It’s been five years since J&K, which was back then a full state with special constitutional privileges, has last seen an elected administration. The restoration of special status has been a principle political plank for almost all major political parties in the Union Territory. The subject resonates with a large segment of J&K’s population.
This makes it tougher for the BJP-led Union government, which has refused to relinquish its institutional control over J&K, to hold Assembly elections in the erstwhile state.
Critics insist that since the 2019 decision, it has tried several methods to cement the kind of authority that ensures the longevity of its control over the UT. At the same time, the government has been promoting a narrative that Kashmir is experiencing the first-of-its-kind normalcy period – a feat it claims previous governments haven’t been able to achieve.
Yet, the Assembly polls continue to elude J&K. The Quint caught up with Omar Abdullah, a senior leader with the J&K National Conference and former Chief Minister of the erstwhile state whose party, the NC, was behind the enshrinement of Article 370 in the Indian constitution in 1950 to know his views on the political trajectory the UT is going to take.
Here are some excerpts from the interview:
Going by what is being reported mostly about the UT in the national press, the impression one gets is that Kashmir is witnessing an unprecedented spell of peace. There’s been 14.64% growth in the economy, with the revenue going up by 31%. J&K has seen a footfall of more than 15 thousand foreign arrivals this year and overall 1 crore 88 lakh tourists visited J&K last year. Around 300 movies have been shot in the Valley pursuant to the new Film Policy. Big events like the G20 working group meet have been held successfully. Militancy is going down. (From 597 incidents in 2018 to just 171 so far in 2023). So one might ask where is the problem then?
I would attach a degree of skepticism to the data that is given. While it is true that conditions on the ground have been largely peaceful, it has not resulted in any greater economic activity other than tourism which ebbs and flows depending upon the situation. The sort of tourist inflows you are seeing today, I saw when I was Chief Minister in 2012, in 2013, and in the run-up to 2014 before the floods came. So for me, these numbers are not new.
What is new is the way in which these numbers are projected. You quoted a figure. In my time, the tourist numbers that we acknowledged were between 15-17 lakhs. That number in eight years, you are claiming, has gone up from 15 lakhs to over a crore.
Ultimately, with this kind of exponential growth, they must have newer places to stay. Can you point me to a new hotel in Kashmir? I can perhaps show you one which is the Radisson (Blu) near the Convent School in Srinagar. So where have these one crore plus tourists been staying? Have they been staying under flyovers? Or Raj Bhawan? (Lt Governor’s residence).
The only thing that has changed is your way of counting because, for the first time, you are counting yatris (pilgrims) attending Shri Mata Vaishno Devi and Shri Amarnath shrines as tourists. So let's not get into numbers. The fact of the matter is you have added no new capacity to carry tourists. The moment you add that capacity, I will acknowledge that there has been a growth and a concomitant economic windfall.
Coming to the issue of the ongoing tussle over the use of 'plough’ symbol which the Ladakh administration has denied on the grounds that it does not have the authority. But the court has twice ruled in your favour.
BJP doesn’t want the NC to have the symbol. Otherwise, honestly, I don’t think the administration in Ladakh cares one way or the other. BJP is afraid of us. Why else would they do it?
The local MP in Ladakh has made an ego issue out of it. Time and again, he told people that he will do everything so that NC doesn’t get the symbol. That’s why they are pressuring the administration to keep approaching the courts. And time and again they lose. I don’t know what the SC will do but I am hopeful that justice will be done.
Is it possible to imagine NC conducting polls in alliance with the PDP or joining hands with the PDP, should the need arise?
I am not going to speculate on this. I am not seeing any signs (of elections being held) at the moment. Do you? When the elections are announced, then come and ask me about this.
Some political leaders in Kashmir allege that NC will not be averse to aligning with the BJP.
More often than not, this commentary is coming from the people who have already aligned with the BJP and who are trying to make themselves look better. They first need to explain why they are aligning with the BJP.
Why have they got all the benefits from this current government? Then ask us to explain. If I had wanted to align with BJP I would have aligned in 2019. I would have also had all the security that they have; all the paraphernalia and all the advantages that they have. On a matter of principle, we are opposed to what the BJP does and will continue to do that.
Do you think that NC has an edge over other mainstream parties in Kashmir?
I don’t think we should get into who has an edge and who doesn’t. These things are decided by the voters. I don’t want to insult the intelligence of the voters by predicting where they will go, should they be given a choice. My job is to put our case in front of the people of J&K, to explain to them the importance of the fight that we are waging and hope that they will endorse the position that we take.
Have you tried to envision a scenario in which the Supreme Court upholds the decision to revoke Article 370? In that case, what are the Kashmiri leaders going to do?
The government hasn’t got a chance to put its own point of view before the court and you want me to envisage a scenario in which we are losing? We haven’t gone to the Supreme Court to lose. Nothing that has happened in the Supreme Court up until now has suggested that we are on a weak wicket.
In fact, if anything at every point, not just the lawyers that have represented our petition but all the other eminent lawyers that have put their point of view across have very forcefully made it very difficult for the government of India to justify what they have done. At the end of the day, five eminent people are sitting on that bench. Let us give them time to consider all the arguments, we will wait for whatever judgment comes. Based on the judgment if a strategy is needed we will sit down and carve out one.
We have seen a string of incidents that tell us something about the state of civil liberties in Kashmir. An entire news publication (Kashmir Walla) was forced to suspend its operations; Kashmir’s top religious leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq continues to face restrictions on his mobility; journalists’ passports have been seized; government employees are facing dismissals under emergency provisions, and recent sacking of a chief manager in J&K Bank has created a lot of scare on the ground. How have you been reading these events?
The space for civil liberties in J&K has shrunk enormously. It’s all very well to highlight the improvement in the situation. That improvement has come at a cost. The cost has been the freedom to speak. Today nobody is willing to speak. You have publications whose cartoonists are afraid to make a cartoon against the government. That is the state of your civil liberties today. No newspaper worth its salt today prints anything that is critical of the government. In fact, more often than not, your newspapers are full of government advertisements and reproduction of government hand-outs. That’s it. There’s no news.
(Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.)