December 27, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Abeer Malik

Farooq: Waiting for the red card

Why is Farooq Abdullah trying to spoil the game when even the 'bad boys' are willing to behave? Certainly it is not just because of the Red Fort incident or the suicide bomber attack on the Srinagar army headquarters. He has spoken out his mind before these occurrences.

Perhaps the real reason for his recalcitrance is that he has sensed it was his turn to face the 'red card' which every incumbent chief minister is destined to be shown whenever New Delhi decides to uphold the 'larger interests of the nation' in the troubled border state. The unceremonious, if not undemocratic, exit of Sheikh Abdullah (1953), Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad (1963), Syed Mir Qasim (1975) and G M Shah (1986) defies any other plausible explanation.

The Kashmir chief minister has conveyed to the central government, in black and white, his serious reservations regarding the enforcement of the prime minister-sponsored cease-fire by the state police force as well as on giving legitimacy to the Hurriyat Conference. His contention is that civilian killings have gone up since the Ramzan cease-fire took effect. He is also opposed to the idea of India responding to Pakistan's troop reduction along the Line of Control. The Hurriyat, in his view, is useless and also untrustworthy.

Abdullah's refutation of the news report that he had 'opposed' the one month extension of the cease-fire by Atal Bihari Vajpayee only turned out to be a stronger confirmation. "Cease-fire or no cease-fire, my policemen will not tolerate these ruffians (militants) moving around with guns," he asserted at a public function at Jammu soon after his return from New Delhi. The army and other security forces under the Centre's command have orders to act only in self-defence when they are attacked. All other counter-insurgency operations remain suspended.

A series of militancy-related incidents at Delhi's Red Fort and the army headquarters in Srinagar have undoubtedly caused grave anxiety regarding Pakistan's real intention. Notwithstanding these expected disruptions, Abdullah, like his similarly placed predecessors, is intelligent enough to understand that Vajpayee means business.

But, unlike the others, Abdullah is not given to keeping his mouth shut. He never makes secret of his theory that militancy needs to be tackled only with military means. His strong allergy to any other idea is also well known. Only recently he openly reacted to army chief General S Padmanabhan's statement that the time had come to explore a 'political solution' to the problem in Kashmir. And therein lies the rub.

The chief minister's understandable apprehension is that any political deal, arrived at between the militants and the central government, would inevitably make him a loser in the game. That is exactly what he saw happening in 1975 to then Congress chief minister Syed Mir Qasim, following Indira Gandhi's (Kashmir) Accord with Farooq's father, Sheikh Abdullah.

Qasim who enjoyed overwhelming support in the state assembly, like Abdullah does today, made way for the Sheikh who was not a member of the legislature, much less have any support of his own. The Centre-engineered changeover was hailed as the Sheikh's "return to the national mainstream" and he, in return, disbanded his 22-year-old secessionist outfit, the Plebiscite Front. Thanks to that great historic event, Farooq Abdullah is where he is today and Mir Qasim's is a forgotten address in contemporary Kashmir politics.

History is again trying to repeat itself. The coming events are beginning to cast their shadow. Some of Abdullah's ministerial colleagues returning to the state's winter capital, Jammu, after visiting Srinagar have been giving vent to their "strange observations" in the Valley, as if they had sighted footprints of the abominable snowman.

These ministers complained they had found the official apparatus in Kashmir, known for its highly sensitive political antennae, turning away its face from them. With the centrally-controlled mass media, television and radio, also casting away its official taboo and giving a larger than life projection to the Hurriyat leaders, the local administration must naturally feel as if a repeat of the 1975 events is already underway.

Kashmir watchers are familiar with the snowballing effect of such perceptions in a place where even rumours have a habit of coming true. In Kashmir they call it 'khabr-e-Zainakadal' (news from the Zainakadal locality, heart of the old city of Srinagar). It is a sort of twilight period in the volatile politics of Kashmir.

Not that Abdullah would have been unaware of the ominous signs already on the horizon. Only that his defensive mechanism did not click because New Delhi had swung into a different (or indifferent?) mode. A few weeks before New Delhi and the Hizbul Mujahideen struck a secret deal between them in July (the chief minister having only been informed about it), Abdullah's National Conference government which commands more than a two-thirds majority in the state assembly flung a surprise at the Centre by coming forth with its controversial autonomy plan and getting it endorsed by the state legislature against New Delhi's clear warning.

Vajpayee flatly refused to oblige and threw the thing back at the Kashmir leader. Abdullah reciprocated shortly by doing whatever he could in spoiling the game between the Hizb and New Delhi which in any case also fell through for other reasons.

Even if one takes the charitable view that Abdullah may not be at it again, because he has been duly consulted this time, the logical course of events runs counter to his own interests. If it was Mir Qasim's head that had to roll in 1975 to make Indira Gandhi's mantra work in Kashmir it has to be Farooq Abdullah's head this time to make Vajpayee's initiative work.

This bizarre change of guard has in the past been the very first step towards "consolidation of the national interest" in Kashmir which ironically is supposed to enjoy special autonomous constitutional status under the much envied Article 370. Whichever way one looks at it, the incumbent chief minister has necessarily to be on the losing side, going by past precedent. Even so, nobody would probably grudge the flamboyant Kashmir leader for trying to ward off the coming 'evil.' After all he is well placed on his ground (shrunk though it is) unlike Mir Qasim in 1975 who owed his position almost totally to Indira Gandhi's goodwill or G M Shah in 1986 who owed his position to Congress support.

There are two immediate problems which must worry Abdullah. Firstly, he is in the thick of paving the way for his son Omar Abdullah's succession in Kashmir politics which is the sibling's "natural" habitat. The project is already underway with the help of NC loyalists. An interruption is bound to occur if the cease-fire holds as seems to be the case at the moment.

Secondly, the next election to the state assembly is due in 2002. Abdullah was said to contemplate advancing the poll to fit in his son's installation in the state political/power structure.

Evidently, these calculations had not reckoned with the Centre's plan to alter the political landscape. Abdullah managed a huge majority in the 1996 assembly election (the Kashmir assembly has a 6-year tenure) largely because of the poll boycott by the Hurriyat Conference, coupled with the usual hanky-panky without which no election in Kashmir has ever taken place, Election Commission or no Election Commission.

The Hurriyat is the contender this time, should the Centre's plan to promote the "national interest" materialise. There are strong indications that Vajpayee is keen to ensure a free, fair election in Kashmir. The grapevine has it that even the modalities are being discussed. The possibility of some acceptable international observers being allowed there is not ruled out either, in tune with India's vastly enhanced diplomatic image over the Kashmir issue.

The local administration, with sensitive political antennae, could not have missed tracking these straws in the wind. Hence, the attitude of indifference perceived by Abdullah's ministers. The decisive role which the local official machinery has been conventionally playing to influence the electoral outcome in Kashmir is best known to Abdullah who happens to be one of its beneficiaries.

His caveat that the state police is not bound to comply with the Centre's cease-fire order is only a simple act of self-survival. His argument that he had the responsibility to protect his people (from the militants) has apparently failed to convince the Centre which is more keen than ever to ensure that its current initiative yields the desired result and the decade-long militancy is brought to an end.

Kashmir watchers are familiar with these kind of noises emanating from the seat of power in Srinagar, whenever it senses a threat from the Delhi Durbar. But history is witness that might has always proved to be right. Abdullah is by now mature enough to know where his Laxman rekha lies. Unfortunately, for him, the stakes on either side are too high to let him take a convenient position. That is why he is seen taking one step forward and two steps backward.

Abeer Malik

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