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Interview | 'We Shouldn't Give Legitimacy to J&K Status by Participating in Polls': Ruhullah Mehdi

Mehdi said PM Modi needed an 'all is good in Kashmir' report card for his visit to the US later this year, and the meeting has presented a false sense of normalcy in Kashmir to the global community.

Srinagar: The all-party meeting on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 24 remained inconclusive, with regional parties of Kashmir demanding the return of statehood before the restoration of electoral processes in J&K.

In an interview with The Wire, three-time legislator and National Conference’s dissident leader Aga Ruhullah Mehdi said that by attending the meeting, Kashmir’s political leadership has provided an escape route for New Delhi amid growing international uproar on Kashmir post the reading down of Article 370.

Ruhullah said the regional parties should stand up for the rights of the people of J&K and boycott any elections till 2024, when general polls are scheduled to be held in the country.

Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

The all-party meeting on J&K concluded last week. Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad is hopeful that the Centre would restore statehood before holding elections? What do you think?

The meeting concluded on two issues; one, the central government passed directions to the J&K’s politicians to participate in the delimitation exercise and prepare for subsequent elections.

The second was the assurance that the Government of India is committed to restore statehood “at an appropriate time”. The assurance was also given by the home minister (Amit Shah) on the floor of parliament on August 5, 2019.

So, basically nothing new came out of this meeting which the people of J&K could think was to our benefit.

Should the political parties of J&K participate in the delimitation exercise when it is being feared that it would be used to alter the demographics of J&K?

The participation in delimitation is wrong on two counts. One, the delimitation is a product of the act by which the Article 370 was scrapped. Therefore, the participation in the process gives legitimacy and acceptance to the August 5 decisions which we should be contesting instead of accepting.

Two, these members will not have voting rights in the delimitation commission. They can’t effect any changes in the process and results. They can only be spectators of the plans that the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) wants to implement. And given the apprehensions around these plans, this commission is up for making a demographic change of the electoral map of J&K.

Also read: J&K: Are Government and Police Officials Avoiding the Media?

If the political parties of J&K don’t participate in this exercise, the Centre can still go ahead and ask the commission to submit its report. Are you suggesting that these parties are being used as a prop to give legitimacy to the commission?

Exactly. Their participation will do no good to these parties. It will only serve the purpose of giving legitimacy to the commission.

But can the parties afford to boycott the exercise when they have already been cornered from all sides post reading down of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019?

The all-party meeting happened largely because of the prevailing geopolitical situation. It shows that Kashmir was not cornered. In fact, Kashmir is the focus of this geopolitics. Therefore, I think Kashmir had an opportunity this time. But we lost that opportunity because the Kashmiri politicians self-cornered themselves for the reasons best known to them. They were apologetic before, during and after the meeting.

These politicians are on record that they only informed the PM (Narendra Modi) that people in J&K were unhappy with the abrogation. I mean, they confess that they only informed him, as if the world and the GoI didn’t know. Their job was not to inform. They couldn’t muster the courage to demand the return of Article 370.

These parties have self-cornered themselves. They lost an opportunity.

The central investigation agencies have questioned many political leaders of Kashmir in alleged corruption cases. There are reports of these agencies becoming a tool in the hands of the BJP for coercing these leaders to fall in line. Do you think they had options?

The only consistency that we know of is this BJP government is using these agencies to muzzle the voices of dissent all over India. We have multiple examples of different leaders in different parts of India who have been subjected to this coercion. But at the same time we have examples of many of those leaders not giving in and standing their ground with strong commitment to their ideologies.

One should take inspiration from Mamata Banerjee. She stood strong and fought back and is fighting back. We can’t forget Lalu Prasad Yadav who is paying for his strong secular ideology but isn’t giving in. There are people in the BJP who have more serious charges than Lalu Prasad, but they are roaming free and Lalu is subjected to what he is facing, but he isn’t giving an inch.

I would also like to mention P. Chidambaram who was subjected to the same coercing tactics by the BJP. But on his release, he sounded more Kashmiri than our own politicians. He spoke more strongly and unambiguously about Article 370 and its return than Kashmiri politicians.

All I want to say is that we could have found ways. Had these politicians not given in, they could have found support from different corners of India to weather this storm.

The all-party meeting has generated good optics that will serve New Delhi’s strategic objectives, with the US actively pursuing the Kashmir issue with India. What have J&K’s parties achieved out of it?

Your question is actually the point I am making. This meeting was, as I had predicted, like all past engagements between Delhi and Srinagar, which have been beneficial for Delhi only.

PM Modi wanted legitimacy to the August 5 decision and this meeting and its outcome is a great help to that end. He needed an “all is good in Kashmir” report card for his visit to the US later this year where he is meeting President (Joe) Biden. The all-party meeting has made ways for that report card to be prepared with the help of the Kashmiri politicians. The meeting has presented a smokescreen or a false sense of normalcy in Kashmir to the international community.

The constitutional rights and dignity that J&K lost on August 5 was not even discussed beyond it being a point in ‘information exchange’. Kashmiri politicians came back satisfied with the “assurance” for the restoration of statehood “at an appropriate time”, and with the agreement to participate in delimitation exercise and then elections.

J&K got no good out of the meeting. Delhi got more than what it wanted.

Also read: Why Militants Are Turning to Srinagar – Again

Although there are concerns that the present administration in J&K lacks political legitimacy, there are people who are actually happy with the absence of local political leaders on the governance scene. What do you make of this?

This argument will and is actually now used (by J&K’s mainstream parties) as their own ‘carrot and stick’ policy. They will scare the people with this excuse and then present themselves as “saviours” against this administration. They will use this excuse to bully and then try to convince the people that they are actually doing them a big favour by contesting the elections, without getting our rights and dignity restored.

Do you think political parties should boycott elections?

Which nation or society satisfies itself with these insignificant things when its rights and dignity have been snatched forcefully? I don’t know of a nation that satisfies itself with the new low that it has been pushed to against its will.

Since 1953, J&K has been consistently pushed to a new low. We started from a fully autonomous state which was forced to become semi-autonomous. Now, not only the semi-autonomous status has been snatched, we have been demoted to a union territory. Our state, as it existed at the time of accession, has been mutilated. While all this happened, we have been accepting every new low and a new normal. This way, we will be one day called a nation or a society with no dignity and self-respect. We can be pushed further down with no hesitation.

Another reason why we should not participate in these elections is that it will give legitimacy to post August 5 status and position of J&K. It will be the new normal. As we learn from history, the clock has never been turned back after the J&K political establishment participated in these processes without first obtaining back what it wanted.

I am afraid Article 370 will be gone forever like autonomy did as a result of this.

Many will argue that by staying away from electoral battles, the regional parties will risk vacating the ground for the BJP to take over J&K. What do you think?

Didn’t one of these parties make the same argument to earn votes in 2014 assembly elections? Didn’t they say, ‘if not us, the BJP will take over?’ And what happened after that? It’s as they say “rest is history”.

We have lost much more and bigger than what you can get back by this election or the assembly and chair.

But these parties, whose leaders just around some one year ago were confined to homes or jailed, are very eager to participate in the elections. Where does that leave the people of J&K?

The people stand not represented. Their aspirations, dignity, rights and sentiments are not respected and represented. But there is always a way.

What is the way?

First, we should not give legitimacy to the August 5 decision by participating in the processes designed and dictated by New Delhi. Instead, we should engage with the country’s leadership who stand for secular and inclusive India like Mamata Banerjee, Sharad Pawar, Akhilesh Yadav, Lalu Prasad and his son, Captain Amarinder Singh, M.K. Stalin and many others like them.

Through these leaders, we can generate a public opinion in India about why Article 370 was and is important. These leaders are concerned about what is happening in J&K and they want a strong federal structure in India. We should garner their support in opinion building and support them in return.

India seems to be changing. 2024 seems to be giving some hope. We should wait till then. We should not surrender because the elections will give them the breather and legitimacy to the August 5 decision which they will sell at an international level.

The RSS has ideological objectives in which they want to settle scores with Muslims for Mughals who, by the way, were not Muslim representatives or Islamic rulers. They want to disenfranchise Muslims and turn them into second class citizens throughout India. In their (RSS) ideology, Muslims of Kashmir have two crimes. One is that they are Muslims and second is that they are Muslims who had a state of their own. Therefore, I don’t think it’s in their plan of things to empower J&K or Muslims living here. They are on an ideological war and they are fulfilling their objectives.

Do you think New Delhi would restore the statehood of J&K? Will there be elections before delimitation?

No, I don’t think J&K’s statehood would be restored before elections or even anytime soon after elections.

Note: The interview has been condensed for clarity.