On March 30, a party convention of the National Conference in Kashmir’s Budgam district witnessed something unusual. A three-time Member of Legislative Assembly from Budgam and a former cabinet minister, Aga Syed Ruhullah, warned party workers against becoming “collaborators” with those who had accepted the changed status of Jammu and Kashmir. On August 5, 2019, Indian Parliament had stripped the erstwhile state of its special constitutional autonomy under Article 370 and bifurcated it into two union territories.

In the speech, Ruhullah went all guns blazing against his party leadership, the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological mentor of the BJP. The video of Ruhullah’s 44 minute-long speech went viral.

But it was not the first time Ruhullah had voiced his dissent against the party’s thrust on restoration of statehood for Jammu and Kashmir, not the reinstatement of Article 370. In May 2020, he had criticised an opinion piece written by his party colleague which called upon the government to release political prisoners, revisit a controversial domicile law, and begin the political process in the union territory – a reference to elections. “Is that all what you are looking for in this reconciliation?” Ruhullah asked on Twitter.

Two months later, Ruhullah quit his position as the National Conference’s chief spokesperson without giving any reasons. A day before he resigned, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister and National Conference Vice-President, Omar Abdullah, had written an opinion piece for The Indian Express stating that he will not contest elections until Jammu and Kashmir remains a union territory. On the question of the revocation of Article 370, all he said was the party will continue to oppose it “in the highest court in the land in the form of the legal challenge filed in the Supreme Court last year”.

Belonging to one of the influential Shia families of Kashmir, Ruhullah’s entry into mainstream politics began with a tragedy. In 2000, his father, Aga Syed Mehdi, a long-time Congress leader, was killed in a landmine blast by militants.

In an interview with Scroll.in at his home in Budgam, Ruhullah, 45, spoke about why he feels sidelined within the party and what motivates him to be a vocal opponent of the August 5 changes, despite knowing the cost of taking such a political position in Jammu and Kashmir. He explained why the August 5 changes, in his view, are different from other decisions taken by New Delhi in the past.

Excerpts from the interview.

We have seen a slew of police cases and summons against Kashmir’s mainstream political leaders opposed to the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. This seems to have forced even the Gupkar Alliance [which includes the National Conference] to tone down its statements. But you remain an exception. Within the National Conference, you are the most vocal critic of the Centre’s move. In current scheme of things, where do you see yourself?
In the first place, I see it as my duty [to oppose the August 5 decisions] and nothing beyond that. I do my duty and leave the result to Almighty.

This is not the first time I have expressed dissent within the party. Go back to 2014, when Bharatiya Janata Party approached National Conference for an alliance after 2014 assembly elections, it was I who vociferously objected to it. Thankfully, good sense prevailed and NC didn’t go with an alliance with BJP.

To speak my mind, I am encouraged by the fact that for the last one year I am expressing dissent, [but] they [National Conference] are not objecting to me publicly, openly. The fact that I am not a chief spokesperson today is because of my own resignation not that they asked me to go.

If we look at the history of National Conference, it is not like any other ordinary political party. It emerged out of a movement which spoke about the rights and identity of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. That’s the approach which should have been ideally adopted by the party at this juncture but they are not doing it. National Conference is not practicing what it believes in.

Is that an indication of the acceptance of the post-August 5, 2019 reality by the National Conference?
Practically, we are behaving like status-quoists. Post August 5, 2019, everyone was expecting once Omar Abdullah walks free from his detention, something will happen. I also expected it but nothing happened.

How do you channelise this dissent within the party? Do you put forth your viewpoint during the Gupkar Alliance deliberations?
I am the member of all important decision making bodies of the National Conference. But unfortunately or by some design, none of those committees have sat since August 5, 2019. The only opportunity that I got to deliberate with the party leadership and members was during a political affairs committee meeting last year after the release of the political leaders of the party.

Coming to the deliberations of Gupkar Alliance, it should be surprising for many that I have never been called for any meeting of Gupkar Alliance until now. Frankly, I am not surprised.

Did you try to ask them why you aren’t consulted for the Gupkar Alliance deliberations?
I wouldn’t beg them for my presence. Second thing is that I realise why I am not part of these deliberations. It didn’t come to me as a surprise.

Mehbooba Mufti of Peoples Democratic Party, Farooq Abdullah and his son Omar Abdullah of National Conference, and other leaders announced the formation of the People's Alliance for the Gupkar Declaration in Srinagar on October 15, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Have you raised your concerns with senior party leaders like Farooq Abdullah or Omar Abdullah directly?
We were released after them. Immediately after our release I met Dr Sahab [Farooq Abdullah] once. I met both [father and son] during a party meeting in 2020. To my pleasant surprise, when I said all this to Dr Sahab [Farooq Abdullah], he was not only acceptive or receptive to these facts, he was more than willing to act on them. To my shocking surprise, nothing happened.

Then what keeps you in the party?
The reason I am in the party and will remain in the party is the fact that I want to wake them up and shake their conscience.

Observers have pointed out that Gupkar Alliance has failed to convince the people of Jammu and Kashmir that it is serious about fighting for the restoration of the erstwhile state’s special status. It is widely said that Kashmiris don’t have any faith in the mainstream political leaders.
People of Jammu and Kashmir have lost trust. Kashmiris have every reason to be suspicious about their honesty.

Can you elaborate?
There have been some mistakes in the past on our part. During my speech the other day, I admitted to all those mistakes. Let’s not be politically correct or diplomatic about it. The time is to learn from the mistakes.

The question is do you want to push someone to the wall and tell him that you don’t have the right to say the truth because of your mistakes in the past.

There is an argument within National Conference that people don’t care about us. They don’t listen to us, they call us names. Therefore, if they do not care about us, they don’t respect us, why should we suffer for them. There is a section in the party which thinks along those lines.

This is a convenient answer. I can also use the same argument and tell New Delhi that I am ready for any role they deem fit for me. But I don’t want to do that. I am trying to be true to my conscience.

You said you put your foot down in the party when there were discussions about joining BJP to form the government in 2014. Why couldn’t you prevail over the party to stop them from participating in District Development Council elections held in 2020?
After 2019, the temptation took over the conviction. Not everyone, but people part of the Gupkar Alliance were more bothered about power politics. They were tempted, deceived or scarred with the argument that if not you, the BJP will have a free run. This is an excuse for them.

We are at a point in history where we have to choose between hollow arguments and our existence. It is for you to decide.

You are a three-time MLA and you are still young. Don’t you think your stand will essentially kill the prospects of your political career?
If politics means electoral politics, then I have chosen to quit it for a bigger cause. But if politics means to think about your survival, to struggle for your survival, I have not given up yet. My political struggle continues.

Have you weighed on the consequences your stand might have for you?
Honestly speaking, I am not afraid of detention.

Leaders like Shabir Shah, Yaseen Malik and Engineer Rashid are still in detention and nobody talks about them. I see this. This can happen to me also and nobody will talk about me tomorrow but honestly this doesn’t stop me from taking my stand.

I also fear for my life. I can be killed too but I don’t let that fear come into my way.

You know the consequences and you said you are ready to face them. What’s stopping others in the party from backing you?
It is a question which should be put to them. There are two things: One is conviction, the other thing is consequences. If they fear the consequences, I will also have [to face] the same consequences. Why should they be scared about the consequences.

I shouldn’t be saying this but I think it is about the conviction.

Like you said taking a stand against August 5, 2019 might mean that you will have to stay out of electoral politics and power. Does it mean that others don’t want to lose the prospects of enjoying power and that’s why you are all alone?
Of course, it’s all about that. They have been habitual of power politics. The idea of politics minus power is very alien to many of us.

You say the decision of August 5, 2019 is a collective threat to the existence of Kashmiris? What do you think will happen?
If we still say what will happen, I am sorry to say, we Kashmiris at every level, we all need to be shaken. Not only NC but every political party.

What will happen is a thing of the past. It is happening and it has happened.

But what?
From the day of August 5, 2019, our legislative right has been taken away from us. By that I mean to legislate for ourself. The administrative rights have been taken from us and we don’t know when will those be returned to us. God knows how much of those powers will they be willing to give back. It has come to that level.

Talk about language, land rights, job rights, minerals, etc. All the elements of our existence are not under threat or attack but have been already done away with.

Go to the domicile. Doesn’t it open gates to outsiders? Tell me, what authorities or instruments do Kashmiris have in their hand to check the inflow of outsiders? Can your judiciary prevent it? Nobody is going to stop them from giving domiciles to as many people they want.

Let’s go back into history. There is a view that howsoever unpopular or controversial steps New Delhi took with regard to Jammu and Kashmir in the past, they were eventually normalised with the connivance of local elected governments including those of the National Conference. That New Delhi has a template when it comes to imposing its will in Jammu and Kashmir.
This is a formula tried and test by New Delhi and they have been quite successful in that. This is a trap, which has been used in 1975, 1977 and during 1996 assembly elections. Once you accepted those realities, everything became normal. The past was forgotten. The same will happen if we accept the reality of Jammu and Kashmir post August 5, 2019.

Many say that there is already a move towards normalisation. Would you agree?
It is unfortunately going towards that. That’s my cry. That’s why I have been shouting and crying against. Let’s not accept that.

It is commonly believed that as compared to other Indian states, New Delhi enjoyed a certain free hand in Jammu and Kashmir right from 1947. What makes August 5, 2019, significant then?
The reason New Delhi had very easy access and control over Jammu and Kashmir is because we allowed it to happen. Pre-August 2019, the difference was that Jammu and Kashmir government had the powers to prevent the interference of New Delhi in its affairs. They had all the powers in hand to keep them away and it was constitutionally provided to them.

I will answer through an example.

Suppose, I have a gate outside my house. It depends upon the gatekeeper whether he is true to his duty or not. It depends upon him whether he allows a burglar inside the premises or not. That was the reality of Kashmir before August 5, 2019.

Post August 2019, there is not gate at all. So, it doesn’t matter if you keep someone as a gatekeeper or not.

Finally, do you consider yourself an Indian?
For a good 18-19 years, after my father’s sacrifice, I had been convincing people that this is the way for us. We have a democracy, with the rights and power to decide for ourselves. But what the BJP and the Parliament of India did, they took away this argument from me. I am not convinced myself to identify with that idea [of Jammu and Kashmir without constitutional autonomy], how can I convince others.

It is a question to BJP because the Constitution of India says Kashmiris are Indians by way of Article 370 and the Instrument of Accession. They murdered both of them on August 5, 2019. The BJP should say what is the legal and constitutional status of a Kashmiri in India.