When a leader grows a beard

New bearded image of Kashmir’s ex-CM again puts spotlight on the detained leaders, reports Riyaz Wani

Surfacing of a new bearded picture of the former chief minister Omar Abdullah has once again focussed attention on the detained leaders in Kashmir. The picture went viral. Omar’s unkempt salt and pepper beard made for a telling comment on the prevailing state of affairs in the state-turned-union territory.

Ever since the revocation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, all major J&K leaders, including the three former chief ministers — Omar himself, his father Dr Farooq Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti continue to be under detention. They have been slapped with Public Safety Acts, a draconian law whereby their incarceration without trial can be extended up to two years. And even though centre has eventually restored internet and social media in Kashmir, it has baulked at releasing all the leaders. Those who have been released so far are understood to have signed an undertaking that they wouldn’t speak against withdrawal of J&K’s autonomy guaranteed by the scrapped Article 370. And they haven’t and this has only attested to the reports about the “bonds of silence”.

And considering that the other leaders may be loathe to signing of such bonds, their release appears unlikely in the near term. Though Abdullah’s sister Sara Abdullah Pilot has filed a petition in Supreme Court challenging his detention under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, the court in its hearing on March 5 deferred it till after Holi break. This has ensured Abdullah will continue to stay in jail.

The J&K administration told the Apex Court that former J&K CM’s detention for over 7 months is justified as he continues to be a threat to public order. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said the action against Omar was a result of the leader’s “live and proximate link” to past events.“Geographical proximity of J&K and Ladakh to Islamic Republic of Pakistan is also a factor,” said the J&K administration while defending the detention.

In the Valley, the reaction to arrest of the leaders has been mixed. The people have traditionally had an ambivalent relationship with the mainstream leaders: they vote for them but a large separatist constituency also blames them for being responsible for undermining Kashmir’s autonomy. And during their term in power, these leaders have often resorted to frequent use of Public Safety Acts against people. So, people aren’t really distressed to them arbitrarily detained. This is reflected by many online reactions to the picture as it emerged around the time Kashmir got back on social media. However, the photo mostly received sympathetic reactions from the netizens outside the union territory.

“The day social media returns to Kashmir, emerges this photo of the still-in-detention #OmarAbdullah with a Govt doctor who has come to check on his health. Such a sad photo,” posted Meena Baghel on Twitter.

Omar’s party, National Conference has reacted angrily to the continued detention of the leaders terming it as a “contempt” for Kashmiri leadership. ‘The prolonged detention of party president Farooq Abdullah, vice-president Omar Abdullah, (general secretary) Ali Mohammad Sagar and others and their constant absence from the political landscape of J-K is not in favour of the country in general and J&K in particular,’ senior NC leader and Member of Parliament from north Kashmir Mohammad Akbar Lone said.

However Lone’s own son Hilal Lone has also been slapped with the PSA.

The detention of the top leadership has brought the political activities in the Valley to a halt. In the past seven months, neither the National Conference nor the PDP or the smaller parties like People’s Conference and Awami Itihad Party have held any rally or a press conference. The administration had to also defer the Panchayat election earlier scheduled to be held in March after the NC and the PDP refused to take part pending release of their leaders. The government is now trying to fill the consequent political vacuum by encouraging the new political actors like Altaf Bukhari and Muzaffar Hussain Beigh to take the stage. Will the experiment succeed? It is too early to say anything. The coming weeks and months will make things clear.