Omar Abdullah: 'Govt Tried to Gag Me, Was Asked to Sign a Bond Forcing Me to Stay Silent'

"Look, hindsight is 20/20, I guess... If there is one regret I have, it is that I did not revoke the PSA from the statute books when I had the opportunity and when i was in power."

New Delhi: Speaking for the first time about government attempts to ensure he said nothing critical about the dramatic political changes foisted on Jammu and Kashmir last August, former chief minister Omar Abdullah said he was told – two months into his detention in October – that if he signed a bond pledging silence “for the foreseeable future” on all developments in the state, he would be released immediately.

In an interview to The Wire from Srinagar via video call on Wednesday, Abdullah said “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 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.”

Formally re-arrested under the draconian Public Safety Act in February 2020 after six months of preventive detention, Omar challenged his incarceration in the Supreme Court. He was finally released by the government on March 24, 2020, without the court taking a decision on his petition.

With the first anniversary of the Modi government’s decision to end Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status approaching, Abdullah, who is also a leader of the National Conference, said it was hard to imagine what space remained for mainstream parties in the Valley’s polity. For now, the NC has resolved to fight matters out in the Supreme Court, where it has challenged the scrapping of Article 370 and 35A of the constitution and the abolition pf J&K’s statehood.

‘No room for compromise with Centre’

Former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah. Photo: The Wire

Saying that his remarks on the need to restore J&K’s statehood had been misinterpreted, Abdullah said he had never suggested this would open the door to a deal with the Centre, as some have suggested. “There is no compromise,” he said. Nowhere “have I suggested … 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.”

Refuting the logic put forward by Union home minister Amit Shah and others that the scrapping of Article 370 was needed in order to promote investment in J&K and quell militant violence, Abdullah said the absence of new factories and investment over the past year spoke for itself, as did the government’s claims that the year-long ban on 4G internet cannot be lifted because of high levels of violence in the state.

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

He said the fears people in the valley have about the BJP-led government at the Centre attempting to change the demographic balance in the state were not unfounded.

“There are genuine concerns, real concerns, ” he said, adding that if one were” 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.”

While it would “take a long time to convert J&K from a Muslim majority to a Muslim minority state”, Abdullah said “the intent under which they are operating will be very clear to everybody… Otherwise, why would you tinker with our domicile law?”

He said the comparison between the Centre’s approach to J&K and Ladakh on the issue of domicile law was revealing:

“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.”

‘I wish I had revoked PSA’

Asked about his own record as chief minister, when the PSA was used to effect questionable arrests, Abdullah conceded that one of his regrets was not revoking the draconian law while he had the chance.

“Look, hindsight is 20/20, I guess… If there is one regret I have, it is that I did not revoke the PSA from the 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.”

At the same time, he said the way he and other J&K administrations had used the PSA and the way it was being used now was different:

“There may have been some questionable detentions [in our time], 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.”

Omar Abdullah said that it would be open to a future elected assembly of Jammu and Kashmir – as and when statehood was restored – to make proposals to the Central government on the terms of J&K’s relationship with the rest of India.

“If 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.”

Abdullah said his party was had gone to the J&K high court to challenge the continuing detention of 17 NC leaders. Though every effort has been made to ensure political detenues don’t seek legal remedies  – individuals and families have been threatened with arrest under the PSA or with incarceration outside the state – he had realised that unless the government was confronted in court it would be quite happy to prolong all detentions indefinitely.

About his own detention under the PSA, Abdullah ridiculed the grounds on which he was held, which included the charge that he had demonstrated the ability to get voters to take part in elections in the face of the separatist boycott:

“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 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.”

The former chief minister said he was disappointed at the failure of the Supreme Court to priortise the petitions challenging the Centre’s August 5, 2019 moves. The bench 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,” said Abdullah.

Omar Abdullah also said it was clear that many of the repressive measures and anti-democratic governance methods implemented in Jammu and Kashmir had now migrated to the rest of India. “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.”

He cited the misuse of Raj Bhavan as one example – perfected in J&K and now used to drive political outcomes in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.  “The BJP,” Abdullah said, “which aimed to be a party with a difference, has taken its inheritance from the Congress and basically used it to great effect.”

He cited instances of “the use of force to quell peaceful protests”across India, especially over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. “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.”

But he said the country would find alternatives “if things become too objectionable… the great thing in democracy is nobody stays in power forever.”

The full transcript of this interview is available here.