‘Rajiv Gandhi Paid a Price For Believing In Farooq Abdullah, Modi Won’t’

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Ashwini Bhatnagar

AMID the growing chorus for Statehood in Jammu and Kashmir, National Conference top leaders—Farooq Abdullah and his son Omar Abdullah—have finally ended their political silence and jumped on the bandwagon. But the timing of their talk has once again made people read some old pattern and fuelled speculations about “secret goings-on”.

Back in Eighties when New Delhi had faced a similar leadership crisis in J&K, Rajiv Gandhi government had approached his “buddy” for filling the political void in the valley.

“Rajiv was sure he could trust Farooq to end the impasse in Kashmir, and integrate the state into the Indian polity,” writes Ashwini Bhatnagar, a seasoned scribe, in his recent book, ‘The Lotus Years: Political Life In The Times Of Rajiv Gandhi’.

Published by Hachette, the book offers a “360-degree view” of politics in India during the time of Rajiv Gandhi.

“Farooq’s persuasive ways convinced Rajiv that he was the go-getter that Kashmir so desperately needed,” the author writes.

In November 1986, after months of hectic parleys mediated by Rajesh Pilot, Rajiv and Farooq signed an accord that reinstated the latter as chief minister and proposed a roadmap for “stabilizing” the state.

“Even as a caretaker coalition government was being cobbled together, silent dissent was brewing in both the Congress and the National Conference,” Bhatnagar writes. “Sections in both parties were apprehensive about the secret goings-on.”

In an exclusive interview with Kashmir Observer, writer Ashwini Bhatnagar talks about New Delhi’s Kashmir management, his Kashmir reporting days and why Farooq can’t be Modi’s man in Kashmir.

Do you think Delhi has no hope other than Abdullahs in Kashmir?

The hope lies with the people of Kashmir. The time for ‘self determination’ (in a different context) of their future as full, equal, prosperous citizens of a democratic, secular republic is now; and it has to come through new leadership.

But do you see Modi engaging with Abdullahs in the coming future?

It depends on a lot of factors. But as of today, I don’t think Modi will engage with the Abdullahs in any substantive way. History conclusively proves it is counter-productive to engage with them. Rajiv paid a price for believing in Farooq. I’m sure Modi has learnt the lesson well. Moreover, he’s much more politically-savvy than Rajiv ever was.

You’ve written about the Rajiv-Farooq Accord in your recent book. How did it come about and what went wrong?

Without doubt, Rajiv was a man of peace. From the moment he took over, he purposefully worked towards quieting dissonance in various parts of India – the Punjab Accord, Assam Accord, Mizo Accord, etc were his handiwork. He was committed to the bigger national picture of unity and harmony even at the expense of his party’s political interest.

The Kashmir Accord was an earnest effort on his part to give Farooq Abdullah a fair chance to address the grievances of the people of J&K. Farooq, however, failed to deliver on his promises and used the opportunity to play footsie with interests inimical to India.

Farooq could have led from the front to secure the rights of his people. That he did not became the trigger point for militant to start calling the shots. From there on it went from being bad to worse and festered for another three decades. And mind you, it is not yet over despite the new formulations at work today.

How was the relationship between Srinagar and Delhi back then?

The relationship was always tenuous. It will continue to be so in the foreseeable future too. There is no escape from it. Even if every political person in the Kashmir Valley wants to turn over a new leaf, Pakistan will not allow it. Actually, since 1980, Kashmir has been on a road which goes nowhere.

If you dispassionately look at it, Delhi has gone out of its way to accommodate Kashmiri aspirations. Funds too have been poured into the former state for development purposes.

But the politicians there have always had the single agenda of stoking religious sentiments, either themselves or through militancy, to keep their coffers flowing.

Back in those tumultuous days, how did you see Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s role in Kashmir politics?

It was reckless. Running with the hare and hunting with the hounds sort of a thing. I have always felt Mufti Mohammad Sayeed thought himself to be clever – it turned out he was too clever by half.

How was your reporting experience in Kashmir then?

Well, I started to actively report on Kashmir shortly after the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits began in the late 80s. There was no political activity as such then, only violence. Perhaps, absence of political activity was in itself politics of sorts.

In fact, Kashmir politicians, since the early 1980s, were either silent spectators or indirect collaborators to the certain forces in the Valley. It suited their purpose because they could leverage the situation to their advantage, both in Srinagar and in Delhi. It was a myopic but an expedient view which afflicted the National Conference and the Congress leaders in the state in equal measure.

Both Farooq Abdullah and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed rode the tiger, sure it was a horse, and they could command it. But, by the time they realized their misjudgment, it was too late. The tiger was riding them. Farooq panicked during the 1987 elections when it seemed that Muslim United Front had become a runaway hit with the masses. He rigged the elections and was confronted with a bigger mess.

Similarly, in 1989, when Mufti was Home Minister in VP Singh’s government at the Centre, his daughter was kidnapped by the very people he had helped to raise. Farooq and Mufti had now become hapless purveyors of the shift from their leverage politics to diktats of AK-47s.

How was Kashmir story different for your journalism career?

I have covered militancy in Punjab, Assam, Nagaland and Mizoram too besides Kashmir. Frankly, the tragedy and futility of it remains the same everywhere. It is always about gain for a select few and a massive loss to people at large. The young, the innocent get killed and tortured. Never the kin of the leaders. It’s the peoples’ lives that is destroyed. They live through shootings, curfews and police searches while the leaders travel for holidays abroad when the going gets rough at home. Every human story is in fact an inhuman story of political perversion. We, as people, have to escape it by forging our own models which serve societal rather than political interests.

How do you see New Delhi’s new policy and action plan in Kashmir, especially post-abrogation of Article 370?

Article 370 had become some sort of a totem pole around which a grotesque, ritualistic political dance was being performed now and then. It drew the people to it since it seemed sanctified in some way – may be because it had been happening for so long that it had acquired its own legitimacy. The Centre has uprooted this totem pole. I suppose it was done as part of the strategy to demystify assumed realities in Kashmir politics.

I think the Centre is moving cautiously but surely towards dismantling the scaffold that supported the key players during their bull run. Bifurcation of J&K is another definite step in this direction. Let’s wait and see what eventually happens in the long run. But one thing is sure for now — it will not be business as usual in Kashmir Valley. The fiefdoms will wither away and hopefully die providing space to alternate leadership.

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Mrinal Pathak

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