Srinagar: Under the watchful eyes of security forces, the National Conference president Farooq Abdullah drove to a Srinagar locality on the banks of river Jhelum to address an election gathering early on Wednesday morning. Eighty-one-year-old Abdullah is contesting by-polls from the Srinagar Lok Sabha, a high-stakes battle for him in his 40-year political career.
In the past, Abdullah, the three-time chief minister, has been an instant crowd puller. This time, however, his audience at the poll meeting, held largely indoors, remained quite thin with the by-elections taking place at a time when there is no thaw in pro-freedom protests, which erupted after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani last year.
With his son and former chief minister Omar by his side, Abdullah, however, forced the media to take notice of his 30-minute long speech on April 5 when he remarked that the stone-pelting youth in Kashmir was laying down their lives for the resolution of Kashmir.
“Kashmiri youth is pelting stones for the nation. The young men throwing stones are sacrificing their lives for Kashmir resolution,” Abdullah said, his voice growing louder.
“I want to tell the prime minister that tourism is our life, but a youth pelting stones is not bothered about tourism. He is ready to starve to death… but will continue to throw stones for his nation. This has to be understood,” Abdullah said, countering Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent remark wherein he had asked the Kashmiri youth to choose tourism over terrorism.
A political heavyweight, Abdullah had disappeared from the turbulent political scene in Kashmir following his defeat at the hands of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Srinagar in the 2014 parliamentary polls – his first loss. Such was the impact of the defeat that it forced him to take a brief political sabbatical.
But when the elections were announced for Srinagar and Anantnag Lok Sabha seats to be held on April 9 and 12 respectively, Abdullah, in spite of an opinion within the party that he shouldn’t contest as his loss could demoralise party cadre with a bearing on the next assembly elections, decided to take the gamble. Ever since, he has reshaped his politics along the separatists’ lines and has gone quite soft on Pakistan as well, quite contradictory to some of his controversial statements of yesteryears like “all separatists should be jailed” and “Pakistan should be bombed”.
“Kashmiri youth are picking up guns for freedom of Kashmir and not for becoming legislators. The younger generation of Kashmir isn’t afraid of death and is ready to give their lives of the cause…we can’t reach any solution on Kashmir until Pakistan is taken onboard; there are internal as well as external dimension to the Kashmir issues which needs to be addressed,” Abdullah told party workers at a recent rally in Srinagar, warning his supporters and party leaders to support these gun-yielding men.
His statement came amid a police report that over 80 local youth, most from south Kashmir, which was the epicentre of last year’s civilian uprising, had joined militancy. “Everyone wants to live and nobody wants to die. But these youth have made a promise with almighty that you decide the matters of life and death but we will sacrifice our life for [the] freedom of this nation.”
Though at the fag end of his career, Abdullah has lived true to his reputation, courting controversies and generating a lot of debate in TV studios. In this election season as well, he has pushed the discourse over the rise of right-wing forces in the country under the BJP’s rule and the “danger it presents to minorities” in the country, including J&K.
In his speech on Wednesday, he talked about the UP election results, stressing that the outcome has encouraged RSS and Shiva Sena to further push their “agenda of assimilating Kashmir” and warning people to make a conscious choice of voting this time.
The PDP and the J&K chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, however, remained the focus of his attack for “allowing the BJP to enter Kashmir”.
“I had warned you [people] in 2014 that a storm is coming but you didn’t listen to me that time. Today, we face the threat of annihilation… you will have to confront this fear and come out to vote against the communal forces,” Abdullah said.
In 2014, the PDP, which centred its politics around soft-separatism after it came into existence in 1999, sought votes to keep the BJP out of power. But it ended up allying with the BJP, arguing, later, that the mandate thrown up by Kashmir and Jammu regions had left no other option for them – BJP has 25 seats from Jammu while PDP has 28 seats in J&K assembly comprising of 87 members.
Today, the roles seem to have reversed. Abdullah and National Conference are toeing the soft-separatism line, seeking a vote to protect the identity of Kashmir. In fact, ever since the defeat of National Conference in the 2014 assembly elections, Abdullah has been soft on the separatists. He had even triggered a political storm in December when he showed a willingness to work with the separatists for Kashmir resolution.
Abdullah’s utterance may be seen as a departure from mainstream politics by some but it is a familiar game that every political party has played in Kashmir when in opposition. “This is nothing but [a] political gimmick for electoral gains,” argued political analyst Noor M. Baba. “We shouldn’t read much into it.”
The ruling PDP sees “political opportunism” in his newly discovered love for stone-throwers, separatists and Pakistan, “For their personal gains, the National Conference has historically played dual roles. The party can go to any limit to stay relevant. So, it is expected of them to change colours like seasons,” Naeem Akhtar, senior PDP leader and J&K government spokesperson, said.