Srinagar: During the past two months, a huge drama unfolded over the detention of former Union minister and senior Congress leader Professor Saifuddin Soz. On July 29, a habeas corpus petition filed by the 82-year-old leader was dismissed by the Supreme Court after the J&K administration claimed that Soz was never under detention. The next day, however, when media persons reached his residence, they saw the Congress leader being detained inside his house by the police deployed there. Last week, however, he was “informed verbally by his security guards that he is now a free man”.
The Wire‘s Irfan Amin Malik spoke to Soz, who was under detention for more than a year. Soz opens up on a variety of issues, including his experiences during his detention; the ‘lies’ of the government, including of IAS officers; the future of mainstream politics in J&K and how institutions such as the Supreme Court have been weakened. Edited excerpts follow.
Many political leaders in J&K were detained by the government last year and were released periodically. Why was there a mystery and quandary in your case?
There was no mystery in my case. I have always been assertive and I have been regularly demanding the civil liberties enshrined in the constitution of India. I tried to express myself as much as possible, and in that way, I am different from other political leaders. I am more active than others and I respond to the situations. For instance, I spoke vibrantly against the domicile laws and the government knows that I am organised. When the government, during the past year, did not let me go, I was compelled to scale the boundary wall to address the media. I must say it loud and clear that the constitutional provisions do not prevail and the police manual has been reduced to rubble.
How was your experience of being detained in your house? What were you doing during the long confinement?
I have a small library inside my home and I used to read a lot from 10 am until 4 pm. My personal assistant used to help me read because I have dryness in my eyes. Before the government moved to dilute Article 370, I was informed by the security guard that I am under house arrest. It was miserable to see things unfold on August 5. But then I spoke against the decision and my statements were published by local, national and international media. It is clear that what the Union of India did was wrong and it did not learn from previous mistakes. Let me tell you that we have suffered heavily because of the weakness of the United Nations. The UN became a mute spectator while watching the situation in Kashmir. You need to know that a weak resolution cannot do anything unless a strong voice is raised.
Tell us about the day when the Centre scrapped Article 370 and bifurcated the state into two Union Territories. What was your reaction and what do you make of this decision?
First of all, I never expected the government would snatch away our special status. The decision was taken by the government not just unilaterally but illegally. Unfortunately, the present government does not care about constitutional provisions. Now instead of surrendering to what the government is doing, we must cry out, revolt and protest by peaceful means. That is what I did during my house arrest.
I feel satisfied that in letter and spirit, I was able to join the people of Kashmir in their pain and anger. The Centre should know that its relationship with J&K is a give and take process. If you do not give us compassion, we cannot give you respect or willing cooperation. Let me tell you frankly that the intimidation and muscle power can never work in Kashmir. The government should treat the people of J&K as human beings and initiate dialogue. See, I am a law-abiding citizen but I am asking for a chance to explain to the world about the revocation of Article 370.
Do you buy the government’s claim that the revocation of special status will bring peace and development to J&K?
The combined BJP and RSS general secretary visited Kashmir after Article 370 was diluted. Without being politically grounded, he made some statements. He reported to Delhi erroneously that everything is hunky-dory in Kashmir. However, there is a different story here and the people are angry as they did not want Article 370 to go. We acceded to India conditionally and we needed the special status. The government is claiming that people were happy with the August 5 decision, but how can people revolt when troops are deployed in large numbers and a stringent curfew is imposed? Actually, people observed civil curfew in the form of protest when the government imposed curfew and information blackout. The government should not behave like an ostrich, because the world is watching everything that is happening here. The government is going wrong, constitutionally, legally and morally. The development is not sufficient to resolve the Kashmir problem, the Union of India should first understand the agony of Kashmiris.
Where do you think the Congress party loses ground in J&K?
The Congress party cannot heal the deep wound of Kashmiris, given its limited role in J&K. Let me tell you that the party cannot fully respond to the agonies of the people of Kashmir. Over the years, the Congress in J&K could not gain huge support because there is a gap with the people. You need to understand that the Congress is a national party and it cannot become Kashmir centric. The party has to make a balanced viewpoint and cannot only think of Kashmir. I always believe that the BJP and RSS are disruptive and communal forces, the hope is only Congress. It was our party which made India a modern and secular state. But I also agree that last year, the Congress committed a mistake by not reaching out to the people of J&K to share their pain and grief.
Some critics of the Congress party say it lost support in the Kashmir valley the day when parliament attack accused Afzal Guru was hanged in Tihar. Do you agree with that or do you think there is another reason?
The Congress as a party may not share this but I agree that the hanging of Afzal Guru was a factor in losing support in the Kashmir valley. I could have left the party but I did not. Instead, I issued a statement that some of the episodes, including the hanging of Guru, were wrong decisions made by the party.
You are an octogenarian who has remained president of the J&K Pradesh Congress Committee. You have also been a former member of parliament, from north Kashmir’s Baramulla constituency in 1983. You were also a Union minister twice. How do you see the future of mainstream politics in J&K?
Separatists left the mainstream and failed. But yes, the mainstream in J&K will always feel alienated because J&K is not like the rest of India. A leader from the mainstream political parties should not expect that he will go to some village and expect people to come and welcome him in large numbers. For that people should be given peace of mind and a chance to have a peaceful dialogue with the government. Now talking about the mainstream, it will be here but limited to developmental works. For instance, a far off village in Kashmir needs an electric transformer, road and water supply. For these things, the mainstream parties will get the votes. But my question is, can they give permanent relief to the people. I will keep on fighting and saying that the Union of India should handle J&K democratically, otherwise the mainstream politics will completely die here.
Your statements in the media reveal that you have lost faith in institutions such as the Supreme Court. Why do you think that these institutions have become weak? Who has made them weak and how?
The government lied to the Supreme Court that I am a free man, which I was not. I was perturbed by the fact that the Supreme Court is comfortable when lies are being told inside its courtyard. The Supreme Court could have directly summoned me to hear my version. It also surprised me that the home secretary of India was appointed by the Supreme Court as the head of a committee to look into the restoration of 4G services in J&K. The apex court should not have made the home secretary as the judge when the grievance was against the home department. I feel that the Supreme Court actually became onlookers to the miseries of people of J&K.
Next is the so-called National Human Rights Commission, which is a rubbish and dead institution. The NHRC members should go home and just take their salaries, because they do not serve the nation anywhere. Sadly, the government has made these institutions weak and is dishonouring the provisions of the constitution of India.
You have also been accusing the government of spreading lies and you have been quoted in the media saying that even IAS officers are lying to the public. Tell us more about these accusations.
You won’t believe that I was verbally informed by a security guard on August 5, last year that I have been placed under house arrest. Again, I was verbally informed by the security guard that I am free from house detention. I asked for written government orders about my release, but I was told by the guard that these days everything is done verbally. Now, let me tell you about these bureaucrats who are giving one-sided statements. An IAS officer has been appointed as the government spokesperson only to tell lies. I challenge him to come to my residence and face my questions. The spokesperson cannot answer my questions because he has been trained to lie. I feel sad that these IAS officers receive education from top universities of the country and then get appointed to tell lies.
Will the Congress contest elections in J&K if special status of J&K and statehood are not restored?
I do not think of elections as panacea. Elections come and go and as I said, people participate in elections for basic amenities. See we have problems and we will only be able to resolve problems through peaceful dialogue. The Centre should first give up its arrogance and come forward for a dialogue and discussion with the people. Let us talk under the framework of the constitution of India, because civil liberties and rights are enshrined in the constitution. Also, Prime Minister Narendra Modi should shun his arrogance and talk to the representatives of the people of J&K.
Irfan Amin Malik is a journalist based in Jammu & Kashmir. He tweets @irfanaminmalik.