National Conference patron Farooq Abdullah says it took PM Modi too long to make a statement on Dadri, accuses Shiv Sena of tarnishing freedom of speech, asks the Centre to take seriously writers returning their awards, and fears that India may pay a heavy price for the “growing religious divide”.
Why Farooq Abdullah?
The former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir is a veteran of Indian politics, well-known for speaking his mind. The National Conference patron, who has returned to politics after a brief interlude, has been speaking up against “growing intolerance” in the country and has been vocal about the failures of the Mufti Mohammad Sayeed-led PDP-BJP govt in his home state.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: What is your opinion of the PDP-BJP alliance in Kashmir? How long do you think it will survive?
The alliance was the only way out for the BJP and the PDP at that time. They both had the numbers and fought elections on the the plank of development. But unfortunately, the plank of development doesn’t exist today and religious divide is growing. This is a tragedy, not only for J&K, but for the nation, because our friends across the border would love to see this divide grow and the two-nation theory to succeed. We have always fought against the two-nation theory, because my father (Sheikh Abdullah) always believed that we can’t be divided on religious lines. But the way the situation is unfolding, it seems that the two-nation theory is now catching us by the throat.
Vajpayee was a much bigger figure. Despite being an RSS man himself, he had realised that the nation can only survive if Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Zoroastrians, everyone comes together. He worked with 23 parties, which is not a joke. He was the first BJP PM to go to Pakistan and tell Pakistan that “India accepts you as a country and wants to live in peace with you”. Despite his efforts, in the end he faced the Kargil war (1999), but he took the initiative, which is what is needed. He understood that we need friendly relations with all our neighbours. Now look at Nepal, today we are losing Nepal. Despite being a Hindu country, Nepal hates India today. Why is this happening? This is unfortunate. Vajpayee tried to mend fences. Even after Kargil, he invited Musharraf to come to India (Agra Summit, July 2001), which was a tremendously bold step.
Modi has not been on the national scene. He needs to develop. He was mostly stuck in Gujarat. He needs time. I hope he gets the time so that he can emerge as the next Vajpayee, but I don’t know whether that will happen.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: When the PDP and BJP struck an alliance in J&K, there were talks between the BJP and National Conference as well. Omar Abdullah met Ram Madhav. Why didn’t the talks work out at that time?
I was in hospital then (after the Assembly elections in November-Dec ember 2014). When the emissaries came and met me in London, I told them that Omar will make the decision. I think the major problem was the RSS. Neither Omar nor the party was comfortable with the RSS playing any role (in the government). Omar didn’t want the National Conference to be the party that would bring the RSS into Kashmir, where it doesn’t have any presence so far. So the talks broke down. Omar was not ready to compromise with the BJP.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: But this wasn’t the case when you joined the Vajpayee government?
We supported Vajpayee and Omar joined his government. But then Omar wanted to leave immediately after the Gujarat incident (the 2002 riots). I was the man who asked him to stay. Vajpayee told me, ‘Look this fellow (Modi, then the CM of Gujarat) is important for us, the nation… he is doing very well’. Omar was uncomfortable. Omar kept telling me, ‘Dad, I can’t stay… not at all, after what has happened in Gujarat’. Finally I had to agree with Omar and we left (the alliance). Otherwise, you couldn’t get a better man than Vajpayee (as PM). Unfortunately, his health began failing.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: As somebody who is now leading the NC, do you think Omar has evolved as a leader?
Yes, he has evolved as a leader. The only difference is that I am very free with people, he has not yet opened up like Farooq Abdullah. He doesn’t dance on the floor, he doesn’t sing like I sing. I’m a very different man compared to him. He is reserved in many things. He has very strong likes and dislikes. Farooq Abdullah can forgive, I wonder if Omar has that in him.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: How difficult is it for somebody like you, who is a Muslim and comes from Kashmir, to sing a Mata ka bhajan, like you did during the Navratras? Does it hurt you politically?
Who cares! I feel it’s important to unite people rather than divide them. If I sing Mata’s bhajan or Ram bhajan, how does it hurt a Kashmiri? My partymen told me not to criticise Pakistan. I asked why not? They are killing us, they are burning our schools, burning our infrastructure and killing innocent people, why should I not speak up? I don’t believe in the politics of lying. I may not win, to hell with it. Winning is not the question, the question is, can we remain united? I don’t see any difference between Hindus and Muslims. I’ve never eaten cow in India, but I’ve eaten cow in England, Europe and America.
When I was very young, I had never eaten cow. I had gone to Pakistan with my father in 1964. My father had to return to India because of Jawaharlal Nehru’s death (November 1964). So Ayub Khan (the then Pakistani president) asked me if I could continue the tour. So, I went to Lahore. There I had a wonderful meat dish and the staff there told me it was cow meat. And you won’t believe it, I went to the toilet immediately and vomited it all out because I had never eaten cow meat — till I got to England and started enjoying the steaks.
But I don’t believe in these fights (over cow meat). In politics you should not use religion if you want to keep India united. If you use religion, you are dividing India, and that is the worst thing that I see happening these days.
SUSHANT SINGH: There is increasing polarisation between Jammu and Kashmir, with trucks being stopped over beef rumours and people being attacked. What is the NC doing to curb the rising tensions between the two regions, since the party has also become very weak in Jammu now?
The divide is growing and there is no doubt about it. The BJP thinks that it can rule by dividing people on communal lines. Earlier, they used to say that Jammu ko koi fund nahi milta and Kashmir sab kha gaya (Jammu gets no funds, Kashmir has taken it all), now they can’t say that because they are in power. By using this rhetoric earlier, they hardly managed to get 10-12 seats. Suddenly with Modi’s emergence and the growing Hindu wave, they got the majority and now they want to stick to the majority in whatever way possible. But I don’t think they will be able to hold on to it, because there are secular forces in Jammu. And the secular forces are going to emerge in the next election, whenever it takes place.
The NC is doing a lot. I was singing the song (Mata ka bhajan) the other day to tell people that we have nothing against you. As far as cow eating is considered, Islam is very clear about it. Islam says, don’t do anything that will harm the other person and makes him feel threatened. And if they are a minority, you have to protect them much more. But then there are hardline elements in the Muslim community like (Asaduddin) Owaisi and (Syed Ali Shah) Geelani too.
SUSHANT SINGH: What is your biggest personal regret? The 1987 elections in Kashmir which were allegedly rigged and led to the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, staying with the Vajpayee government after the Gujarat riots, or not becoming the vice-president of India?
I never worried about whether I became vice-president of India or not. That has never been something that I will cry on. Farooq Abdullah ki haddiyan thodi sakht hain (my bones are strong). The biggest problem was the misunderstanding between Mrs Gandhi and Farooq Abdullah, which was created by the people after the 1983 elections. I used to decide things with Rajiv Gandhi, but by the time I got to the Delhi airport, the whole thing would be changed. I have suffered tremendously because of the politics in Delhi. They never understood Kashmir, they never understood Kashmiris, they played games here (in Delhi) which has destroyed Kashmir. They (Delhi politicians) think they know about the whole country sitting in Delhi, but that is not the case. We (J&K) joined India not by force and guns, we joined India because of the ideology, so that we can live together and progress together. We joined that India, not the India which has emerged now. If what is happening today continues, it will be a terrible disaster. If religious divide continues, we will all pay a heavy price.
SHAILAJA BAJPAI: The Chief Minister of Haryana recently said that ‘Muslims can live in this country, but will have to give up eating beef’. What do you have to say to that?
Who the hell is he? He is not my commander-in-chief. I am a Muslim, I live in India because it is my nation. You are not going to tell me whether I can live here or not. I would have slapped him on his face and told him to first learn the history of this country and then speak. Muslims fought for this nation as much as anybody else. Even today, Hindus and Muslims continue to sacrifice their lives to protect our borders, so that we can sleep in peace. Does he not know that? And he tells me, ‘If you have to live here…’. I am as much a citizen of India as he is. He does not enjoy anything more, he too has just one vote.
SHAILAJA BAJPAI: With CMs talking like this, do you think there is some patronage from the top?
This is not the language that he (Manohar Lal Khattar, Haryana CM) should use. This is the kind of language that will create terrible bitterness in my land. They will ask me, ‘What are you trying to tell us? See, what that man is saying’. What do I tell them? That there are mad people in India too, as we have mad people in Kashmir, who continue to insist that we become a part of Pakistan.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: What is your view of the functioning of the current J&K government?
If it was working, then you would not have asked me this question. Your question itself shows that they (the government) are not working. If people are not kept together… you may build golden roads, you may give everything, but nothing will change their heart. First you have to mend the human heart and there the PM needs to take steps to ensure that there is no religious divide and polarisation. He has to take steps, even if it annoys the RSS. He (Narendra Modi) is India’s PM, he is my PM. He has to reassure the minorities that there may be a few fools, but I am here to fight for you. That is what he needs to do today.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: After Dadri, what do you think should have been Prime Minister Modi’s response?
If I was the PM, it would not have taken me a minute to fly down to Dadri and tell the people of India that this (lynching of a man over beef-eating rumours) will not be tolerated and I will see to it that those who have done this will face the law. That is what I want my PM to do and that is what he should have done. It took him too long. He did make a statement, but he must follow it now with far more vigour and energy. What is important is unity. As long as we are united, there is no danger to us. Danger will emerge when we are divided.
AMRITH LAL: There are reports that a lot of Kashmiri youngsters are joining militancy. Is it because your generation of leaders couldn’t address their issues? And what are the things that you would have done as CM to stop this?
They (the youth) do not believe what the leaders say. But they can’t be blamed, because we as leaders have failed them. That is why they are doing that (joining militancy). God help us. I hope it doesn’t grow.
I would have done a lot of things (as CM). First, with Pakistan you will have to make some inroads. War is not the solution. The only way out is to talk to Pakistan and settle the matter of J&K. If you have to eliminate the threat, you have to catch the bull by its horn. Pakistan is gaining foothold. I’m telling you frankly, we better move fast.
SUSHANT SINGH: Do you think Rahul Gandhi can revive the Congress party?
When Rajiv Gandhi came (into politics), they said, ‘Yeh toh pilot hai. Yeh kya chalayega desh (He is a pilot, how will he run the country)’. But Rajiv Gandhi emerged. You have to give this young man (Rahul Gandhi) a chance. His thoughts are clear. I have spoken to him on many issues. I hope those thoughts remain and come into practical use. Time alone will tell how he emerges.
COOMI KAPOOR: You released former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri’s book at the Kasauli Lit Fest. What did you make of the reception it received from the Shiv Sena in Mumbai?
It was a tragedy for me and for Indian democracy. We have freedom of speech and that is the great thing about this nation. They (the Shiv Sena) tarnished that. What harmed us is the way they behaved (throwing black ink on Sudheendra Kulkarni before Kasuri’s book launch). The whole world laughed at us when they saw a man with paint on his face. He (Kulkarni) could have washed the paint before coming on stage (with Kasuri). But he showed us that there are intolerant people and that we need to defeat them. They will be defeated. This nation is far greater than the Shiv Sena.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: Recently, a number of writers returned their awards because of growing intolerance. Do you think there is a threat to freedom of expression in our country? Also, do you agree with Amitav Ghosh’s premise that the current government is enabling attacks on writers?
This started with the Karnataka thing (writer MM Kalburgi was shot dead in Dharwad, Karnataka, in August 2015). Many writers felt threatened. They felt that they could no longer write about issues and that is why they returned their awards to show solidarity with freedom of expression. I am very happy that they did so, and at least the nation started thinking.
I think here the government has to reassure the nation that freedom of expression will not die. I think the government must take these writers seriously and should not dismiss their protest.
Transcribed by Sarah Hafeez, Aneesha Mathur, Kaunain Sheriff & Abhishek Angad.