In an exclusive interview, the former Chief Minister and patriarch of Kashmiri politics told author and columnist David Devadas that pro-India voices could be squeezed between rigging and public rage.
Stooped now, and slightly ashen, Farooq Abdullah, president of the National Conference, shows signs of his almost 84 years. But his voice and his mind remain robust, and he goes through a day without needing to rest in the afternoon.
“Come, Omar,” he calls firmly as he stands before half-a-dozen steps to a marriage hall. “I’m coming, behind you,” his son responds, but quickly steps forward to support Farooq’s climb when the latter asserts, “I need your hand.”
Each has the other’s hand, quite firmly. Twenty years after Omar’s sehra-bandi as successor, father and son stand shoulder-to-shoulder — as leaders of their party, of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, and of the country — and clearly have a neat and comfortable working arrangement. Each has an independent mind, takes separate stands, but supports the other.
From a Playboy Image to a Patriarch of J&K Politics
Inside the marriage hall, Farooq takes an armchair. Omar chooses the other armchair of the sofa set. Party General Secretary Ali Mohammed Sagar and provincial president for the Kashmir Valley, Nasir Sogami, join them.
The host, the groom, other relatives, and party leaders such as the Imam of Doda, take turns to sit in the smaller chair beside Farooq’s, briefly conversing one-on-one. Waving away the tray of kehwa and dry fruit, he commands that lunch be served.
Unnoticed, Farooq’s persona has evolved from the playboy image that once was his into that of the patriarch of Kashmiri politics. He is accepted as mentor and leader not only by his son and party, but also by other Kashmiri leaders, including Mehbooba Mufti, who heads the main rival party.
Understanding the Pulse of the People
The one thing that hasn’t changed is Dr Abdullah’s clear hold on the pulse of his people. It was he who warned the Centre and the security agencies that things were amiss in Kargil in 1999 — after locals rushed to the Chief Minister’s residence to tell him that Pakistanis had intruded.
At this point, too, the doctor-politician has felt the pulse of his people. He has a crystal clear sense of what lies behind the calm placidity one finds on the streets and byways of Kashmir. And his prognosis, which emerged during a long post-lunch chat a few days before Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s death, is not encouraging.
“Lava is building,” he said tersely at one point. “It will burst,” and, pointing to himself, added, “those who stand with India will be the first [it will take down].”
It’s a possibility he has evidently internalised with great gravity.
For, he repeated it in a different idiom later in the conversation: “Lava is building. Ek chingari chahiye. Jab phatega, Allah jaane kya hoga hamara (only a spark is needed. When the volcano explodes, God knows what’ll happen to us).” He referred to (the social turmoil and executions of the nobility that followed) the French Revolution.
Abdullah sees the potential explosion as a local phenomenon. He dismisses a possibility many ordinary Kashmiris have recently gossiped about — that Afghans might now come to fight in Kashmir.
Electoral Prospects and the Fear of Rigging
About electoral prospects, Abdullah seems confident that his party’s excellent performance in the District Development Council (DDC) elections last winter would be repeated, if not improved, if — and that appears to be a big if in his mind — free and fair polls are held.
“They’ll do everything to rig the election so that their people come,” he said. Of course, rigging has been the norm for much of the past 70 years (with outstanding exceptions such as in 1977 and 2002). The ham-handed rigging of the 1987 elections, when Farooq was the Chief Minister, is widely acknowledged.
At this stage, though, he is aware that the outcome of rigging would have a bigger impact than just keeping in power an incumbent government, albeit corrupt or unpopular.
“They will use them to ratify the constitutional changes,” he says. That would get on to the record, although he says it would have “no legal validity, for only a Constituent Assembly has that power”. (Ironically, legal minds elsewhere in the top echelons of the political line-up might share that view.)
Jammu and Kashmir had a separate Constituent Assembly, which functioned from 1951 to 1957. The state constitution that it prepared declared that the state “is and shall be an integral part of the Union of India”, and that the state’s borders could not be changed from when Maharaja Hari Singh ruled the state.
The constitutional changes that were made in India’s Parliament on 5 August, 2019, not only removed the special provisions for the state in India’s Constitution, but also the state itself; it was turned into two Union Territories. In the bargain, the state’s constitution (and borders) went out the window.
Delimitation Exercise Remains a Thorny Issue
The Centre would want the new assembly, whenever it is elected, to accept, if not specifically ratify, the changes. On the other hand, an assembly resolution rejecting those changes would be embarrassing for the Centre and would muddy the waters legally.
No wonder political leaders are uneasy about even the process to delimit constituencies. Many of the major parties chose not to present their positions to the delimitation commission, despite being publicly urged by the Prime Minister. Dr Abdullah points out that MPs from the state were in any case meant to be involved in the deliberations, but were not invited.
The Commission apparently called its meetings in the Union Territory this summer “preliminary”, and so did not invite MPs to participate.
All three Lok Sabha members from the Valley, including Dr Abdullah, are from the National Conference. The two from Jammu are from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including the Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, Jitendra Singh.
Most observers in the state expect elections for a new assembly early next summer.
Abdullah will surely be the star campaigner. His charismatic talent to enthuse just about any audience is legendary.
(David Devadas is the author of 'The Story of Kashmir' and 'The Generation of Rage in Kashmir' (OUP, 2018). He can be reached at @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)