The revelations that the former J&K Governor Satyapal Malik has made during an interview with journalist Karan Thapar are nothing short of seismic. They are going to reverberate long after even the controversy has died down.
Three major contentious points will now be subject to intense debates and scrutiny for days to come. First, the Pulwama attack came allegedly as a consequence of the negligence of a scale so astronomical that it is impossible that the top officials in the security establishment may not have been aware of it.
Second, the very senior stakeholders in the region, including some top functionaries in the previous government were allegedly part of the shady business deals involving kickbacks in anticipation of undue favours from the government. And lastly, and also literally the earth-shattering one, is that the J&K State’s consent, upon which hinged the very revocation of Article 370, was obtained in a manner that was not in keeping with the legal propriety.
Commentary from the people on the Right side of the aisle, many of whom have tried to write off Malik’s declarations as 'unreliable', citing contradictory speeches he had been making in the past.
Malik also said that there was no consultation with him regarding the Revocation of Article 370. He said that J&K was demoted to Union Territory so that the J&K police could be brought directly under federal control.
On the issue of curbing press freedom, Malik pleaded ignorance, saying he did not know about any such issue while revoking advertisements in three Kashmir's newspapers.
Explosive Revelations Trigger Fresh Flashpoint in Governance
The interview has already ignited a firestorm of response in the media. Tough questions are being asked of the government which is finding itself in a dock. A sense of vindication and anger pervaded the Kashmir valley over the weekend.
In Malik’s utterances to the media, the people’s wounded political consciousness found a ready expression. It was as if something that they have been trying to argue unsuccessfully for a long time was now being articulated in a way that was hard to be ignored.
A clutch of petitions has already been filed at the Supreme Court that challenges the validity of the August 2019 decision to nullify Kashmir’s hallowed special status. But the sluggish pace at which the judges are hearing the issue has frayed a lot of nerves. But Malik’s disclosure now adds a new dimension to the issue.
State’s Concurrence Given in Haste
In the interview, Malik said that he was oblivious to the Central government’s decision until one day before it happened. “I got a call from the Home Ministry in the evening saying they will send me a letter and that I should get it passed from the committee, and return it before 11 am,” Malik said, referring to the evening of 4 August 2019 when one official order upon order was being floated over the internet, spelling out a series of security measures. The orders did not specify the reasons why the measures were being authorised.
After midnight, the mobile Internet, broadband, and cellular services were shut off. The following day, people across J&K woke up to their TV sets flashing the news about Article 370 being voided as the security forces preempted large-scale protests by arresting thousands of people.
“From the very first day, I had the intuition that they are going to do something like this,” Malik continued, “And probably they also anticipated me foreseeing such a deed. It wasn’t necessary that they reveal to me all the details. As far as Kashmir is concerned, Delhi takes things for granted. They feel that whatever they have instructed will happen, no matter what.”
How Reliable Are Malik’s Claims?
There has been a lot of commentary from the people on the Right side of the aisle, many of whom have tried to write off Malik’s declarations as 'unreliable' citing the contradictory speeches that he had been making in the past. Amit Malviya, the head of BJP’s communications team, posted an old video of Malik in which he is castigating Rahul Gandhi over his party member’s comments on Kashmir.
Others highlighted the parts of his interview where he admits to misattributing comments to Union Home Minister Amit Shah that he did not say. Despite all these shortcomings, many experts have underscored that it is impossible to dismiss what Malik had to say. “What makes the former Governor's criticisms significant is that he was the PM's choice for Governor of Bihar, J&K, Goa, and Meghalaya from 2017-22, clearly someone whose abilities the government had confidence in,” tweeted The Hindu's diplomatic editor.
The ‘Illegal’ Way in Which J&K’s Consent Was Extracted
But the angriest reactions have come from Kashmir where Malik’s revelations are being instrumentalised to cast a new light on the shaky moral foundations of the August 2019 actions.
As the experts have highlighted elsewhere, the de-operationalisation of Article 370 was predicated on a “concurrence” from the J&K State. This was a vital precondition that would have legalised its withdrawal. But in light of Malik's interview and the new background details that he had offered, the whole edifice on which the Article 370 removal was perched has come into question.
“From a constitutional perspective, this raises a thorny question. One of the most basic principles underpinning the legal system is that actions taken by constitutional authorities must only be upon due application of mind and that—in fact— demonstrable non-application of mind renders such decisions void,” wrote Constitutional Expert Gautam Bhatia in his blog post. “The ex-governor’s statements in the interview, therefore, raise a strong presumption that there was non-application of mind by at least one of the two constitutional functionaries whose consent was necessary to “amending” Article 370.”
Ruhullah Mehdi, a former Minister in J&K, was prompt in hammering home the idea of how the central government had ironed the people of the erstwhile state. “This is how the fate of the people of J&K was decided on that day. This is how they lynched & murdered democracy. Clause 3 of the Article 370 says that the abrogation cannot happen without the concurrence of the State's (J&K) Constituent Assembly, meaning the will of the people,” he tweeted. “And this is how the concurrence was taken from the people of J&K. A daylight thuggery. An appointed individual of GoI deciding for 14 million people & brazenly says that it was their (BJP’s) govt. “Mujhe kya, unko karna tha to karte na narna tha to na karte mujhe kya tha.”
The Controversial Dissolution of State Assembly
There’s another very serious issue that Malik has brought into the spotlight. The last government in J&K which was a coalition with BJP and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), ended in July 2018 after the former withdrew from the alliance. The Legislative Assembly was in suspended animation until November that year where various regional political parties including the National Conference decided to club their numbers and form a government of their own.
Were it to happen, this manoeuvre was likely to complicate the proposed move to abrogate Article 370 as an operational Assembly with the majority of legislators being locals would never have acquiesced to nullifying the semi-autonomous status. But Malik forestalled the move saying that he did not receive a letter from Mehboob Mufti who claimed to have faxed him one, staking a claim to form a government by scraping together the support from the opposition camp.
When Thapar asked Malik if he did so at BJP’s behest, he denied it. “It was the day of Eid,” he recalled. “There was nobody to take faxes in my office. I was intimated that they have a majority. But governments are not formed over Twitter,” he said, referring to the tweet from Mufti who decried Malik’s decision to dissolve the Assembly promptly, instead of acting on their request. “The parties have to meet and deliver the letters personally.”
Thapar questioned Malik why he did not give Mufti time for that and he responded by saying the parties had the full day to get their act together. “I dissolved the assembly after 8 pm,” he said. He also said that it was the regional political parties that were piling up pressure on him to dissolve the assembly as they were being apprehensive about “horse-trading.” “If they were incompetent I am not responsible for that,” he said. “It's not my responsibility to make them realise how governments are made.”
Political experts are saying that Malik’s answers are far from convincing. “He does not explain what was his compulsion to dissolve the Assembly,” said Professor Noor Ahmad Baba, a political scientist in Srinagar. “The grounds he has offered sound ridiculous.”
Allegations of Deriving Political Mileage From Pulwama Attacks
Another explosive revelation in the interview was regarding the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) making a request for their personnel to be transported to Valley from aircraft which, in Malik’s telling the Home Ministry, was denied. “I told the PM the same evening that it was our mistake,” he said. “I was instructed to stay silent,” Malik added that Ajit Doval, the National Security Advisor also reiterated PM’s instructions on not speaking about the matter along these self-incriminating lines.
But in the interview, he offers more damning details. “The route (on which the CRPF motorcade was moving on 14 February) had eight to ten link roads,” he said, adding that none of the link roads was manned by the security personnel. It was through one such link road that the suicide bomber Aadil Dar cruised straight on the highway, driving an explosive-laden sports vehicle, and pulled the trigger the moment he came abreast of the CRPF motorcade.
“The amount of explosives…cannot be procured internally,” Malik said. “The vehicle roamed in the same area for around ten to twelve days and no one knew and no one was intercepted.” Malik also appeared to suggest that the government “utilised” the tragedy for electoral gains.
“Instead of going to the root cause, it was used for something else,” he said, hinting towards the 2019 Parliamentary Elections that came on the heels of the Pulwama attack and gave Modi a landslide victory.
Malik also said that there was no consultation with him regarding the Revocation of Article 370. He said that J&K was demoted to Union Territory so that the J&K police could be brought directly under federal control as the government was apprehending a revolt by the Kashmiri Muslim constabulary of the J&K Police. "That apprehension was misplaced,” he adds.
‘Did Not Know That Press Freedom Was Being Curbed’
On the issue of curbing press freedom, Malik pleaded ignorance, saying he did not know about any such issue. "No such incident came to my view,” he said. But this reporter who was covering major developments in the run-up to the Parliamentary elections did come across instances when journalists had to face major hurdles.
On 19 February, just four days after the Pulwama attack, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry asked the J&K administration to track “resistance art” in the region. The decree, implemented faithfully by the regime headed by Malik, adversely impacted Kashmiri artists. Suhail Naqshbandi, a respected cartoonist with the Greater Kashmir newspaper, resigned immediately. In conversation with this reporter, he accused the newspaper of routinely censoring his content.
Malik also revoked advertisements in three newspapers in Kashmir. In June, his government detained an editor of a local Urdu newspaper citing an ‘open FIR’ against him alleging that he had published material sourced from insurgents in 1995. The arbitrary nature of this arrest can be gauged from the fact that the court ordered his release barely hours after his arrest at the hands of the police.
PM Being “Ill-Informed” About J&K
Malik also characterised Prime Minister Modi as being “ill-informed” about Kashmir. “I told him the real problem in Kashmir is Jamaat,” he said referring to Jamaat-e-Islami, a socio-religious group that has been accused of supporting militancy in South Kashmir. "He asked for a 20-page note. I obliged but he did not act. Amit Shah acted on that. And continues to do so.”
He alleged that the PM did not even know how the Hurriyat operated. He also said that he was once told by former senior J&K Minister Muzaffar Beigh that separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani had been conducive to holding talks with Malik.
“Had we worked with honesty, we could have resolved it,” he said, adding that successive Indian governments have been promoting what he labelled as unethical policies. He cited the case of Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad, former head of J&K who was appointed as Prime Minister of J&K after Sheikh Abdullah was deposed in 1953. Historians have documented the myriad ways in which Bakshi indulged in corruption and rigged elections to stay in power—the acts that late scribe Balraj Puri has suggested had the blessings from the former Indian Prime Minister Nehru.
Erosion of Faith in State Institutions Is Dangerous
Malik also said that people in J&K felt more hurt over the state being downgraded to UT. “I don’t think statehood will be restored anytime soon,” he said. This appears to be true as despite the passage of four years, there have been no signs that elections are going to be held anytime soon.
Even though the Union Home Minister had said that polls will take place after the Delimitation exercise, no poll bugle has been sounded as far as the J&K is concerned. The recent decision to revise the electoral rolls in J&K for the second time has invited allegations that the Central government was buying time to avoid conducting elections in the UT.
Experts and opinion makers say the latest revelations from Malik’s interview are portentous and will only go on to reinforce the notions that State institutions in the UT as well as across the country are bereft of credibility. “Law is an outcome of political power. Laws help the powerful more than they help the weak. This is a commonsensical experience for all of us,” Baba says. “Law is not the same for everybody. It is being reflected in all this. Nobody is taking care of the weaker side in this case. A cementing of a sense of being wrong at the hands of the law will set a dangerous precedent."
(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He has also written for The Wire.in, Article 14, Caravan, Firstpost, The Times of India, and more. He tweets at @shakirmir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)