He came promising hope, and is now going into elections fighting charges of an ineffective regime that failed to pursue Kashmir’s cause. Muzamil Jaleel on what changed and why in Omar’s six-year rule.
It was the summer of 1999 and Begum Akbar Jehan — wife of National Conference founder Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah — gave an interview to The Indian Express that created a huge stir. In her last interview to a newspaper, she accused her son and then chief minister Farooq Abdullah’s government of having “fallen into the net of intrigues of New Delhi”, and letting “the party’s regional character become diluted”.
If the woman the NC called “Madre Meharban (caring mother)” held out any hope, it was concerning her grandson Omar, who had just joined politics then and been elected MP from Srinagar. “I am sure Omar will prove himself and be the real ideological successor to Sher-i-Kashmir (Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah),” Jehan said.
But Farooq would still pay no attention to his mother’s warnings. The NC later joined the BJP-led NDA government in New Delhi, and Omar even became a minister in it.
Fifteen years later, the wheel has come full circle. The NDA is back in power at the Centre, an NC-Congress government is ruling J&K, and Omar, as Chief Minister, is facing charges of misgovernance and failure to represent Kashmir’s aspirations before the Centre. With the NC and Congress finally calling off an alliance, Omar looks increasingly politically isolated.
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In a first, the NC didn’t win in any of the three parliamentary constituencies in Kashmir in the recent elections, which all went to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). While the Congress also took a beating, it is still a natural partner the PDP could look at after the Assembly elections later this year.
In 2008, Omar rode to power on the promise of change. He had not just pushed the NC to snap ties with the BJP, but also publicly apologised for joining them. In the wake of the Amarnath land row, he had positioned the NC as a Kashmir-centric party. His criticised president Pratibha Patil for posing with an AK-47 rifle on a visit to the Valley in May 2008, saying it reminded him of a “forgettable Sylvester Stallone movie”. His proposal to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate custodial killings and other rights violations nudged the NC to the centre of local aspirations. Unlike Farooq’s tirades against Pakistan, Omar had opened up channels of communication with Islamabad, supported a ceasefire with militants and dialogue with separatists. He had been the NC’s first leader to visit Pakistan.
Omar had also repeatedly stressed that his key goal was to undo the NC’s image of being a party that bowed before New Delhi. He returned to the party’s autonomy plank, setting up a high-level committee to also consider the Pakistan dimension. “The NC will not survive if its politics goes against its base. We have to represent the aspirations of the people of Kashmir,” Omar had told The Indian Express.
After the NC won the 2008 polls in alliance with the Congress, their website put up Sheikh Abdullah’s quote: “Only that accession will endure which is acceptable to the hearts of people…not with subsidised rice, Army and offering largesse.”
However, Omar soon found this was easier said than done. Just days after he was sworn in, two people were killed in Bomai village in Army firing, leading to massive protests. The J&K Police filed a murder case against 22 Rashtriya Rifles men, while an inquiry commission set up by the Omar government indicted the Army. However, the Army took refuge in the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Omar demanded the repeal of AFSPA — a poll promise made by him — but the Centre didn’t oblige.
The Army’s Northern Command PRO termed the demand to reduce security forces in urban areas as Omar’s political compulsion. In December 2010, Omar wrote to then PM Manmohan Singh complaining about the Army’s “public criticism of him and his government”. The complaint went unheard.
Though the CM softened his stance on AFSPA — seeking amendment to the law if not a repeal — New Delhi still gave no positive response.
Over his six years in power, Omar’s failure to get any change on AFSPA would become a metaphor for his inability to stand up to New Delhi where his party’s coalition partner Congress led the UPA government and where Rahul Gandhi was considered a friend of his.
Omar suffered more political damage from his handling of the summer protests in 2009 and 2010. Around 128 young protesters were killed in 2010, and despite Omar’s promises, they were never probed.
The Shopian incident of May 30, 2009, when bodies of two women were recovered from a stream and villagers accused the security forces of rape and murder, further hurt Omar’s government. When accused of a cover-up by the PDP and separatists, Omar declared that the two women had died of drowning while simultaneously ordering a probe. The public distrust of Omar’s government kept growing.
Bigger trouble lay ahead. An official inquiry in August 2011 claimed that there were 2,156 unidentified bodies in unmarked graves at 38 sites in north Kashmir alone. The report sought a DNA profiling of these bodies to identify them. Omar promised “immediate and appropriate action”, but after some time, the mass grave issue was given a silent burial.
Omar had promised to make “autonomy plus” his government’s agenda, and he hailed the report of the Justice Saghir-led working group on state-Centre relations. Omar’s praise of it was a dilution of the NC’s own stance on autonomy, especially its demand for restoration of the pre-1953 status to J&K.
Eventually, the Omar government formed another committee to study the report, which was given extension after extension, a move seen as driven by ally Congress’s opposition to it.
A CM who was expected to usher in change eventually responded to every public protest with stern police action.
If the NC-Congress government has hurt the state in another way, it is in not addressing the state’s division along communal lines. Omar had taken over soon after the 2008 Amarnath shrine land row. The rift caused by the subsequent economic blockade of the Valley and the split between Hindu-dominated Jammu-Udhampur-Kathua and Muslim-majority Rajouri-Poonch-Doda belt was evident during the Assembly elections. While Jammu’s three Hindu-dominated districts elected BJP candidates, the PDP made inroads into Jammu’s Muslim belt.
Six years later, in the Lok Sabha polls, the state again voted along religious lines. The BJP won both constituencies in Jammu, with even Congress stalwart Ghulam Nabi Azad losing.
During Omar’s time, it also became a practice for civil and police officials from the Valley to not be posted to Jammu and Leh, in view of religious identities. There is no interaction between the universities of Kashmir and Jammu.
Within the alliance, Omar let the Congress occupy the political space. He didn’t insist on a formal common minimum programme and, in lieu of staying CM for the entire six-year term, gave the Congress almost all important ministries.
There are other unfulfilled promises made by the CM, including bringing in private sector to Kashmir, setting up BPOs and call centres, providing overseas job opportunities and making youths employable. He had also promised to stay accessible: set up a 24/7 call centre in the CM’s office with 20 executives to handle calls.
The lasting image of the Omar government may well remain the several times he threatened to quit, only to stay back, including when PDP leader Muzaffar Hussain Beig alleged in the Assembly that he was involved in the 2006 Srinagar sex scandal.
With Assembly polls months away, the NC is now looking at defeat. Omar has already declared that father Farooq won’t be contesting the Assembly polls. But can Omar shoulder the burden?
Lots of things are outside my control: Omar
The Congress appears to be a kingmaker in J&K. They had a coalition with the PDP from 2002 to 2008 and then with you.
It is the way people vote that makes the Congress a party in power perpetually. If the Assembly results go the way of parliamentary poll results, neither the NC nor the Congress can make any difference. But I believe the Assembly elections will be completely different. The recent elections in Jammu were fought primarily on the (Narendra) Modi hawa (wind).
Why did the NC lose in all the Lok Sabha constituencies in Kashmir?
The single biggest reason was that my party cadre didn’t go out and work. They didn’t see the benefits of this government.The NC cadre have admitted to this. The reasons why NC cadre didn’t see the benefits of this government are manifold. Our government didn’t give government jobs to its cadre. Instead we followed procedure strictly. Then everything was decided by panchs and sarpanchs and not our party block presidents. We started e-tendering for contracts etc, which is a transparent process. Then crucial ministries in our government were all with the Congress.
Who broke the alliance?
It was a mutual decision. I didn’t want to announce the end of the alliance through newspapers, that’s why I stayed silent. I met Mrs Sonia Gandhi and former PM Manmohan Singh and told them that both parties want this. Both parties have strong central leadership and the cadre would have had to accept the decision if we wanted to go ahead with the alliance, but that wasn’t the right way to do it.
Will Farooq Abdullah be contesting the Assembly polls?
Why were you not able to fulfill your political promises?
No other state in the country is as affected by outside factors as ours. I have been consistently saying that no matter how much money is thrown at this (Kashmir) problem, how many economic measures we take, it will not be resolved unless we resolve it politically. If there is a breakdown of electricity, people come out on the streets to protest and start shouting slogans of azaadi (freedom). I tried my level best, but there are lots of things that were outside my control.