Abdullahs take baby steps to reclaim political space

The recent demand by National Conference for restoration of pre-August 5, 2019, constitutional position of Jammu and Kashmir and the unification of the Union Territories of Ladakh with J&K is first-of-its-kind appeal by its leaders in past 11 months, reports Riyaz Wani

In a recent statement, Jammu and Kashmir’s (J&K) major regional party National Conference in a statement demanded the restoration of pre-August 5, 2019 constitutional position of J&K and the unification of the Union Territories (UT) of Ladakh with J&K. This was the first time after ten and a half months that the party broke its silence on the issue, despite the fact that it is officially against revocation of Article 370.

The statement was signed by 11 senior leaders of the party, some of whom only just released from detention. The party noted with satisfaction the change from an aggressive to “a conciliatory tone” as exemplified by what the party said were the statements of the Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and the Transport Minister Nitin Gadakari. Gadkari, in a statement had said that “India was not interested in expansion in land either from Pakistan or China and only wanted peace and amity”.

The NC also called for reopening of all traditional routes including Kargil-Skardu, Jammu-Sialkot and Poonch-Rawalakot to allow free movement of people across the Line of Control with Pakistan and Line of Actual Control with China and to promote people-to-people contact and strengthen inter-regional trade and cultural links. Once considered mother of all confidence building measures the BJP government closed Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road and Poonch–Rawalakot road following Pulwama bombing that killed, 40 CRPF personnel leading to skirmishes between India and Pakistan. The cross-LoC bus service was started in April 2005. The trade was later added in 2008. But all such CBMs have come undone over the past two years.

What prompted the NC to issue an apparently bold statement at a time when India is engaged in a tense stand-off along the LAC with China? The conciliatory statements by the senior BJP ministers were apparently a trigger. The party may have also been forced by the growing public exasperation about its continued silence over the nullification of Article 370. More so, after Omar Abdullah’s recent tweet accusing many Kashmiris of harbouring sympathies for China drew a storm of online protests. This forced Omar to temporarily delete his account

However, the NC statement also underlines that Kashmiri politicians are now gingerly making bold to criticize the centre’s August 5 move. The politicians have so far shied away from offending New Delhi that lost no time to place them under detention after revoking Article 370. In addition to three chief ministers, centre’s sweep in Kashmir encompassed many major politicians and civil society actors. A former MLA Engineer Rashid was slapped with Public Safety Act and later on the law was extended to other leaders including Dr Abdullah. In all this, Dr Abdullah’s arrest has stood out as an act of overreach. He is not only the tallest mainstream leader in J&K but also one of the senior most leaders in the country. He has always stood for the country’s cause in Kashmir.

On the eve of August 5, all major mainstream leaders had gathered at residence of Dr Abdullah to formulate a joint response against the withdrawal of Article 370. This came to be known as Gupkar Declaration. In recent months, some Kashmiri leaders like the NC leader Member Parliament Hasnain Masoodi  have indicated that the Gupkar declaration “will be the basis of a future course of action by the Kashmir based political parties”. 

But if the release in March of the NC president Dr Farooq Abdullah and the son Omar Abdullah was expected to give a fillip to political activity, it hasn’t happened. Similarly, the other parties like the PDP, the People’s Conference too have been silent. But it could be because their top leaders are still under detention. So is the IAS officer turned politician Shah Faesal. The NC has sought the release of all of them to formulate a joint response.

There are many forms of political response in the Valley currently being bandied about. Once released, these politicians could decide to unite and launch a mass movement for the reversal of the Article 370 revocation. Considering the mood in the Valley, such a movement is likely to witness an overwhelming public participation. And should this happen, the long running movement for separatism in the UT will meld with the struggle for the restoration of special rights under India’s constitution.

But seized of the potential implications of the release of the mainstream politicians, New Delhi seems unwilling to take any such step at once. It has tried to stagger their release and only on an apparent condition that they will not make any statement or engage in an activity that challenges the withdrawal of Article 370. Studied silence of these leaders has lent credence to such reports.

And while the established leaders were silent or had been silenced, a new political outfit Apni Party headed by a businessman-turned-politician Altaf Bukhari was floated that chose to more or less toe New Delhi’s line on Kashmir. The party’s major plank is the demand for restoration of statehood to J&K. Though the Apni Party had also sought protection to J&K’s domicile laws under Article 370, the centre overruled it. The new domicile law has paved the way for outsiders to settle in Kashmir, something that was forbidden under Article 370. Now, the only plank of the party is the demand for statehood, something that is unlikely to wash in Kashmir in the absence of a demand for pre-August 5 position.

In recent past, centre, however, has withdrawn PSAs from many a senior politicians of the PDP and the NC. Shah Faesal has also been released but they have been put under house arrest. The PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti is still under detention. She was only shifted to her official residence in recent past. And there are no signs she will be released in near future. Similarly the People’s Conference leader Sajad Gani Lone is confined to his house. This is hampering the restoration of full-fledged political activity in the union territory.

“Mehbooba’s release is very critical. So is that of Lone and Faesal,” says Naseer Ahmad, a local columnist. “It is only when they are freed can we expect some sort of a resumption of political activity in the Valley. It appears New Delhi is still not confident as to what outcome such political activity will lead to. Hence the continued detention of some of the leaders”.

Meanwhile, the NC’s statement seeking restoration of Article 370 is the first one of its kind since August 5, 2019. It remains to be seen whether the party will follow it up with more such demands.