanted to send a wider message to New Delhi that on this question of what happened on August 5, like-minded parties will come together. The legal fight is not being fought together.
The government says now J&K’s integration is complete and it will be a harbinger of ‘Naya Kashmir’?
Farooq: We are so integrated… my God! That’s why we have sold this in every corner. Do they mention any other state? Every day Kashmir, Kashmir, Kashmir… ‘Kashmir hamara hai’ (Kashmir is ours). Do they ever say ‘Maharashtra hamara hai’ or ‘Bengal hamara hai’. Because they are not sure that Kashmir ‘hamara hai’.
Q: How real are the apprehensions on altering the demographic character of Muslim-majority J&K after the government allayed that at the highest level?
Farooq: How can you believe the home minister who lied in Parliament that I have been freed? How can I believe their assurances?
Omar: Look at the numbers. Take the domicile certificates that have been issued thus far and see what is the religious break-up? I don’t have actual numbers, but I can guarantee you that more than 90% of the new domicile certificates that have been issued will be non-Muslims. Not that the demographic change will take place overnight; it will be a creeping effect. But if this domicile law is not overturned, eventually that is where we will be. That’s why it’s important J&K is given back its statehood so that we can legislate our own domicile law. Today, the domicile law you have given us is weaker than even Himachal Pradesh’s.
Q: Both the PM and home minister have said that restoration of statehood is a possibility. Will that help bring the mainstream parties on board?
Farooq: You have lost the hearts of the people. It will be difficult for a political party to just accept that statehood has been restored and, therefore, you’re alright.
Omar: It’s a much bigger fight. Statehood is one part of what was done on August 5. Therefore, when you trap us into this argument about statehood, you try and give this impression as if once statehood is done, everything else will be forgotten. How can that be?
Domicile is one part. What about the representative character of the government? We are still a Muslim-majority state. Please look at the make-up of our administration today. Your LG is non-Muslim; chief secretary non-Muslim; DGP non-Muslim; both your divisional commissioners are non-Muslims; both your IGs of police non-Muslims; the chief justice of Jammu and Kashmir high court is non-Muslim; the rest of the high court bench, barring two judges, are all non-Muslims. How many of your deputy commissioners and SPs posted in Kashmir today are Kashmiri-speaking? It may appear minor, but please understand these are the issues that resonate with people. We are not fundamentalist people. We don’t play the religious card, but when there is such a severe communal imbalance, there will be resentment.
Q: Do you see some design behind all this?
Omar: Design or not, it affects public perception. You are trying to change the script in which Kashmiri is written. These are changes you are forcing on us and then saying ‘you are integrated’. Integration doesn’t come from a piece of paper. It comes from emotions. I have to feel integrated. If you change the script in which I am writing, you change the language in which an officer on the ground is addressing me, and then you turn around and tell me: ‘I am integrated.’ I am not. I dare you to do this in Tamil Nadu. I dare you to change their script and see what happens. There will be hell to pay there. Why do all experiments have to happen here?
Q: The mainstream Kashmiri parties, particularly the NC, have for long been seen as a bridge between New Delhi and Srinagar. Has that changed?
Farooq: I don’t want to be the bridge any more. They have deceived my people.
Omar: If by bridge you mean that we will allow them to bring their voices and propagate it here, that’s not a bridge. If by bridge you mean that you will allow us to take the voices of J&K and Ladakh and propagate it there, it is fine. Enforced communication will not work.
Q: Is there a meeting ground between Kashmiri parties and the Centre?
Farooq: No, I don’t see any ground.
Omar: We are not appealing to Prime Minister Modi to reverse what he has done. When (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee sahib said that the matter of Kashmir will be decided within the umbrella of ‘Jamooriyat, insaniyat, Kashmiriyat’, that opened the door for us. Today, no such door is open. Our fight revolves around the Supreme Court. Tomorrow, if a government is formed in Delhi that is open to a dialogue, then we will see. We are not asking anything beyond the Constitution, so why should we surrender.
Q: Doing away with Article 370 has been a core ideological agenda of the BJP. Why did the August 5 happenings surprise you?
Farooq: I agree. But is Mr Modi the prime minister of the BJP or Prime Minister of India?
Omar: I’m surprised because what you have reversed is not a party’s political position. You have betrayed a sovereign commitment of the Union of India with the state of J&K. The BJP is not India. It is a political party in India. It can play politics. But the BJP, I don’t believe, should have the power to reverse a sovereign commitment that was not time-bound.
Q: Some quarters believe the Centre is propping up a new crop of leaders in Kashmir.
Omar: You can’t prop up a politician or a party. That has always been the mistake that gets made in places like Delhi. Politicians don’t get propped up by anyone except the people. Haven’t you tried such experiments before?
Q: How do you look at the new formation, Apni Party?
Farooq: IB (Intelligence Bureau) formation.
Omar: Political space is open to everybody. Aaiye apni kismet azamayiye (Come, try your luck). Who stops anybody from trying?
Q: What will it take to repair the trust deficit between the Centre and mainstream parties of Kashmir?
Farooq: First, honesty of purpose. If they want to win hearts, they will have to reverse what they did on August 5. That will be the starting point. It is not that people will suddenly feel happy. No. A lot more will have to be done.
Q: Aren’t you being unrealistic in expecting the Centre to undo Article 370 move?
Farooq: We don’t expect them to undo that.
Omar: Look, there is a trust deficit. If they are willing to accept that, we will start resolving it. At the moment, they don’t even believe there is trust deficit. They feel everything is fine.
Q: Why has Mehbooba Mufti not been released, while you and other mainstream leaders have been set free?
Farooq: That only she can answer. We have not cut any deal for our release. We are not dealers.
Omar: Whatever freedom we have achieved has been fought for. I’m sitting here today because I went to the Supreme Court and fought my case and was able to get out just before the coronavirus set in.
Q: What stops the NC from holding political activities on the ground?
Omar: We are battling an illness beyond comprehension. Just a few days ago, we had a meeting of 10 people in this garden and one turned out to be corona positive. All my colleagues were sitting home for 10 days. How can you have bigger gatherings than that?
Farooq: I had to lock myself up. I’m more at risk, being on immune-suppressive drugs.
Omar: An artificial detention situation has been created here. There is still a threat to life for a mainstream political operative. Yet none of them have security to move around. Today, security and vehicles are provided to only the BJP and the Apni Party.
Q: What is the way out of the current political vacuum?
Omar: Slowly, we will start political activity. We will craft a narrative and move forward. The way forward will not be decided by one or two persons sitting in the garden. What we have lost is 70 years of what we had.
Q: How has the August 5 move impacted you personally?
Farooq: I felt betrayed as a man who stood for the nation. Friends on the other side (Pakistan) hated us. For them, we were slaves or mouthpieces of India. The only thing that mattered to them is the Hurriyat. If anything gave me strength, it was the Quran. I will fight till my last breath.
Omar: I’m bitter and less trusting. I used to be cautiously optimistic, now I’m pessimistic than even realistic. I don’t care that I spent eight months in detention. It’s not a big deal in a life of 50 years. The betrayal with J&K is far deeper. It’s a betrayal of an idea of the relationship between J&K and India that was crafted by far greater minds. It is difficult to reconcile. We are still trying to come to terms. I don’t know if we ever will.