Nayeem Akhtar, 65, is a People’s Democratic Party ideologue considered one of the most influential leaders of the party. A longtime loyalist of late PDP patriarch Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, with whom he worked closely since 1986, he was bureaucrat until 2008, when he left his job and joined PDP, and is now Public Works Minister in J&K. Excerpts from an interview.
On PDP’s alliance with BJP
This alliance is the last possible credible democratic experiment for many, many years. If it fails, nothing else is likely to succeed in the present scenario. And if it collapses, it would be a problem not only for PDP or Kashmir; its failure is going to be a huge setback for the country in finding a solution to its most intractable challenge. We [PDP] may well get consumed in this but that might be a marginal cost. We tried to create a middle space — the space is gone but the argument hasn’t gone. I am an Indian but people in Kashmir don’t feel that way. And we aren’t responsible for this sentiment. We inherited it. It began when Nehru jailed Sheikh Abdullah [in 1953]. That has been a legacy for all prime ministers. Our leader Mufti Mohammad Sayeed believed that Kashmir has had democracies of all kinds — it has had rigged, fake, failed and genuine elections. But in all these elections, Jammu’s non-Muslim part was excluded from power sharing. Sheikh Abdullah had only Devidas Thakur even as he had a huge mandate. Similarly, when Farooq Abdullah won with a huge majority, he didn’t have enough representation from that part of Jammu. Jammu and Ladakh got genuine political representation only since the first PDP-led coalition under Mufti. Mufti sahib thought that the political arrangement has always been restricted between Srinagar and New Delhi – Jammu was left out of it. Mufti sahib thought that a triangle is not only possible but also necessary. We formed an alliance with this purpose. When we [PDP and BJP] together came up with the Agenda of Alliance, I called it a sacred document. Why did I call it a sacred document? Unlike all our previous accords after the accession, this accord isn’t between individuals. This document has the people’s endorsement because two parties with a mandate in two regions and among two communities have come up with it. And then at the national level we had a party with a huge mandate to endorse it. Both parties are duly elected. Our alliance wasn’t a usual ragtag power-sharing arrangement. This was a grand design to resolve Kashmir through democratic means.
On PDP-led government’s stance on talks with Hurriyat & Pakistan
Our agenda for alliance says everything – we haven’t shied away from anything. It doesn’t merely talk about talks with separatists, it is specific and names Hurriyat. It isn’t vague. It clearly asks for measures to improve relations between New Delhi and Islamabad. It has dealt with every contentious issue and projected a pragmatic view endorsed by both PDP and BJP. This is all out in the open and it is an agreement between the coalition partners. If nothing is being done to implement this agreed agenda, its loss is not just for us to mourn. Many generations might have to do that. Yes, we are getting consumed as a party but that is not the only cost we will have to pay in future. The country is going to be the biggest loser if this agenda is not implemented. It is not going to be a breach of an arrangement between the two coalition partners as in any other state but it will be violation of a covenant of trust that was crafted with lot of effort to strike emotional bonds between Kashmir and the rest of the country.
On PDP’s experience with PM Vajpayee and PM Modi
The idea that appealed to Vajpayee and created ripples across the subcontinent was put forth by the PDP. Till then BJP had an alliance with NC which had a three-fourths majority but had failed in breaking the ice here. And after Indira Gandhi, Vajpayee became the first PM to address a public rally in Srinagar. At that time, the security establishment and even the top bureaucracy, both in Srinagar and Delhi, had planned the venue of his public address inside a BSF camp [on Srinagar’s outskirts]. The plan was to ferry people in buses inside the Gogo land (BSF camp). We didn’t agree because it would have served no purpose. We wanted the venue to be in the heart of Srinagar city so that people could hear Vajpayee. It was a big moment for Mufti sahib. Those days we had an alliance with the Congress and they decided to boycott Vajpayee’s rally at the last minute. We worked hard and there were thousands of people inside the stadium when Vajpayee spoke. Vajpayee had understood both the intent and substance of Mufti sahib’s idea and the effort. It worked. On November 7, 2015, he [Mufti] brought PM Modi to the same venue. It was a very difficult time because there was a serious opposition to our alliance with the BJP. Despite harsh resistance, we organised it. Mufti sahib monitored the preparation for the entire programme personally. He died two months later. Again, we brought several thousand people to the stadium. The encore was the same but we didn’t see the results.
On Muslim-majority J&K in the context of today’s India
In 1,400 years of Islamic history, a state with an overwhelming Muslim population prefers to go with a Hindu-majority India because of its secular and democratic credentials and not with Muslim Pakistan. It has never happened in history. Even today, the discourse in the entire world is determined by ethnicity and religion particularly. But we in J&K went against the tide. Kashmir has also provided credibility to the secular credentials of India. Indian Muslims, who chose not to go to Pakistan, were always citizens of this country. Our top leaders made a conscious choice in 1947 when they decided to accede to India. This decision had to be respected and honoured. But today the illiteracy about the context and facts of that most exciting experiment in secular nation building is almost complete in the country and our history is being written every evening with the breaking news crowd on TV channels without realising that the untruths said there break hearts as well.
On New Delhi’s relations with Islamabad and way forward on Kashmir
Mufti stressed in a public meeting that the only way India can become great is by hand-holding Pakistan, working hard to end the animosities with Islamabad. India can become great not by using coercive measures in Kashmir to suppress people but by understanding from history that it hasn’t ever worked. There is no viable alternative to talks and reconciliation. He felt vindicated when on his deathbed he was informed of the prime minister’s dramatic Lahore visit. The subsequent attack in Pathankote derailed that but we believe statesmanship shapes history rather than being deterred by events as done by Vajpayee earlier. Any prime minister’s lasting legacy can only be if Kashmir is rescued from the darkness and depression and if the discord over it yields place to an accord of understanding and resolution across borders. Our entire achievement on the economic front, which is phenomenal, gets overshadowed with one shot fired on the Kashmir border or a killing somewhere. Even the generous investment by the government of India disappears when turmoil takes over Kashmir.
On Kashmir coverage by TV channels and current public discussion on J&K in India
We are convinced that television channels in Delhi and Mumbai are doing irreparable harm to us than anything else currently. Their programmes, their uncouth anchors and illiterate panellists are spreading such hatred that even those Kashmiris who swear by their loyalty to India are feeling alienated. This morning I met a few hardcore party leaders who hold important positions. They were fuming and said enough is enough and perhaps it is the end of the road for all of us. This is because on one such programme, somebody insinuated that Kashmiri youngsters are bastards of foreign militants who came to Kashmir. How can anybody say such a disgraceful thing? How was such a ludicrous comment allowed on a television news debate? How can we tolerate such abuse against our sisters, daughters and mothers? Why hasn’t the man been arrested as yet? Such an irresponsible and outrageous comment can easily instigate violence. If it can enrage senior leaders of the ruling party in Kashmir who are risking and actually losing their lives, one can easily imagine what Kashmiris in general must be thinking. Our government is considering serious action because it is these television channels and their studio warriors who have become a serious threat to peace and normality in Kashmir. It is unfortunate that those who deal with Kashmir these days in the public sphere are 20-year-old anchors who have the nerve to tell us how to behave. Can you imagine, they have the audacity to tell the son and grandson [Farooq and Omar Abdullah] of the man who was instrumental in J&K’s accession to India, how to behave.
On Army chief General Bipin Rawat’s statement that he wished people would fire weapons rather than throw stones at the Army because then he could do what he wanted to, besides praising the decision to tie an artisan to a jeep as a human shield
The Army on the ground today is much more disciplined than its top brass is making it look like through its observations. It is sad. We have had very fine generals like Gen Hooda and Gen Saha in recent times whose words would actually work as balm and who won more admirers than the surrenders or dead bodies the usual military methods would achieve.
On Defence Minister Arun Jaitley’s statement that Kashmir is a “warlike zone” where army officers should be allowed to take a decision on how to deal with a situation
There is no warlike situation in Kashmir. When someone holding an important position in the government says it is a war zone, what message are we sending? After two years in the government, we are saying it is a war zone, what is our legitimacy? Governments don’t run because they have numbers. When Sheikh Abdullah was brought, he was brought only because of his credibility and not numbers. In 2002, Mufti sahib came with 16 and became CM even when Congress had 30. The credibility of our government has suffered seriously because of such statements but it isn’t our loss only, it is not the loss of our party only, it isn’t the loss of J&K state only, it is loss of the country as well.
On why PDP isn’t stepping down when it acknowledges the agenda of alliance isn’t being implemented …
Why we are sticking to our side of the bargain in this alliance has a bigger reason. Our leader [Mufti] entered into an alliance; we decided to honour that even if it hurt our party in the process. While we talk about the serious issues of credibility with New Delhi in its dealings with Kashmir since 1947, there has been a credibility crisis among our parties [in Kashmir] too because of the U-turns we have been making for political expediency and short-term electoral gains. Our political parties have been saying one thing in the government and completely another thing once out of power. That is exactly what made us stick to the alliance in 2016 [after Mufti’s death] as we did not want to carry on the legacy of being looked at as a fair-weather friendship… They say we are subservient to the Constitution of India and Constitution of J&K but the moment we are out of power we start speaking in a completely different tone. This revolving-door syndrome has done irreparable damage to our credibility and we slammed it shut. Though we believe in India and have reposed our complete trust in its democratic institutions, the challenge is that more and more people in J&K don’t share that feeling with us. And Mehbooba Mufti can’t do much in dealing with this challenge. Only the national leadership can do this. But unfortunately, Kashmir is treated only as a security concern. What inspired the historic alliance between PDP and BJP was the hope and belief that we will be dealt with politically and not seen through the security prism. We [PDP] had created the architecture for a resolution of Kashmir over the years, disowning it is a loss to the entire country. The rise of separatism can in a good measure be attributed to the treatment the mainstream parties received in the past. Instead of standing by the agreements with them, they were taken for granted. Repeating it has always added to the cost, both for the state and the country.
On PDP’s red line in its coalition with BJP
Our red line is known. For us Article 370 and the special status that includes the state subjects law is inviolable.
On PDP’s stance on the demand for azadi and how New Delhi should respond
The raison d’être of the PDP is twofold: One, provide democracy in J&K a competitive character… Second, help the state and the rest of the country fill the chasm created by seven decades of uncertainty. For that to happen the party became the first political voice that stood by the accession as an irreversible reality and flagged the political issues that needed to be addressed for a lasting solution. The party acknowledged that there existed an element of alienation and disenchantment that had fed a strong separatist sentiment. Denying the existence of such feelings had only compounded problems in the past. One could resolve the problem only by acknowledging the idea of azadi and engaging in best democratic traditions with its proponents and convincing them of a better idea that in our perception and belief is the idea of India. We stand by the virtues and efficacy of this approach that was so obviously validated by the happening three years from 2003 to 2005. It seemed that Kashmir instead of being permanently condemned to horrors of violence had started scripting a new agenda of peace for not just the state but entire South Asia. That will remain the most outstanding legacy of Vajpayee. He had not granted azadi to those who sought it but had changed the discourse by responding to people’s yearning for peace with dignity.
On Opposition’s claim that PDP brought Sangh Parivar to Kashmir
It is wrong to suggest that PDP brought Sangh Parivar here. Nobody can ever prevent a party coming to the state after our accession to the Union. RSS was here even before Independence. Sheetal Nath temple had been the hub of their activities in Srinagar for decades. Praja Parishad in Jammu was the forerunner of Jana Sangh. But it is important to recall the arrival of Congress in Kashmir in the sixties. At that time they were more hated and feared in Kashmir than the disapproval levels of BJP now. They faced a social boycott which resulted even in actual ostracisation of many respectable people. The mother of Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad was buried during the night… But later events forced Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, who called for the boycott of congress leaders, to return to the mainstream as leader of the same Congress Legislature Party. My point is that the march of history is like a river that cannot be impeded.
On New Delhi’s plans to build new highways to connect J&K
In 70 years, we didn’t get a decent all weather highway. People who were part of fabled Silk Route have one connection to the outside world that too isn’t all-weather. We used to do trade with Kashgar, Yarqand, Khotan etc to the Central Asia but Partition meant that an iron curtain enveloped this region, shutting all our roads. We have had to be dependent on one single communication link, which is fair weather. It [Kashmir] is perhaps the only place in the world where government-run Doordarshan and Radio have a dubious role of providing daily updates on our highway, our lifeline because it can get shut by bad weather anytime. However, now there are several things being done. The north-south corridor was extended to Srinagar by Vajpayee in 2003. For the first time, there will be holes in the mountains that exist like walls around us and have kept us closed in every sphere, political, social, economic and psychological. Now there are tunnels being built at three different places. We look forward to decent highways and it is reassuring that the PM is himself driving this opening up of Kashmir to rest of the country. It should result in increased interaction and employment generation.