Following his father and the National Conference (NC) patriarch Farooq Abdullah, former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who was released in Srinagar from over seven-month-long detention on Tuesday, 24 March, declined to speak on Kashmir’s politics and abrogation of Article 370, while maintaining that it was the time to support the government’s fight against the Coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m conscious that this time around we are fighting a big battle. It’s the fight of life and death,” Omar told the media crews waiting for him immediately after he entered his Gupkar Road residence, after being released in the presence of an executive magistrate from his detention centre of Hari Niwas Palace.
‘Request to Centre to Immediately Restore 3G, 4G Internet in J&K’
“Even our gathering here is contrary to the government’s directions on social distancing for breaking the chain of this disease. If we don’t observe the guidelines, what message are we giving to the people,” Omar asserted. He said he was confined but fully aware of how everybody — schoolchildren, shopkeepers, houseboat and shikara owners, taxi operators, vegetable vendors — had suffered due to the lockdown after August 2019. “I wanted to speak about them all. But, for now, this is not the appropriate time”.
On the eve of the abrogation of the Article 370 and the erstwhile State’s bifurcation into the two Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh, on 5 August 2019, Omar was among the three former chief ministers and dozens of former ministers, legislators and political leaders, who had been taken into preventive custody.
“I had thought a lot to express freely about the politics of this state, what was done to it on 5 August 2019 and the situation created thereafter. But now I’m stressing on only two things: we must first get rid of Coronavirus. We must protect ourselves, our children, parents, relatives, friends and neighbours. I’m also beseeching the Government of India to release all those who are in jails. They should be released and sent home mercifully in these tough times. I have also a courteous request to the Centre that it should immediately withdraw the telecommunication lockdown and restore Internet with 3G, 4G speed so that the people learn how to fight this disease,” Omar said.
No Criminal Charges Against Omar Abdullah
He said that a large number of the J&K people, including many like Mehbooba Mufti from the PDP, many from the NC and many others not affiliated to any party, had been languishing in jails outside J&K since August last year. “They should be brought back and handed over to their families,” he added.
“As regards the bifurcation of this state, (its split into the) UT, (abrogation of) Article 370, 35-A and all that, let me tell you that I’ll speak on everything but only after we get rid of this (Coronavirus) disease.”Omar Abdullah to media.
“Once it’s over, I’ll myself come out and speak,” he said.
About an hour prior, the Principal Secretary of Home Department, Shaleen Kabra, issued an order revoking the order of Omar’s detention under the Public Safety Act (PSA) that had been issued on 5 February, upon his completion of the detention of six months under section 107 of Criminal Procedure Code. Authorities maintained that there were no criminal charges against the former chief minister as his confinement was only “preventive custody”.
Farooq Calls On Mehbooba Mufti’s Mother & Daughter
Omar’s release happened days after his father, the 84-year-old three-time chief minister, Farooq Abdullah, was released. Farooq’s detention under PSA had been extended on 11 March but revoked on 13 March. Farooq has called on Mehbooba Mufti’s mother and daughter and the senior NC leader Mohammad Shafi Uri in Srinagar, but he too has refused to speak on politics until the release of Ms Mufti and other mainstream leaders. After his release, Farooq also visited Omar at Hari Niwas.
Omar, who has 3.1 million followers on Twitter, did not handle his account for over seven months.
However, from 18 March to 21 March, some of his party, NC’s, tweets were retweeted either by him or by his sister Sara Pilot, who claimed to handle his account in Omar’s absence.
At 2:11 pm on Tuesday, 24 March, Omar posted his order of release alongside his picture in which the politician, who had his 50th birthday early this month in his ‘prison’, is seen driving himself to home. “232 days after my detention today I finally left Hari Niwas. It’s a very different world today to the one that existed on 5th August 2019,” he tweeted.
‘I Can’t Remember Having a Better Meal’
He also posted another picture in which he is flanked by his parents. “Had lunch with my mum & dad for the first time in almost 8 months. I can’t remember a better meal even though I’ve been in a bit of a daze & don’t remember what I ate,” he wrote on Twitter.
In a message to his party colleagues, he wrote: “My thanks to all my @JKNC_ colleagues for staying united & staying strong. We have a long & difficult road ahead of us but together we will ensure J&K sees better days”.
Omar also expressed his gratitude to his counsels and sister Sara Pilot who filed and pursued her petition in Supreme Court of India. Months after his detention, Sara had challenged the order of PSA.
“I owe a huge debt of gratitude to @KapilSibal, Gopal Sankaranarayanan, @reyazshariq and their legal teams for taking the fight against my unjust PSA detention to the SC. Thank you to my baby sister Sara for filing the petition to have me freed.”
“We face the fight of our lives over the next few weeks & months as we come to terms & work to defeat #COVIDー19. I will do everything in my individual capacity to help the authorities overcome this challenge & I appeal to all of you to do the same”, Omar tweeted. “On a lighter note if anyone wants tips on surviving quarantine or a lock down I have months of experience at my disposal, perhaps a blog is in order”.
(The writer is a Srinagar-based journalist. He can be reached @ahmedalifayyaz. )