After his release, Omar Abdullah played a key role in setting up the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration in J&K. With the former CM as vice-president, the NC bagged 67 seats across Jammu and Kashmir regions in the DDC elections.
The former J&K CM says DDC results expose the Centre’s lies over support for its Aug 5, 2019, changes, believes Assembly polls won’t be held anytime soon, and regrets that the Opposition, particularly Congress, did not stand up for J&K. The session was moderated by Executive Editor (National Affairs) P Vaidyanathan Iyer
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: How does the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) look since the District Development Council (DDC) polls?
OMAR ABDULLAH: Well, the People’s Alliance looks no different now than it did pre-DDC polls, except that we now know that there is a popular mass of support behind what the alliance stands for, particularly in Kashmir. But it would be wrong to deny that we have even opened our banks of support in Jammu as well. Going simply by the numbers, without any horse-trading, without any interference, we are in a position to establish chairpersons of the People’s Alliance in about 12 or 13 of the 20 districts…
We have seen an alarming willingness of the administration to step into the political sphere… What has come as a surprise to us post this election is the way in which the government, and wings and parts of the government machinery, are actively playing a part in converting results which were in favour of the People’s Alliance into results in favour of the Apni Party, which is a very close associate of the ruling BJP… In south Kashmir’s Shopian district, three of my senior colleagues have been picked up under preventive detention charges. We have no idea what trouble their detentions are preventing… In fact, one of these colleagues who comes from Shopian town wasn’t even detained under these sections post-August 5, 2019. He wasn’t considered troublesome then, but suddenly is considered troublesome now.
The second aspect is family members of elected DDC members being detained by the police and told that as long as the elected member votes or goes and joins the Apni party, we will release the person. So, it’s extremely worrying at the moment… On the one hand, you cite these (DDC polls) as examples of democracy in action and on the other hand, you are quite happy to throttle democracy at the hands of the police by using underhand tactics.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: Views on the DDC polls have been divided. Do you believe they have opened up democratic space in J&K?
OMAR ABDULLAH: Have they kickstarted a political process? Well, of course they have. The political process was in deep freeze post August 5, 2019. They have also, to an extent, put to rest claims that mainstream politics in J&K is dead, or that there is no place for traditional political parties of J&K. If you look at the National Conference, in terms of our strike rate and our ability to win seats both in Kashmir and Jammu, I think it would be pretty surprising if somebody were to turn around and say this political party is dead.
Does it open up new avenues for democratic representation? Well, first, previous governments have not been undemocratic. But it is true that grassroots democracy is strengthened by having a tier of governance closer to those grassroots. That is why panchayati raj institutions have always been favoured across the country… So yes, these DDC polls will create another level of political representation. They will create another generation of young, upcoming mainstream political participants across party lines. So on the whole, it’s good. But I will make the point again that the administration should resist the temptation to assist the BJP and the Apni Party.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: In the future, do you see a permanence to the People’s Alliance in J&K?
OMAR ABDULLAH: I don’t think you can claim or aspire to permanence for any alliance. You only have to look at the experiences within the NDA… Their oldest allies, the Shiv Sena and the Akali Dal, are no longer part of the NDA. So, I would be the last person to assume that there is an element of permanence to the People’s Alliance. We are clear on what our agenda is and we will work together towards the fulfilment of that agenda. I think we are stronger, having fought these elections together, because a lot of people, a lot of commentators assumed that this alliance would fall apart at the first sign of any serious test. Which is not to say we didn’t have difficulties, we did have teething problems with seat-sharing… So, as with every alliance, it’s not 100 per cent smooth sailing, but we survived this major test.
BASHAARAT MASOOD: By participating in the DDC polls, did the People’s Alliance go against its own agenda and accept the situation in J&K?
OMAR ABDULLAH: That was one of the points under active consideration when we were debating whether to participate in the elections or not. The conclusion that we drew was that these elections were going to go ahead with our presence or without it. At a time when public support for the agenda of the People’s Alliance was being called into question, what other way did we have apart from peaceful democratic means to prove that we enjoyed popular support?… The other avenue was then to have adopted the path of the Hurriyat, which is to go down the path of confrontation, protests, strikes, stone-pelting, boycott of elections… which I think would have opened us up to the sort of criticism that would have been very difficult for us to survive… We thought that this was the best way to prove to the world at large, but particularly to the rest of India, that the bogey that has been fed to the people by the BJP that the people of J&K are resoundingly in favour of what happened on August 5, 2019, that even the people of Kashmir are a 100 per cent behind the decision, was wrong. And I think by participating in this election, we have been able to send that message out. So no, I don’t think our participation has in any way legitimised what the BJP has done. In fact, if anything, it calls into question the support for and the popularity of what was done on August 5, 2019.
RAJ KAMAL JHA: In your statements since your release, there is a strong sense of despair. Can you tell us about that? Also, what do you think are the irreversibles that have happened in the Valley, and what would be the best case scenario over the next five years?
OMAR ABDULLAH: It’s not despair… I think it’s a lot of anger, a lot of disappointment. I’m only human and when I see the ways in which this government is going out of its way to throttle the mainstream, it’s very difficult to come to terms with it and to rationalise… But I, having been an elected chief minister for six years, having been a functioning parliamentarian from 1998 onwards, I find no rational explanation and no justification for the sort of things that they have done… So it’s frustrating, infuriating. It’s disappointing…
Now, what would be the best case scenario?… The Supreme Court said that we can turn the clock back as far as we want when they admitted the petitions challenging the August 5, 2019, decision… So I have to trust the Supreme Court when they say that they can undo it. My own sort of limited sense of intelligence tells me that you will reach a point where it will be impossible to undo some of the changes that have been done. The time will end up being of the essence. You cannot have indefinite period of domicile being changed or land laws having been affected or cadre of J&K administrative services and police officers being changed or forest services officers being changed and similar changes being put into place and then turn around and say all this can be undone… because somebody will say so much water has flown in the Jhelum that we will now have to accept this as the new reality… which is not what we are willing to accept.
So for me, a good outcome at the moment would be for the Supreme Court to begin hearings immediately on the petitions. It is not like the Supreme Court is not working at all. We have seen the Supreme Court take cognizance of what is happening with the farmer protests and step into those. If the farmer protests can invite the attention of the Supreme Court and their observations can include words that ‘this did not seem to include any consultation’ … then there were no consultations with J&K before what happened on August 5, 2019. By that same yardstick of consultation, the Supreme Court needs to step in with what happened in J&K and start hearing us out and let the weight of our arguments make up their minds… The best outcome would be that the Supreme Court says that what happened to J&K was unconstitutional, illegal and rolls it back.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: You and Mr Farooq Abdullah had a meeting with the Prime Minister just before Article 370 was abrogated. Can you tell us about that?
OMAR ABDULLAH: There was no consultation during that meeting. We weren’t told that two days hence, Parliament was going to move to remove Article 35 A and completely dismember Article 370. If that had been told to us, obviously we would have considered that as consultation and put our point of view before the Prime Minister. There were a lot of rumours at the time, and we went to the Prime Minister to request him to ensure that nothing untoward was done to J&K that would impact the tenuous calm on the ground. The Prime Minister said that he doesn’t want to see an unsettled J&K and that he wants a calm J&K in which democracy prevails… My interpretation of what he said was flawed. I took that to mean that nothing untoward was going to happen in J&K in the next few days. I was wrong.
NAVEED IQBAL: In the future, will the People’s Alliance be more than an electoral alliance? The PDP alone protested against the land laws. Will we see a unified voice on issues?
OMAR ABDULLAH: I am not an office-bearer of the PAGD. I participate in the PAGD as vice-president of the National Conference… It’s not as if every action of the PAGD has been unilateral… we are individual political parties in our own right also… We are not simply an electoral alliance. In fact, we became an electoral alliance much after we became the People’s Alliance for the Gupkar Declaration… The elections were neither asked for by us, nor something that we sought; they were foisted on us. Participating in them was really the only reasonable avenue that was open to us.
AAKASH JOSHI: The government’s defence for most of the measures taken since August 5, 2019, has been that it has happened before — detentions, communication blackout etc. How is the current situation different from what had gone on before perhaps in a piecemeal manner?
OMAR ABDULLAH: It is different in every way… How can anybody in the BJP say that this is normal? I don’t, in my lifetime, ever remember a mainstream political leader being detained under preventive arrest, much less under the Public Safety Act. Yes, different governments, mine included, have from time to time felt the need to restrict communication, but for very limited periods of time. And always with the view that these must be restored at the earliest possible opportunity. We are now seeing an absence of 4G mobile connectivity, except in two districts, for the last one-and-a-half-years… When have we ever seen a situation like this, even in the worst times?… The worrying part is that the BJP actually sees this as normal. Which fundamental rights do we have today? None. You do not enjoy the right to free speech. You do not enjoy the right to free movement… and for the BJP, this is normal. I guess this is the Jammu and Kashmir that was carved out and they are telling us it is normal and learn to live with it… which, I am sorry, I am not willing to do.
SOFI AHSAN: Why haven’t you taken matters such as the land laws and the issue of domicile to the Supreme Court?
OMAR ABDULLAH: We have taken the fundamental fight to the Supreme Court. Everything that this government is attempting to do is under the umbrella of what was done on August 5, 2019. Instead of tying ourselves up in little battles, we want to fight the main one, which is to call into question the legality of everything that is happening because of what happened in August 2019.
LIZ MATHEW: Do you think Assembly elections in J&K will be delayed?
OMAR ABDULLAH: I am not particularly enthused about Assembly elections in a Union Territory… You only have to look at the examples of Delhi and Pondicherry to see how their elected chief ministers are humiliated and reduced to non-entities by highly active lieutenant governors. That said, I don’t foresee an Assembly election anytime soon. My father (Farooq Abdullah) is convinced that you will see an Assembly election sometime in 2021. I am at complete odds with him. I don’t believe it will happen before the next Parliament election. J&K has been singled out for delimitation… The process will take a considerable time. And once that is done, new constituencies are identified, you will be pretty much at the end of this Parliament. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the government of India turns around and says well, hang on, we have a Parliament election in a few months, we might as well do both together… Having DDCs in place, they will be able to take the defence that J&K has a democratic framework within which governance and development activity is taking place, and that for the time being we don’t need an Assembly. So, I am not preparing myself mentally for the prospect of an Assembly election. But as I said, my party president disagrees vehemently with me on this.
MANRAJ GREWAL SHARMA: A few days back a Punjabi businessman who had just got a domicile certificate was gunned down by a militant outfit, which said there will be more targeted killings of ‘outsiders’. How do you think the new domicile law will pan out?
OMAR ABDULLAH: There’s no doubt that the new law has created a sense of unease among people. And that unease is multiplied when we see the way in which one UT is treated in comparison to another. On August 5, 2019, two UTs were formed. Yet, only one is singled out for experiments with domicile and land laws… But no matter how apprehensive we are about these new land and domicile laws, the use of violence to express our resentment is not acceptable. Which is why I would like to see courts play a more proactive role in taking up these concerns and starting the process of listening to people.
VANDITA MISHRA: Following August 5, 2019, there hasn’t been a loud enough voice from the Opposition on Kashmir. Where do you see the challenge to the BJP coming from?
OMAR ABDULLAH: I believe that we were let down by a large section of opposition parties — leaders who we were happy to call friends and parties that we worked with… It’s a festering, sore point as far as I’m concerned. And I don’t think I will ever forgive and forget. Whenever I come across these people, I will be polite and respectful, but I will also be perfectly disconnected from their problems and their realities, as they were from us. That’s not to say that we didn’t receive support. (West Bengal Chief Minister) Mamata Banerjee and her party is one example. Stalin and the DMK would be another. The Left has traditionally been friends of J&K. They were forceful in opposing what was happening. There were stray voices within the Congress party. It would be wrong to forget leaders like P Chidambaram. Even leaders like Kapil Sibal and others who spoke, wrote and talked about what was happening here… But as an organisation, I think the Congress party failed us and the people of J&K, as did a lot of other opposition parties. Some of them actively colluded with what the BJP did. And that is not just surprising but unforgivable.
Now, how do I see the Opposition in the rest of the country today? I don’t really see one. I think if I was PM Modi today, I would be one of the happiest people around. I said during his first term that unless we do something drastic, 2019 (Lok Sabha polls) is a done deal. I’m afraid that in January 2021, I’m forced to say that unless we drastically overhaul the way we are doing opposition in this country, even 2024 is looking like a done deal. And that’s not a prospect that is comforting to a lot of us.
This government must have an effective opposition. If that opposition cannot come from the only remaining seemingly national party after the BJP, then somebody else is going to have to step up. We have to relook how we do opposition. We have to do it at the state level, individually, because we can’t give this government a free hand.
VANDITA MISHRA: How do you see the politics of Rahul Gandhi?
OMAR ABDULLAH: Rahul Gandhi is an honest, well-meaning politician. But Rahul will need to decide for himself where he fits into this entire political spectrum. If he is to be the leader of the Congress party, then step up and be the leader. If not, then let somebody else be the leader. And until such time as the Congress is able to put its own house in order, perhaps it’s time for the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) to look at fresh options. Let the Congress sort out its internal leadership issues. And then if the Congress wants to assume leadership of the UPA again, that’s for the UPA to decide.