SRINAGAR: The security situation in the Kashmir valley is so bad that leader of opposition Omar Abdullah says he has to think twice before venturing out into his own constituency. "My freedom and ability to travel in my own constituency (Beerwah in Budgam district, near Srinagar) is far less than it was at exactly this time last year. I have to think twice before I venture into areas that I would have gone into without a care in the world exactly this time last year," he told HuffPost India in an interview at his Srinagar home.
"My colleagues are out in the field as much as possible. The (security) environment is not dramatically different for us than it is for the PDP because at the end of the day we are also part of the mainstream. When the mainstream space shrinks it doesn't just shrink for the PDP, it shrinks for us as well," Abdullah said.
He was reflecting the general sense of foreboding everyone in Kashmir shares, expecting to see guns, grenades and militant funerals more often. "You show me a day when there isn't a militancy related incident," he said.
How much has the mainstream space shrunk?
It's difficult to measure, according to Abdullah.
In the Srinagar Lok Sabha seat by-poll in April, only 7% people voted. National Conference president Farooq Abdullah won the seat, but the low voter turnout was reflective of how elections and India were being viewed in the valley. "It is not necessarily true that 93% people stayed away in their own accord. While it is a fact that a lot of people don't wish to participate in the election process, it is also true that the general hostile environment, the stone-pelting, kept many people away from polling booths. There's no real yardstick of measuring where the mainstream stands in relation to the separatists," said Abdullah.
Driverless bus headed for a crash
Ironically, that doesn't mean separatist leaders have grown in stature before public opinion. "While the mainstream space has shrunk, the separatist leadership has also reduced. It's not as if the current situation is of the making of Syed Ali Shah Geelani or Yasin Malik or Mirwaiz Omar Farooq. I think it is fair to say that they are also, in large part, passengers in what's happening. They are basically riding the sentiment wave," Abdullah said.
If the Hurriyat is also a passenger in the bus headed for a crash, who's the driver?
"It doesn't have a driver. As much as the BJP or the central government might like to believe that Pakistan is singularly responsible for everything that is happening here, it isn't. In this situation, even Pakistan, for a large part, is a passenger. They fish in troubled waters, they help fan the flames, but the situation is not of their making. If it was, why is it that they have succeeded only now? Why didn't they succeeded all through the 2000's and there onwards?"
What has changed between then and now is that the PDP and the BJP are ruling Jammu & Kashmir with an uneasy alliance. It is this alliance that Abdullah blames for the worsening situation, saying that President's rule is the need of the hour.
"It's not just a failure of governance. If it were that, we would have said fine, we'll wait another 3.5 years and then we'll correct things. This failure of governance is having grave repercussions on the internal security environment within the state. Hardly a day goes by without a serious militancy related incident.
"The jump in militancy is directly related to the BJP-PDP forming an alliance in 2014. The fact that the PDP fought a single point election--that to keep the BJP out of Kashmir, you need to vote the PDP into government, and then promptly went and tied up with the same party they wanted to keep out. It can't be a coincidence that the largest rise in local recruitment into militancy is from the PDP bastions of south Kashmir. The focal point of the summer agitation of 2016 was the PDP bastions of south Kashmir. South Kashmir is the place where you couldn't have a Lok Sabha election even after it was notified in a seat (Anantnag) vacated by the sitting chief minister," Abdullah said.
Is it not hypocritical of the National Conference to demand President's rule, having protested it when its own governments were dismissed in the past? "We are critical of the misuse of the institution of the Governor for political manoeuvring, for defections, for aaya ram gaya ram. But today governance has broken down, day to day decisions not being taken, authority of the chief minister so eroded that from within her household there are more than one chief ministers today influencing governance in the state. We are in a situation where the government cannot hold a parliamentary by-poll. That ought to tell you how bad the situation is today.
Can President's rule improve the situation?
"Kashmir has been a conflict zone but things were never so bad that a duly notified election had to be cancelled. It is the state government's responsibility to maintain law and order. I am only judging the PDP-BJP government with the same yardstick as they judged my government between 2009 and 2014. I am using precisely the same parameters to judge their performance. I am judging apples with apples and oranges with oranges," Abdullah said.
Who's to say elections would be possible after 6 months or a year of President's rule?
"I'd like to believe that a period of good, meaningful governance with accountability within the system--no pick and choose in terms of which officer gets put where, competence being the only yardstick, not political loyalty, in deciding which officers are placed in troubled areas. I have no doubt we can retrieve the situation. The problem is we can't retrieve the situation with this current government in power," he said.
PDP leaders privately say the Abdullahs want President's rule so that an early election is held, and the NC could win it thanks to the revolt against the PDP on its home turf of south Kashmir. In other words, the National Conference's demand for President's rule is simple political opportunism, they allege.
"Nobody can predict how an election will play out, least of all in J&K. So if I was to tell you NC would win the next election, it would be hugely foolish and perhaps even arrogant on my part to even suggest that. I am not for a moment suggesting that we have to have an election immediately so that the National Conference comes to power. There is no guarantee the NC would. The only concern I have is with the deteriorating situation in the valley. If I see evidence that the current dispensation has actually clawed back, I would withdraw my demand. Did you ever see me making this demand last year? Even at the height of the agitation in 2016 I never once asked for Mehbooba Mufti's head or said that the situation would improve only if she was replaced.
"But today, raiding a bank, shooting police people, grenades being thrown in the heart of Srinagar. Political operatives of the ruling party are being killed. Foreign militants have not ceased to operate in J&K, but the geographic spread is pretty clear--the foreign militants are largely focused in north Kashmir--Baramulla, Kupwara, etc. Local militants are largely focused on south Kashmir and somewhat central too. It is fair to say most of the militancy incidents in south Kashmir are local boys. The problem today (for militants) isn't the shortage of people, it is the shortage of weapons. There are any number of people willing to join militancy
"Any election would follow a period of governor's rule during which the situation would have been allowed to stabilise," he said.
On the Modi government's handling of Kashmir
Abdullah's main target is chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, not the Modi government. To what extent does he hold the Modi government responsible for the deteriorating situation?
"The central government is not interested in carrying forward what Vajpayee saab talked about: Insaniyat, Jamhoriyat, Kashmiriyat (Humanity, democracy, Kashmiri identity). At the end of the day, the core beliefs of the BJP are based around one symbol, one leader, one unit. The two ideas don't go together. If you are talking about Insaniyat, Jamhoriyat, Kashmiriyat, then you are looking for out of the box solutions--you are looking to strengthen the autonomous position that Kashmir has within the Indian union. You are looking at some sort of dialogue with separatists as Advani tried. Clearly there is no appetite for that today. Which is fine--the central government gets to decide their own policies. But then why give us an Agenda for Alliance with the PDP when you are not going to fulfll it?" Abdullah replied.