Omar Abdullah shakes hands with supporters at his Gupkar residence

New start: Kashmiris get a GenNext head; separatists take back seat

Bashir Manzar | Jammu & Kashmir | 12 January 2009 |

Life and hope seems to be suddenly infused into the Kashmir valley with large number of people turning up to vote despite a boycott call by the separatists. Will the young Omar Abdullah be able to stand up to the expectations of the people vested in him and carry the Valley forward.

Kashmiris have spoken out loudly twice during the year2008,” says Raouf Rasool, who teaches Peace Studies at Kashmir’s Islamic University of Science and Technology.

“First, when they came out in thousands last summer to warn the Central government that ‘you can’t take us for granted and transfer our land to any trust you want to’ and second, when they came out in lakhs to tell the separatists that even they can’t take them for a ride,” Rasool spelt out with pride.

Rasool feels both mainstream as well as separatist political leaders have been unable to appreciate the ever-changing nature and relativity of even basic truths of Kashmiri politics. He suggests that the separatists need to see at the situation as it is and not as they want it to be.

“If they want to change the situation they will have to work on ground realities. They must start looking at the world in general and as all political realists have in terms of ‘what men do and not what they ought to do’ as Machiavelli and others have put it,” he adds philosophically.

Veteran journalist and Kashmir expert, Tahir Mohiudin concurs: “People need to have a government – a government wherein they have people to whom they have access. They can’t live in a vacuum.” He believes that the separatists’ decision of linking the larger Kashmir issue with elections was a blunder and they paid for it.

“I knew that there would be high polling,” said Engineer Rashid, a young engineer who contested from Langate in Kupwara district as an independent candidate and won. He defeated two top leaders of the National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

Rashid was affiliated to Sajad Lone’s Peoples Conference. The day Sajad’s party decided to boycott elections, Rashid was the lone voice amongst 85 delegates to rise in revolt.

“I told Sajad Sahib not to mix elections with the Kashmir issue as I, living among the people, knew that the people were ready to vote. He didn’t agree and so I resigned and decided to contest,” Rashid told CURRENT.

Today, he feels vindicated as people have voted and in good numbers. “But,” Rashid warns, “India should not treat it as a vote for it.” He stresses that India needs to open communication links with the separatists and not bask in the glory of a higher voter turn out. “That will be disastrous,” he added.

While the impressive voter turnout has provided reason to unionist parties and New Delhi to celebrate, it has already triggered a process of ‘disunity’ amongst separatist ranks. First it was one of the executive members of the Mirwaiz-led Hurriyat Conference and a senior Shia leader, Aga Syed Hassan, who went public saying that the separatist call for a boycott of the elections was a mistake.

Hassan was followed by the Peoples Conference Chairman, Sajad Lone, who claimed that separatist leaders were either arrested or put under house arrest, not allowing them to reach out to the people. “It was an uneven playing field,” Sajad said but admitted that even after discounting the uneven contest and the undemocratic atmosphere – a fair proportion of the people did vote.

“There is a dire need to introspect and understand the mood and message of the people. Some fellow leaders and intellectuals have started to express their disapproval through statements and newspaper columns by depicting the people of Kashmir in poor light. The verdict of the people is supreme. May I, with all humility, state that no individual, no party or intellectual is bigger than the people. We have all along advocated that we represent the sentiment. And sentiment resides in people. And if we start to berate our people, we are essentially berating the sentiment. Such an attitude is against the concept of representative leadership,” he said.

Calling for introspection, Sajad admitted the people have rejected election boycott as a means to resolve the Kashmir issue. The separatist leaders were under threat of a further split when the fire brand leader of Dukhtrane Milat, Asiya Andrabi, suggested that Syed Ali Geelani should now retire from politics and spend his time praying. “He could now better serve as a spiritual leader,” she added.

But when elections were announced it seemed that Delhi was on a suicidal mission,” says senior journalist and political commentator, Manzoor Anjum. Even he had expected that most people would not vote; would destroy polling booths and that only a few candidates would come forward to contest.

“But it turned out to be the opposite – a record number of contestants stood for elections and a record number of voters turned up to cast their votes. It was a victory for democracy,” Anjum beamed.

Though the elections have almost rendered the separatists irrelevant, the sentiment of separatism still prevails and it needs to be addressed, says Pervez Majid, a young journalist.

Whatever be the post-poll analysis, the fact remains that the people of Jammu and Kashmir have given a clear vote for democracy. They have conveyed to the world that they still believe in the democratic process despite the fact that they have never had the luxury of democracy.

Now the ball lies in the court of New Delhi and with the new dispensation in Jammu and Kashmir. While Delhi has to address the voices of dissent and open communication links with them, the new government will have to prove its commitment as a responsive, people-friendly and transparent government.

Autonomy is our ideology: Omar

Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah believes his party, the National Conference (NC), which formed the government in alliance with the Congress in the state, is still reaping what it party’s founder, the Late Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah had sown.

Grandson of the legendary Sher-i-Kashmir (Lion of Kashmir) and the first Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir and son of the flamboyant Dr Farooq Abdullah, Omar was sworn in as the youngest-ever Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir on January 5 at a ceremony in Jammu.

Omar’s NC bagged 28 seats, emerging as the single largest party with its arch rival – the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) – bagging only 21 seats. The Congress came third with 17 while others got 10 in 87-seat Assembly.

In an exclusive conversation with CURRENT, a relaxed Omar Abdullah parried a question on who his political ideal was – his grandfather or his father.

“Never given it much thought,” Omar said, adding that his grandfather was a very tall figure and no one in J&K politics could match him.

“Be it land reforms or administrative reforms, Sheikh Sahib (grandfather) has done a great job for the state,” Omar said, adding, if he (Omar) could do even a little bit of what his grandfather has done, he will feel his mission accomplished.

“His (Sheikh Abdullah) name is NC’s advantage and we are still cashing in on what he has done,”  Omar remarked.

Sheikh was seen as a true Kashmiri nationalist standing for Kashmir’s distinct identity. Would Omar follow his grandfather’s footsteps?

“See autonomy is part of our political ideology. We think an autonomous Jammu and Kashmir is the most workable solution and I will pursue the agenda as Chief Minister too,” Omar told CURRENT.

He, however, hastily added: “We don’t want any confrontations at this juncture. If there are other better solutions, we are open to them.”

But, Omar stressed, that status quo was not acceptable to him or his party. “There has to be some forward movement vis-à-vis Kashmir.”

At present the young Chief Minister seems more concerned about governance.

“We had a very difficult summer but the Governor’s administration has done a real good job and the conduct of a successful election vindicates that. But a lot more needs to be done,” Omar said.

He is to prepared for the Budget Session which will commence soon. “I will have to put the budget discussions on track and make preparations for it,” Omar said, adding, both his party and coalition partner have made commitments to the public during elections.

“We (NC and Congress) will have to sit down and formulate a common agenda for governance.”

Omar will give the first hundred days to his government to set the tune for much bigger things ahead.

“Issues of youth, particularly employment; social and security issues would be my priority,” he said.

Omar is establishing a committee that would review the cases of all Kashmiris lodged in different jails and detention centres.

“The committee would review the cases and those having no serious charges against them would be set free,” he said.

The biggest challenge for Omar is to stand up to the expectations of the people.

“I am young and new. Therefore they have more expectations. I will have to live up to those expectations,” he assured.

He doesn’t have any apprehensions about delivering but hopes his team delivers too. “We have to ensure that we don’t repeat the mistakes of past,” Omar added.

Omar treats his family and his people as his strength that builds his optimism and “enormous goodwill for myself and my government within the state as well as in the country.”

Confident that he can bridge the gap between the regions of Kashmir and Jammu that widened over the Amarnath land row agitation last summer, Omar said the NC and Congress combination has already arrested the rot and rest would be rectified in the coming days.

Regarding the perception of discrimination amongst various regions, Omar said: “We need to arrive at the truth – as to where the discrimination lies.”

He said that Jammu feels it has been discriminated by Kashmir and vice versa while Ladakh claims being discriminated by both Kashmir and Jammu.

“We are exploring the institution of a commission headed by a retired Supreme Court judge to see what the truth is and correct the errors if any,” he claimed.

Omar Sheriff

Once again the region’s oldest and largest party, the National Conference (NC) is back in power. A young Omar Abdullah has taken over as Chief Minister of a state which has seen conflict for decades now. Will Omar be able to inject some fresh blood into the system or will he merely follow status quo. First signs show that he is likely to put together his own team and get down to business such as roads, electricity, jobs. The separatists can wait. He needs to Sheriff his own boys first. Interestingly, Omar’s grand father, the late Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah took charge at while Omar’s father Dr Farooq Abdullah became the state’s Chief Minister at 46. Omar is only 38, the youngest and the eleventh Chief Minister of the state, the third generation.

Omar’s rise has been welcomed by almost all sections of society. Even the separatist camps have changed their dismissive attitude with people such as Syed Ali Geelani saying that Omar will have to keep the promises he has made during. On the other hand, Miwaiz Umer Farooq, said he expected Omar to represent Kashmir in Delhi and not Delhi in Kashmir.

Separatists have recognised state governments as legitimate representatives of the people. They would refer to governments as ‘so-called’ and dismiss elections as mere farce and fraud. But this time round, they too seem overwhelmed by the charisma of this young Chief Minister.

The majority of people are looking with hope towards Omar. He has age on his side and can identify with the youth with ease; he is seen to be honest; he has the passion and; he is seen as a man of commitment.

But if he continues to work with the old team he may stand to lose. The biggest drawback of Omar’s father, was his dependence on the bureaucracy. When Dr Abdullah ruled Jammu and Kashmir from 1996 to 2002, it was not him but his Chief Secretary Ashok Jaitly (referred to as Tony in government circles) and Principal Secretary BR Singh who called the shots. If party insiders are to be believed, Omar was upset with his father during electioneering as the latter had again aligned with BR who was supposed to be a sort of media manager. But Omar sidelined BR and left his media management to a businessman from Jammu, Davinder Rana. Rana is a close friend of Omar and it was Omar who made him join the NC and got him elected to the Upper House of the state Assembly.

In the new set up, Rana is likely to emerge powerful and would yield influence over Omar. Rana, who deals in automobiles also runs a local TV channel and has some tieups with Zee Network too. Seen as a harmless person and a sincere friend of Omar, Rana may not be in Omar’s council of ministers but undoubtedly be by his side.

Another key figure likely to emerge in new power structure is Nasir Sogami. Hailing from North Kashmir’s Sogam area, Nasir is from the one-time influential political family of that area. His grand father served as a minister in the state and was an associate of Omar’s grandfather.

Omar fielded Nasir as his party’s candidate from Amirakadal constituency of Srinagar, the most troubled constituency which houses the Lal Chowk and Yasin Malik’s Maisuma localities – always the hub of anti-India demonstrations. Despite a rural-urban divide, Nasir, though being from the country-side, managed to win. Nasir has had a long association with Omar and is a hard core loyalist. Despite the fact that most of the seniors in the NC did not like this young man, Omar always kept him as a sort of his secretary. Omar may not include him in his council of ministers but he too will yield influence. Another person who could emerge powerful is Ajay Sidhotra from Jammu. Sidhotra is an NC man and was minister during Dr Abdullah’s regime (1996-2002) but is seen to be closer to Omar than his father. Though he lost this time from his Marh constituency, Omar may manage to get him into the Upper House.

But the reality is that these three and may be some more outside J&K may wield influence, Omar will have to bank upon his senior colleagues for their expertise and wisdom. This was made pretty clear by the young Omar when he took along senior colleagues like AR Rather, Mohammed Shafi and Mian Altaf, besides his friend Ajay Sidhotra to negotiate a coalition deal with the Congress high command in Delhi.

However, the first administrative posting–the appointment of Chief Minister’s Principal Secretary -was said to be influenced by Omar’s friend Davinder Rana and not his senior cabinet colleagues. Khursheed Ganie, the new Principal Secretary, a J&K cadre IAS officer, is married to a family who happen to be Rana’s business partners.