Srinagar: Released Tuesday after nearly eight months in detention, National Conference (NC) leader and former Jammu & Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah has a gigantic task at hand.
He would have to repel the advances of new political players, shape the future of his own party that has so far been steadfast in its support for Article 370, honour the Gupkar declaration, and look out for rivals who have become comrades since the events of August last year. All while adhering to social-distancing norms believed to be key to checking the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Omar was placed in detention in the immediate aftermath of the central government’s 5 August decisions to strip Jammu & Kashmir of its special status and statehood and split it into two union territories.
A day earlier, representatives of the Valley’s mainstream parties, including Omar’s MP father Farooq Abdullah and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), had come together to sign the Gupkar declaration.
The declaration came amid feverish speculation that the central government led by the BJP, whose Lok Sabha polls manifesto promised the revocation of Article 370, would finally make a move in this direction. And the declaration minced few words as it warned against any bid to tinker with the erstwhile state’s special status, saying it would be seen as an act of war against the people.
Soon afterwards, almost the entire political class of Jammu & Kashmir was detained as a bid to ward off potential law-and-order conflagrations in response to the government’s decisions. While several leaders were released in the months since, the brass was in detention until earlier this month, when Farooq became the first senior politician to come out of detention.
Now, with Omar out too, political activity in the Valley is expected to begin in earnest.
Out at last
Omar, who has been known to maintain a clean-shaven look through his entire stint in public life, reportedly refused to shave in detention, saying he would only do so after his release.
He was almost unrecognisable as he walked out of detention Tuesday, wearing a striped jumper and a beard stretching to his collar.
Among the first things he did following his release was update his Twitter bio to identify himself as “former PSA Political detinue, former CM of J&K state, former Union Minister, former MP, former MLA. Vice President JKNC”.
He tweeted a message of solidarity to party members, and also gushed about his first lunch with his parents in almost eight months. As he weighed in on the COVID-19 crisis, he also snuck in a joke about his stint in detention.
We face the fight of our lives over the next few weeks & months as we come to terms & work to defeat #COVIDー19. I will do everything in my individual capacity to help the authorities overcome this challenge & I appeal to all of you to do the same.
— Omar Abdullah (@OmarAbdullah) March 24, 2020
On a lighter note if anyone wants tips on surviving quarantine or a lock down I have months of experience at my disposal, perhaps a blog is in order.
— Omar Abdullah (@OmarAbdullah) March 24, 2020
Abdullah’s release comes days after former PDP leader Altaf Bukhari floated the Apni Party, which primarily comprises defectors from the PDP and low-profile members from other political groupings.
There were hardly any prominent names from the NC who joined the Apni Party. This was because it was the first to resume political activity in J&K, where the NC has been among the voices that have opposed the resumption of political activity until all detained leaders are released and Article 370 restored.
Former Congress MLA Usman Majid told ThePrint after the formation of the Apni Party that the leadership was looking for senior faces from other parties to join them — senior leaders who share their vision of moving beyond the call for restoration of Article 370 and resuming political activity in favour of statehood and development.
However, several NC leaders, including Anantnag MP Hasnain Masoodi, Salman Sagar and Imran Dar, have gone on record to say the party structure remains steadfast and there are no loose ends within the region’s oldest political party.
Then, the Apni Party’s plans for potential defectors from the NC met a hurdle as Farooq, 82, was released just five days after its formation.
The party also had to scale down its Jammu launch amid social-distancing advisories in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Charting National Conference’s future
Many observers in the Valley believe Farooq’s release reignited mainstream politics in general but questions remained about his impact on the politics of not only his party but that of others, including PDP and Peoples Conference, whose leaders remain under detention.
The statements issued by Farooq, who presided over the Gupkar delegation meeting as its most senior Kashmiri politician, have so far not been as aggressive as expected, with the former union minister not even mentioning the declaration.
However, there are some who believe Omar might take a different stance and be a little more aggressive, to avoid the kind of upheaval being witnessed in the PDP as well as to take the Gupkar declaration forward.
Whether they like it or not, for the PDP, Omar’s actions will also have an impact on their future course. The NC’s support to the PDP’s incarcerated chief Mehbooba Mufti could give her much-needed leverage as she comes to terms with the rebellion within her party.
The central government, a PDP leader said, wanted political activity in Kashmir to resume minus Mehbooba Mufti “because she is considered a greater threat”.
An administration source told ThePrint that there is no plan so far to release Mehbooba, or PDP number two Naeem Akhtar, both of whom have been booked under the draconian Public Safety Act.
The outbreak might force the administration to yield, the source added, but it would be an uncomfortable decision.
Sources in the PDP said it was very unlikely that Mehbooba and Akhtar would soften their stand vis-a-vis Article 370, a fact “clearly conveyed to the administration” by the two.