The abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, after both Houses passed the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill, 2019 — which also paved the way for the bifurcation of J&K into two Union Territories — has been accompanied by a clampdown in the state, with schools and shops shut and phone and Internet services suspended for nearly two weeks.
As Minister of State for the Prime Minister’s Office, Jitendra Singh is privy to the government’s decision-making process. This is also an issue close to the heart for the former chief spokesperson of the party’s J&K unit, who represents Jammu’s Udhampur constituency in Parliament for the party.
MoS, PMO, Jitendra Singh says curbs in J&K are nothing new and should not be seen through the prism of Art 370, says questioning J&K Reorganisation Bill is questioning will of Parliament, and says scene in Valley will change once ‘shroud of fear’ is lifted. Excerpts:
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: Kashmir has been facing unprecedented restrictions for over 10 days now. How long will these restrictions continue?
First of all, let me challenge the contention that this is ‘unprecedented’. The restrictions this time are much, much milder than they have been in preceding years… Most of us have forgotten that mobile services were introduced in India sometime in the mid-1990s, and not introduced in Jammu and Kashmir because the government then did not feel it would be right. Many years later, in 2003, during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, mobile services were introduced in J&K. These have been suspended temporarily now. But we have had times, and governments, that were averse to even introducing the services in J&K. Restrictions in the form of temporary suspension of Internet or even mobile services have happened virtually every year on occasions such as Independence Day, Republic Day and Eid for the last 30 years in the Valley… And, despite that there has been violence (in the region). Compared to when the same or bigger restrictions were put in place earlier, we have had one of the most peaceful Eid festivals.
Secondly, the duration of restrictions has been longer in the past — when there were Congress or Congress-supported governments at the Centre, or when there were Congress and National Conference governments in J&K, which will be a Union Territory after October 31. The (present) restrictions were imposed only about a week or so before Independence Day and Eid. Because we are looking at it through the subconscious prism of Article 370 abrogation… if you look at it per say, it would not stand the scrutiny of facts.
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: I said this is unprecedented because not only are Internet and phone services suspended, even landlines are not functional. When Afzal Guru was hanged, even then restrictions were imposed for about 10 days, but landlines were working.
Why are you connecting it with Afzal Guru…? Why are you seeing it (the restrictions) through the subconscious prism of these incidents? This has happened again and again, and for days together… There was a long spell of violence in 2010, there was a long spell of unrest during the Amarnath land agitation in 2008… There was protracted Governor’s rule up to 1996. There were occasions when the governments of the day earned the dubious distinctions of being curfew governments — the Farooq Abdullah government before 1984… Delink it (restrictions in J&K) from Afzal Guru, from Article 370, and let’s then look at it. You will realise that statistically you are not right.
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: Almost all key political leaders, in the Valley at least, are under house arrest. How long can this incarceration continue?
The expression ‘incarceration’ is very subjective. I hold objection to this. Sheikh Abdullah was in prison for more than a decade. And he was not under house arrest in the cool climes of the Kashmir Valley, he was in Kodaikanal. It was not this government (that did it), it was (former prime minister Jawaharlal) Nehru’s government. If we start talking about incarceration, in the way you define it, it then means that the first incarceration in independent India was of Sheikh Abdullah, and of Syama Prasad Mookerjee, who was kept under house arrest for 44 days without any chargesheet or FIR… He was mercilessly thrown into solitary detention.
You can also check the meaning of incarceration. What I am talking about is incarceration… 44 days… House arrest in a person’s place of residence or same town, as preventive detention for a few days, cannot be described as incarceration.
RAVISH TIWARI: On abrogation of Article 370, what is also being questioned is the manner in which it was done. The way the entire country was hoodwinked… (Chinar Corps Commander) Lt Gen K J S Dhillon held a press conference to say there was imminent danger to the Amarnath Yatra, and that is why 45,000 security personnel were being brought. You had the Governor say that nothing is going to happen. Then in Parliament, the J&K Reorganisation Bill was tabled at 11 am and passed by 8 pm….
First of all, the expression ‘hoodwinked’ is being used on the assumption that what was said was a lie. What makes you assume that there wasn’t an imminent threat from Pakistan and that it does not exist now? We as responsible citizens — leave aside being office-bearers — must trust the security forces when they say there is imminent danger, that we have discovered IEDs, guns.
Secondly, the Bill was brought in Parliament, debated and passed. Parliament has representation of all political parties and thoughts. It was passed as per due procedure. Somebody also went to court and the court also had the same view. So is Parliament of India wrong, is the Supreme Court of India wrong? Just because we think we have been hoodwinked, they are wrong? There have been occasions where Bills have been passed in two hours… It is amazing that a Bill which has been debated, which was voted upon, and there was a vote by division, two-thirds (majority) in one House, and three-fourths in another House… So then are we challenging, questioning the supremacy of Parliament?
Read | In Valley, a separation
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: What is it that worries you so much about Kashmir, that the clampdown continues?
Nothing worries me. Rather, I am relieved. A, we have had one of the most peaceful Eid festivals, one of the most peaceful Independence days in the last three decades. We must compliment the people and the administration of J&K. B, about how long will the detention last… It is for the Home Ministry to answer this. There are security and intelligence inputs that are coming in every moment, which you and I are not privy to. These decisions are taken in a highly discreet manner after meticulous deliberations, which can be done only by those who are privy to that information. They will decide.
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: The Home Minister has said that the politics of J&K has been appropriated by three families. But these leaders will be let out from preventive detention at some point. A lot of them are young politicians, such as Sajad Lone, Omar Abdullah, Shah Faesal…Do you see a future for them in Kashmir politics?
No, no. Actually I don’t see any future for them. They are also realising that their political innings has come to an end. It is only some section of the media that wants to see some future, so that the story can carry on. The story has ended. For these handful of politicians who have survived, thrived and flourished in an atmosphere of vacuum, with 8, 10 per cent voter turnout, which enabled them to make it to the Lok Sabha, to make it to the state Assembly, to form state governments, generation after generation, for three-four generations, and thus perpetuate their dynasty rule… They tried to make the whole country and the world believe that if we are not there, there will be no one to take up the political responsibility. I say this with full confidence, that the common man, regardless of whether he is a Hindu or Muslim, on the streets of Srinagar, is rejoicing in his heart of hearts… Just let the atmosphere open up, and just let the enormous benefits that had eluded him because of Article 370 (come in)… I think if you are objective observers, you will realise that now we are not dealing with three-four names that you are saying — one or two of them have never even contested elections.
Let’s first understand that we are dealing with third-generation Indians, which includes third-generation Kashmiris, the post-1990s generation. Seventy per cent of the population is below the age of 40. It is they who will determine the course of the future for India and for J&K. The majority of the Kashmiri population, which is below the age of 40, is highly, highly aspirational. It is very well-connected, globally connected, very well-informed… I sometimes believe, and I am not saying this without evidence, that the average Kashmiri youth is more aspirational perhaps than his counterparts in other areas of the country. In the civil services exam, every year, you have a topper, or someone in the top 20 list, from the most terror-affected districts of the Kashmir Valley. About 30-40 Class 12 pass-outs from terror-affected districts qualify in the IIT-JEE exam. About two years ago, when we were in the Valley as part of an all-party delegation… at least 50 people had qualified for the NEET exam, the all-India entrance for medical colleges. These children are conscious of the enormous avenues in contemporary India, in Modi’s India. They don’t want to miss the bus.
The names (of politicians) which you mentioned, they also stand exposed because these children are very scrutinising, very investigative, very interrogative… They would not even trust their parents if they said something without conviction. They have seen these handful of leaders, whose names are being mentioned time and again, whose own children are lodged in safe havens, getting education in the best institutions, and then getting best jobs in the corporate sector, and shamelessly even in civil services… They do not subscribe wholly or partly to the Constitution of India, but make best use of it, while pushing the neighbour’s or poor man’s children to become stone-pelters. I think one generation lost out on that. Now this third generation, after 30 years of terrorism, has begun to realise the duplicity and bluff…
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: But who will represent the people of Kashmir politically now?
A, the time of the 8 per cent, 10 per cent voter turnout beneficiaries is over. B, the time of dynasty is over. C, this is the third generation of Kashmiris, and they will come out and decide their future. In a democracy, all the names that you mentioned, can again contest… But they can’t hold the country and J&K to ransom and say that only we are the master political players, and we will determine the future. As time passes, and the shroud of fear is lifted, we will have a scenario where change will happen on its own, regardless of whether these players are there or not.
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: So when can we expect elections to happen?
We in the Modi government do not interfere in the working of the constitutional institutions — the Election Commission of India, the CBI. You can ask this question to the EC. The BJP is a 24X7, 365-day party. We are not an election-season party, nor do we start visiting temples during elections. We are ready for any election, any time.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: You say that the common man on the streets of Srinagar is rejoicing. Why then do all the images emanating from the Valley show empty streets…?
See, the restrictions have been put so that the right-thinking citizen can live to rejoice. So that they do not die before rejoicing. Pakistan and sponsors of terrorism are always up to mischief, particularly on such momentous occasions. Not just this time, this has always happened. If the restrictions were imposed only for the abrogation of Article 370, why did earlier governments, Congress governments, impose these restrictions? So, this (present restrictions) is in the interest of the safety of the common man, who is in a vulnerable situation, where mischief-mongers supported by Pakistan can find soft targets.
VANDITA MISHRA: In many of your answers — on why the restrictions have been imposed, the detentions etc — you point to these things being done by the earlier Congress regimes as well. But surely for a government it can’t be a moral or political argument to say that this has been done before. Also, you say that we should delink the current situation from Article 370. But why should we do that? You have taken a very consequential decision for the people of the Valley while keeping them under lock and key.
I did not say ‘delink’, and I agree with you. Why should you (not link the situation with the Article 370 abrogation)… There is a proverb in English, that two wrongs don’t make a right… I am not saying what is happening is ideal. But it is unfair to hurl all this criticism on the present government on the basis of what is happening. If you do so, you have to check records and see if you did the same in earlier years. Did you make so much noise when restrictions were imposed on Independence Day in 2018, Republic Day in 2019? So in your case too the same rules would apply, that two wrongs don’t make a right. You cannot have different standards, look at it with a bias… The abrogation of Article 370 is a correction of the wrong course taken by the Congress party. Please do not judge us on the basis of this last one week because then you will have to judge yourself and see your response in the preceding years.
AAKASH JOSHI: Are former CMs Mehbooba Mufti or Omar Abdullah a security threat? Is that the reason why they are under preventive detention?
Again, we will have to correct our mindset. I may be a security threat without carrying a gun. There have been detentions in Jammu region also. Again, our mind is hooked onto these two-three names. It is our tragedy not theirs, because it helps them thrive and flourish. The call is to be taken by security agencies… depending upon their inputs… If they feel there can be some kind of negativity, statement or provocation, they take these decisions. They must have had enough inputs to take these decisions, and it is not being done only in the case of two or three individuals.
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: What are some of the challenges you expect to face in the Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh regions?
The first is to break the psychological barriers. The physical barriers have been enormous, in terms of development, (Central) laws not being applicable … There was a psychological barrier for Ladakh, which felt subjugated… Its land area is much larger in comparison to both the regions, but they were not treated as equal citizens. The regional imbalance was both physical and psychological. Over the years, in the Jammu region, it got ingrained in minds that everything was going to the other side because of certain political parties maintaining their hegemony… For them to realise that they too are claimants to the avenues and opportunities as their fellow peers and counterparts (in Kashmir)… That might take some time.
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: Do you think concerns about demography change in Jammu, fears that settlers will prefer it over Kashmir because of terrorism there, are legitimate? Also, you talk about low turnouts, do you think it will increase when elections are held now?
There are concerns in certain quarters… You are assuming that demography will change because there is terrorism today, and it will disallow others to enter (Kashmir). But we are optimistically visualising a scenario where terrorism will be on its way out. This is the last stage of militancy because of the decisive action, clarity and conviction of the Modi government. The Kashmir Valley is a land of unexplored opportunities like the Northeast. Once the potential is realised, it will benefit the locals as much as the others.
As far as demography is concerned, there are safeguards in every state and Union Territory. It should not be a concern… We are foreseeing a situation where peace will prevail. This will be the beginning of J&K coming on a par with other parts of the country. And when peace prevails, voting percentage will go up on its own… The key voter today is the youth voter, they have a mind of their own. The young want to express themselves.