Omar Abdullah, former Chief Minister (CM) of Jammu and Kashmir, stirred a political hornet’s nest, saying, ‘turn the clock backward to 1953’, in a political rally on 1 April, renewing the demand to take back J-K to times when it enjoyed substantial autonomy; hence, leaving New Delhi with control only over defence, currency and communications.
With such redecoration, Mr. Abdullah also sparked a debate over the restoration of the constitutional positions like a separate Prime Minister and President for the state of J-K, like the days of the mid-1960s. During Indira Gandhi-led central government in the 1970s, Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, former PM and later CM of J-K, had insisted on the restoration of such positions, which were flatly refused by Ms. Gandhi, saying ‘hands of watch can’t be turned backward‘.
The State of J-K had its own Prime Minister till March 30, 1965.
After imprisonment from 9 August 1953 in separate spells, Mr. Abdullah had agreed to return to power as CM in 1975, which was welcomed by Ms. Gandhi and termed it “change of heart”.
Forty-four years down the road, Mr. Abdullah’s grandson, vice president of NC, Omar Abdullah is watering the old plant. Stating that J-K is not like any other Indian state, Mr. Abdullah mentioned in a political rally in North Kashmir’s Bandipora district that Kashmir did not come to India for free. “For the protection of our identity, we acceded and made sure that conditions are part of the Constitution,” and taking over the crowd with rhetoric verses, mentioning the Kashmir’s unique “identity, flag, and constitution”, he added that, “We also had our own PM and president, the (constitutional) posts which they (New Delhi) took away from us. We will restore those positions.”
Not losing out on an opportunity, that too in the election season, PM of India, Narendra Modi sought an explanation of Mr. Abdullah’s demand in strong words. Dragging West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee as well, he asked Congress-led opposition alliance to make its stand clear on Mr. Abdullah’s statement.
Hindu nationalist, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) didn’t stop there; Arun Jaitley, another senior leader, and Union Finance Minister, reacted strongly in a video statement stating, “I had asked the mainstream leaders of political parties in the valley to seriously consider whether Article 35-A has proved to be counter-productive to the interests of the citizens of the valley. This has provided a disproportionate response.”
Mr. Jaitley went on to add that Mr. Abdullah’s demands, and Ms. Mufti’s earlier warning regarding the tampering with Article 370, “are thoroughly unacceptable. They (Unionists leaders of J&K) create a separatist psyche.”
But, as it appears, the Unionist politicians in J-K are ready to lock-horns with BJP.
Earlier, Mehbooba Mufti, former CM of J-K and president of J-K People’s Democratic Party (PDP), in responded to Mr. Jaitley in these words: “Unacceptable is a new India where those who kill and lynch in the name of religion are feted and garlanded. If standing up for my people (J&K) makes me a separatist and anti-national then its a badge I will wear with honor.”
After the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in July 2016, massive civilian protests threw life out of gear in Kashmir. The political void was left unchecked by Unionists, which was, at the time, filled by the resistance camp; and for several months that followed post-Burhan, Kashmiris religiously followed Hurriyat’s protest calendar.
The State government was conspicuous by its absence. The Unionist politics had lost the battle for a narrative in Kashmir. Perhaps, with the aim to be relevant again, that too on Kashmir’s complicated and unpredictable political landscape, both NC and PDP are speaking the language of Hurriyat.
The space left vacant by the Hurriyat is now being filled by Unionists with a resistance narrative, including taking on BJP on issues like Article 370, Article 35A, ban on vehicular traffic on the highway twice a week to facilitate Indian Army convoy movement.
Unionists, especially, NC and PDP leaders have often been critical of the resistance leadership, comprising two amalgams of All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) and pro-independence Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), for their demands of Azadi (independence) or merger with Pakistan, dismissing these “unrealistic” demand.
Now, Unionists stands under the spotlight; either they walk their talk or force/convince New Delhi to turn the clock backward to 1953 if they claim that their demand regarding the restoration of J-K’s autonomy—as it existed in 1953—remains a “realistic and pragmatic demand.”
Sweeping aside the differences, it is perhaps for the first time since the era of Sheikh Abdullah that two former CMs of J-K are confronting New Delhi in an ‘unapologetic tone’ about Kashmir’s identity, nationalism, and political and economic rights.
That said, it remains to be seen whether the recent statements made by the duo comprising Mr. Abdullah and Ms. Mufti are merely an electoral gimmick or they mean business. Time, once again, will be the best judge.