‘Frequently think of quitting politics … unity would’ve prevented 5 August decision’: Omar Abdullah

Since August 2019, Omar Abdullah, the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and the NC’s heir, has been frequently thinking of quitting politics. But something is stopping him.

Abdullah firmly believes that Kashmir has been internally divided like never before. And the unity could’ve prevented the August 2019 changes, when New Delhi clamped down in the region and reorganised it unilaterally.

The entire political leadership was jailed. And humiliated. When they came together, New Delhi called them a “Gang”.

In an exclusive conversation with Fahad Shah, The Kashmir Walla’s editor, Abdullah talks about their recent meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi; what has changed in Kashmir for him since August 2019; and what lies ahead for him, the politics, and Kashmir.

The excerpts of the interview have been edited for length and brevity.

Meeting with PM Narendra Modi:

Fahad Shah: What is your reflection of Narendra Modi?

Omar Abdullah: He is not a prime minister who is unaware of ground realities. He didn’t paint a rosy picture for us. In our recent meeting in Delhi, he was quite open in admitting that Jammu and Kashmir is very far from an ideal relationship with the rest of India. He uses the words Dil ki doori or Dilli se doori which means that Jammu and Kashmir is not only distant from Delhi in terms of politics or administration but even the hearts and minds that need to be connected are not connected. The prime minister is able to see ground realities and is willing to talk about it. If the prime minister had lived in denial and believed that everything is good and there is no need for any improvement in Jammu and Kashmir, then I think that would’ve been deeply problematic.

Fahad Shah: Did it feel during the meeting that the prime minister believed that the aim behind the 5 August 2019 decision was not fulfilled?

Omar Abdullah: If today, almost two years after 5 August 2019, the prime minister says Dilli se doori or dil ki doori, then that would suggest something. Many participants in that meeting made this point to the prime minister and not just the leaders who are from Kashmir; even some of the leaders from Jammu made the point that there is a long way to go to rebuild trust and confidence amongst the people and to reduce the trust deficit that is there.

Fahad Shah: Going to the past, your grandfather was considered as a hero in the politics in Kashmir and then 1975 happened. Do you think the current situation is a repeat?

Omar Abdullah: No, it is completely different because A: at that time it was one political party and an individual who was driving the dialogue forward, popular public support also lay with him. Today, like it or not, we in Kashmir are a deeply divided house. Perhaps more divided now than we’ve ever been in our past. No single one leader is able to talk from a position of strength. And unfortunately, I include separatist leaders in that as well even though some may disagree with me. So, you know, the two situations are chalk and cheese.

Two years of 5 August 2019:

Fahad Shah: From the corridors of the power to the detention centre, how much has Omar Abdullah changed?

Omar Abdullah: All experiences in life change a person. Perhaps, unexpected events change a person more. I had never thought that what happened on the 5th of August 2019 would be experienced by any of us. And I’m not talking as an individual, what happened to me, I’m talking in the wider context of what happened to Jammu and Kashmir.

Fahad Shah: Do you consider the August decision as a betrayal or is it just a part of politics?

Omar Abdullah: It wasn’t part of the politics. Of course, sovereign commitments made by the Union of India with the people of Jammu and Kashmir were sort of done away with. We also believe that legally and constitutionally, there was really no way to do what was done on 5 August 2019.

Fahad Shah: Have you thought of quitting politics in the backdrop of events in the past two years?

Omar Abdullah: I’m only human. How would it be possible for that thought not to cross my mind? I’ll not lie to you and tell you that that thought hasn’t crossed my mind. Of course, it has. Sometimes, with more frequency than others. But then, I don’t want to leave the field empty for those who would like to further dismember Jammu and Kashmir or who would like the people of Jammu and Kashmir to live the current state of misery that they’re living in. And some fights are more important than the individual.

Fahad Shah: Is there anyone who was vindicated on 5 August?

Omar Abdullah: The land that we live in is put to such turmoil; when people are put to such misery; when for months on end, children are not able to go to school; traders aren’t able to earn; communication links are cut off; family members died and the other family members didn’t know about it until they read it in the newspaper days later. How can anyone feel a sense of vindication?

If you genuinely love Jammu and Kashmir, then all you can feel is a sense of loss. Not a sense of vindication.

What lies ahead:

Fahad Shah: How difficult do you see the fight to get the statehood for J-K?

Omar Abdullah: It’s a fight that we’ve to wage. While we’re going ahead with our struggle for the wider cause that we’ve made very clear is possibly a longer one, to have 5 August 2019 overturned, but in the meantime there are other promises that are being made by the centre that we want kept and we want kept sooner rather than later. So, the promise of return to statehood and full statehood is one that we would like to see fulfilled and before the assembly elections. If they want to have assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir, then why have elections in a UT? Restore statehood to Jammu and Kashmir and then have elections.

Fahad Shah: But you had said that you won’t contest elections in a union territory. Will NC contest elections if you’re not contesting personally?

Omar Abdullah: My personal decision has no bearing on the party. This is not a dictatorship.

Fahad Shah: It looks like a political gimmick.

Omar Abdullah: Why should it be a gimmick? I don’t want to fight elections. I’ve no desire to. I’m not power hungry. I believe that there are wider and bigger battles that need to be fought.

Fahad Shah: You’re not contesting elections … you’ve spoken bitterly about Delhi. Some people would say how different are you than the Hurriyat at the current time?

Omar Abdullah: My decision to not fight elections will never impact your decision to go out and vote. I’ll never tell you that I don’t believe that you should vote. In fact, I’ll not come and tell you actively that you should boycott the elections.

I’ll never tell my colleague that they should not fight. In fact, I’ll tell people that they should come out and vote in as large numbers as possible because that’s how we will protect whatever we can.

Fahad Shah: There is a section of Kashmiri Pandits who were not happy with the meeting of the PAGD leaders with the prime minister. They’ve been demanding a separate UT.

Omar Abdullah: Such a situation or demand will not see the light of the day. We believe that Kashmiri Hindus or Kashmiri Pandits, Sikhs, Christians or Jains, they’re all integral to Jammu and Kashmir. I would never endorse any territorial division for any one particular community.

In fact, many Kashmiri Pandit leaders, before article 370 was revoked, said that the only barrier which is stopping them from coming back is article 370 therefore now that it’s gone — why aren’t they coming back? Why does the goal post keep shifting? Kashmiri Pandits left because their sense of security was snatched from them. That sense of security has to be returned and they must re-integrate themselves into Jammu and Kashmir and particularly into the Kashmir valley.

Fahad Shah: Is there anything that you would’ve done differently when you were in power? Particularly 2010 summer uprising.

Omar Abdullah: Well of course, with the benefit of hindsight, one would have ensured that 2010 didn’t happen. The benefit of hindsight brings with it a lot of wisdom, unfortunately, we have not been bestowed with the power to turn back time. We cannot change events that have happened, we can only learn from them and ensure that they are not repeated in the future.

But I do wish I had lost to a single party rather than a coalition in 2014. Jammu and Kashmir has suffered because of our fractured polity. What happened on 5th of August 2019 would never have happened if our voices had not been divided. Set aside Jammu, even if traditional areas of support had remained united then 5th August 2019 would never have happened.

Fahad Shah: Who would you say is responsible for that “divided house”?

Omar Abdullah: No one single individual. With the benefit of hindsight, the fact that we’ve allowed our voice to be divided has weakened us to a point that it was possible. A single party governing Jammu and Kashmir would never have seen this happen.


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Fahad Shah
Fahad Shah is a journalist and writer. He is the founder and editor of The Kashmir Walla magazine and has written extensively on politics, human rights, culture, and media for various international publications. In 2020, he was nominated for the RSF Press Freedom Prize for Courage and in 2021 he won the Human Rights Press Award.