In the run-up to 2014 Assembly Election in the state, PDP is hopeful of increasing its tally of seats in the state legislature. The party’s chief spokesperson, Naeem Akhtar, tells Saima Bhat that the Omar Abdullah-led government has sabotaged the peace process initiated by PDP during its tenure by allowing the hanging of Afzal Guru.
KL: People’s Democratic Party is the main opposition party but you preferred to remain out of the house during this Assembly session. What did you achieve by doing that?
NA: In politics there is nothing in concrete form we achieve. What should we have achieved; a house for me, a car for me, some land for me or the party. We tried to show to New Delhi that everybody, every political party in Kashmir is not up for ‘up rise’ and that we can stand by our people and rise up with them. We thought it is for the dignity of the people of the state that was at stake when the union government completely ignored the sense of the house that expressed our adjournment motion on Afzal Guru’s secret hanging and now the demand for his mortal remains.
While that was still on, the union home minister went to the press and said that they are not doing it. So it was an afferent to the people of the state because legislative assembly is the ultimate body, elected body which represents the people of the state and their sentiments. So we thought if we can do nothing else, we stay out. What was there to discuss about? Should we have gone back and continued with our normal ‘Shoor Sharaba’. We thought it is better to send a message to them because the chief minister, the ruling coalition, had failed to convey our feelings to the government of India. The boycott was against both the state government’s failure and against the central government to accommodate the wishes of people.
KL: Do you feel the central government got the message you wanted to convey?
NA: We hope so, we hope so. They can’t ignore the wishes of the people of Jammu and Kashmir which are democratically expressed through peaceful channels. What else they will agree to? What else they will understand.
KL: Are you still hopeful that Delhi may return the mortal remains of Afzal Guru?
NA: Look, it was possible. We still hope that good sense prevails but I think the CM very calculatedly sabotaged it because when Mufti sahib wrote to the Prime Minister about the return of mortal remains, Omar Abdullah suddenly brought the rabbit out and said ‘no, not just Guru but Maqbool Bhat as well’.
So GOI must have thought twice after that; that if it is Guru today, it may be Maqbool Bhat tomorrow and after Maqbool Bhat, it will be something else. So they might not look to be conceding too much to Kashmir. That is how Omar Abdullah sabotaged it. He did it because he was on the back foot once PDP and other parties joined in this demand. Omar was kind of feeling perhaps politically weak, so he tried to sabotage it.
KL: PDP was against the ‘secret hanging’ of Afzal Guru but when Supreme Court awarded death sentence to Guru, it was PDP’s government in J&K. Why didn’t the party react in the way it is reacting now?
NA: Who made this allegation that we supported the death sentence then, what is the proof? The proof of it was that we did not allow Afzal to hang as long as we had the government with us. It is not that we will go to trump about how we contact the GOI and how we convey our feelings. We don’t do that through newspapers. As long as we were there, Afzal was alive and he was dead the day National Conference assumed office. It has been their tradition; they did that to Maqbool Bhat as well, they did that to everything, and they sold out Kashmir. It can be something worse tomorrow. I think Guru is a watershed in Kashmir because today Omar Abdullah told them to go with this and I will take care of the fallout. He took care of the fall out by imprisoning the entire Kashmir, by killing people, by torturing youth, by arresting them, so tomorrow he could perhaps do the same thing and offer to them.
There is a strong lobby in Delhi which wants Article 370 to go, so Omar Abdullah could be the man who will do it. It might need a month’s curfew or two month’s curfew for him. So they have crossed up the important hurdle in Kashmir.
KL: Does that mean whenever New Delhi wishes to do anything in Kashmir like the hanging of Afzal Guru they might get in NC government in power?
NA: It is a fact but it is people who bring them to power. That is the care people have to take.
KL: Time and again National Conference accuses your party of being an off-shoot of BJP and using the communal tactics to woe voters. How do you react?
NA: This is simply ridiculous. Omar Abdullah’s father Dr Farooq Abdullah was having a record majority in state assembly when he had the majority of seats in the house. He had 65 members in the house. There was no opposition. Still, he joined the BJP government in Delhi. When Soz sahib voted against Vajpayee government, he was thrown out of National Conference because, by his single vote, Vajpayee’s first government fell after one year. And Dr Farooq Abdullah expelled him from his party. So who is doing what? People are not blind. They know NC can do anything. They can say anything but fortunately, the state has come now where people don’t take that party very seriously and for very good reasons. I would not say more about that.
KL: Davender Singh Rana says ‘PDP will disintegrate by 2014’ and ‘PDP does not exist in Jammu’. How do you respond?
NA: I would not react to a non-political entity who is in the party to promote his commercial interests. I would not react to this.
KL: Your role does not define your responsibility of being the state’s principal opposition. NC is playing the shots which you are supposed to play. Is this their plan of action or your lack of planning?
NA: Who says that? Do you say that? These are guerrilla tactics of National Conference. They enjoy their life, they enjoy their luxuries of power without accountability and then they go and attack. This is, in fact, Omar Abdullah’s style where he does everything against Kashmir and then comes up with a speech every time he comes up under pressure. It is very obvious. Suppose any chief minister would come up with same kind of speech against New Delhi, what will arrive?
When his grandfather made the same speech in 1952, he was jailed for 22 years. When his father tried to assert, he was dislodged and he came down on his knees and joined Rajiv Gandhi. Why is Omar Abdullah tolerated? Because nobody takes him seriously. He is a political nobody. He is like a clown, going around making speech whenever he is asked to.
Whenever he is asked to enforce the curfew, he enforces. When he is asked to lift the curfew, he lifts it. And then whenever his trainers tell him now is the time that your position is weakening in Kashmir, go on a befooling speech, he does that and makes a speech. And what else does he do? NC talks of autonomy whenever the elections are around. They did it in 1977 when Sheikh Abdullah took power in 1975 on the crunches of Congress. What did he achieve afterwards? What did they do with autonomy then? In 1977 elections, autonomy was the main plank and that was the time when Sheikh Abdullah put the last nail in the coffin of autonomy by agreeing, by amending the constitution of J&K where by the state assembly could not even change the nomenclature of CM or Governor which used to be Sadr-e-Riyasat and Prime Minister. That was Sheikh Abdullah who did it. They cannot befool people.
But when we came to power, we set the standards of governance. Had you ever heard of an opposition party in J&K before PDP? What makes you say this? You have most robust opposition now in J&K for the first time. On every issue, we take on the government- in the assembly and outside the assembly. And this is the only party, mark my words, this is the only party which is the platform for new recruitments, new political recruitments. Have you seen anybody joining Congress? Have you heard of anybody joining NC? Do you hear every month, every week, every day that somebody or the other has joined PDP? So why is that? Why do you fall in for this propaganda that PDP as the opposition has failed? But there are limitations for opposition because power is not with us. It is for the people to understand that they can have the expectations from PDP but only if we are in power. Only then we can make noises, we can protest, we can suggest to the government.
Opposition is expected to expose, to depose the ruling government. We will depose this government by elections. That will be the time, very crucial for this state. Right now we think PDP as an opposition has set some new standards. We have never compromised.
There is another opposition party, the next opposition party – BJP. Look what has happened to that. Their members have voted across the party. They have fallen for baits; they have accepted allurements for vote. None of our MLA’s has ever done that. Most of us don’t go to them for favors. So we have maintained our respect and dignity because we feel that people have expectations from us and people want us not to bend to this government and stand up to their atrocities.
These issues which are now being adopted even by NC, like before 2002 when PDP was yet to come in the political scenario of J&K, NC would say the only solution to Kashmir is to bomb Pakistan. They are not saying it now because the PDP changed their discourse. Even when in power Mufti sahib said no, that there was no alternative to dialogue, “Goli sey nahi, boli sey”. We stand by that.
We scripted the entirely new agenda, a new discourse, a new trend in Kashmir. We spoke of opening of roads. NC used the slogan in 1977 as open the Rawalpindi roads, Pakistani namak, etc. etc. but they did not achieve anything. But when we took up the initiative, we implemented it. Most of the people were unaware of exploitation of state resources – water and power projects. Nobody even knew it in Kashmir but now this has become a main agenda. Why didn’t you knew of it before 2000 when it was happening since 1975 when Sheikh Abdullah gave up Salal to NHPC. Then Farooq Abdullah gave 7 power projects to NHPC and Omar Abdullah gave another 3 power projects through joint venture, which is another fraud on Kashmiris, on the people of whole state. Who brought this? What else would an opposition do? What else did you expect? What are other opposition parties doing in other parts of country where democracy prevails? They also raise issues, they also agitate, that is the way, but I can understand the impatience of people, they perhaps want us to drag Omar Abdullah out of his chair and save them from his misrule but that can’t be done. We can’t down him halfway because he has numbers. We will have to wait till elections, that is the way democracy works and that is the care people have to take in the next elections, whether they want to complain for the next 6 years too or they want to give chance to another party.
KL: Do you think PDP has or hasn’t emerged as strong opposition?
NA: This question should be asked to anybody else, to any neutral person, who would say whether we have emerged as a strong opposition or not. That if PDP has come up as a threat to them.
KL: After clean sweep by coalition partners in the recently held in elections under Panchayat Raj quota, PDP is apparently shell-shocked! Have these results rung some alarm bells in your party?
NA: No. We are the youngest party in the state. There were around 6 to 7 thousand Panchs who stood by us. They are in every village for us. They refused to fall for bribes, they refused to be overwhelmed by all methods that were applied but they preferred to stand by us. Some of them are the ones who fought but lost by 20 votes or 40 votes. They are our cadre and they are everywhere. There is no doubt about that. In fact it has come up as a very positive message.
KL: What are you doing to regain the lost ground?
NA: We have not lost ground. In the last elections it was our party, the only party that increased its tally. We were the largest party which got the largest vote share and after that if there is recruitment in any party, it is in PDP only. So we have not lost it on any ground and we also thank God for an adversary like Omar Abdullah which is making it easy for us.
KL: How is the party preparing for 2014 Assembly Elections in the state?
NA: We are doing what every political party does. I think we have some good assets, that is the leadership of Mufti Muhammad Sayeed. His vision, his track record, he is the only person in Kashmir who has not changed his stances. He is ideologically there where he was. And he is the person who has suffered worst character assassination by Abdullahs from past 40 years. He has stood there and his history has proven him correct. He got a test chance of three years to prove himself which is a tribute to him and to the good sense of people that they are missing him now in power. So that is the greatest asset of his leadership.
Then there is the charisma of Mehbooba Mufti who has been able to strike a chord with younger generation who has been fearless, who has been articulate and who has really galvanized the party into a very vibrant party. Then there is an agenda; that agenda is not something like NC’s false promises and unachievable targets and it is not about misleading people for elections, for votes. It is the agenda that is very practical that has actually found a resonance even among the national leaders; to prime ministers to governments led by NDA and UPA. They supported our main plank of removing the siege around Jammu and Kashmir when both of them agreed to open up the roads. So when we say that we want to reunite the erstwhile state, we want to create an economic free state, we are not saying something in air. Major roadblocks in that have been removed. Mindsets have been pierced and main principles have been conceded like it was when bus service to Pakistan started. Our idea was if you have to travel in the bus, you should not need a visa or a passport but it is for the lack of follow up that it has not gone up to the next level where it could look very normal. You would perhaps have to show your card at Uri and travel to Rawalpindi, but it has not reached to that level but it would most certainly because the principles have been conceded.
Similarly you have trade the governments of India and Pakistan have accepted that any trade between the two parts of state does not need to pay custom duty. What else is a free economic zone is already there.
When we raised the issue of power projects, the PM’s Special Working Groups endorsed it. The interlocutors endorsed it. It is a matter of time now when they will be renegotiated. It might be when Kashmir will get a responsive and responsible government; a government that can face up to New Delhi like Mamta Banarjee does or Akhlaish Yadav does within the constitutional parameters. This is nothing that can be prevented. So we have an agenda, a leadership and an expanding cadre, and then we have leaders, thinkers like Muzaffar Hussain Beigh who can impress anybody in the world. These are the assets that NC or any other party lacks.
And for going into elections we are not resorting to any gimmicks like NC. We have this agenda, we have this leadership and we have fortunately our track record from 2002-2005 which we can proudly show and people themselves feel that within those three years, we achieved what NC didn’t achieve for last 40 years.
KL: South Kashmir is believed to be bastion of PDP but the party is still weak in North Kashmir. Your comments.
NA: That will be the conclusion it can make. PDP is a growing party. It started mainly in south Kashmir. Now it is growing. Last time we performed better than the previous years. From 16 seats we went up to 21. And this time we are expanding. We are trying our best and we are finding the environment quite conducive in North Kashmir, Srinagar, Budgam, Ganderbal, Bandipore, Poonch, Rajouri, Doda and even some parts of Jammu.
There was a time when PDP was seen as a militant party in Jammu, as a pro Pakistani party, but now they have understood that this party is not about extremism but a party of good governance, positive agenda and a party of honest and visionary leadership.
KL: Your patron is accused of getting AFSPA invoked and now your party is appealing to revoke it. How do you justify this dual role? Isn’t it contradictory?
NA: Circumstances alter cases. There was a time when Kashmir was brewing with militant activities. Thousands of boys were going across, and at that time the GOI introduced this law. But since 2007 we were the first party to raise this issue. Mufti sahib wrote to the PM. It is not like Omar Abdullah does. Last time he made revolutionary speech in Police parade in Zewan that it would be removed in next 2-3 days. Then the time frames kept changing; he said it will be removed during his tenure and then at last, he said it is my mission and then again he revised it and said it was in his wishlist. He has made it a part of his wishlist now.
But when we took it, we took it up with all seriousness, Mufti sahib wrote two letters to PM and PM responded twice. Then they had a couple of meetings in Delhi. After that a joint communiqué and that time Mufti sahib was not CM. It was very rare that PM office issued a formal communiqué and committee was set up to review this all. But then unfortunately Omar Abdullah came to power after 2008 and he botched it all. Otherwise the process would have gone on as it was.
This country is run through procedures, so that procedure was followed till that. But after that, it turned to be a slogan because Omar Abdullah wanted to divert the attention after Haji Yusuf’s murder – his killing and the corruption charges he was involved in. He was in dire need of diversion. So he did that very successfully. And people forgot Haji Yusuf and he got into AFSPA.
Then after AFSPA was forgotten, he has got into bandwagon of Afzal Guru. Now he is demanding his mortal remains when he was involved in his hanging. But we feel Army has done its job. It is time for it to go to barracks and guard the borders.
J&K had acceded to India not for its Army, not for its security forces, but on some shared ideas. We also want to experience the fruits of democracy and growth like the other parts of country are experiencing the benefits of accountability, the benefits of political process that are denied to J&K.
We want the Army and the police to play its role. But the civil society, the space for civil institutions, should be liberated. That’s what we want.
KL: By saying Omar Abdullah is befooling Kashmiris, does that mean Kashmiris are so innocent that they can be fooled by anybody?
NA: Unfortunately we have been befooled throughout our history by NC. But now it is different in my opinion. The present generation has seen too much of violence, hardships and too much of trouble. People are now more aware than my father or his father was. They were taken in but that was a different time. Now it is a different time. The days of taking Kashmiris for a ride are over. The parties who perform can survive only.
KL: Dr Farooq Abdullah alleged that PDP got money bags from New Delhi to wipe NC in election 2002. How do you react?
NA: We are not a party that is surviving on money. It is his party that does that. They killed Haji Yusuf only for money. The money which, as per Chief Minister, was collected in the name of Farooq Abdullah for getting those fellows MLC seats and ministerial berths. That was the story CM told the world. It’s not my story, so he should take care of that. But we don’t have a party or leadership that is surviving on by singing bajans or by other means that all Kashmiris are aware of. We are not a party of that type. We stick to our cultural norms, to our traditional norms, our social norms, we are not like Farooq Abdullah and we would not like to be him.
KL: Is PDP facing internal bickering?
NA: No. Who says so! Is there any evidence? If there is a bickering, it is somewhere else and not in our party. We have a collective leadership. We have Mufti sahib, Mehbooba ji, Beigh sahib, Molvi Iftihar sahib, Dilawar sahib and people from Jammu, Tariq sahib, Rangil sahib, many other leaders; all of them are our senior leaders. Have anybody from them said anything about any bickering in the party.
When Mehbooba ji asked our MLA’s to withdraw support from Ghulam Nabi Azad’s government, they did it and it did not took them a second to do that. They did not rethink on this, including the ministers. So it is just fragrance of their imagination like that of Rana and others that there is bickering.
KL: The trend of former bureaucrats and known faces joining your party is picking up. What is chance of common man getting in?
NA: Since I am myself a former a civil servant, so I needed to speak on it. It is not only our party that is having former bureaucrats in the party. If we see the current MLCs, there are three more former chief secretaries there and none of them belongs to our party. There are few others who don’t belong to our party like Ghulam Qadir Pardesi. But why is it happening that extra share of former bureaucrats are getting into politics? In my opinion which may or may not be right, this is because there have not been political recruitments in mainstream parties after 1977 which was the last time when plebiscite front was converted into National Conference under the leadership of Sheikh sahib. The young people started coming into politics, the mainstream politics, on the NC platform. After that, for a while other people joined but then after Rajiv Farooq accord in 1987, that came to a standstill. The process got stopped and after nineties, it was separatists all the way. So, all the political talent went into militancy or to different separatist groups. So the people whom you find there now or the people who perhaps are in the graves unfortunately are very good people, very talented people, who sacrificed their lives for a cause. They could have been in the assembly right now. They could have been in the council. Syed Ali Geelani was there twice who has even fought Parliamentary Elections. These are the rightful places for the people like Shabir Shah, Yasin malik, Nayeem Khan, Mirwaiz or many others who are very talented people. Unfortunately that has not happened. But there can’t be a vacuum. Perhaps non politicians like me find places in this political scenario.
KL: Of late, Mufti Muhammad Sayeed has been very active in Jammu region. Is PDP eyeing voters of Jammu?
NA: It is not votes. It is the credibility of party because we believe that the reasons for the political troubles of J&K has been the inability of the state level parties to cop all communities, all sections, all regions. So perhaps Mufti sahib is trying to fill that gap by doing that historic duty of creating a platform where a Dogra, a Muslim, a Pahari, or a Gujjar, finds a place and then create a party that gives a sense of participation to everybody. That conveys a sense of empowerment to everybody. That is our aim.
KL: NC has expressed a desire of forming alliance with Congress in the next elections and Congress seems to be in agreement. Given the situation, this ceases your options. What you are doing in this regard?
NA: Look, we are an independent party. We are not hangers on. We have given vision to people if they have faith in us. They will vote for us. What NC and Congress do, they will be doing that as an independent entity. They have nothing to do with that.
Same was said about UP also but Akhlesh Yadav got a sweeping majority. Same happened when Mamta Banerjee won, when Jayalalita did it. So one cannot predict what decision people will give. What mandate they will give! That will be a post poll scenario.
KL: What is your stance on ‘Return and Rehabilitation’ policy for youth who crossed into Pak and are now returning?
NA: This was an idea floated by PDP in 2004 when NC opposed it among others. We established a rehabilitation council for them and organized money. But then Omar found this and somebody in Delhi was also interested in this policy. Although it was half-baked, they approved it but they botched it up like all other good things.
We hope there is a course collection to it and the hope that people will come from across the LoC they are allowed to come through shorter routes, through LoC and they don’t have to come through circuitous routes like Nepal. But it doesn’t end at it.
They had gone as teenagers and now they are coming back in their mid ages, in forties and fifties. Most of them are coming back with their families, Pakistani wives and children, and they are facing a lot of problems here. Their children are not getting admission in schools, citizenship problems. It is not just propaganda unless we are ready to take care for them and give them the feeling so that tomorrow, they will be our real ambassadors of good will if they go and live dignified life in their villages.
KL: For the recent Parraypora acid victim, your party said they will be paying all the bills. But it was finally NC which did that. Was that to make them pay bills?
NA: It is not NC. We were not obliged to do that. We raised the issue. We took her to Delhi and admitted her to Apollo hospital on our initiative. But then Omar Abdullah sent his minister of state, who camped there and made sure that the state paid all the bills. Otherwise the credit will go to the PDP. They thought PDP might win the elections by paying bills. This is what they are doing.