A parallel exercise was underway amid recently concluded polls in the valley. The tested and dusted engagement exercise mainly revolved around the man who’s seen as an ‘old hand’ in Kashmir affairs.
As ex-divisional commissioner, he may be ‘notorious’ for his alleged ‘cover-up’ of Kunan Poshpora mass-rape case, but Wajahat Habibullah in his civil society avatar only acknowledged deep anger and frustration among the people while offering the existing system as an ‘antidote to the alienation problem’.
As a member of the Concerned Citizens Group (CCG), led by former Indian Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha, Habibullah was camping in Srinagar for 10-days and had been garnering support for “secular opposition”.
Speaking about democracy and ‘futility of gun’, the former chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities asserted that Kashmir never witnessed free and fair elections. He exhorted people to exercise their right to vote in order “to bring the change they want”.
Indian civil society, he said, was concerned at the deteriorating situation in Kashmir and affirmed that there was a growing realisation that “muscular approach of the current dispensation was only deepening the alienation in Kashmir”. He even termed Pulwama as a “failure in policy”.
In an interview with Free Press Kashmir, Wajahat Habibullah spoke about his 10-day valley visit, his experiences and his take on the overall Kashmir situation.
You met with a cross-section of people from South Kashmir during your recent visit to the valley, what was the observation?
Well, there’s a lot of deep anger and frustration among the people. They’re upset with the democratic system. I tried to convince them that they shouldn’t lose faith in democracy and that they must exercise their democratic rights.
I also found that people were angry with their previous representatives. There was an obvious feeling of let down. Their representatives had never visited them after getting votes.
They termed the government’s attitude as bullying and the security forces’ conduct as cruel. There was no protection at all from their representatives.
But you also exhorted people to exercise their right to vote in order ‘to bring the change’. Do you think voting has changed anything in Kashmir?
I believe, Center has to restore full democracy in the valley, to win peoples’ faith. I told the people from cross-section of society, that I’ll be doing whatever it takes to hold the political leadership accountable.
I assured them that their voices will be heard in the parliament, in order to ensure that they’re able to enjoy the full benefits of democracy.
You also met several politicians, including Hurriyat Conference leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Dr. Farooq Abdullah, Sajad Gani Lone and Shah Faesal. What were their concerns?
That was the most positive part of the visit. They shared common concerns for the people and different roadmaps to address them.
I could argue with some of these public representatives that elections gave them the opportunity to define their needs and that their leadership would be tested the way they deliver on their promises.
But again, we witnessed lower turnouts in Lok Sabha elections in the valley. Why is electoral politics shrinking in Kashmir?
It’s because people have lost faith in the electoral process. As I mentioned already, the elected representatives have done nothing for their people. People feel the elections are just a meaningless exercise because none of their promises were fulfilled.
And that was exactly the challenge I was looking to address.
I offered myself as a kind of middleman to Kashmiris, so that their issues can be addressed and raised in the parliament. I’ve contacts in many other states and I’ll get support for their cause.
This brings us to another significant issue — New Delhi’s Kashmir handling. Do you think Modi’s muscular approach has worked in the valley?
Of course not!
But I’ve tried to make people understand that remedy doesn’t lie in taking up the gun and fight gun with the gun. If every Kashmiri is going to pick up arms, still they’re not going to stand up against the Indian Army.
The point is, the state government has not worked for people. And now, the answer lies in changing the government. That can only be done through the democratic process.
Regarding how Modi has handled Kashmir—well, the result is in front of everyone.
For the last three years, the casualty rate has escalated in Kashmir. And yet, peace remains elusive.
Since you’re the part of Indian civil society, it seems to be less concerned about Human Rights in Kashmir. Why is it so?
Since I can only speak for myself, I’m continuously raising my voice against it.
I’m also working with other people regarding the Kashmir issue. The civil society, let me tell you, is not aware of the sufferings of Kashmir people because of media coverage.
But I would also like to urge Kashmiris that they shouldn’t think what people of India think about them. Think, what you can do about yourself. I believe, you can do a lot for yourself, within the frame of the Indian constitution.
If people can do a lot themselves and plead their case, time and again, then what was the purpose of those repeated interlocution exercises in Kashmir?
Since I’ve been an interlocutor, I believe that appointing interlocutors is not the way out.
The only way out is a true functioning of democracy — through which people can choose their representatives, who’ll address their issues.
But the question is, has that really happened? The answer is—no, it hasn’t.
Right from 1977, when I was Deputy Commissioner of Srinagar, there has not been free and fair elections in Kashmir.
So where do you see the situation heading, when youth are joining militant ranks?
When a person takes up a gun, it’s a failure of the system and we must rectify that. That’s why, when I was posted in Kashmir, my main thrust was to reach out to young people.
We’ve to reach out and persuade the youth that gun is not the solution and that the remedy lies within the existing system.
They can start by electing the government of their choice. Those people will be responsible and they will listen and ensure that peoples’ rights are honored.
But how’ll you reach out to youth and persuade them when BJP’s anti-Article 370, 35-A campaign has created ‘demographic change’ fear in the valley?
I think these are political issues and they need to be argued politically. Whether Article 370 and 35-A should remain or not, it should be decided by the people of the state only.
I’m only arguing that Kashmir needs a true democratic policy.
But what kind of “democratic policy” are we talking about, when political outfits like JKLF and Jama’at-e-Islami stand banned?
Well, political leaders have already raised their voice against the ban. I can only appeal to the Indian leadership to leave such decisions to the elected representatives of the state.
All I’m arguing is that Kashmiris must exercise their right under the Indian constitution. That way they’ll have their choicest government.
If they don’t exercise their right and keep debating about BJP’s plans, then I’m afraid they’ll lose their right to say.
The author is a Srinagar-based Journalist and tweets @AuqibJaveed
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