Article 370 move has left no space for mainstream leaders: Omar Abdullah

Article 370 move has left no space for mainstream leaders: Omar Abdullah

Just because you cannot see protests don’t confuse it to mean there is no anger over what happened, says former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah

A year after the Centre’s decision to dilute article 370 and bifurcate Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh into two Union Territories, former chief minister Omar Abdullah says the government has been unable to resolve the issues it claimed the moves would result in. In a video-conference from his residence in Srinagar, Mr. Abdullah said events had left him cynical and bitter, but asserted was not quitting politics.

The government has made many claims about what it has achieved in the last year and its decisions on Article 370 and bifurcating the State. How do you see the situation in Jammu and Kashmir?

Last year, the people of India were told that Jammu and Kashmir needed to be brought at par with the rest of the country, that one nation can’t have two systems, and that Jammu and Kashmir had suffered because of Article 370, because of militancy and separatism and violence, and also because of poverty, absence of development, and because of corruption.

One year later, we are forced to ask what has changed? Are those people who were alienated, feeling any less so? Is violence any lower? Has investment suddenly started flowing in? Is corruption any less and is governance any better? Has there been a reverse exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits, whom we were told had been held back because of Article 370? The truth is, not a single claim stands the test of scrutiny.

Even the government of India was forced to admit, when it was asked to justify the ban on 4G internet, that levels of violence have gone up. So that means militancy, alienation etc have gone up. The August 5 decision was simply about the BJP being able to use its brute majority in the Lok Sabha, being able to arm twist other parties and ramming it through Parliament without considering what the people of J&K wanted, and that’s why we are where we are today.

Despite your strong feelings, 4 months after your release we see no public rallies by you, nor any demonstrations. Why is that?

Many reasons. One is that a large number of my colleagues are still under illegal detention. Also I came out a day before the coronavirus lockdown was announced, and it would be irresponsible on my part if I allow politics to trump a huge public health crisis the country as a whole is facing. Every day we have 600-700 new cases here of COVID-19. So while we don’t accept what the government of India has done on August 5, that should not be confused with our response to the current health situation.

In an article you wrote this week, you said you would not stand for elections either? Why is that….some would wonder whether the last year has jangled you to the point you no longer want to be in politics?

I have said that while J&K is a Union Territory, I will not stand from that UT. Please understand where I am coming from. I have been Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir when it was a State. I have had the power to decide things for my State without reverting to New Delhi. How do you expect me now to be my party’s candidate for Chief Minister of a Union Territory? This is not a threat, I am not blackmailing anyone. I am simply saying that the National Conference will continue to fight what happened on August 5, and so long as J&K is a Union Territory, I will not fight as Chief Minister. The two are not connected.

However, what comes across is your bitterness at not having received support from other political parties and some cynicism about politics. What kind of toll has the last year taken on you and your father, Farooq Abdullah?

I am ready to accept that I feel cynical and disappointed. Except for a few stray exceptions, including the DMK, Mamata Banerjee, the Left Parties, and one or two individuals in the Congress party, the polity of the rest of India effectively forgot about us.

Look, I understand the political hullabaloo made by the BJP around dilution of Article 370 and 35A would have made it hard for these parties to say anything. But they stayed quiet about the downgrading of J&K from a State to a Union Territory as well. Even parties like the Aam Aadmi Party, the TRS, that have fought for full statehood were happy when J&K’s statehood was taken away.

So I am a lot more cynical, a lot less trusting, I have every reason to be. We were taken away and locked up for no reason at all, and had the Public Safety Act thrown at us. [The government] used the fact that I ensured people came out to vote in elections against me, to justify my detention. [The government] quoted fake news websites in Parliament. My party lost thousands of lives after 1990 because we refused to be a separatist political party and we identified ourselves with the mainstream polity. How do you expect me not to be cynical and bitter?

During your detention, did you think about quitting politics?

Of course, I’d be lying if I said the thought never crossed my mind. I’m only human and I had all these doubts and questions in my head. But I realised that to walk away would throw my party into chaos, and I owe it to my party to be responsible. But also, that would create the sort of political vacuum that would allow parties inimical to Jammu Kashmir’s interests to take centre stage. So I decided not to walk away now….nothing stops me from revising the decision at a later date.

What would push you to that point?

Well, we still have a number of battles to fight, and I am hopeful those battles will be taken to their logical conclusion and justice will be delivered.

Going back to last August. Senior members of National Conference including you and your father met Prime Minister Narendra Modi just days before the 370 decision. What had the PM said? had he given any assurances?

I think propriety demands I don’t give details of what was discussed. We left that meeting with a completely different impression of what was going to unfold. Our understanding of what was said was perhaps misplaced, and I am willing to say we misunderstood.

Is this why you wrote of a sense of personal betrayal?

No, I feel the betrayal is what has been done to Jammu and Kashmir after the promises made as far back as 1947-48 were not kept. The fact that I and my colleagues were detained, was personal. But my sense of betrayal is about what the State has been put through.

What was the hardest part of being in jail?

Aside from the personal aspect of being torn from one’s family and losing personal liberty, it hurt to see the lies that were being told about us, and not being able to respond. The most difficult part was the loss of faith, and our beliefs being snatched from us. We believed that the promises of a country were more important than the poll promises of a political party. Many of the others had a far more difficult time, especially those who were flown to other places like Agra, etc. And unfortunately some continue to languish there.

BJP leaders have said the people of J&K have now accepted the August 5 decision, that there were not many protests or violence over it. How do you react?

I think it is extremely unfortunate that these leaders are actually incentivising violent protests. Why are they trying to create an atmosphere where Kashmiris feel forced to come out and protest?

It is short sighted to believe that Kashmiris have quietly accepted what happened. If Ladakhis could dance on the streets, why did Kashmiris not celebrate? Look at the sheer numbers of paramilitary forces the government had to bring out. From my detention, I could see their drones flying overhead. And if Kashmiris have accepted the decision, why is the government still banning 4G internet? Every day we hear of youngsters joining militant ranks, although we hear there is a shortage of weapons.

Just because you cannot see protests don’t confuse it to mean there is no anger and a sense of hurt that prevails here over what happened on August 5. Don’t punish and demean Kashmiris further.

They have also made the point that people were actually happy to see National Conference behind bars….

I won’t disagree, some sections were happy. The BJP through its actions has done more to destroy mainstream politics than any separatist or militant organisation has been able to do since 1989-90. We were reduced to objects of ridicule. People said we were served right for saying ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’. They said Mehbooba Mufti and I were being served right for putting down protests in 2010 and 2016.

We stood with the nation, and we were ridiculed for standing with the nation.

Instead of patting themselves on the back, the BJP should be worried that this is the sentiment towards mainstream leaders, and that this has left no space for mainstream leaders. You asked about us, but even New Delhi’s new found friend here, the “Apni Party”, have they been able to do anything? Have they or the BJP been able to do one big political rally here? They are misrepresenting the mood of the people, and worse, living in denial. Unless they accept something is wrong, they will not be able to correct it.

Last year after August 5, all the parties including the NC and the PDP here issued the Gupkar declaration. What is its status, and would you be open to joining hands with the PDP or Sajjad Lone’s People’s Conference or Shah Faesal’s People’s movement now?

The Gupkar declaration stands. But what it means for the road ahead can only be discussed when all those in the meeting have the freedom to discuss it. Moreover, we have not had a common fight on August 5 decision. Some of us as individual entities have gone to court to protest the decision, but the PDP has chosen not to challenge it in court. Once all the leaders are out of detention, they can meet and decide on whether to coordinate in the future.

The Centre has argued Article 370 was a discriminatory law, and particularly 35A discriminated against refugees and neglected Ladakhis of equal opportunities?

Yes, I accept there was an element of gender bias in 35A, which could have done with correction. I have within the party discussed there might be a need to widen the scope and involve the civil society to acknowledge the gender bias in 35A and correct it ourselves. In fact, I often cited the example of the triple talaq ruling. If the Muslim intelligentsia had themselves acknowledged the problem of triple talaq and done away with it without the courts needing to have stepped in, it would have been better.

With regard to refugees, those refugees were not State subjects of J&K. A State has the right to choose who its domiciles should be. Other States do the same. Himachal Pradesh, Union Territories (UTs) like Andaman, Lakshadweep and the Northeast have their own domicile laws and J&K chose its own domicile law. If there was any element of discriminatory nature in the domicile law, the BJP was part of power with (Peoples Democratic party president) Mehbooba Mufti and Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, why did they not do it while in the government? Why did they have to completely dismember J&K? Why did you have to completely alter constitutional relationship between J&K and the rest of the country to correct these things?

As far as the bogey of Ladakh is concerned, how was Ladakh under represented and underdeveloped? Today the very same Ladakhis who were celebrating Article 370 and 35A removal, are screaming for protections that Article 370 and 35A afforded them. They want their jobs safe, land safe, education and scholarship of students safe.

The domicile law given to us is weaker than most of the domicile laws. I have studied in Himachal Pradesh and have done Class 10 and class 12 there. I am not entitled to a domicile certificate yet a Himachali who has done 10th and 12th in Kashmir is suddenly a domicile here. There are genuine fears that people are being injected into J&K.

How will demography change?

We would be foolish if we would not recognise the creeping threat this poses to J&K. There are designs behind it. Why is it they were in such a hurry to give a domicile law to J&K and not Ladakh, when both were carved out on August 5 last year. Why has only one got the domicile law? Why not a similar weak domicile law in Ladakh?

The process of dilution of special status of J&K had started a long ago. In fact, NC patron Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah in 1975 accepted the new reality then, negotiated and moved on. Is it time to move on?

Why is it a time to move on? Sheikh Abdullah did not accept the changes. In fact the whole purpose of the Indira-Sheikh Accord was to take a look at all those changes that happened between 1953 and 1975 and reverse those. We believed that Article 370 and the special status it granted was an integral part of the State’s accession with rest of India. It’s fair to say one without the other may not have happened. It was a part of the promise made to us when J&K became a part of the Union. We kept our promise and remained a part of the Union. The promise made to us has not been kept. How is that right?

New Delhi has been clever that Article 370 remains in the books. I had said Article 370 is a bridge between J&K and the rest of the country and if you remove it, it will reopen the chapter of the Instrument of Accession. They kept it and hollowed it out. Perhaps they heard what I was saying and modified what they were going to do. Technically, they have not abrogated Article 370.

Did the intervention of the international community, like the U.S., the UN and Europe make any difference?

They were certainly reassuring for us at that time. People of J&K, especially those who were unhappy, did take comfort that a lot of countries and bodies like the UN, the U.S. Congress, the U.S. State Department and European Parliament were speaking up and making themselves heard about the way J&K was treated. I am not talking about Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and Pakistan who are habitual of doing that. But those who otherwise have been reluctant to talk about internal developments. That was a good thing to see.

What if nothing changes now and the August 5 decision is set in stone?

I am unwilling to accept it is set in stone. As long as we have a judiciary we can approach to for justice I will not accept it is set in stone. I believe if we make a strong enough case, the judiciary will not be able to ignore what we are saying. I believe there is a recourse by taking our grievances in the highest court of the land with the hope they will hear us and justice will be done. Justice not to me as an individual or the NC as a party but justice for J&K.

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