The Fall and Rise of Farooq Abdullah
Vijay K. Sazawal, Ph.D.
01 October 1996
It was perhaps a sign of the times that Kashmir’s leading politician and I, a lesser known mortal, would share the same podium at the same time. but our paths had already crossed earlier at Geneva in the Spring of 1994 when we made Farooq’s misrule of the state during 1980’s a major topic of discussion with the UN press corps. He was both surprised and alarmed at our ready access to the leader of the Indian delegation (Mr. A. B. Vajpayee) at the 50th session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC). In his private conversations with mutual friends at Geneva, he was bitter about our presence in Geneva and questioned our motives and intentions, wondering if we were propped up by “foreign interests.” The very thought that Kashmir! Pandits would organize and affirm their political rights on their own, without riding on coattails of either the government or members of the majority community in Kashmir, was alien to him and others since our community had ceased to be a political force in the valley.
At the British Parliament meeting, I spoke before Dr. Abdullah. The audience was filled with Mirpuris and old comrades of the chief minister from his early 1970’s days. This group’s adulation towards their former colleague was very apparent. In my speech I made reference to various tragedies that had befallen my family since it was forced to flee from the valley, and concluded by calling for conversion of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to international boundary and creation of protected enclaves for minorities in Kashmir threatened with physical and cultural extinction in order to ensure peace and tranquility for the entire region. The audience was in uproar, particularly on the issue of LAC conversion. Some in the audience rushed to the dais to physically assault me and Sir Gerard had to suspend the session for nearly 10 minutes until the order was restored. Dr. Abdullah followed me as the speaker and choosing his words carefully reiterated his personal belief that conversion of LAC to an international boundary was desirable and necessary. The remaining part of his speech focused entirely on dismissing the arguments that I had made for autonomous zones, receiving vocal support from his admirers in the audience. Not once in his speech did he offer any hope or approach for Kashmiri Pandits to reclaim their place on Kashmiri soil with safety, dignity and honor.
We talked briefly to each other after the panel presentations were concluded. I told him that his decision to communalize the National Conference (NC) in November 1982 by forming an alliance with the Awami Action Committee (AAC), which allowed communal hot heads like A. R. Kabuli to spread their venom on the NC platform, was a watershed in the deepening divide between Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits. He countered by saying that while it was not his wish to form that dubious alliance, he was forced into it by the Congress Party because they wanted to dictate terms to him following the death of his father. I challenged him to spell out precisely how he planned to bring Kashmiri Pandits back in the NC fold as well as how he would restore confidence and dignity of the minority community which was badly mauled by the slow communalaization and criminalization of NC that eventually set the stage for armed violence and terrorism in the state. He agreed to accept the challenge and promised to contact me at a later date. Needless to say, I never heard from him again.
At that time it was not clear what Farooq was planning for the future. The word on the street was that he was planning to move back to his residence in Brighton (U.K.) as he had acquired a “new red Mercedes” and had applied for license to practice. He was shrewd enough to realise that keys to unlock the door to Kashmir were in Government of India’s (not Pakistan’s or UN’s) hands, but the doorman was the Congress Party. The Congress Party, which was known for its divide and rule strategy, first tried to play the Shia card through Mufti Sayeed when Shiekh Abdullah was in power, and having not succeeded, imposed an alliance on Farooq to the detriment of both parties. Indeed, the only positive outcome of that alliance was a close and enduring relationship between Molly Abdullah and Sonia Gandhi and their children.
The hot and cold relationship between the Congress leadership and Farooq Abdullah resulted in a steady erosion of confidence between the two. I remember his interviews with The Pioneer (an Indian daily newspaper) nearly two years back where he flip-flopped on his future plans within a day. The Congress Party, with its imperial trappings either hailed him as a hero on one day or condemned him as a lazy playboy on the next, depending on the degree of subservience he would show not only to the Prime Minister, but also to lower tier nawabs like Ghulam Nabi Azad and Makhan Lal Fotedar. The low point came when it was reported in the newspapers that “Begum Abdullah was feeling home sick, missing her material trappings, and cajoled her son to invigorate and take her back to her home”. The year was 1995!
What a difference a year makes. Today, Dr. Abdullah is again the chief minister . The news of his early political demise was not only greatly exaggerated, but downright incorrect. I believe his dealings with the Congress Party “educated” him about the quirky political process in India, the brutal turf battles between cabinet ministers in which nothing (including nation’s security) was held sacred, and the ease with which senior politicians could lavish or withdraw favors. He was particularly incensed by Home Minister Chavan’s open advocacy for his adversaries in the Hurriyat when it was obvious that it was he who was going on the limb for India. For a moment he fell for the “sky is the limit on autonomy” theme from Congress, but soon recovered to propose his own “1953” slogan.-While I disagree with his arguments, I cannot but acknowledge that he showed his political mettle by standing up to Prime Minister Rao on this issue. I still recall with amusement Mr. Rao’s conversation with Dr. Abdullah in the Prime Minister’s aircraft prior to departing for Burkina Faso. Apparently the two talked without communicating to each other, and Mr. G. N. Azad subsequently dashed into the plane prior to its take off to assure the Prime Minister that Abdullah will not resist his offer (“Sir, I know fellow Kashmiris. We do not ignore the wishes of Prime Minister”). Rao’s initiative was a non starter because Farooq refused to oblige. He was literally lynched by the Indian Press, but stood his ground and earned the respect of many, including those who do not agree with his political views.
The single most event that ensured recent ascendancy of the National Conference was the emergence of Dr. Abdullah as a political tactician in April 1996. This happened when NC under his leadership decided to boycott the parliamentary elections. He chose the boycott for the right reasons which had primarily to do with his “zero degree of trust” in the governing Congress Party. He told his party leadership that Congress was about to be dethroned at the center, and consequently, it would use every means, legal or illegal, to capture most if not all seats from the state. Dr. Abdullah realized that even if NC was declared a winner in one or two (maximum that Congress would probably tolerate) token seats, the loss of primacy to Congress in the state would be devastating to NC and to him personally since his enemies (not in Pakistan but in India’s Congress Party) would openly ask for his head and marganalize him into irrelevance. At the same time he made the “1953” slogan an acid test for Congress Party’s sincerity towards him, knowing in all likelihood that Congress (or for that matter any governing party, UF included) would find it impossible to grant his wish. He also realized that NC being a regional party had little to offer or influence in terms of a national agenda, so a lack of presence in the Lok Sabha was insignificant and anyway could be made up with a presence in the Rajya Sabha that is tied to the party strength in the state legislature.
There is always the divine hand that puts the cream on the cake and seals the deal. For Farooq that turned out to be the formation of the UF government at the center. Farooq, it should be said to his credit, was willing to trust anyone so long as it was not the Congress Party. Indeed, based on a meticulously laid out strategy, Farooq had developed personal links with Mr. A. B. Vijpayee through Prof. Saiffudin Soz and other Delhi based NC operatives working the BJP organization in their favor (for once Congress Party was a common enemy). In fact, right after the formation of the BJP government at the center, Farooq was ready to negotiate terms for his participation in the state elections with them. But his prayers were truly answered with the emergence of UF and his return to the state was a foregone conclusion. It was a “buy one, get one free” deal since in the process of securing the chief ministership he also got rid of that minor irritant. Mufti Sayeed, who initiated his own brand of communal politics during Shiekh Abdullah’s regime. This is Kashmir! politics at its best!
To conclude, I offer Dr. Farooq Abdullah my congratulations for being elected as the new chief minister. As I noted above, it is a well deserved success, because only through a deliberate political strategy was he politically able to rise from the ashes like the proverbial phoenix. In the last seven years, he has grown from a motorcycle enthusiast to a serious politician who finally understands the method in the madness of Indian politics. His return deserves a second look by my community on how political successes can be achieved if right political strategies are put in place at the right time.
Let me make it very clear that I am neither a supporter of Dr. Abdullah nor subscribe to his politics. If he wants to get my respect and attention, then he has to address the concerns that Kashmiri Pandits have put forth to him. He must now show that he can rise above partisan politics and admit the past failures of NC towards my community, as well as rectify past errors with effective programs that will allow our community to survive in Kashmir with security, dignity and honor. He must engage in a political dialogue with our representatives and establish a clear action plan that meets the needs and interests of our community. Incidentally he promised to do just that on that warm day in late June 1994 in a historic building in Westminster. We are still waiting.
This article also appeared in the iakf.org.
Dr. Vijay Sazawal is a policy analyst and a commentator who specializes in local governance and intra-community issues affecting political dynamics within the Kashmir valley. He has written extensively on the current political turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir (commonly referred to as Kashmir), arguing for new and innovative approaches in understanding and resolving the simmering discontent in all communities and regions of the State.