Pandemonium 

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Days ahead of the August 5 anniversary, Kashmir’s marginalised mainstream seems in a dilemma. They are unable to strike a balance between Delhi’s requirements and the local demands, reports Tasavur Mushtaq 

Lt Governor meeting Ram Madhav, National General Secretary, BJP (File Photo)

Monday was a day of celebration in Jammu’s Trikuta Nagar. Housing the office of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), there was jubilation all around. Amid exchange of pleasantries, sweets were distributed. It was a festivity. However, the reason for happiness was not internal.

The cause of contentment for the BJP unit was Omar Abdullah, erstwhile state’s former Chief Minister. As Omar, vice-president of National Conference (NC) wrote an article in The Indian Express, BJP construed that “he has accepted the abrogation of Article 370 and integration of J-K with India.”

BJP’s General Secretary (organization), Ashok Koul welcomed the demand of restoring statehood to Jammu and Kashmir, saying: it is also their (BJP) demand “but, let militancy be wiped out first and the situation is brought under control, statehood to Jammu and Kashmir will be restored.”

Koul further said that they are happy and even “distributed sweets in the office as Omar has finally accepted the integration of J-K with India by way of abrogation of Article 370 in August last year.”

Thanking Dr Farooq Abdullah, NC President and MP from central Kashmir, Koul said “Dr Farooq Abdullah has also accepted it and we thank him for this.”

Omar’s Op-ed 

Nearly a year after scrapping of the Kashmir’s special status and months after his release from detention, Omar broke his post-August 5 silence. In a detailed write-up in The Indian Express, he discussed different dimensions of the unilateral decision taken by the BJP government in Delhi. From his personal experience to the public reactions, Omar talked about everything, leaving a few things for future deliberations.

Omar Abdullah outside his house after being released from detention. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Terming the stand taken by BJP and the subsequent decision “not as a complete surprise,” Omar said “what came as a shock was the humiliation heaped on the state by downgrading it and splitting it into two Union Territories. Over the last seven decades, Union Territories have been upgraded to states but this was the first time a state was downgraded to a Union Territory.”

Reiterating the resolve to fight “legally and democratically,” Omar said “We, in the J&K National Conference, do not agree with what has been done to J&K nor do we accept what has been done. We shall oppose this, our opposition will continue in the highest court in the land in the form of the legal challenge filed in the Supreme Court last year.”

Twisting the tale, Omar in his personal capacity has said he would not participate in the assembly elections of the Union Territory. “As for me, I am very clear that while J&K remains a Union Territory I will not be contesting any Assembly elections. Having been a member of the most empowered Assembly in the land and that, too, as the leader of that Assembly for six years, I simply cannot and will not be a member of a House that has been disempowered the way ours has.”

Reacting to Omar, BJP general secretary Koul said “Omar has said a lot more things but how does it matter. Didn’t he say whosoever touches Article 370, his hands will burn?”

Costly Comment

A detailed interview followed the Op-ed, a day after. Explaining different contours of the post-August 5 crisis, the former MEA junior minister of the NDA government discussed issues from “declaration to disappointment.”

Reiterating that his views are personal and not of the party, Omar, however, ruled out taking the agitation route for the restoration of Article 370 and 35A. “Now if you are asking me whether the NC will take this battle to the streets, I think the time for that has passed. When in the immediate aftermath of what happened on August 5, the battle didn’t go out into the streets, why would it go down to the streets one year later? So we will fight it politically, legally. We are committed to do that.”

Agha Ruhullah Mehdi

As Omar has decided not to participate in the process of elections, but for his party, he said: “that is for the party to decide.” But in a veiled reference to his response, he said “you cannot be a mainstream party that doesn’t participate in a democratic process. And you can’t be a separatist party that participates in it. Because there have been variations on this and they’ve made a complete hash of things. So let’s accept that the NC is a mainstream political party and we attach score and we believe in the democratic processes. And that’s the way it is.”

Omar’s maiden reaction after almost a year had a reaction on the ground. People initially talked in hushed tones that Omar choose Delhi media to talk and not Kashmir. Within the very first day, the internal conflict within the party was obvious. The one with the “disappointment” as Omar said was from NC’s Budgam face, an influential Shia leader and three-time lawmaker, Aga Syed Ruhullah Mehdi. 

Ruhullah was blunt and bold. While talking to a newspaper, he rejected what Omar has expressed. “What happened on August 5, 2019, is beyond statehood” and restoration of statehood should be the last demand, he said. Serving house detention, Ruhullah said, “our main demand should be the restoration of special status.”

Asked whether Omar’s policy is more of reconciliation towards Delhi, Ruhullah said, “If party’s central working committee endorses the same pattern, then it should be reconciliation. I hope the working committee strikes down any reconciliation. However, if the working committee endorses the same policy to move ahead, then it is a reconciliation, unfortunately, to which I personally may not subscribe to”

Hours later, Ruhullah resigned from the party’s post of being its chief spokesperson. “I have sent across my resignation from the post of Chief Spokesperson of @JKNC_From here on none of my statements should be considered as such.

Embarrassed, Omar explained his position in multiple tweets. 

Beyond the internal strife, the external response to Omar’s utterance was also not in his favour. “When you see a sudden change, it is not without a solid reason,” said Mushtaq Ahmad, an old city resident. “If Omar had nothing to hide why he was desperate to explain his position later?”

Statehood Saga 

Nearly two weeks after the abrogation of Article 370, BJP’s national general secretary Ram Madhav in Jammu assured “full statehood to the valley after situation normalises”. Replying to a question over the issue, he said “The BJP is in favour of granting statehood to the J&K as early as conditions permit.”

Later in his subsequent sessions, Madhav started to beguile of demanding “anything within the ambit of Indian constitution”.

“Sky is the limit for people to make demands. But what is expected is that it should be within the framework of the Indian constitution. Within that, any kind of political demand can be raised. So that kind of political space should be made available to people of Jammu and Kashmir, that’s my firm conviction,” he suggested.

However, there was no concrete stand taken by the regional parties to the overt and covert references made by the BJP of “starting the new political process.” Barring newly launched Apni Party led by businessman turned politician, Altaf Bukhari, all other players, maintained silence over the issue. In fact, there was nobody around as most of the camp was under lock and key. Omar personally came out of the detention only early March 2020.

Five days after its launch, the Apni Party in a group photograph with the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: PMO

In July 2020, as  NC president Dr Farooq flew to Delhi, it fuelled rumours back in the valley. Keeping tabs on the political grapevine, it sparked off a whirlpool of speculations that he might have met some leaders to address the issue of the political vacuum in Jammu and Kashmir.

Though Dr Abdullah dispelled the speculations that he was talking to Delhi, saying “I haven’t met anyone”, and that his visit was personal, the storm did not settle.

The political circles in Kashmir were connecting the dots. At the same time, Bukhari in a presser at Jammu said that the Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood should be restored and elections be held without delimitation. Pertinently, Bukhari was the first mainstream politician to say that people should move beyond Article 370.

Surprisingly, Congress leader of opposition in Rajya Sabha, Ghulam Nabi Azad had a meeting with Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. “Azad sahib got a call and he met PM Modi,” said a Congress source.

Azad according to the reports had urged the Prime Minister that the statehood status should be restored to Jammu and Kashmir followed by assembly elections. It was this meeting between Azad and Modi that generated political grapevine of restoration of statehood and high-speed internet. 

Jumping the gun, senior Congress leader Tariq Hamid Karra claimed that a “highly connected “ friend of him, who is in “know-how of things”, has informed him that Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood would be restored on August 15 and high-speed internet would be restored by August 5. But BJP’s Koul rejected the “rumours” and dashed the “hopes”. “Since 1986, we have seen all this (violence) and if it takes two years or whatever to improve the situation, then only statehood will be restored. As long as the situation does not become normal, the statehood will not be restored,” he ruled.  Sources told Kashmir Life, it is unlikely as the BJP wants at least one election to be held for the UT.

However, in search of finding a “political plank” to re-emerge in the new setup, prominent parties of the erstwhile state, NC, and Congress joined by the newly launched Apni Party came out with demand of “restoration of statehood”.

But in this demand for restoration, PDP remains isolated. The party which was last in the power is the only regional party that has been vocal on the restoration of special status and other rights “snatched from people” on August 5 last year. PDP chief, Mehbooba Mufti is the only currently the only unionist leader still under detention under PSA.

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