With J&K under Governor’s rule, the 51-year-old is seen as positioning himself for CMship now, backed by BJP and PDP rebels. The Indian Express interviews Sajad Lone, BJP’s trusted partner and Centre’s new man in Kashmir
For months now, reports have been doing the rounds that a group of PDP rebel legislators are ready to support you if the BJP wants to form a government.
As on date, my energies are focused on the Lok Sabha elections. Governor’s rule is a short-term arrangement. Eventually, people’s government is imperative. How and when and if, I don’t know. But as a party (J&K People’s Conference), we have to be ready for all possibilities, including elections to the Assembly.
You played an important role in the recent Urban Local Body (ULB) polls. Lots of seats went uncontested and the voter turnout was very low. Isn’t this turnout a referendum against the mainstream?
By the same token, when 70 per cent votes are polled, is that a referendum against separatism? Staying away is a sum of many factors, including fear. Turnout is not consistent and has a high degree of correlation with violence. It has been high in some elections and low in some… I get excited by neither. ULB and panchayat elections will broaden the space of political participation. Far too long we have confined political participation to 87 MLAs and 36 MLCs. Now thousands of people will be actively participating in decision making at the grass-root level.
There is a sentiment that you have betrayed the position your father and you stood for.
I don’t believe there is such a sweeping, unanimous sentiment. Betrayal is a relative concept. For my people who voted for me, my acts are not acts of betrayal. They instill hope in me and I probably instill hope in them. At a more academic level, I would define my transition as evolution… While some favour grit and determination and irreversible political positioning as the defining characteristics of a leader, I would say that being persuadable, receptive to change, open to reason defines a rational leader in an ever-changing dynamic environment. I will be in politics only if I can lead and deliver. I will not be in politics to follow or be on a sinecure.
I am proud of my father. But I am Sajad Gani Lone not Abdul Gani Lone. These are different times and require different responses.
And what about allying with the BJP? You started with separatist politics, talked about ‘Achievable Nationhood’, and now you are with the BJP.
I am convinced that Prime Minister Modi is an atypical leader who believes in the power of economics in resolving poverty and deprivation. Some people have a mental block when it comes to the BJP, but it has been a non-interfering, responsible ally and has given liberal financial assistance during the tenure of the government. The PM has opened his doors to Kashmiris. There is no select band of dynasties who have ‘access’ to the PM. I believe he wants to make friends with the people of Kashmir and not a few individuals or families. However, at the national level, there are perspectives about left, right and centre of the political divide. In all humility, I would have thought that we have too many problems on our plate in Kashmir to have the luxury of inviting those problems in.
Any regional party would have to ally with a national party. And I have chosen to ally with the BJP and not the Congress. Both the National Conference (NC) and PDP have allied with the BJP in the past. Omar Abdullah was a poster boy of the then NDA alliance. So if the PC (People’s Conference) allies with the BJP, it is a sin, but if the PDP or NC do it, is it a virtue?
I am of the firm belief that the PM will leave behind a glorious legacy in Kashmir. The Congress was in power for more than 50 years, and the only name that resonates from the past in Kashmir is of Mr Vajpayee, who incidentally was a BJP PM for a mere six years. Mr Modi has to measure up to Mr Vajpayee and not any Congress PM. It is something the Congress needs to introspect about.
‘Achievable Nationhood’ was a document specifically as a starting point for a discussion, and within the Constitution. Whenever a serious effort is made at resolving the issue, it will be a precious document and can give some out-of-the-box insights.
How do you see the ground situation… the demand for azadi?
A certain section of the people of J&K, not the majority, nourish aspirations which fall outside the ambit of the political system. With all humility, I believe — and that is what I call evolution, what my rivals would call betrayal — that these aspirations are unachievable. There is ‘nothing’, and ‘everything’. In pursuit of ‘everything’, you are most likely to end up with ‘nothing’. The ‘something’ option is practical and falls under the ambit of grievances. Grievances can be redressed, but at least I don’t see any scope for aspirations.
But the space for pro-India politics has shrunk and got delegitimised, especially in the last three years. What does inhabiting this space mean now?
How can you be so judgmental as to call it delegitimised? I don’t know whether I am answering a question or reacting to an answer. My legitimacy or that of my brand of politics is derived from the people, not from newsmen. Kashmiris are humans, not political robots. You seem to suggest that when Kashmiris get up in the morning, the most important thing on their mind is when and how the Kashmir issue will be resolved. That is not the case. The first thing they think about is breakfast. And a vast majority then think about economics or the lack of it and the means to getting two square meals each day. They have other graver problems apart from politics but made more complex by the web of instability engineered in our region. They have problems of basic survival like any other people.
What do you see as a way forward?
The solution for peace lies within, with the people. We as a people have to decide our destiny. And violence cannot be our destiny. The problem lies with the multiplicity of actors within and malignant external interferences. The discourse of development and peaceful coexistence has to be forcefully advocated. It is a tough road, but I am hopeful. The matrix is simple. On the one hand, there is Pakistan, which is projecting institutions and individuals and trying to identify them with ‘heroism’ and polemical illusions. On the other hand, we have the mainstream, which is apologetic and through a history of apologetic behaviour has landed itself in the villainous spot in the matrix. It is time to call a spade a spade. If you are apologetic about your presence in a particular strand of politics, it is better to stop practising it rather than bringing it into disrepute. The psychological drift amongst the people starts from the discourses that we start in the mainstream. We have to stop confusing people and the people have to stop confusing themselves.
Dreams are a necessity. A dreamless existence is a worthless existence, but a delusional existence is as worthless.
So political parties are supporting the separatist narrative for public sentiment. Doesn’t that define the underlying sentiment?
That would be too naïve. People don’t vote for sentiments. If they nourish a secessionist sentiment, they will go to the Hurriyat. Why would they go to the mainstream? Voters vote to redress grievances. I can bet that not a single worker of any political party has gone to his respective polling booth promising resolution or support to violence. At the booth level, the promises are pertaining to development, nothing else.
You accuse the NC, PDP of supporting separatist narrative for poll benefits?
I never said for electoral benefit. There is a reason why the mainstream, especially the dynasties, do it. Conflict initially was seen as the deadly demon that brought in death and destruction. But, with time, a certain level of conflict suited the dynasties. While new faces emerged across the country, conflict landed Kashmir politically into a state of changelessness. Delhi was desperate for peace and dependent on the existing faces in the Valley. The dynastic elite understood Delhi’s predicament and discovered relevance in conflict as, apart from other perks, it facilitated an unaccountable political existence, acted as a barrier to entry of new entrants, and helped cultivate an air of perpetual indispensability. They mastered the subtle art of blackmail. At times, there was a real scare and at times a scare had to be invented. The scaremongering needed a political discourse and thus, to institutionalise scare, in the post-1996 phase, the two dynasties started competitive secessionism and took turns to be a good separatist when out of power and bad mainstreamer when in power.
It is not that they believe in their discourses. It is a matter of employment. A manageable level of violence became imperative and the reality as it stares in our faces is that both the dynasties invest in a certain level of conflict, strife, violence. A strife-less Kashmir could mean many good things, including a dynasty-less Kashmir. It could render some people unemployed.
You call the Abdullahs and Muftis dynasties, but aren’t the Lones also a political dynasty?
I am not here by virtue of a political inheritance. I was never groomed or selected by my father in his lifetime. I pray that no son ever joins politics in the circumstances I did — a day after receiving the bullet-ridden body of my father. I shudder even now when the scenes of helplessness, hopelessness and fear play out in my mind… Saying no would have meant surrender. While my father’s body lay in the lawns of our residence, the patrons of the killers put intense pressure to reverse the decision about my entry into the party. It only strengthened my resolve.
If patrons didn’t want me, I was not wanted locally either. The day of my father’s burial, the divisional commissioner came to our home — a fine gentleman he was. He informed me there was a serious risk to my life if I went to the burial site. I requested for security. He did not say no, but did not say yes either — which basically meant inability to provide security. Fearful, I decided to go… At the funeral, it was a free-for-all. Incidentally, it was the same place where my father was killed. A group of youth took me aside and commiserated with me. One of them put his arm across me and I could feel something pointed against my back. I don’t know whether it was a small firearm or a harmless object. The youth counselled me to retract a statement I had made the previous day accusing the patrons of killing my father. I kept quiet.
The government of the day provided me security. It was a lone PSO, who incidentally had been a band-master for a decade or so… Thereafter, the state government refused to provide security. I believe they felt that my stature did not deserve a higher security categorisation. The Union government intervened and persevered until I was given security. Mr Vajpayee was the PM. That was my first brush with appreciation for the BJP… Had they not intervened, the probability of me physically surviving was not very high.
Dr Farooq Abdullah was the CM… This is what we call barriers to entry for newcomers, and denial of security is a powerful barrier.
Dynastically I was with the Hurriyat, and right from day one, they and their patrons refused to accept me. They found me too moderate. And I found them outdated. I rebelled and was thrown out. This was just the start of my travails. The Congress came to power at the Centre. I was still a separatist but an aspiring mainstreamer. The establishment’s views about me changed. I was now redefined as an inconsistent person — a loner, aimless and needlessly pampered by the previous BJP government. The dynasts sniped at me whenever they got a chance. Around 2004, a team of SAFMA (South Asian Free Media Association) with Pakistani journalists came to Kashmir and met Mehboobaji (Mehbooba Mufti). The PDP was in power. One of the team members told me that Mehboobaji told them Sajad Lone is neck deep with the Indian agencies. I didn’t believe it until a cable leaked by Wikileaks suggested literally the same… Here was Mehboobaji, with elite SSG security cover, indulging in such potentially fatal chatter.
When I fought in 2009, a topmost leader of a dynasty suggested to his workers that Sajad must have been fielded by the agencies to cut into their vote. I was facing barbs of betrayal for shifting to mainstream, literally in the firing line, trying to revive my party, and what were they propagating?
When I was in the separatist camp, they would depict me as a phoney separatist and in league with agencies. When I joined mainstream, they suddenly discovered that I was a separatist and would often rush to uncles and aunties in Delhi, cautioning ‘Keep a watch on him’. I had no uncles and aunties in Delhi. I met PM Modi prior to the 2014 elections and discovered an unhindered ‘new’ Delhi. My respect for PM Modi stems from his distinctiveness in being able to dismantle the barriers to entry, and open up Delhi for every Kashmiri.
As my politics evolved, I showed proclivity towards mainstream politics. But nobody took me seriously. I was depicted as a loner, loser, joker. I fought parliamentary elections in 2009 and lost my deposit. We fielded a candidate in the 2014 parliamentary elections. He lost his deposit. In the 2014 Assembly elections, the discussion about me was whether I would come second or third. Our cash-strapped party contested very few seats in the Assembly elections and we got two seats. I stayed in rural areas for weeks, visited hundreds of villages. I revived my party, which had boycotted polls for 25 years.
I was made a minister, went to the Secretariat for the first time. I met people, and gradually a group of likeminded people got together… Today many people have joined us and we are emerging as an alternative to the dynasties.
I have no hard feelings for either Farooq sahib (Farooq Abdullah) or Mehboobaji. But calling me a dynast belittles my struggles in politics and my struggle to stay alive. I leave it up to the people to decide if I am a pampered dynast or am where I am despite the dynasts.
There is so much bloodshed in Kashmir on a daily basis. How do you see it?
Every time I see or hear of a violent death, I get overwhelmed. I know what a violent death means to a family… We should do what it takes to end this bloodshed. End to bloodshed is a function of many factors. And the most important is that society as a whole has to introspect whether gun will resolve our problems. It is politically expedient to selectively condemn killings and politicise grief and death. And the test of leadership in today’s Kashmir lies in saving lives, restoring the sanctity of human life. Cheerleading grief and death can’t possibly be the defining attributes of leadership in Kashmir. We have to stop selling unattainable dreams.
Are you averse to dialogue?
The institution of dialogue is sacred and a civilised mode of engagement, and participants should respect the sanctity of this institution. Multiple engagements, both formal and informal, at different levels are an imperative. But fruitful engagement in a violent environment is difficult. As on date, dialogue is akin to a situation where the seller has no goods to sell and the buyer has no money to buy. I would wait for the seller to have some goods to sell and the buyer have some money to buy. Until that happens, irrespective of high-pitch rhetoric, threats, coercion, violence one may indulge in, trade won’t take place between the buyer and the seller.
May I add that reaching out to the people of J&K and dialogue are two distinct concepts? There is no overlap between the two and can be conducted independently. I personally am a pacifist, detest violence and would never be averse to decisive dialogue.
There is a major shift on the ground in renewed support for militancy.
Militancy has seen its spurts and lows and the current spurt will pass too. External factors form the core of violence in our state. But that describes the problem partly. Violence needs an environment to thrive. Societies per se don’t accept violence. If we presume that some sections of the society accept violence in Kashmir, this presumption is against the law of nature. If external factors form the core, the political discourses internally attempt to give it legitimacy. Unless violence is not stigmatised unequivocally, it will painfully persevere. The physicality of a gunman is partly an issue; the main issue is the psychology of the gunman, and the attempts to weave a concept of sanctimonious psychology around it. The gunman is not the constant variable, however the espousers ironically are the constant variables.
Three decades have passed and violence has devoured thousands of young men while the provocateurs continue to thrive and live on unaccountably. And may I add that violence is not majoritarian in nature? Violence is disruptive, bloody but certainly not representative by character. And violent elements in essence still represent the fringe, afflicting societies across the world. Fear of violence should not be mistaken for consent.