In his first interview since the abrogation of the special status of Jammu & Kashmir and his release from detention, Sajad Lone, President of Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Conference, speaks about a range of issues from the BJP government’s 5 August 2019 decision to revoke Articles 370, 35A and bifurcating J&K state into two union territories, his days as a detainee, the significance of the Gupkar Declaration, the future of mainstream politics in J&K, the current face of governance in J&K, and much more.
Q:- How would you view the BJP government’s 5 August 2019 decision to revoke Articles 370, 35A, and bifurcating J&K state into two union territories?
August 5 was a dark day for me, a day, as dark as it can get. I see August 5 as an unconscionable act of betrayal of the Kashmiri people. It was a spiteful move and reeks of political vengeance and someone consumed by hatred. Hatred apart, the problem is that the ruling class in Delhi seems to have a rudimentary understanding of Kashmir, the history of Kashmir, the secularist perspective of Kashmir, and the geopolitical footprint of Kashmir. The uniqueness of the religious composition of Kashmir in the Indian Union was a cherished asset. It has now become a liability for the new rulers.
Article 370, Article 35A, and the whole concept of a special status reflected the soul of Delhi’s relationship with Kashmir. You remove it- it becomes a soulless relationship. It was an anchor linked to history, it was the justification. It was a precious relic. They just threw it away. And amongst the ruins, the Kashmiris, now are muted people, helpless bystanders in their own land forced into a soulless existence.
The accession of J & K in 1947 symbolized consent, symbolized secularism against a canvass of blood splattered communal riots. That was a ray of hope and negation of the two-nation theory. August 5 2019 is the antithesis and negates everything that 1947 stood for. If 1947 marked the transition of the Kashmiri from ruled to the ruler, August 5 relegated it back to the ruling entity, in the ruler- ruled equation.
The process of dilution of Article 370 and political disempowerment started quite early. Over the past seven decades, every exiting generation of leaders passed on a politically poorer J & K to the new generation of leaders. We are unlucky to be a part of the political class when everything was taken away. We have nothing but fear and tales of betrayal to pass on to the next generation.
In a space of one day from the politically most empowered state of India, you are relegated to a UT, brought under the direct central rule, and outsourced to a group of civil and police bureaucrats. What a comedown?
Q: But Delhi is celebrating. Does August 5 mark a victory for Delhi?
There are people in Delhi who went on to celebrate and pronounce victory. Even a novice would counsel them to hold their horses and wait. And victory against whom. Who have they vanquished? Are they at war with the Kashmiris? Are they not their own people?
Mark my words. August 5 did not end on August 5. It will be a long, long day spanning over years. In a political context, we don’t know when and where it will end, least of all the architects of this dreadful day. Political events have a timeline. They are not stand-alone events. How August 5 will play out eventually, nobody knows. These are not the words of a bitter person. This is my humble analysis. August 5 will have ramifications and we may have begun to see the unfolding of some of those ramifications. Only time will tell whether there are any winners? The lack of farsightedness in undertaking August 5 will unravel sooner than later. The architects of August 5 may have boxed themselves in an unenviable corner- wherein a whim of quixotic brilliance they win a battle, only to lose a war.
Q: Did you sign a bond for your release?
No. Nobody asked me to sign a bond. I did know that a bond was in circulation and people were being asked to sign it. But I never saw it.
Q: Do you think the August 5 decision has made the mainstream leadership in J&K irrelevant?
Relevant and irrelevant are relative terms. Relevance and irrelevance are not absolute concepts. You can’t be either in perpetuity. The institutional sagacity of mainstream is too strong to be marauded. There may be a perception of relevance or irrelevance. But that is a fleeting perception and interim in nature. Basically, irrelevance is a dynamic variable not static.
Similarly, right-wing regimes are not elected for all times to come. Every political regime is interim until the next elections. Governments come and go. What I mean is that the present context will change too. Every sunset is followed by a sunrise.
I wouldn’t say irrelevant but there are seemingly insurmountable challenges that the mainstream is going to face in the short run. Mainstream has to answer existential questions- who are they? who do they represent- Delhi or Kashmir? Did they betray the people of Kashmir or did Delhi betray the mainstream?
You have to understand the political landscape of Kashmir in order to get a deeper understanding. In Kashmir, two distinct brands of politics are practiced viz. separatist, and mainstream. I would say separatists claim to represent the aspirations, while the mainstream tries to address the grievances. But there is an overlap. Mainstream is a blend of ideology and governance. Ideologically with all its nationalistically nuanced stands on Kashmir, it is seen as the unionist facet of the political spectrum. In layman terms, they are called pro India parties. What happened on August 5 was done by Delhi, which in local parlance means India. So by default what India did is attributed to the pro-India parties viz. the mainstream. There is an element of hilarity. Mainstream is accused of being too Indian in Kashmir and accused of being not enough Indian in Delhi. The discourse acceptable to Delhi is unacceptable to people and the discourse acceptable to people is unacceptable to Delhi.
Mainstream has all along had a stigmatic existence in Kashmir and this stigmatic existence has been stretched to the limits by August 5 events. In its march towards sanctity or a degree of sanctity, either mainstream introspects and assimilates with the existing narrative on the ground or the stage is set wherein people will start looking for newer role models, newer leaders. I feel a restructured mainstream will evolve. There will be some reinventing and a typical mainstream leader will comparatively have a different set of attributes. It will try to brand itself as a face of Kashmir in Kashmir. In the realm of mainstream, I think it is inevitable that newer, fresher faces will come up. The challenge of the conceptual relevance of the mainstream is a challenge for Delhi too who may understand it someday when they wake up from the August 5 induced slumber.
If I was Delhi, I would forget about inventing leaders and instead be prepared for the emergence of a new breed of leaders. So it will be new wine in the old bottle not the proverbial old wine in the new bottle
Q: Are you worried? Past association of Kashmir centric political parties with the BJP will make people seek newer leaders?
I am sure there are many uncomfortable questions in the offing. I am not worried. You are human and can make decisions that retrospectively one may regret. What matters is what your intentions were. I too was in an alliance with the BJP. My answer would be that in the absence of a decisive mandate in 2014 the only common mandate across different political parties was the mandate for governance. And there was absolutely no space for ideological maneuvering. The government ended and that was the end of my association with them. If I had even a modicum of belief in the righteousness of what they did on August 5, I could have stayed on and associated with them. I chose not to. Nobody stopped me in 2014 and nobody could have stopped me in 2019. Both were my decisions. When it came to ideological divergence, I chose to stay with my people. But that is my explanation. I am sure there are many out there who would not accept my explanation. But at the same time, there are some who would accept my explanation.
I will stay as long as I feel I am wanted by the people who support me. Not a day more. I possibly cannot abandon my core base as they have stuck to me through all phases of my political career unless they want to say goodbye to me. If I just get up and leave that would be tantamount to betrayal.
But challenges will persist. You go on the ground robbed of article 370, article 35 A and statehood and robbed incidentally by the parliament of India. What will they ask you and what will you tell them? Unless we are able to redeem ourselves in the eyes of the people, it is going to be a rough ride.
Q : You left separatist camp more than a decade back. Do you have any regrets about your decision?
Not really. I don’t. I have always believed in the power of economics to uplift people and even to resolve conflicts. And you could only practice economics in mainstream politics. There are some issues though where the perspectives of economic intervention differ. The view from Srinagar as I saw was those good economics will eventually lead us to a dignified existence and that economically secure person will most likely make well-informed, rational decisions including in the context of the conflict in Kashmir. The view from Delhi or as it comes across is different. Economic intervention is supposed to be a tool to trade dignity and influence decision making. That has made words like economics, development an anathema. And people are not to blame. That is how economics has been projected.
Q: If elections are held tomorrow will you and your party participate?To date, all our decisions are subservient to collective leadership. We will do what the collective leadership decides.
Q: BJP has been blaming Abdullahs and Muftis for the mess created in Kashmir. You too had been criticizing these two families. Do you stand by your statements?
I don’t agree with the BJP discourse. As far as my statements are concerned. No, I don’t stand by them anymore. I withdraw all my statements. We may fight it out in the future but we will not allow our differences to facilitate non-Kashmiris coming to rule us, to slander us, to humiliate our people.
Q : How would you define the Gupkar Declaration?
This is the only way out. The issue at hand is bigger than me and bigger than all of us collectively. There is no way that we can individually strive and struggle to espouse the cause of the people of J & K. It has to be a collective effort. Power and the perks of power are a luxury which no self-respecting politician of J & K can afford.
We have all consciously decided to work together. I can assure you that my politics will be henceforth be irreversibly wedded to a collective cause and collective efforts. And we have all unconditionally agreed that we will work under the leadership of Dr. Farooq Abdullah sahib. He has the stature and the experience to lead us all. And we all believe that he will rise above the National Conference and our internecine battles of the past and instead lead us all. Mehbooba Ji despite being jailed ensured that the Gupkar declaration became a reality. She has been the ex-chief minister of the state. Yet her opinion was firm that Dr. Farooq sahib should lead us all. Tarigami sahib played a pivotal role too.
Q : So there is a Gupkar Declaration. What next? Is there more to come?
Yes, we have to move forward. The whole collective effort will have to have a form and a structure. It has to have some organizational identity and some hierarchical structures for it to be able to deliver. The declaration is a good start. But we have to move on and start institutionalizing the concept.
Q : Do you think the Gupkar Declaration, of which you are a signatory, will stand in the future?
The current circumstances have made Gupkar declaration a reference point. It is a concept and concepts don’t vanish. The concept is bigger than all its constituent entities put together. Gupkar declaration in its full form can make entities vanish but entities can’t make Gupkar declaration vanish. So I think it is here to stay for over a long period of time with or without us.
Q: Some of your own party leaders are issuing statements against the Gupkar declaration?
The party stand is clear. The Gupkar declaration will be the guiding force. There is no space to publicly express dissent against a collective mechanism which I believe in current times is a sacred mechanism, a hope we all are clinging on to. We have called for a meeting of the executive committee where all these matters will be discussed.
Q: How do you analyze August 5? Was it a masterstroke by Delhi?
No it wasn’t a masterstroke. I don’t think so. Let me lay it out for you. Let us evaluate three variables in the context of August 5. First is the variable of the people of Kashmir. Second is the variable of diplomatic reaction and third is the variable of reactions of the neighbors in the immediate vicinity.
The analysis of the variables of the people of Kashmir is simple. The view from Delhi it seems is that they don’t care. People of Kashmir don’t matter. As I said earlier there seems to be a deep hatred for Kashmiris. Delhi has embarked on a hard policy- “teach these Kashmiris a lesson”. And the onslaught is on. Every day you will see some amendment, some rule to belittle, humiliate the Kashmiris. They are certainly pushing them to the wall. There is no soft policy in sight. It is hard, harder, hardest all the way.
The second variable is the diplomatic variable. As much as they would want to congratulate themselves, the reality is that August 5 has internationalized Kashmir as never before. I don’t think there is a single head of a state in the world post-August 5 who does not know that there is a place called Kashmir and there is a problem there. The diplomatic reaction was not anticipated by the architects. Such was the diplomatic intensity that the department of external affairs has almost been relegated to the department of Kashmir affairs. The tours by EU ambassadors and parliamentarians. What was that? Do they take you on such tours in their country?
The third variable is that of the neighbors. Again they gravely miscalculated. It is almost seditious to try and link happenings in the neighborhood with August 5. But that is a reality.
The first variable falls within the domain of the political establishment. It is their decision to show disregard for what the people of Kashmir want. But the second and third variables fall within the ambit of specialists in the bureaucratic establishment. Either nobody is listening to them or they didn’t do their homework properly. My humble analysis is that far from closing the Kashmir chapter they may have opened a closed chapter.
Q: Do you think there are any chances that Article 370 could be restored someday?
Nothing is carved in stone. I am hopeful for much more. I will quote Winston Churchill (although the ownership of the quote is ambivalent) – “Success is never final; failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that count”.
Q: Tell us something about the days you spent in jail after last August 5?
No complaints. Got a lot of time to study, to introspect. I lost a lot of weight. We used to interact a lot with fellow inmates. Of course, there were some problems. Some officers would bend their back backward to humiliate all of us. I don’t know whether they were doing it on their own or they had general orders of humiliation. But they failed as we all had a good laugh at the pettiness of these officers who till the other day would take a knee for a good posting.
I had been to jail earlier in 1990. That was horrible. Lots of beating. But I think this jail, despite all the white-collar facilities, was lacking in social sanctity.
Q: There are rumors that some leaders met with the BJP leadership in Delhi?
I don’t have any information about any leader meeting anybody. But I fail to understand why can’t a Kashmiri leader meet any leader whether from BJP or from any other party. What is this new diktat? Any leader is free to meet anybody personally or politically. I am of the opinion that once COVID shows signs of subsiding we should send delegations to brief parties of different leaders including the ruling party. I am relatively a newcomer to mainstream politics. But some of our leaders have national stature. We need to use that stature, that clout, to put forward the Kashmiri point of view. Sulking is not a strategy. We can’t just sit, sulk and sob. We have to go out there and strive and get back what is rightfully ours.
Q: What do you have to say about the current government?
What can I say? I have nothing personal against any of them. But I don’t know them. They are not here at the pleasure of the people of Kashmir. They are here at the pleasure of Delhi. They are appointed by Delhi and answerable to the powers in Delhi not the people of Kashmir. This is an indication of the vibrancy of democracy in Kashmir. This is plain and simple. Now you arrange tours of ambassadors of different countries and showcase democracy. Those ambassadors will have to unlearn the prevailing format of democracy in their respective countries to learn this unique format of democracy.
Delhi has outsourced Kashmir to a cabal and the people in the cabal gleefully run like headless chicken playing masters, rulers, and experts. Maybe it is wrong after all, to say that it is all gloom and doom. At least some are happy. The ruling cabal is happy if not the Kashmiris. People in the cabal are having a wonderful time. These are the new “stake-less stakeholders”.
Q: Delhi says that mainstream leaders failed the people. They say there was no development. They say there was corruption.
Nothing can be farther from the truth. There is no doubt that we are a poor place and a part of a poor country. But within the country, J & K is not as backward as they would want us to believe. Just go online, check the development indices, and make a comparative analysis of how different states rank across the country. There is no space for rabble-rousing in this digital age of information. Let figures speak for themselves. We are much better than the rest of the country.
Now assume for a moment that there is a lack of development in J & K. And assume that politicians are responsible for it. Hard cheese. That is how democracy works. Elections are conducted by the Election commission of India. After 6 years’ people got a chance to reelect or reject the incumbent government. That is how it works. The power vests with the people of J&K not with the political or bureaucratic establishment in Delhi. This is my understanding of a democratic system. People out here may have elected people who as they say in Delhi are corrupt, inefficient. That is for the people of J & K to take a call. You don’t call an All India Khap Panchayat to ponder on issues pertaining to J & K.
The point I want to make is that Kashmiris are not victims of lack of development. They are victims of distrust. They are victims of betrayal.
And if lack of development is a yardstick to relegate a state to UT, then, eighty percent of the states will have to be relegated. And is the union government in a position to be a role model for development? Anyways let them tell us which state they want us to follow as a role model. Is it UP, is it Bihar, is it Orissa, is it Chhattisgarh?
Q : The government says that nobody came out to protest against the August 5 decision or the arrest of leaders?
This is another favorite topic in Delhi. Why should people come out to protest? Arrests, killings are everyday matters in Kashmir. The rulers are relatively new to Kashmiri politics and don’t know that Kashmiris have seen worse in the last thirty years and are immune to despotic phases. And look at the audacity. People who rushed lakhs of troops and converted the whole city into an armed garrison are now taunting unarmed civilians that they didn’t come out to fight.
And if they are talking about protests against the August 5 decision. I hope people don’t take the law into their hands and strive peacefully. Just unsolicited
advice for the wannabe policymakers and spin doctors and experts on Kashmir. If Kashmiris want to come out and protest they will come out at a time of their own choosing.
If the government is so confident that lack of protests is an endorsement of August 5, let them announce that if people come out to protest they will rescind all the actions of August 5. Then let us see how many people will stay at home.