With new Governor Satya Pal Malik in the city, J&K House on Prithviraj Road in Delhi was abuzz with activity. There was a rush of visitors in the reception and living room, giving clear impression of a change of guard. In between a lineup of meetings, the veteran politician spoke with RITU SARIN about his new assignment:
You are the first politician to be appointed Governor of J&K in almost five decades. What will your priorities be?
That is true. But let me tell you: all the bureaucrats and security specialists who preceded me were competent people who did well. Their performance has been good, and I cannot do any karamat (magic). What I want to do is to have a relationship with the people. What Jammu and Kashmir needs is an outreach. The people want to have sampark (direct contact) with the Governor, and that is the difference I want to make.
I will not have a bureaucratic approach but gradually get first-hand experience of the issues and problems. I want an honest feedback from people, and eventually the work has to be done by local representatives and sarpanches.
You are seen more as a socialist leader – one who does not have deep connections with the RSS. Will that help develop people-to-people contacts?
Yes, those tendencies are not there. It is the people who have to trust me. Let me give you an example. Shortly after I reached Srinagar I received a complaint of waterlogging in colonies around HMT Road. It was not a new problem. I gave instructions for three or four pumps to be used, and for engineers to tackle the problem. This may be a small instance, but people should feel their writ is running. So once I go back to Srinagar, I will meet representatives and different sections of people – lawyers, journalists, the Bakarwal people from Leh and Ladakh. Those parts of the State are also important and there should be no resentment among people of Leh and Ladakh.
I want people to begin going to public offices with their problems. I want district collectors to open doors of their houses for the people.
Will you start the political process by holding the local body and panchayat elections? Your predecessor had indicated that the polls could be held in September or October.
Yes, panchayat polls will be held but I cannot give the dates now. I see it a little differently. I want a dialogue with the people first. The rest will follow. You can do it through public meetings, do it over biryani – it depends on how you do it. An all-party meeting can also be called, but there is a lot of ‘tu tu main main’ (bickering).
But the problem over starting the political process is fraught with difficulties. During the 2014 panchayat polls, many sarpanches and candidates were killed. Besides, both the National Conference and the Congress have been calling for early Assembly elections after the BJP withdrew support from the Mehbooba Mufti government…
I am going to try that be it panchayat polls or the Assembly elections, more and more people and parties participate. But nothing is fixed. I first want to spend 15-20 days meeting people and making them feel that the government can come to their doorstep. They have to feel that elections are not for us, but for them. They should feel that money sent by the Centre is reaching their representatives, their sarpanch, and will then reach them.
As far as the security (situation) and fears are concerned, this can happen, but you have to make people realise that they will be empowered if they elect their representatives. They should have the confidence that their MLA will come to their doorstep if the need arises.
There is an impression that the BJP wants to push Assembly polls as close to the General Election as possible, and the harsh reality that the security environment has been volatile ever since the killing of Burhan Wani in 2016…
We certainly want to have a better security grid but something like the killing of a candidate can happen anywhere, not only in J&K. After all, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by her own security guards inside her home. So I admit it will be a struggle but the political process has to start, not for anyone else but for the people. Tomorrow afternoon, when I reach Srinagar, I will meet interlocutors and security advisers; these things will be discussed.
Should the J&K Assembly continue in suspended animation or Assembly elections held at the earliest?
I have no view on this as yet. There is nothing I can say. I want to conduct my outreach one step at a time. There has to be a maahaul (atmosphere) for any election. As far as MLAs are concerned, one positive step has already been taken. There was resentment among J&K MLAs that ever since the Assembly had been put in suspended animation, disbursements from their Local Area Development scheme had stopped and people were angry. They are entitled for this and yesterday, in Delhi, I got this done. The money will now be released.
What guidance did you get from the Prime Minister when you called on him yesterday?
I cannot tell you details but during the half-hour meeting there was not one sentence which was not in favour of the people of Kashmir. It was all about how to help them. The Prime Minister’s belief is not in the bullet or hard strikes but in dialogue. He asked me to be very positive and be the Governor of the people. So the priority will be to win back (public) faith and bring more development through good governance.
People of Kashmir have to feel they are not inferior in any manner. And while doing this I want to bring in a system where there is no casteism, no favours and no sifarish (recommendation). I want to totally do away with sifarish. What I want to do is create a corridor of faith.
Any other early initiatives that are likely to be announced?
A lot will be announced. I can tell you that during my meeting with Home Minister Rajnath Singh yesterday, the issue of J&K policemen being targeted and killed came up. Before the meeting, I had a briefing and received a WhatsApp (message) with all details from J&K security adviser, Vinay Kumar. Right now, policemen are living in scattered residences. While I cannot elaborate, I can say that some proposals of J&K Police have been agreed to. A larger number (of) and safer residences are going to come up for them.
The Home Minister has also agreed that the compensation for families in case of the death of a J&K policeman is going to be increased and brought at par with the CRPF and the Army. This has also been cleared.
There have been reports that former Governor N N Vohra being unhappy about no cases being registered against Army officers in cases of civilians being killed in crossfire. What are your views on this? Did you have a chance to get a briefing from your predecessor?
Yesterday he visited J&K House and we had a very good hour-long discussion. I cannot tell you more about his advice. Eventually, I have to go by the advice of those who appointed me.
Your appointment was made public on August 21. Was there any consultation with you before the announcement?
I know there was a manthan (churn) in the government for a month on who should be appointed J&K Governor. The names of some retired bureaucrats were also doing the rounds. But I was told just two hours before the announcement. The Prime Minister called me and said you will get good advisers and administrators, go and work in J&K. So I have come to the morcha (front).
The name had to be announced that very evening because Vohra-saheb had already come to Delhi and not a single day’s gap could be left. I know the job is a challenge but even if I can make an inch of improvement, I will feel I have done something in my life.