In a wide-ranging interview with Praveen Swami, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah details the importance of Article 370 and the need to engage secessionists in dialogue whose boycott of the democratic process has hurt the citizens of the State.
The Hindu: You’ve been extremely critical of [BJP’s prime ministerial candidate] Narendra Modi in recent speeches. Is this political posturing aimed at shoring up your constituency by picking up a fight with a leader unpopular in the State?
Omar Abdullah: Well, if Mr. Modi goes ahead and fulfils his poll promises, he will end up severing Jammu and Kashmir from the rest of the country. That is what Mr. Modi will do. He has promised to revoke Article 370 from the Constitution, which means that the constitutional bridge between Jammu and Kashmir and the Indian Union will be destroyed. This basically means that the structure of Jammu and Kashmir’s position in the Indian Union will be undermined. Secondly, his party has also promised that when it comes to power, it will make Ladakh a Union Territory. That means severing it from the State of Jammu and Kashmir. Dismembering Jammu and Kashmir will have awful consequences, both for communal peace in the State and for its wider relationship with India. I don’t think enough Indians understand just how dangerous this situation is.
Many in India — and I should add, in Jammu and Kashmir — wrongly think that Article 370 denies people from outside Jammu and Kashmir the right to own property in the State, that it is an issue to do with equal rights for citizens.
Yes, and it saddens me that a responsible political party is playing on this ignorance. The reality is that this has nothing to do with Article 370. Jammu and Kashmir’s State Subject laws, which disallow outsiders from buying land in the State, are pre-Independence laws. Many States have similar laws, which are intended to protect the demographic character of numerically small regions. Article 370 is something completely different. It limits the powers of Parliament to legislate for the State and was negotiated as part of Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India. There are similar provisions for some other States like Nagaland. You do away with Article 370, you basically throw open Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India.
There is a school of thought in J&K that a Narendra Modi-led government will be more able to make concessions necessary for peace with Pakistan, that the previous Bharatiya Janata Party-led government was more dynamic on the dialogue process within the State. The People’s Democratic Party leader Mehbooba Mufti surprised many recently by giving an interview in which she was quite warm about Mr. Modi.
I think in Ms. Mufti’s case, the soft line on Mr. Modi is driven by fairly narrow political concerns. The PDP is pretty isolated, both in Kashmir and in New Delhi, and needs friends. Recall that it was the BJP which threw its resources behind the birth of the PDP, and you’ll see why I’m not surprised the marker is being called in.
There are reports that the BJP has been seeking to open channels with secessionists like Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Do you think these reports are true — and, if so, is this a good thing or a bad thing? And do you think New Delhi should talk to the Hurriyat even if it refuses to participate in elections?
Well, I really hope they are opening a channel: talk is good. I do not understand, though, why secessionists who were obdurate in their refusal to have a serious conversation with the United Progressive Alliance are so keen to talk to the BJP. I would love them to say exactly what they think they will get from the BJP that was not forthcoming from the UPA. The secessionists will never participate in elections, because they will never win an election. Yet, they represent a section of opinion in Kashmir, and need to be dealt with.
The unfolding elections in Jammu and Kashmir has seen voter turnout that isn’t very different from that of the 2009 Lok Sabha election and has been marred further by very low participation in some pockets and violence. Does this signal trouble ahead in Kashmir?
Well, we have had periodic episodes of trouble in the valley, and it would be foolish of me to claim nothing will ever happen again in the future. Yet, you also need to ask these questions to the secessionists supporting the boycott. They assert the right not to participate in elections, but seem to think it is acceptable to deny other people the same right through violence and intimidation. If some people are going to use guns, grenades and stones to obstruct the elections, then of course voter turnout will be low. Having said that, voter turnout has also been very high in some areas, so the idea there’s some general rejection of democracy is flat-out wrong.
It could also be argued that part of the problem is that your legislators and administrators just haven’t done enough to push for peace.
Let me surprise you by saying yes: I agree with you. I am always pushing our legislators to work harder, to stop taking power for granted. Having said that, I think it is something for our voters to also consider. Everyone wants accountable governance — but you just can’t have it unless you vote to hold governments accountable. There’s no language any politician understands better than being kicked out of office.