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The big temple issue will trump 370 many times more in elections, says Omar Abdullah

By Priti Prakash | PUBLISHED: 23, Oct 2023, 17:03 pm IST | UPDATED: 23, Oct 2023, 18:44 pm IST

 The big temple issue will trump 370 many times more in elections, says Omar Abdullah After the abrogation of Article 370 and subsequently Jammu & Kashmir becoming a UT, how much has changed depends on whom you ask. If you ask the govt, lots has been done that has improved the erstwhile state in terms of democratization, people welfare, a successful G2O, opportunities for its youth, tourism. But ask the mainstream parties of J&K, they say they have been denied rights that other states of India have for granted. Assembly elections that were due have been postponed by the Election Commission. At FCC, Omar Abdullah, former Chief Minsiter of J&K and NC leader talks on issues ranging from Israel Hamas war to militancy in Kashmir to Hurriyat to INDIA Alliance and India Pakistan relations & upcoming state elections.    

Excerpts:

* How would you describe the state of affairs in Jammu & Kashmir.

J&K is a place where the democratic rights of people have been taken away. We hoped elections will be held on time. Today when we are told everyday that situation is far improved, J&K is that place where democracy in India has been buried. We have not had elected assembly in JK since 2018. Urban local bodies are due to complete their terms in office next month. Panchayats are also finishing their terms later this year.

Just a few days ago when elections to the 5 states were announced & EC was asked about elections in JK he said, there are other factors that need to be taken into consideration. No interest has been taken to share with the people of JK exactly what those factors are. We are denied our legitimate right to an elected govt. There is very little if any contact of people with the administration & govt of the day in J&K.

Numbers are fudged to present a picture far rosier than it is. While I am the first person to accept that tourism is visible in Kashmir but it isn’t so in the last 20 yrs that we had situation like this. But the way numbers are produced it is as if for the first time tourism in Kashmir has crossed one crore. They are counting pilgrims too as tourists. Previous govts including mine never did that. Pilgims are particularly when you came to Mata Vaishnav Devi & dont really travel anywhere other than the shrine. But this year govt decided to include Vaishnav Devi pilgrims & Amarnath yatri’s in the tourist numbers. Immediately the numbers jump up. So there is no increase in the number of tourists in JK, they have changed the way they count them.

https://youtu.be/2KYYHrZ-Hpk

* As per govt claims lots has been done in J&K for development. What's your assessment!

I am asking the govt to show us something new. Some new projects that have come up before 2019. Highways came up during Manmohan Singh’s time. Zojila was the product of the UPA, Railways is being built since during Indira Gandhi’s time, medical colleges were announced when Gulam Nabi Azad was the Health Minister. The IIT, IIM, All India Insititutes in Srinagar predate 2019 when BJP & PDP were allies. Show us fresh investments or a sector in JK which has seen investment whether in tourism, manufacturing, agriculture, horticulture.

* Why are elections not happening in J&K.

My speculation is that the BJP fears that they might loose. They don’t want to damage their chances in Parliament elections. They want to tell the whole world that the people of J&K are happy with what happened on Aug 5, 2019. Bogus serveys are saying that 80% of people of J&K don't want an elected govt.

In the valley the BJP does not stand much chance but even in Jammu their assocate parties will find it tough going. Also in Jammu today urban local body polls are not happenieng. Neither Jammu rural nor urban will vote for BJP.

* With the recent results from Ladakh what is your assessment for the rest of the state.

The results will pretty much go the Kargil way. At this point of time if elections are held I doubt BJP will get a double digit. This is despite all the delimitations, constituency changing. Now where those seats will go depends of which side of the fence one is sitting. Congress will do well in Jammu. The Kings party is set up to support BJP in Kashmir, are struggling to find a foothold. Gulam Nabi Azad’s party slowly seems to be disappearing. So the traditional political players will do well, the BJP will not. That is why we are not having elections in J&K now.

* With regards to India’s reaction to Israel & Hamas war, does the Govt’s stand appear more tilting towards appeasing muslim voters.  

The BJP never counted on muslim votes. They don’t feel the need to, even earlier they only indulged in tokenism. This is the first parliament in independent India that does not have 14% representation of muslims & that relates to govt of India’s response to Israel situation. BJP's response is related to BJP’s politics. It doesn’t feel the need to address any of the sentiment that prevails in the muslim world. How is it that as a country we are comfortable with the death of one & not with the other! 2 conflicts raging in the world right now. On one we have remained curiously somewhat neutral on the other where element of neutrality would have been expected we have almost gone completely one sided. The statement by MEA & subsequent call by PM to the leader of Palestine govt was more about fact peddling.

* What do you have to say on Kashmiri Pandit rehabilitation. Government has got a Bill in the Parliament.  

Where is the bill, President hasn’t signed it. Kashmiri pandits will only get their rights once you get the assembly. On the one hand you are getting a bill & on the other you are not holding elections to the assembly. If even 10% press NOTA in the machine with Manoj Sinha govt I will leave politics.

* When you say democracy in J&K is dying how much & what is the future of mainstream politicians as also seperatists in J&K.

Democracy has been put to rest in more than one way since 2019. My disappointment is primarily with the election commission. When the EC itself says there is a vacume how are you suddenly seeing circumstances to delay election. The EC and the govt are hiding behind each other. So they are either lying to the SC or to the people.

There is no more of separatist politics any longer. Even erstwhile separatist leaders today are seriously contemplating either joining the political arena or if not directly then indirectly throwing their weight behind the process.

* The current dispensation is building a narrative in light of elections in 5 states but don’t you think some kind of narrative should come out from you'll too.

We are trying to create a counter narrative of the denial of democratic rights in J&K  but unfortunately hardly anyone is interested. The constituencies that we are talking about are being polarized to the maximum extent & our misfortune is that J&K is a muslim majority state. So when we ask for our rights it is thought that we want to be appeased & that we don’t have the right to be treated at par with others & should be 2nd class citizens within our own country. But there are very few takers for the narrative in these states.

Don’t know how much vote will BJP get in the next election that will be about 370 & Kashmir. In fact in some elections after Aug 5, BJP lost almost all of them. I think there will be lot of other issues like the big temple that will trump 370 many times more.

* What's INDIA Alliance stand on Israel war.

There have been no conversations within the INDIA Alliance on what is happening in Palestine or Israel. Everybody has been so caught up in factionalism in the Alliance on seat sharing in MP that they have not talked on external issues.

* How do you see the future of Hurriyat.

The sentiments that Hurriyat represented still exists in pockets. So separatist sentiment has not completely died.

* With removal of 370 is it possible for Pakistan to engage with India & vice versa. Do you think both should talk to each other to normalize relations!

I think we are very far from normalizing relations. Evidence is in the recent cricket matches, that shows how far the 2 countries are from each other.  Where we can't even play a match in even a friendly manner. We troll our players too when they seem to be slightly friendlier with the other side. In the short term there are no prospects of normalizing relations. Both countries go to election next year. In the run up you see no chance whatsoever of normalization. After elections it will depend on who comes to power in Delhi & how much space they have for normalizing relations.

You will have to engage. But I say that the onus for creating circumstances for engagement don’t rest just on India. We often hold India to account for dialogue with Pakistan but its also on Pakistan to create circumstances to allow India to get into a dialogue. Credit this PM to have invited Nawaz Sharif for the swearing in which wasn't reciprocated. He then visited Pakistan too. So as much as we would like to see relations normalize I would like to see Pakistan working towards creating conditions for normalization.

* Govt says the only thing to be discussed with Pakistan now is 1/3 of territory controlled by Pakistan to be taken  by India. Whats your take!

If you feel you can bring that part of J&K back & there is a way you can do it without killing people why would any of us say no but I haven't yet seen a viable practical means of reintegrating J&K that doesn’t involve bloodshed. I'll be more than happy if there is one. Before you look at that part integrating you at least give this part of J&K the right it deserves. This part is still struggling.

* Are you going to take the alliance with Alliance forward.

We are a very small player.  But after we initially doing well we seemed to have hit some stumbling blocks. Clarity is needed that whether the INDIA Alliance was just for Parliament or was also to include these 5 states. That has caught us rather short.

* Despite political difference with Pakistan P2P relations have been very positive. Has the perception now totally changed?

P2P contact now has minimized. There is far less civil society engagement with each other. In previous govts when I got invited to Islamabad I went, but today if I see a number on my phone from Pakistan I cut the call. There is no space for talk. Earlier delegations from across the border used to come to Srinagar for discussions which we don’t see now. The contact is lot less. We don’t see each other the way we used to.

* Is the condition in J&K conducive to conduct elections.

Yes, the truth is that militancy is lower than it was in 1996. If you could have them in 96, in the aftermath of floods, why can't now.
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