Omar Abdullah Interview: New Domicile Law Aimed at Changing Kashmir's Religious Composition

The former chief minister said the fight to reverse the changes imposed on Jammu and Kashmir on August 5, 2019 would be waged in court, and that it was futile to make any political demands on the Centre.

On Wednesday, National Conference leader and former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir Omar Abdullah gave an interview to The Wire on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir following the scrapping of Article 370 and its bifurcation into two Union territories. Abdullah was at his residence in Srinagar and the interview was conducted over Skype.

The full transcript is given below:

Siddharth Varadarajan: In your recent remarks, you’ve spoken of the sense of betrayal you feel as someone who has been a mainstream politician but also as a Kashmiri, and nothing encapsulates that sense of betrayal more than the meeting you describe you and other members of a Kashmiri political delegation had with Prime Minister Narendra Modi a few days before Article 370 was scrapped where you all had sought assurances and were given some. Can you give us details of what exactly happened in that meeting with Modi? What did the delegation ask and what did he say?

Omar Abdullah: We essentially asked that nothing should be done to upset the very tentative calm and peace that prevails in Jammu and Kashmir, and made the case for normal democratic activity to be restored in the state, but the main crux of our meeting was centred around the rumours that were floating about the intentions of the Central government vis-à-vis Jammu and Kashmir. Nothing concrete had cone out  – there were, if you remember, some of these orders that were floating around in the public domain, one of them in particular from the Railway Protection Force talking about the possibility of a long drawn out spell of disorder and the preparations that needed to be made in that respect. So we basically met him to request and to press the case that nothing should be done in J&K that would damage the tentative calm that was prevailing there.

SV: And what did he say?

OA: A lot of things were said, like I said in the column that I wrote for the (Indian) Express, that is, I guess, I mean, a conversation for another time. We came out with a very different impression about what was going to unfold a few days later. After our conversation with him, quite frankly, i didn’t think we would see what we saw on the 5th of the August, but I guess that’s on us. We completely misunderstood what was said there.

SV: On August 5, soon after you saw the news, you were placed under house arrest, and then taken away to Hari Niwas for formal detention. Lots of your colleagues were also similarly held. Many of them have since been released but can you give us a sense of  how many National Conference people are still under some form of detention, formal or informal?

OA: There are about 17 petitions in the high court to order the release of these people so I’d say about 17 National Conference leaders are under illegal house arrest at the moment. And then there are leaders of other political parties as well. You see Saifuddin Soz’s case is in the Supreme Court today because he is under the same sort of illegal house arrest, and then you have Sajjad Lone, who was released from formal detention and placed in informal detention, the same is true of Shah Faesal, and there are others

SV:  And then there is Mehbooba Mufti under the Public Safety Act.

OA: Yes, Mehbooba Mufti remains under formal detention, she is under the Public Safety Act. I think the case of Soz sahab and today’s developments in the Supreme Court with regard to the former Bar Association president Mian Qayoom make one thing very clear to all of us, which was apparent to me way back in March – that unless you take the fight to the government, unless you challenge your detention and actually fight your case, this government is quite happy to keep you detained for as long as it wants. And that is why I went to the Supreme Court as far back as February. In March my colleague Sagar sahab, who was under the PSA, he went to J&K high court and received relief from there. Mian Qayoom has gone to the Supreme Court and received relief there. Now, we are fighting 16-17 illegal detentions in the high court. Unless you fight your detention legally, this government is not going to release you of its own free will, so to speak.

Why the delay in going to court to challenge illegal detentions

SV: But is this a lesson you learnt very late? When you went inside in August 2019, it was apparent that the legal basis was highly suspect for these detentions. Why did you all waste precious time and not immediately challenge those illegal detention orders? Even in your case, you took from August to February.

OA: Some of us were taken into formal detention, and I think we need to draw the distinction between an illegal detention and an unjustifiable detention. Our detention may not have had justification but technically it was not illegal because those of us who were taken away from our homes were detained under provisions of the law – 105, 107 – i.e. preventive arrests.

SV: But if I can interrupt for a second, I remember showing one of these detention orders – which would have been similar to yours, i.e. 107 – to a retired high court judge and she wrote a piece for The Wire as to how such detention orders were themselves completely illegal because a magistrate’s power to detain someone without a court hearing does not stretch to incarceration for months on end.

OA: That is the point I was coming to. In hindsight, and I can only speak for myself, if I had known that my ‘preventive’ detention would be extended for six months under 105/107 and then converted to a PSA detention, I would not have waited that long. When we went in, we thought this is for a couple of days or weeks – that August 15 will pass and they will let us out. Then, the goalposts kept shifting. We heard that the government was waiting for UN General Assembly session, but that passed and we weren’t let out. Then it became about waiting for the formal transition from a state to a Union territory, which was October 31-November 1, and so we thought once that passes. they will let us out. Then the goal post shifted to the Trump visit – that perhaps before that we’d be let out. And finally we thought that six months of preventive arrest will pass and they will then have no option but to release us. But when that detention was converted to PSA detention, that is when I spoke to people and said enough is enough. I told my family, come what may, we have to challenge this detention because if we leave it unchallenged, they will keep us locked up and pretty much throw away the key, which is what they had done.

PSA used as threat to prevent challenge to illegal detention

SV: We have heard that some politicians were explicitly threatened, or there families were, that right now we’ve detained you under a magistrate’s order or under house arrest, but if you go to a court, there is every chance this will get escalated to PSA. I know that Shah Faesal had filed a habeas corpus petition in the Delhi high court and then mysteriously withdrew his petition. So was this fear of the PSA, these threats, a factor in preventing those arrested from seeking legal remedies? 

OA: I know this to be a fact because it happened to my father. My father was under informal illegal house arrest and Mr Vaiko, acting in good faith, went to the Supreme Court and filed a habeas corpus petition and lo and behold, his informal, illegal house arrest was converted into a formal PSA detention. And he was then cited as an example for others – to make sure that they fall in line. Basically, the fear was injected into people that look, we put Farooq Abdullah under PSA, who the hell do you think you are! Not only will we take you under PSA, we will take you and put you in jails outside of J&K, then what will you do? And everybody thought, ‘at least we’re in J&K, something is better than nothing, we have access to our families, let us not challenge our detention’.

And the same was true for those who were under illegal house arrest – it was conveyed to them that you are at home with your families, you are comfortable, behave yourselves. If you challenge your detention and make a nuisance of yourself, then we will have no option but to detain you under the PSA and we have no idea where you will then end up.

Bonds to silence criticism

SV: We have seen examples of the kind of bonds politicians have been asked to sign as a condition for their release, which compel them to remain silent about the situation in J&K. How many leaders might have signed those and what do you make of this kind of demand?

OA: I know quite a few who were released from the MLA hostel who were under preventive arrest – they were actually forced to sign those bonds before they left. Some of them weren’t given the option, or chose not to, and I think they are the ones whose detentions were converted from preventive arrest to PSA. But those who got taken away under the PSA and are subsequently being released – whether myself, my father, others i presume, the bonds were neither furnished or signed.

I was given the option of a bond early on in my detention. I think it was must have been somewhere in October, the magistrate came with his rubber stamp and his pen, assuming that i would sign it quite happily and run away. And he gave me the bond and said you sign this and you can leave, and the bond, as you said, says that I will remain silent on all developments in J&K subsequent to August 5, 2019 for the foreseeable future. Which is basically tantamount to saying I will no longer be a politician. I said no, I am not going to sign this bond because to sign it silences me for the future. Signing would also mean accepting not just the conditions that were placed but the terms which were used to detain me. The detention order was flawed inasmuch as the reasoning that they gave was incorrect, and if I had signed that bond, it was tantamount to saying, yes, the reasons you gave for detaining me were correct.

‘Hindsight is 20/20, I wish I had revoked Public Safety Act when I was in power’

SV: When you were chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, you and your administration were also party to the use of the PSA for I would say rather questionable arrests. You used internet shutdowns too, obviously not in the manner it is being done now but this emerged as a weapon in the hands of the state. Do you now regret the use your administration made of these kind of measures? In a way, you paved the way for their legitimisation and hence their use on a much wider scale including, as it turns out, against yourself,

OA: The measures which were used were used much earlier as well,  they predated my being CM

SV: Of course 

OA: The 2008 Amarnath land row saw similar measures and previous to that too. Look, hindsight is 20/20, I guess. There may have been some questionable detentions, but by and large the people we were dealing with were people waging a campaign against the country. Here you are detaining mainstream politicians who haven’t said anything seditious or anything to disturb the peace. None of us have called for agitations, protests for youngsters to pick up the gun or anything like that. All we said was that we will democratically oppose any changes that are forced on the people of J&K, and for that we were punished the way we were. If there is one regret I have, it is that I did not revoke the PSA from statute books when I had the opportunity and when i was in power. I should have done it then, I think the realisation dawned on me much later, though that realisation dawned on me before my arrest, and not post-arrest. Over the last couple of years we had been making the promise that if the NC is returned to power, we would strike down the PSA and remove it from the statute books. I wish I had done that in office. Hindsight is 20/20.

SV: Ironically, your ability to get voters to take part in elections in the face of the separatist boycott was cited as one of the grounds when they arrested you under the PSA.

OA: Isn’t that ridiculous? All these years, you have cited the mainstream’s ability to galvanise votes during a boycott as a success of Indian democracy and then, when it suits you, suddenly you say this is the reason why mainstream politicians deserve to be locked up! I mean, so many questionable means were used to justify our detentions. I will never forget the fact that a fake news website – a  satirical website – was quoted in the parliament no less to justify my detention. It claimed that I said that if Article 370 is fiddled with then an earthquake will separate J&K from India! I am not an idiot, I am not going to say stuff like this. This is not my kind of politics. But these sort of things were used to justify our detentions.

As Supreme Court delays hearing, ‘it will be hard for it to turn clock back’

SV: Are you disappointed by the failure of the Supreme Court to act in a timely fashion on the constitutional petitions your party and others have filed on end of Article 370 and statehood?

OA: Well, yes, I would like to see more, a greater sort of sense of urgency in hearing the petitions, because every day the framework that has arisen after August 5 is being used for all sorts of changes that are questionable, whether it is domicile law, or delimitation, and the whole host of other changes that have been forced on JK – scrapping of the legislative council, there are so many things that have been put in to place as a result of what happened on August 5. The Supreme Court said we can turn back the clock, they said there is no urgency, we will hear the mater, and if  we find what was done is wrong, we will turn back the clock. But a certain point will be reached where it will be virtually impossible to turn the clock. That is why we are in conversation with our lawyers to see if the Supreme Court can actually speed up the process of hearing in this matte. I do understand the court is currently operating under certain constraints because of the coronavirus but it is not as if cases are not being heard.  Therefore, I think this case deserves priority.

‘Intent of new domicile law is very clear – demographic change’

SV: In terms of the changes that may be on the anvil, can you spell out some of your apprehensions?  We interviewed PDP leader Naeem Akhtar yesterday and he said he is worried about Israel-style settlements, and attempts to tamper with the demographic balance of the valley. Are these valid concerns or are people worrying too much?

OA: There are genuine concerns, real concerns, and if you are to look at, just to take a straw poll of all the domicile certificates that have been issued since this new law came into being and see the religious breakup in those between Muslim and non-Muslim, I think that will prove to you that these concerns are not misplaced. Now, I understand that it will take a long time to convert J&K from a Muslim majority to a Muslim minority state but the intent under which they are operating will be very clear to everybody.

SV: So you see this as perhaps one of the goals of this move?

OA: Definitely. Otherwise, why would you tinker with our domicile law? Please remember that on 31st October, two Union territories came into existence – the UT of J&K and the UT of Ladakh. Why is it that you are in such a tearing hurry to give a domicile law to the UT of J&K and not one to the UT of Ladakh? You should have given the same domicile law to the UT of Ladakh – so that the children of officers, soldiers, paramilitaries and those who have done their 10th and 12th class exams in Ladakh can apply for domicile and buy land and stay there. But you haven’t done that because you fear the reaction from the Buddhist population of Ladakh, whereas you are not bothered about how the population of J&K reacts.

‘Abolishing 370 has not brought investment or ended separatism’

SV: We are close to the first anniversary of the August 5 decision. There were two arguments home minister Amit Shah and others in the BJP marshalled for justifying their Article 370 move a year ago – that this would facilitate investment in J&K and help to put an end of problem of terror. If we look at the first claim, to your mind, were there administrative changes that could have be done under the pre-existing arrangements, i.e. keeping 370 intact, that could have facilitated greater external investment – for example access to land?  Were there creative ways the state could have used?

OA: We were already using creative means. Land was available on long, 99 year leases, renewed in  perpetuity. Land ownership was not a hindrance to investment into J&K, the security environment in J&K was a hindrance to investment. Drive from Jammu to Kathua on the national highway, through Samba and the other towns and please see the kind of investment that is there in factories and manufacturing. In the Samba industrial zone area, Kathua and towns like that, the sort of factories that have come up. These are pre the scrapping of 370, not post. Even Kashmir had investment, I can name companies – Continental Devices, Union Carbide, the RPG Goenka group and others that had invested in Kashmir, in our fledgling electronics industries of that time. Land ownership was not a problem for  them. These companies packed up and left because the security environment deteriorated. And if 370 was the only hindrance, well it has been buried for over a year, where is the investment? Where are the factories that were promised?

SV: So if the investment argument is a red herring, what about the security claims?  The government can point to data that a large number of militants have been neutralised in the past year. Even if, for political reasons or to justify the 4G ban, they still say there is a problem of terrorism, the fact is that the security forces are claiming a very high degree of success over militants linked to the Jaish or Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.

OA: Actually, that is something that I would worry about, because if you are neutralising more terrorists, this means more terrorists are being created. I would understand if militancy went down, levels of violence went down and you weren’t neutralising large numbers of terrorists – that means the replacement rate was declining. But if youngsters are coming forward to pick up the gun, the fact that you are killing them in larger numbers suggests they are willing to come forward and get killed. So that whole argument that 370 is responsible for alienation, separatism, sectarianism and that whole sort of argument, if that be the case, then all these levels should have started to show a declining trend now. You should have less separatism, less alienation, less youngsters joining militancy. But that is not the case. You are killing them because they are being attracted to take part.

SV: The problem of violence is still serious enough for them to argue in the Supreme Court that 4G has had to be banned for a whole year.

OA: It is going to be a year on the night of August 4. They switched off 4G around 11 at night, the broadband connection went soon after that, so it has been a year.  See how conveniently they sell the nation the idea that scrapping 370 is needed to reduce violence and then they tell the Supreme Court the very opposite of that – that violence in J&K is actually increasing, and therefore we can’t restore 4G. So they cherry pick their arguments to suit their audience.

Shifting role of the international community

SV: As a mainstream politician, it has been an article of faith that Jammu and Kashmir is an internal problem of India, or perhaps a bilateral issue that needs to be resolved with Pakistan, but that there is no role for the international community. Do you now feel, after what has happened in the last year, that a role appears to have opened for the international community in J&K?

OA: Well, the international community has played a role in Jammu and Kashmir, sometimes covertly, sometimes overtly. I think the problem that the government of India has is that no country should be seen to be mediating. But facilitation has never been frowned upon. No less a person than Atal Bihari Vajpayee was quite happy for Bill Clinton to facilitate a resolution to the Kargil war. Lets not forget that Nawaz was virtually summoned to Washington and told what was required to put an end to the Kargil conflict. And there have been other examples – post parliament attack, post Mumbai 26/11 and other times, where the international community has stepped in to try and dial down temperatures between India and Pakistan, including after Pulwama, and there are numerous examples. So I don’t think the international community has had a hands off approach to dealing with J&K but more often than not their dealings have been when tensions have risen between India and Pakistan.

Post August 5, however, this is perhaps one of the first times we have the international community taking such a keen interest in internal developments in this side of Jammu and Kashmir and issue statements about detentions, communication blockage, shutdowns and things like that. I guess that is a reflection of the circumstances we are living under.

No clarity on future road map for Kashmir politics

SV: I know it is difficult for you to speculate but I want to ask you about the future course of politics in Jammu and Kashmir. You have raised the issue of the restoration of statehood – and now NC spokesman Ruhullah Mehdi has objected to the emphasis on this and resigned – but in an ideal world, what would the future road map for J&K politics look like?

OA: First, it is important to clarify, I have not placed the demand for the restoration of J&K statehood above all else. I have made it categorically clear that we are fighting for a reversal of all the changes that took place on the 5th of August 2019. And we are taking that fight to the Supreme Court because that is the institution we believe we will get justice from. I do not believe that we have a hope in hell of getting any sort of justice from the same government that was responsible for actually taking away everything on the 5th of August, so it would be futile to demand from the same people who took it away that they should give it back to us. Which is why our fight is not with the government, it is in the Supreme Court and we will continue to fight it there. There has been a deliberate misinterpretation of what I have said…

SV: The suggestion has been made that you are opening a door for compromise

OA: There is no compromise. Please show me where in the Indian Express or in my interview to The Hindu or to you today have I suggested that there is a compromise in which I will accept statehood instead of the turning back of what happened of August 5? The only case I am making is that the fight to turn back what happened last year will have to be fought in the courts, because we have no other avenue of getting justice. We are not going to get justice from the people who have taken it away from us. That is the only point I have made. If someone wants to misinterpret that or twist it around, that’s on them, not on me.

Now, what will politics [in J&K] look like? It is not that I have been reluctant to share what I think, it is that I don’t know, I really don’t know, it is not that I have an idea where we are going and don’t want to share it, I honestly don’t know where the mainstream fits in Kashmir. Jammu is of course different. I don’t know where the mainstream fits in Kashmir’s polity. I don’t know how much political space there is for the mainstream today. And that’s more a reflection of being unable to meet my colleagues, to have any sort of meetings at the block or village or district level to try and understand what people are thinking. There are areas where, before 5th August, I would have had a crowd of 10,000 people attending a public meeting. I don’t know if I go tomorrow and have a public meeting there will even be a crowd of 1000 people to listen to me. So much has changed after August 5 that it’s difficult to comprehend and to quantify what that change has meant for all mainstream politicians. Not just the NC, but the PDP, the national parties and also the smaller regional outfits in J&K.

Elected J&K assembly can press for new bargain between Centre and J&K

SV: If we assume for a minute that J&K’s statehood is restored and elections are held, do you foresee as a potential arena for struggle the elected assembly of the restored state of J&K putting forward demands either unanimously or in a majority to the Centre, so as to set new terms of engagement between J&K and the Centre? Would you regard that as a potential arena for political struggle?

OA: Why not? An assembly constituted by representatives of the people is free to take any line it wants. Lets not forget it is the parliament of India that did this to J&K. So if the parliament can set terms of reference for J&K’s relationship with the rest of India, then an elected assembly of the state of J&K can certainly place its voice in the form of a resolution or anything else for the GOI at that time to consider. Why not? It is not illegal, it is democratic. You can’t sell a model of democracy to the rest of the country and then tell the people of J&K that they have no recourse. As long as what you are talking about falls within the four walls of the constitution, I don’t see how any government or court of the land can have a problem with it.

SV: You have expressed bitterness towards regional parties across India for not having spoken about what’s been done to J&K. But you have made an interesting distinction between their attitude towards the abolition of Article 370/35A and the abolition of statehood for J&K. I was wondering whether, once you get over your current anger, there is any scope for political engagement with some of those parties? Because the fiction on the basis of which J&K’s statehood was abolished – using the governor at a time of president’s rule to express the view of the state, as the constitution requires – could theoretically be used to abolish the statehood of any state in India. 

OA: You are absolutely right. That is the crux of out petition in the Supreme Court. You have hit the nail on the head. Other political parties should have been alarmed at the route that was used to effect the sort of change that has been done in J&K because it opens up a route. You have basically said the legislative assembly can assume the powers of a constituent assembly and the governor in turn can take those powers and then basically rewrite the constitution. This means nothing is sacrosanct, any state governor tomorrow can sit down and claim the powers of the constituent assembly to rewrite anything in that state.

SV: But if what was done to Jammu and Kashmir on August 5 was also an attack on the federal model of India, this may open a door for future political engagement given that there are lots of parties that set a lot of store by strengthening the federal aspect of India’s polity.

OA: True, which makes it all the more surprising that these parties rolled over and went along with the BJP, with the dismembering of J&K.

SV: With exception of the DMK, the Left.

OA: There were stray exceptions – the DMK, the Left were very vocal, Mamata’s party from time to time, within the Congress there were voices – the loudest was P. Chidambaram, who spoke and wrote, and there was Ghulam Nabi Azad, but he belongs to J&K so we count him as one of ours, but otherwise, other than the token speech here or there, consistent voices were sorely missed.

Towards ‘Kashmirisation’ of rest of India?

SV: A final question. The scholar Pratap Bhanu Mehta warned after August 5, 2019 that instead of the integration of Kashmir with India, what the BJP may end of achieving is the ‘Kashmirisation of the rest of India’. What this means is that a lot of the anti-democratic measures which people in Jammu and Kashmir had got used to for decades would now be replicated elsewhere in India. So far, we have spoken about the situation in Kashmir but I want you to put on your hat as an Indian politician as it were and tell us what fears you have about the future direction human rights, freedom of expression, press freedom in India will take in the context of what has happened in J&K. 

OA: You have seen instances of the use of force to quell peaceful protest, you’ve seen it in the question of the CAA protests that happened, you’ve seen it in the way people have been detained for legitimate peaceful protest in Bangalore and places like that,  Section 144 is violated. You have seen the way internet shutdowns have been made the norm rather than the exception, there are any number of experiments that were used in J&K post August 5 that have been regularized and used to great effect in other parts of the country when it suits the ruling dispensation at that tine.

Of course, misusing Raj Bhavan is a sort of historical baggage we have got from the Congress, and the BJP, which aimed to be a party with a difference, has taken its inheritance from the Congress and basically used it to great effect. Take two very recent examples – in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.  In MP, where they didn’t want to give Kamal Nath enough time to try and reverse what Jyotiraditya Scindia was doing, they wasted no time in the governor calling an assembly session and asking for a trust vote.But the reverse is happening in Rajasthan where the CM is screaming that he wants to take a trust vote and the governor won’t give him the time of day. So there are so many questionable precedents that have been used in J&K that have been, and will continue to be, used in the rest of India.

SV: So the price of what is happening in Jammu and Kashmir will eventually be paid by people across the country, in terms of their own rights?

OA: Well, the great thing in democracy is nobody stays in power forever. So I am sure if things become too objectionable, the country will find alternatives.

SV: Omar Abdullah, thanks for speaking to The Wire.

OA: Thank you.