Businessman politician, Syed Mohammad Altaf Bukhari who has emerged as a key figure in Kashmir’s post-Article 370 politics tells Kashmir Life editors, Masood Hussain and Riyaz Wani why he admires Kashmir’s erstwhile Prime Minister Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad and why he is launching his own party
KASHMIR LIFE: It has been a long journey for you from being a businessman to a politician. How was it actually?
SYED M ALTAF BUKHARI (SMAB): Being very honest, I never consider myself to be a politician. I come from a background where my father was a self-made man, who was in the service of people who were the backbone of the economy, the fruit industry. As an agriculture graduate, I took over the family business from him and took it forward on scientific lines as per the requirements of the changing times. We started from Kashmir and expanded throughout the country and eventually came to be known as the best brands in the crop protection chemical segment.
Then we got into food processing, which got us the singular distinction of being the only private player in apple processing with German collaboration. We also introduced the Controlled Atmosphere Storage (CAS) that I had read about in the seventies and commissioned the plant in 2005. Later, we helped the Container Corporation of India to create a 12000 ton CAS facility in Haryana that we managed for 10 years. CAS was my dream and I pat my back when I see Kashmir having 150 thousand metric tonnes CAS facility.
As the new generation took over, I slowly pulled back from the professionally managed company and started giving time to the public service through politics. I found this platform has the capacity to serve the people better, so I devoted more time. It is the platform where you can help people who serve to be helped.
My association with politics is incidental as well as accidental. I had my friends in politics. Personally, I never was a politician and I never would become a politician. I do not need the politics for my survival and it is not my profession. I did it as a public service when I fought the elections and was made a minister and that is an open book.
Post-August 5, 2019, I thought about it for almost 45 days when I was restricted to my home. I do not want to claim the credit for being one of the caged individuals because the entire Kashmir was caged. Unfortunately, the media has to sell and that is why I find the news every day about a few politicians being retained behind the walls of their houses or in solitary confinement. It is bad in a democracy that believes in fair play. But the fact is that they are not the only ones who are in detention. Why do we forget about 1200 mainstream political workers who have been sent to jails outside the state? Why are the leaders or their cohorts who run their offices today silent about them? Are they not part of the same fraternity? Is their incarceration not news? That is what is not acceptable to me.
KL: But you were in politics indirectly. For example, in mid-eighties?
SMAB: My family was not in politics. That episode of 1984 was also out of a relationship we had. Probably I would not like to name those people today because they are no longer alive. Let them rest in peace. I think a 24-year-old young boy was exploited at that time for their own vested interest. Rest I will leave it unsaid.
KL: So what is the current scene of Kashmir politics like?
SMAB: As far as I am concerned, my decision to come forward is an outcome of my understanding of the situation. My people need somebody to speak for them and articulate their grievances. That said, I am equally a cautious and conscious businessman and human being. Common sense does not allow that I should have joined the politics after August 5. Then, I say if I would not have taken up the challenge, I would have always blamed myself.
To my understanding, my people need more people to represent them right now. The leaders whom they serve throughout their lives are nowhere to be seen. Unfortunately, the only answer we get is that they have been put behind bars.
In past, while political leaders were in jail for more than 20 years, their organisations carried on highlighting the problems of the people. This has been happening here since 1953. When the leaders were incarcerated in outside jails, their organisations never missed the day when they did not fight for their people. What has changed now is that people have been relegated to the background and the leaders have been brought to the forefront and they have become an issue.
Is this not a fact that when compared to issues of our people, issues of leaders are nothing. I would not like to name a small time political worker from north Kashmir who has been sent to a UP jail in August. His three daughters, who are enrolled in twelfth, ninth and fifth class, recently met me. I was stunned and I cried when they told me that they had no bus fare to reach Srinagar, so how could they go and meet their father in a UP Jail?
There are umpteen restrictions on media. You did not complain as you continued highlighting the miseries of the people. Are you not suffering? But you are still doing your duty.
This brings to the fore the fact that Kashmir politics is personalised and person-centric. Mass organisations with lakhs of members have not spoken about the miseries of people. They only seek the release of their leaders. I do admit that they have a right to freedom and should be released. But parties are meant to speak for people.
KL: But why is this happening?
SMAB: You will have to ask them. I fail to understand. It brings you to the conclusion that there are no programmes and policies to highlight the problems of the people.
KL: You meet people on a daily basis. What do they tell you?
SMAB: First of all, people want to cry. Post-August 5, they were looking for a shoulder to cry upon, first and foremost. That is why I have lent my shoulder to them. Many times they wanted somebody to hear and articulate their ordeal of the last six months. The problem may be very little by your and my standards but for them the problems are huge. I tried to hear and solve as well but I am nobody in the corridors of power because I do not have any position.
But in my tenure in government, I had certain leverage because I behaved like a human being. That is why when I call officers they respond, solve the problems of the people I mention or guide them towards their seniors.
I receive people on a daily basis with problems especially the business class. The industries are closing down and the businesses are facing crises. Tourism has almost closed completely. But the banks are sending notices and behaving like barbarians. Who will talk about them?
KL: Suffering of the people is one part of the story. Other is the unfolding larger situation in the Valley following revocation of Article 370. The dominant perception among people is that they face some kind of an existential threat now?
SMAB: I do not disagree that the people are in shock after the abrogation of Article 370. Let me be honest, I do not see that I can do anything on that front. I do not think that politicians behind the bars or those released can do much about it. This was something there on the agenda of the government and part of the manifesto for two consecutive elections.
Right strategy would have been to engage New Delhi in discussion and dialogue, but our politicians choose otherwise. The fact is that Article 370 has been removed and it is in the Supreme Court where all these politicians have filed petitions.
There are only two ways of its restoration – either the Supreme Court restores it; or if there is a political consensus among political parties like BJP, Congress and other parties and they jointly decide to restore it and pass the law in parliament. India’s politics today is not of consensus, it is confrontationist. I do not see much of a consensus.
At the same time, however, I do not see the development as sinister because it was not done secretly. It was on agenda of the BJP for a long time. People in PDP, NC and Congress knew it. How did Mufti Sahib avert it for a few years? He thought by joining hands with the BJP he can safeguard J&K’s autonomy. What happened between PDP and BJP later, only its leader knows it. Unfortunately, the elder leader is no more and his successor keeps things to herself.
KL: I meant sinister because people here have a fear that there will be a demographic change?
SMAB: So what should we do? There are two ways. One, we sit silently like everybody else. Second, we try damage control and go by what common sense dictates. We can take some steps to address these fears and remove the misgivings. Silence is not an answer. As for me the answer is we try to safeguard whatever we can. I also agree that the safeguards which were given to us earlier have not been honoured. So, how can we be sure that the new safeguards will also not be taken away. But, tomorrow nobody has seen. Today, at least, we can get some safeguards.
KL: So what are the central planks of this new politics?
SMAB: I will talk only about what is achievable. I will work for what is achievable. And it will be based on truth and only truth. If somebody can achieve better than that, or can get more assurances and guarantees he is welcome to take the lead. I will have no qualms about following him.
KL: What are those achievable goals?
SMAB: Achievable goals are statehood, domicile on land, domicile on jobs and education. That is on the political side. On the economic side, I would want restoration of autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir Bank. It is equally sacred to people of Jammu and Kashmir as Article 370 was. I would not like one of our national symbols to be taken away from us. That said, it is the only bank which spends 85 percent of credit in Jammu and Kashmir, even though it gets only 55 percent deposits. That is also on my agenda.
I was criticised for the memorandum which we submitted to Lieutenant Governor. Many of my colleagues said why did Altaf Bukhari chose to go to the LG who is probably lowest in hierarchy when it comes to the question of making far-reaching decisions about Jammu and Kashmir. I know that. But I also know when I go to a Deputy Commissioner he is not an authority himself but I go to him as he is the person who sends documents to central secretariat and to other top functionaries of the government.
Then there are economic considerations. Horticulture industry is in doldrums. We could not transport our fruit. Even today, we have 40 percent fruit lying in the Valley. Optics is fine. We did MIS (Market Intervention Scheme). My experience of MIS is that it can never succeed in Jammu and Kashmir. We have done it when I was in the government. We didn’t purchase more than 16 thousand tons. What is 16 thousand tons in 22 lakh tons? We have to do something for our people. Optics will not help us.
KL: You are talking of engagement. But do you see a situation in Kashmir where an outreach is possible? Dr Farooq, Omar Abdullah. Mehbooba Mufti are in jail. Lot of people are being slapped with PSAs. There is a certain kind of situation prevailing on the streets. Is there a possibility of engagement under the circumstances?
SMAB: For a while I agree with you that no such situation exists. Then what should we do? Should we sit on our hands and wait for sunny days to come? We are Kashmiris. We are used to a six month long winter. Do we stop living in the winter? We don’t stop our daily chores. So, we have to do something. We have the problem. Delhi does not have the problem. We will have to take the first step.
I wish leaders of the political parties who have ruled J&K for the past 72 years are allowed to do normal politics. Reality would have dawned on them also. We have one of the formidable leaders in Dr Farooq Abdullah. No doubt about that. May be he would find a way. I still have not lost the hope that he will not find a way. We have Omar Sahib. We cannot say that he cannot find a way. They are more intelligent and more experienced than us. We have Mehbooba Mufti. They can give us a solution.
What pains me is that why are their parties silent. These parties are behaving in a way as if without their top leaders they are nothing. These are not family businesses which we might expect to collapse in the absence of the owner. These are political parties run to serve the people in all conditions, sun or rain. Let us accept these are rainy days for them. Do you stop working in rainy days?
KL: So how soon are we going to see the start of “new politics” in J&K?
SMAB: I have made it clear already and I will do so again there is no new or old politics. It is only that a group of people have joined hands to raise the issues of common man. A need was felt. Friends, well-wishers, told us that if we were really sincere about our intentions and about what we have demanded in our memorandum to the LG, we should have a proper political platform. But we waited for two-three months, hoping the existing and established political parties would step up but they haven’t. We wanted to talk to them and seek their views to take up the issues of people jointly.
Altaf Bukhari alone doesn’t have a magical wand. And no solution will be possible without the involvement of everybody. But since the established leaders aren’t stepping up, and none of them is willing to talk about the sufferings of people, we thought we should come forward with a platform as that strengthens the case of our people. The constitution (of our party) has been handed over for drafting. We are seeking the advice of best legal brains. I think you can expect an announcement any moment.
KL: Will your organization be named Apni Party?
SMAB: Most probably it will be but since we have yet to make a formal announcement, I would not like to comment on it. We have to go through the motions of registering the party.
KL: Will your politics and activities in the coming days mean an endorsement of what happened on August 5, 2019?
SMAB: If I don’t form any party and don’t do my politics, does it mean the clock can be turned back? Silence does not mean that the clock can be reversed. A patient has been diagnosed with severe ailment he needs to be treated urgently.
KL: You can choose to resist? Other parties can say their leaders are under detention so they can’t hold their political activities. But you are free and you can choose to resist?
SMAB: Resist what?
KL: Revocation of Article 370?
SMAB: Why should I? Our leaders have chosen to challenge the revocation in Supreme Court. So, we have already given up. The political leadership of this region has already given up. So, where is the question of resistance?
When two parties fight, either they come to an amicable solution, or one of them goes to the court and challenges the other one. We have chosen the latter route and gone to the highest court of the country. I also pray for a decision which a majority of people want. But you can only pray, you cannot influence the court.
As for resistance, have people of this region left any such path untried? We have seen people resisting for the past 72 years. But has that path taken us anywhere? So, I will not choose a path where my people have to suffer more. I will not choose a path or have a goal which I cannot achieve. I will follow a path which leads somewhere. I want all of us to join hands to achieve a pragmatic goal. In isolation, nothing can be done. Nothing.
KL: You have been called a modern day Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad by some?
SMAB: I will be honest with you. When I took this decision, many people told me I will be called an agent. I replied what was there to be an agent? Is there anything left unsold in Kashmir? In these 72 years, everything has been sold. If you look at Article 370, there was nothing in it that was not removed in 1953.
I know there will be different names I will be called by. Some will call me Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad. Our group is being called names. I have no shame in being called Bakshi Sahib. I pray to God to give me the stature of Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad. At least he did something for his people for which he is remembered. Bakshi Sahib, may God give him a place in heaven, is buried at Khankah-i-Moula, the most revered place. Lakhs of people send him prayers everyday. I don’t see people going to pray for other (deceased) leaders. I don’t find police guarding his grave unlike those of others. So, if my friends choose to call me Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, I don’t mind it. I pray to God to give me the same strength as he gave Bakshi Sahib. He is the creator of modern Kashmir. He brought the medical college, roads and schools. What did he not bring? He realized much earlier the facade behind which other leaders hide. He saw it in 1953. Some people saw it later on.
KL: Some of your friends and well-wishers who were always around you are part of the PDP. So what is the need to create a new party, when you could easily have taken over the PDP?
SMAB: Very good question. I would like to put it on record. Altaf Bukhari does not believe in stealing, I create. In 2016 after the death of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed Sahib, Mehboobaji was reluctant to take power, a suggestion was made to me to help one gentleman to take over as the Chief Minister. My answer to that suggestion was that for this gentleman to take over he needed the support of MLAs. I was told he already had the MLAs. Then I enquired if he had MLAs why was my support needed. The answer was that the gentleman they were choosing to be the Chief Minister would not be able to carry the flock along. I was told that since I had a good rapport with all MLAs, I should help him. But I refused. I said Mehboobaji had the right to her inheritance.
It may not be a kingship but let us be honest the PDP belongs to Muftis. It is a party of Muftis, created by Muftis for the Muftis. I told them candidly that I will also try to speak to her. I am one of those advisors who told Mehboobaji that if she wanted to abandon the alliance (with the BJP) then she should have called it off on the day her father died. And I assured her that if she still wanted to leave the alliance we would go to people and say we had been let down by the people with whom we had entered into an alliance. I asked her to take the decision. And that if she wanted to continue the alliance she should take over as the Chief Minister. I told her that the MLAs were not prepared for a new election. And they were not wrong. Only ten months had passed since the last election. One of the MLAs told me that he had not even paid the baker for the bread he had bought from him for the election, so how could he face another election. Nobody had any sinister designs to remove Mehboobaji. It is only that she is used to making stories. We only wanted her to take a decision. Fortunately, she came around.
KL: There were reports at the time that you were about to take over as Chief Minister?
SMAB: I don’t believe in stealing. It was a mandate for the Muftis, so Muftis had the right to rule. So, Muftis had to take the decision, one way or the other. And there are friends, who can confirm what I said. These friends are not with me now. But that is in the past. I don’t want to dig it up.
I have been accused of many things. But probably if you are somebody you are accused, if you are nobody, you are not. So, good luck to her, good luck to that party (PDP). I don’t believe in poaching upon that party. I will not take her party. Unhe mubarak ho unki jamaat. But if some people want to leave her and join me, I will welcome them. But we will be very choosy in selecting people. We will choose only those who will be committed to serve the people. We will not take people with only self-interest on their mind. Mehboobaji’s failure was she could not check those people.
KL: You are sticking your neck out for the people. But tomorrow if elections are held and the NC or PDP wins?
SMAB: I will support them wholeheartedly because I am not sticking my neck out for power. I am doing it to articulate and highlight the grievance of my people and to give them some relief. This is what I want to make clear.
Everybody tells me that Delhi has favoured none in Kashmir? And I should not expect the centre to stand with me in future. But the question should also be whether the leaders of Kashmir themselves have done anything for Kashmir. We are the sons of the soil. We did not do anything good for Kashmir. Were we fair? My ambition is not to be the CM. I will be glad if people will choose them (PDP or NC). I will respect the decision of the people. It is not fight for the chair or for the CM.
We have probably brought it down to such a petty thing. It is not.
Fortunately I see in Omar Sahab a streak of leadership better than what I see in others, He is a human being, humane at heart. He will not make people suffer for something which he thinks only meets his end. I find other leaders who make people suffer only to achieve their personal ends.
KL: Apart from the accusations that you mentioned, there is also an impression on the ground that the central government is soft towards you in comparison to all others?
SMAB: Why should it not be soft? Why do you expect them to be harsh towards me? I don’t see any reason that they should be harsh towards me. I have not been a corrupt minister, I have not grabbed lands, I have not fleeced my people, I have not grabbed tenders, I have not given government jobs through backdoors. I have been a minister with a vision; I have been a minister who was listening to his own people. So why should they not?
KL: There is a perception that the terms of “new politics” are set by Delhi?
SMAB: I do not agree. A human being sets his or her own terms. If today somebody tells me that BJP is supporting you, my answer to them is, how can a man who walks on a stick help somebody. Let him first walk by himself. If BJP cannot establish its own party here, how can they establish me? I hold the BJP equally responsible as I hold the PDP, the NC and Congress for the mess and quagmire in which you and I are today.
KL: What is your opinion about Dr Shah Faesal? He gave up IAS to join politics and now he has been slapped with the PSA?
SMAB: I would love him to serve people from the chair which he left. I would pray to God that he returns to the same chair. He could have been much more beneficial to this society than as a politician. That is his expertise. He was our poster boy. Without fear of contradiction I think I had told him when he brought… the issue with me. I told him never join politics.
KL: When shall we see you mobilising the people, holding a rally and addressing the first press conference?
SMAB: Press conferences you will see many in near future. But ours will be a different type of politics. We are in a conflict zone. Going out for rallies is a political statement. I don’t want to make a political statement. I want to do what I can do for my people by being as normal as a common person. That would be my mission. You didn’t find me even in a power holding political rallies. I don’t believe in those things. I believe in personal contact. I visited 2000 houses during my election rally. I’ll try to go village to village, town to town talk to people
KL: In Kashmir’s politics, there are a lot of characters from Shiekh Abdullah to Mufti Sayeed to Mehbooba. Who is your role model?
SMAB: I am the tiniest of all. I do not belong to a political family. You will not find anyone in politics in my family after me. But one thing is sure that you will find many youngsters with me and around me in this journey to serve the people.
KL: Can we put a time frame to the grant of statehood, domicile and job rights. Is there any such indication from Delhi?
SMAB: If wishes were horses, fish would ride. I would like that we get them as soon as yesterday. When we launch a party we will formally approach central government on these issues.