Will Jammu and Kashmir finally see assembly elections after eight years?

It has been over three years since August 5, 2019, when the Centre unilaterally stripped the former state of formal autonomy under Article 370, split it into two Union Territories and dissolved the state assembly. As it did so, it placed the region under lockdown and almost the entire Kashmiri political leadership under detention.

Among the leaders detained for months was Omar Abdullah, former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and National Conference leader. When he emerged from detention, his National Conference tied up with the People’s Democratic Party and other Kashmiri parties to form a political conglomeration called the People’s Alliance for the Gupkar Declaration.

The Gupkar Declaration, a resolution passed by Kashmiri political parties on August 4, 2019, pledged to preserve autonomy, statehood and special protections guaranteed to Jammu and Kashmir under the Constitution.

The new political alliance fared well in the district development council elections held in December 2020. These councils form the third layer of local government in Jammu and Kashmir. Introduced for the first time, they were part of Bharatiya Janata Party’s stated aim of bringing “grassroots democracy” to the region.

Two years later, the BJP-led Centre talks of assembly elections after delimitation, a process that has redrawn electoral constituencies in Jammu and Kashmir, and the revision of electoral rolls, which could add thousands of new voters, many of them from outside Jammu and Kashmir. There is also talk of restoring statehood after elections.

But the Gupkar alliance that fared so well in the council elections may be fraying. Both Omar Abdullah and his father, Farooq Abdullah, also a former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, have said they will not stand for elections. There have been rumours that the National Conference, the largest player in the Gupkar alliance, may go it alone.

Scroll.in met Omar Abdullah, who spoke about potential elections, the impact of delimitation and a post-2019 Jammu and Kashmir.

Here are excerpts from the interview.

Kashmiri parties at the first Gupkar Declaration, August 4, 2019.

There have been murmurs about the National Conference contesting elections alone. In August, the party’s working committee said it was ready to fight elections alone. Recently, the National Conference announced constituency in-charges in Kashmir. Would you like to clear the air about it?

I have nothing to clear. The provincial working committee had an opinion on this matter. They made their opinion known. As has been mentioned on that day and subsequently, there are no elections in the offing at the moment. Therefore, any speculation about how the National Conference will approach these elections is premature.

We have always had segment in-charges. As a result of delimitation and other internal developments, some segments were unrepresented, which needed to be addressed. They are constituency in-charges, they are not mandate holders. This list is of those people who look after the constituencies for now. As and when elections are announced, we will take a look at viable candidates for a particular area.

Have any of the other parties within the Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration responded to these announcements?

No. Why should they? This is an internal exercise for us. This is not subject to PAGD veto.

Why have you decided against contesting elections?

I have been chief minister of a state that enjoyed the maximum possible autonomy under the Indian Constitution. I have absolutely no interest in going into the current system.

Secondly, I don’t want to tie myself down to a particular constituency. This election is too crucial for me. There are now 90 constituencies in Jammu and Kashmir. Regardless of what happens, I would be expected to campaign in [all] 90 of those constituencies. I don’t have the bandwidth to contest an election on my own.

If the National Conference ends up being the single largest party in an assembly election, will it consider an alliance with other parties to form the government?

I will just tell you this. We are not fighting to come second. Nor are we fighting to be dependent on anybody.

I hope that the people of Jammu and Kashmir are sensible enough to give a mandate to a particular party. Obviously, I hope that that party would be mine. But should they choose not to, I still hope that they will not give a fractured mandate. The division of our voices has proved to be very costly for Jammu and Kashmir.

Some say parties standing for elections will cement the post-August 2019 status quo. What do you say to that?

If parties like ours, who are opposed to what they did on August 5, 2019, are not represented in the assembly, the BJP will have a majority. They will overrule the restoration of autonomy resolution [passed by the National Conference government in 1999]. They will bring their own resolution and put a rubber stamp on what happened on August 5.

They will take that rubber stamp to the Supreme Court and say the people of Jammu and Kashmir have endorsed what [they] did and it no longer needs to hear this matter. The Supreme Court will dismiss the case on the basis of that endorsement. It’s to stop that endorsement that, we believe, our presence in the assembly is vital.

Do you think matters like bijli, sadak, paani [electrcity, roads, water] have receded into the background and questions of religion and identity have taken centre stage as electoral issues?

I think that would be an important part of this election. Previously, we fought against an [election] boycott sentiment. It was a very difficult sentiment to fight against. Which is why we made the point that participating in those elections was not going to resolve the Kashmir issue.

Today, the goal posts have shifted. The fight for Article 370, the fight for our identity, what’s happening to Muslims in the rest of the country – those are real issues. Those are issues where your voice can definitely be magnified by participation in these elections.

There’s this whole belief that they are aiming to change the demography of Jammu and Kashmir. Before the court, the solution to that lies in the assembly. Because if you elect a government that is not dependent on the BJP, it will bring its own state subject laws in. Today, you have amongst the weakest state subject laws in the country. You just have to have a law similar to Himachal Pradesh or Uttarakhand.

Do you think a government led by an opposition party will be able to function in Kashmir? Do you fear interference by the Centre?

That will be a reality. But then, a lot will depend on how irrelevant the BJP is in the assembly. The more seats they get, the more interfering they will be. But if the mandate is resoundingly against them, I like to believe that they will have some shame and they will not push J&K to the wall.

We have seen a delimitation commission awarding more seats to Hindu-majority Jammu than Muslim-majority Kashmir. Muslims in the region talk about political disempowerment. Do you think Kashmiri Muslims have lost hope of finding representation in mainstream politics?

Not at all. Kashmiris have not been disempowered by delimitation. If there’s a reason for Muslims to feel disempowered, it’s more in Jammu than in Kashmir. But then, that’s the BJP using whatever tricks it can to win more assembly seats. And we knew this would happen.

Before delimitation, Kishtwar district [in Jammu division] had two assembly constituencies: Inderwal and Kishtwar. Both were Muslim majority. Post delimitation, Kishtwar has three assembly constituencies, of which two are Hindu majority. That’s the way they have operated. The same is true for Doda district.

Look, if Muslims have lost hope in mainstream politics in Kashmir, it’s not a result of delimitation. Kashmiris have had a rather tenuous relationship with the mainstream in the last 30-35 years. We can’t blame delimitation for that.

Has delimitation further disillusioned Kashmiri Muslims?

I think it’s too early to predict how people will react.

Where is separatist politics today? There’s no single separatist leader around whom Kashmiris with a separatist mindset can rally. So, as disillusioned as they may be with the mainstream, it doesn’t translate into glorifying separatist politics either.

A polling officer sprays hand sanitiser on voters for the district development council elections in December 2020. Photo: S Irfan/PTI

The government points to tourism figures and investment summits, it says it has cracked down on militancy. We have newspapers saying Jammu and Kashmir has “transformed”...

[Interrupts] We have newspapers? You are very generous in your terminology. Because, truth be told, I don’t see news in them. I see paper, I see printing on it. But I don’t see the news.

So how would you define the current situation in Jammu and Kashmir?

There’s no doubt that they [the Union Territory administration] are able to produce numbers. But it takes a little bit of analysis to make sense of those numbers.

Tourism numbers, for example. They suddenly came up with this claim that for the first time since Independence some 1.60 crore tourists visited Jammu and Kashmir. I have also been chief minister and I have also tried to promote tourism. And I was never able to get more than 14-15, maybe 16 lakh, tourists in a year. I was like what the hell did I do wrong?

Also, where do these tourists stay? Because I haven’t seen any new hotel, new accommodations. Yes, some people have converted their houses into guest houses and home stays. I will give allowances for that. So where did these 1.6 crore tourists stay? But then, when you start looking at the number, you realise that actually all they have done is reverse a previous decision, which is that we didn’t count yatris [pilgrims] as tourists. Hardly any yatris actually perform the activity of a tourist. I mean you want to juggle with figures, it’s very easy to do.

Come to investment. Where’s this money going? It has now been three and a half years since August, 2019. If you claim Rs 55,000 crore of investment proposals, show me one new factory, one new hotel, one new piece of infrastructure. Take out what the government does, because the government builds infrastructure. It has to. Show me one new private hospital.

Are you saying the government doesn’t want to do developmental work?

It’s not a question of them not wanting to. Their problem, I think, is that they have over-sold [themselves]. They basically said that Article 370 was the root cause of all of Jammu and Kashmir’s problems. And its abrogation will be the magic solution to all these problems. Abrogation has happened but the solutions haven’t come. Article 370 was not a bar to investment. The perception of Jammu and Kashmir as an unsafe place was a bar to investment.

Do you think Jammu and Kashmir is still unsafe?

Of course. Just two days ago, you found a non-local labourer dead on the road. It’s not that he keeled over [from] a heart attack or died of the cold. He died of bullet wounds. How many other instances have there been of non-locals or minorities being targeted like this? Militancy still exists.

But the BJP says they have been able to establish ‘grassroots democracy’ through a three-tier panchayati raj system.

I had grassroots democracy with far greater participation. And I didn’t have to lock up my panchayat members in hotels and guest houses and college dormitories.

You forget that we had panchayat elections in the immediate aftermath of the terrible turmoil of 2010. And the participation in those elections was 85-90%.

The BJP claims that three dynastic political parties – the National Conference, the People’s Democratic Party and the Congress – have ruined Jammu and Kashmir over seven decades. How do you respond to these claims?

We gave you [the BJP] a list of works that we have done. You had no answer to that. Then, the BJP’s answer was: every government has to work. We have actually shown you some projects we have initiated and completed.

You still travel to various parts of the former state of Jammu and Kashmir. What do people tell you?

It’s a mixed bag of concerns. There’s concern regarding the complete lack of responsiveness on the part of the administration.

This is the first time you have had central rule in Jammu and Kashmir that people are so completely disillusioned with. Because governor’s rule in J&K has been seen as a sort of relief from the overtly politically elected government, as a breather wherein people believe that their claims will be looked at objectively.

This is the first time you had an unelected government that has completely debunked that theory.

The last couple of years have seen attacks on religious minorities and migrant workers in Kashmir. Now, the Kashmiri Pandits who did not flee the Valley when the community was under attack in the 1990s are talking of leaving. Why do you think security measures taken by the government failed to reassure Kashmiri Pandits?

How can you force people to stay here? You can’t drag people against their will and say “no, you have to live here because symbolically your presence here is important”. Kashmiri Pandits have to come back. But they must come back of their own volition.

Yes, you have encouraged them to come back by making certain packages available to them, by making jobs available to them. But you can’t bind them here. You have to make them feel secure enough to want to work here.

If you were chief minister now, how would you deal with this situation?

We didn’t let a situation like this arise in the first place. This I speak for my government as well as Mehbooba’s. We both faced terrible summers. One in 2010 and one in 2016. Whatever else happened, minorities were not targeted. What has led to this is for the government to analyse and address.

It is commonly believed that Kashmiri Pandits have political affinities with the BJP and the Hindu Right. Has your party been in touch with members of the community?

Of course we have. We have an open channel. Members of the Kashmiri Pandit community are part of our party.

If I was among them, I would feel let down. I would feel let down by the fact that my home minister comes to Kashmir, addresses a public meeting, talks about Paharis and Gujjars and Kashmiri Muslims. But he doesn’t have one word for my Kashmiri Pandit community. That’s disappointing.

Law enforcement agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate have been investigating members of the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party. Has this had an impact on the morale of the party cadre and leadership?

It’s a big morale booster. It gives us a reason to take these people on with even more intensity. Being targeted by these agencies is now a badge of acceptance into the ranks of the Opposition. It’s a fact. Because the only people who get targeted are those who are opposed to the BJP or its alliances. Truth be told, to not be targeted by them is perhaps a bit of a humiliation.

Look, these agencies are doing their job. Let them. I have never been one to attach motive to what they are doing. They call us, we answer their questions. I would like to believe there’s still a judiciary. The judiciary is independent and you have a right to the presumption of innocence until guilt is established. That’s for the court to do.

What has the National Conference done that’s anti-national or illegal or outside the scope of the Constitution? Nothing. Even in our challenge to what was done on August 5, 2019, we have taken the one route that is available to us as per the Constitution, which is to approach the courts.

But the courts haven’t taken it up so far.

Yes, it’s a matter of disappointment that they haven’t taken it up with the sort of enthusiasm that we would have liked. But there have been enough indicators from the current chief justice that he has taken note of this and hopes to make progress on matters like this.

Voters queue up in front of graffiti calling for an election boycott during the assembly elections in December 2014. Photo: Rouf Bhat/PTI

And for you there’s no other way to challenge what happened on August 5, 2019?

We challenge it in our speeches, in our interactions with the press. We make it known that we don’t accept what happened on August 5, 2019. We challenged it through the electoral route. And we are challenging it in court.

But if you are asking, one of the challenges is to also go out on the streets and protest – no. These sort of protests cannot be engineered. They are either spontaneous or they don’t exist. And there’s no spontaneous protest against this.

People often quote the example of the farmers’ protest. The farmers’ protest was not an engineered protest. It was not directed by a political party. If anything, the farmers made every effort to keep political parties off their stage.

Today, three and a half years later, what protest will you engineer? And how will it change anything on the ground?

Do you think people have made peace with August 5, 2019?

We haven’t made peace with it. Not agitating over it is not acceptance. We don’t expect an overnight development. We also realise that normal life has to go on. Our children can’t stop going to school. We can’t stop earning money. We can’t keep our shops closed. We can’t keep taxis off the roads. We can’t tell tourists not to come.

This is a very sensible and very mature approach. It’s an approach that doesn’t give the government an excuse to clampdown violently. And I think it will also deliver the results that other sorts of reactions have not delivered.

There’s been a lot of talk about statehood being restored. Will statehood be some sort of a middle ground between New Delhi and J&K leaders?

If your question is that for getting back statehood, will you surrender on Article 370? Then, no. We have a right to statehood but we have a right to statehood without surrendering on Article 370.

What do you make of the term “hybrid militancy”, which security forces have been using lately?

I am not privy to any intelligence inputs. I have chaired enough Unified Command meetings which have representation of all the [security] forces and intelligence agencies. It’s a term I had never heard.

So, if this is a new phenomenon then it’s a creation of the post August 5, 2019 Jammu and Kashmir. That’s something else they [BJP] can take credit for. They have created a whole new class of militants that didn’t exist.

I assume it means they are people who have normal day-to-day lives and are able to slip into militancy. I think that’s tragic. Because these are obviously then people who, sort of, are not doing it out of economic disgruntlement or lack of opportunity. If they are looking at militancy as an option then that should tell you that the situation is not as comfortable as they would like us to believe.

Kashmiri journalists have faced arrests, have been stopped from leaving the country to work or collect awards. Why does no political party in the Valley speak about it?

Everybody speaks for them. When it happens, we all raise our voices. But then we are all on the receiving end of the same thing. I can speak particularly for my party. We are the number one target of militant organisations and the government of India is also out to get us. It’s the same with journalists. You write something, the government is unhappy and these militant organisations also start issuing threats. It’s extremely unfortunate. Journalists should just be allowed to do their jobs.

One of the biggest casualties in post August 5, 2019 Jammu and Kashmir is that our press has almost completely died. There’s not a newspaper worth [its] name printed in Jammu and Kashmir that reports the news any longer. They are all, without exception, mouthpieces of the government. All you do is read what press note has been issued somewhere.