Chastened rivals

The release of Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah after prolonged detention points to a rethink and modified strategy on the part of the government and the N.C. leaders.

Published : Apr 05, 2020 07:00 IST

National Conference  MP  and former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah in Srinagar on March 13.

National Conference MP and former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah in Srinagar on March 13.

A somewhat quick but apt inference from the February 12 meeting between former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief Amarjit Singh Dulat and the former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Farooq Abdullah would be: A cogitating New Delhi realised the cost of its impulsive actions in Kashmir—a loss of Rs.18,000 crore during the “civilian curfew” besides uncontrollable global scrutiny—and turned to its tested trouble-shooter to ask, “Are you available?”

Although Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference (N.C.) claimed that the meeting was “apolitical” and denied that a deal was struck with the Narendra Modi government, a position somewhat validated by the Centre’s initial offer of pittance in the name of domicile guarantees, the release of the party’s leaders—Farooq Abdullah on March 13 and his son and former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah on March 24—after seven months of detention is no trifling development and it could not have played out in a vacuum. 

The two leaders’ evasiveness on the question of the Centre’s incursions in Kashmir, much in contrast to their steely resolve at an all-party meeting in Gupkar, Srinagar on August 4, 2019, also points in that direction (Frontline, October 25, 2019). 

(On August 5, the government of India revoked Article 370 which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir and introduced a Bill in Parliament for the bifurcation of the State into Jammu and Kashmir Union Territory and Ladakh Union territory.)

The Gupkar declaration, adopted by a cross-section of political leaders, including the Abdullahs, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leader Mehbooba Mufti and Jammu and Kashmir People’s Conference leader Sajjad Lone, had spelt out in no uncertain terms that “any modification, abrogation of Articles 35A, 370, unconstitutional delimitation or trifurcation of the State would be an aggression against the people of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh”. But after their release, the Abdullahs turned into quiescent fence-sitters. “I will not speak on political matters until everyone else is released,” the 82-year-old Farooq Abdullah, clad in an all-black attire, told reporters outside his residence in Srinagar on March 13. Omar Abdullah, on his release, focussed on battling the COVID-19 pandemic.

The brevity of their statements spurred relentless guessing games. Will they show deference to the sentiment on the ground and be willing for a long standoff with the Centre? Or, will they remain self-indulgent power-seekers, the fulcrum of their politics resting on an ignominious struggle for statehood? 

A week after the release of Omar Abdullah on March 31, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a notification that did little to allay Kashmiris’ fear of encroachment into their jobs and land. The order says anyone who has lived in Jammu and Kashmir for 15 years would be eligible for domicile. It extended the same privilege to the children of Central government employees who have served in what now is the Union territory for at least 10 years, and also those who have studied for seven years and appeared for Class 10 and Class 12 examinations in an educational institution there. 

Soon, there was an explosion of outrage on social media. Omar Abdullah and other mainstream players—expectedly—were among the first to react. While Omar Abdullah remarked “insult is heaped on injury”, Altaf Bukhari, who heads the newly launched J&K Apni Party, scoffed at the order as “a casual exercise carried out at bureaucratic level”. As a debate raged, many political observers gravitated towards viewing the release of the N.C. leaders in isolation, a reminder of the effectiveness of combative rhetoric that politicians in Kashmir use to generate false hopes, and, in some instances, faith. The question asked was: “Had there been a deal, wouldn’t there be a reward?”

This point of view, however, fails to take note of two things. First, if there is no reward at the outset, it does not mean that there would not be any ever. In fact, it suits the N.C. to win that after a hard bargain. That would bring the party back in a game, which is essentially about creating an illusion that one is locked in a combat with the Centre. That is how mainstream politics operates in Kashmir. The Centre’s decision to amend the new domicile law and make jobs in the Union Territory out of bounds for non-residents, barely four days after the “unionists” haggled for a more generous concession, smacks of that manoeuvre. Second, if the release of the Abdullahs was because of a sudden pang of conscience in the Modi government, it has no qualms about keeping Mehbooba Mufti in detention.

Frontline  has learnt that the PDP, a former ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), “isn’t receiving any feelers from the government”. Said a source who is in touch with Mehbooba Mufti: “There hasn’t been any communication [from New Delhi] after the Public Safety Act (PSA) was invoked against her and Naeem Akhtar [former Cabinet Minister]. Earlier, there was some, but they refused to make any compromise over Article 370.” When the conversation veered towards the Abdullahs’ “silence”, the source said: “Those [the PDP leaders] who are willing to hit the street are in jail, whereas those who are free aren’t even talking about Article 370.”

When repeatedly questioned about the possibility of an understanding between the party and the Centre, an N.C. leader said:. “I can vouch Omar Abdullah wouldn’t do any deal with the Modi government.” Does that mean the five-time Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah has caved in?

A saint-turned-politician

The “unionist” politicians’ infirmity of purpose in the past decades enables us to do more than conjectural thinking. In 1975, Sheikh Abdullah, who was Prime Minister of Kashmir and who had spent close to 22 years in continual internment, surrendered to redrawn political battlelines and agreed to an accord with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It virtually meant that the dilution of the pre-1953 autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir would be irrevocable. The people of Kashmir treated him like a saint, but the saint became a politician.

In its aftermath, mainstream politics in the Kashmir valley has operated along a predictable trajectory, stymying any process aimed at disturbing the status quo . In Farooq and Omar Abdullah’s case, the halo of a saint does not risk being evaporated. People look at them as politicians. They will not make unrealistic estimates of their end-goal and then be left livid at being duped. When the PSA was invoked against the former Chief Ministers, there was no outrage. Danish, a youth in a village off Sangam in South Kashmir, explained: “Their detention is illegal; but it’s hard to empathise with them.” His was not a deviant view. The manager of a ritzy hotel at Sonwar Bagh in Srinagar, was more scornful. “Did Mehbooba Mufti care when the PSA was randomly used in her reign to terrorise people? This is natural justice.”

The N.C. denies that its leaders are impervious to people’s suffering. Imran Nabi Dar, N.C. spokesperson, told  Frontline : “The Gupkar declaration was a multiparty endeavour. Farooq Abdullah is clear that the future course will be charted out after we have heard from everyone else. He has called for the immediate release of all political prisoners and that is the rational thing to do at the moment.” There are others who mirror this point of view. Siddiq Wahid, a noted academic and political commentator, believes there is an over-simplification on social media on what political silence means. He explains: “We need to cogitate on how all actors in the State would regroup and reinvent their politics. Let there be a dialogue on that. Participation in elections is anathema for most of us post-August 5, but we ought to consider what everyone else has to say, including the ‘unionist politicians’.”


Political limitations

Indeed, a sweeping indictment of Kashmir’s mainstream political actors would amount to irresponsible grandstanding. One needs to factor in the limitations that hinder their politics. Government formation in Jammu and Kashmir is not the usual hand-over of power but a cessation of partial authority that can be reversed at the slightest violation of the fine line set by New Delhi. Various instances, including the Indira Gandhi-monitored coup that replaced Farooq Abdullah with his brother-in-law G.M. Shah as Chief Minister in 1984, amply illustrates this.

With this in mind, it becomes somewhat easier to understand that, no matter his present circumspect behaviour and some amount of calculated belligerence that we may witness in the coming weeks and months, Farooq Abdullah could be—as he was in 1996—“available”. In his four-decades long career, the only time he declined to act as a buffer was in January 1990, when he resigned as Chief Minister even as a turbulent period of militancy stared at India. But that decision, writes former bureaucrat Moosa Raza in his memoir Kashmir: Land of Regrets ,   was not shaped by mass sentiment against New Delhi’s rule but his inability to accept Jagmohan as the new Governor of the State.

The N.C. would likely focus on repairing ties with the Centre and work on areas of agreement. The signs of it are becoming evident. The Prime Minister recently engaged with Omar Abdullah on Twitter and lauded his effort at physical distancing to fight the coronovirus pandemic. Siddiq Wahid warns Kashmiris against falling into that trap. “New Delhi is very good at taking 10 from us and returning two, and if I am supposed to be grateful for that, am I worth my salt?” On the domicile law, he contended: “It is a law to enable Delhi to circumvent the law to effect demographic change and initiate cultural flooding.”

But within the N.C., there is an apparent mood for participating in elections whenever they are called. A party leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that their decision to shun the local bodies election in 2018 was a “mistake”. “We will not repeat that,” he declared with conviction.

In public, they are watchful. “At a time when people are grappling with a deadly virus—where everyday news about deaths are coming, I think it’s not right to talk about the political issues Jammu and Kashmir faces. As and when all the leaders are released and we are able to call the party’s working committee meeting, we will be able to deliberate about post-August 5 events and the way forward,” Omar Abdullah’s political advisor, Tanveer Sadiq, told  Frontline .

As their procrastination smogs the scene in locked-down Srinagar, one wonders what compelled the BJP to shed its brusque air of command and seek rapprochement with those it bitterly discredited. “There will be no dialogue with the mainstream political parties or the separatists. How can you have a dialogue with someone who said there will be no one to hold the national tricolour?” Satya Pal Malik, the then Governor of the State, said soon after the August 5 decision. Jamyang Namgyal, BJP MP from Ladakh, was incisive. “Members of two families are still intoxicated and think that Kashmir is their father’s property,” he said in Parliament.

But that was then. The government now realises it entered a battlefield with robust preparedness for day one, but not for day two and days thereafter. The initial euphoria of Jammu and Kashmir’s “total integration” with India evaporated sooner than one imagined. The BJP lost important elections in Jharkhand and Maharashtra, and in Jammu, its regional satraps clamoured for domicile rights. 

A United States Congressional Committee twice called hearings over rights violations in Kashmir, while “friends” Malaysia and Turkey turned into bitter critics of India. The public relations gamble on October 29, when the Union government took a 27-member European Union delegation to Kashmir, ended in smoke, with the world noting that 22 of them came from far-right, Islamophobic backgrounds. 

The government realised it risks exposing the brittle moral foundations of Indian democracy in Kashmir unless it makes a quick retreat. It realised that the larger objective in Kashmir is not to gain monopoly—that had been achieved by Jawaharlal Nehru in August 1953 when he deposed Sheikh Abdullah—but maintain a sheen of legitimacy. It understood the Abdullahs and Muftis abetted that.

Will they, again?

The past foretells the future.

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