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National Conference’s Srinagar candidate interview: ‘Want to respond democratically to Aug. 5, 2019 decision’

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National Conference (NC) candidate Aga Syed Ruhullah Mehdi is vociferous in opposing the Centre’s moves of August 5, 2019, to split erstwhile J&K into two Union Territories and end its seven-decade-long special status. Contesting from the Srinagar Lok Sabha seat, once preferred seat of the Abdullahs, Mr. Mehdi, also a prominent Shia cleric, talks to The Hindu about the challenge before the regional parties in Kashmir. Edited excerpts:

The National Conference has gone through tough junctures. In 1953, the party founder Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah was jailed, then in 1989 militants attacked the party leaders, and now the event of 2019. How challenging is it for the party?


The NC faced an unparalleled challenge during the 1990s when a number of its leaders and cadres, in fact in thousands, were killed in targeted attacks. It was a great challenge to stand organisationally and stay the course. As an ideology, the NC has had many challenges. In 1953, Sheikh Abdullah was arrested. In 2019, the constitutional means and a way of autonomy through Article 370 was snatched and abrogated. It was done undemocratically. To fight back from the current position, where we are degraded to a Union Territory (UT), it’s a tough task. But this is also the chance for the NC to resonate with the reasons that led to the foundation of this party, and which turned into a movement. It can be a blessing in disguise if it allows the NC to come back to its foundations. It can rise again.

The NC always stood for the pre-1953 position of J&K, limiting Delhi’s role to just four subjects here. Has the its political goal changed after 2019?


There are no new political goals. Our goal is the pre-1953 position. But the road for the pre-1953 position starts from reversing the decisions taken on August 5, 2019. Ultimately, this struggle will not stop until we have the pre-1953 position.

Do you think Article 370 could ever be restored again?


If I did not believe in restoration of Article 370, I would not have espoused the cause. I have complete faith in God and our cause. I see an India where the States in south India, the north-eastern States and West Bengal will espouse for stronger States and a stronger federal structure. In that we can find a place for our cause and find allies and tell them aspirations that you have are no different from Article 370. I think the people of J&K will get their rightful dignity and position. The only condition is to keep the cause alive.

Your party leaders, Dr. Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah, advocate a dialogue with Pakistan. What is your view on it?


There is no alternative to dialogue even if Pakistan is at the weakest. You will have to talk to them. If you think Pakistan is the weakest, then speak from the position of strength. Unless you have talks with forces behind the situation in Kashmir, you cannot have a permanent peace. We faced the brunt of violence and not people in Delhi and U.P. Yes, also the soldiers from the two States face it. But we as a society face it every day.

We will have a new government by June in Delhi. One can open all means of communication. Start with cultural exchange, sports engagement. There has to be an atmosphere of engagement, followed by diplomatic talks. Without engagement with Pakistan, there could be no permanent peace. This is not advocating for Pakistan but for having a permanent peace for our people.

A section of people fear J&K’s demography is witnessing an influx of outsiders after 2019. Do you share their concern or people are overthinking?


It’s a serious and genuine concern. It has already started. People are being given citizenship of J&K. Our land is on sale. The accession with the Union of India guaranteed that demography would not be changed. It’s not about religion. Any Kashmiri, whether a Pandit or a Muslim or a Buddhist from Ladakh, shares the same opinion as citizens of J&K.

On your nomination filing day, you said the mainstream parties in J&K lost their narrative to separatists over why J&K decided to join India in 1947. Can you elaborate on this?


I had an argument why acceding to the Union of India was a better choice than acceding to Pakistan. The argument was democracy, principles of constitutions and the premise on which India functions. Also, the autonomy we enjoyed, right to dignity and the guarantee of dignity, which otherwise we would not have been. After 2019, I am not convinced with the status we have.

The Centre claims J&K is peaceful after 2019. Do you see the end of separatist politics too in J&K?


I don’t know about the separatist politics. Separatists need to speak for themselves. I would only say it’s a forced calm and not peace. A situation is peaceful when the media would speak and write openly, without being intimidated or interrogated or without putting them into jails. A peaceful atmosphere is when political mobilisation is allowed to every shade of political opinion.

You advocated a grand alliance after 2019 within J&K to restore the pre-August 5, 2019 position. The People’s Alliance for the Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) is split now.


I won’t say it was an alliance. We both, the NC and the PDP, need to do introspection. Let’s reunite after this competition for the greater cause and struggle unitedly for it.

In your campaign, you talk about preserving diversity, fighting for dignity and advocating a dialogue in J&K.


Diversity is when all shades are respected and all shades are celebrated and not tolerated. We did not tolerate each other but we celebrated each other. We celebrated a mosque, a temple. We celebrated Deepavali and Id. We celebrated Muslim identity and Hindu identity. I want Dalits to be celebrated. In J&K we have the same ideology at present. We celebrate Sikhs, Pandits equally. We are incomplete without Kashmiri Pandits. This Kashmir is only complete when minorities, Sikhs and Pandits, are back as equal masters of this land.

How does the NC plan to bring back Kashmiri Pandits?


Muslims were also taken hostage by the situation in 1990. We were equal victims. Still, I apologise that we could not save Pandits and could have found the ways as the majority. We morally feel we are incomplete without Pandits. We need to sit together and make a road map and present that to the Government of India, creating an atmosphere for its start.

How is this election different from the previous elections in J&K?


This election is monumentally important. We need to respond democratically, convey to the Parliament and through the Parliament to the rest of the people that the decisions of 2019 were not acceptable to the people of J&K and were taken without consent and without our wish. We need to tell the fact we do not subscribe to the status we are in. This dissent was not allowed to us for the past five years.

When you look back at 2019, do you think the NC could have acted differently?


Post-2019, we should have done more than we did. There are reasons we could not mobilise. This election is an opportunity. We need to utilise the platform where we can speak. Our methods may be different but our objectives and the end result is the same.



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