‘Will continue to raise Article 370 issue for however long it takes’

New Delhi: Former chief minister and National Conference vice president Omar Abdullah participated in the high-stakes all-party meeting on Jammu & Kashmir chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 24. He gave his sense of the discussions in an interview with Harinder Baweja.

Edited excerpts:

Both you and your father, Farooq Abdullah – a sitting Lok Sabha MP – were detained after the nullification of Article 370. What made you trust Prime Minister Narendra Modi after what happened? They are the ones who detained us, and they are the ones who invited us. They should answer the question. It is quite clear that there is a trust deficit between us and the Centre, and I think this was acknowledged in the all-party meeting when the Prime Minister said that there was a need to address “dil ki doori and Dilli se doori” (distance from the heart, and distance from Delhi) What does this mean? It means that there is no meeting of hearts and minds, and that there is a gap, a trust deficit that needs to be addressed.

Are you feeling less “dil ki doori” after attending the meeting? It is a beginning. Nobody expects one meeting to resolve everything. It is a part of a longer process.

You met Modi just a few days before the fortunes of Jammu & Kashmir were changed on August 5, 2019 and said that you “left the meeting with a very different impression about what was going to unfold”. Was there any reference to that meeting, directly or indirectly? I did not bring it up. There were wider issues about Jammu & Kashmir to be discussed. The participants spoke without fear or reservation, and the Prime Minister and the home minister heard us without interruption.

It is quite apparent from the home minister’s tweet that the chronology the Centre has in mind is this: first delimitation, then elections, and then the restoration of statehood. Are you comfortable with this sequence? Ghulam Nabi Azad spoke for most of us when he said that statehood should be restored first. He outlined the chronology that we would like to see. Look, why should there be a separate yardstick for Jammu & Kashmir even for the delimitation exercise? If the purpose of what happened in August 2019 was to integrate Jammu & Kashmir with the rest of the country, then why are we being singled out for delimitation? The rest of the country will see the delimitation process according to the 2021 census but J&K is going ahead with a 10-year-old data from 2010-11. Even in Assam, the delimitation exercise was stopped so assembly elections could be held. Why treat us differently? You can’t have two systems for the country.

Let me ask again, statehood before elections or elections before statehood? I ask because the National Conference took part in the civic body elections last year. We will take stock as and when we move forward. As far as I’m concerned, I have already said that I will not contest elections till Jammu & Kashmir stays a Union Territory. That is my personal decision. It was made clear in the meeting that statehood means full statehood, with all powers that were available to us earlier and are available to all other states now. We don’t want truncated statehood.

You have often said that Article 370, which gave the state its special status, should be restored. But would it be accurate to say that you seem to have left it to the court to decide?The restoration of Article 370 is very much part of our political discourse and is an important ongoing issue for us. Look, it was pointed out in the meeting too that the Sangh Parivar’s struggle for the abrogation of 370 was 70 years long. We will continue to raise it for however long it takes, 70 weeks, 70 months, or 70 years.

You really think that the Modi government, which was responsible for its revocation, will be the one returning it? We are not pandering to optics, and we are not asking the Prime Minister to return it, and they have given no such indication. We pick our battles. We will continue with our struggle to see it restored, constitutionally, legally, and politically.

Don’t you think the argument that Article 370 and its restoration cannot be discussed because it is “sub judice”, is an argument that suits the Centre? To be fair, Azad Saab made the sub judice argument; the Centre did not. The government understands that we disagree and we agreed to disagree.

What would you say to your constituents who feel that you have betrayed them by agreeing to attend the meeting? You and other mainstream leaders were also blamed for what happened in August 2019. Our wider constituency knows what we stand for. We have not been silent on Article 370. There were no preconditions on what he could or could not say in the meeting. There is no question of surrendering our ideology. I have not surrendered my identity, my political ideology, or my thought process.

Do you think the invite for the meeting was an acknowledgement by New Delhi that it cannot move ahead without Jammu & Kashmir’s mainstream political parties? I don’t want to blow my own trumpet. A year ago, nobody would have put their money on such a meeting being held. It is not for me to have asked the host (PM) that question , you should ask them. The Prime Minister, to be fair, did say that he wanted such a meeting to take place earlier; soon after the civic body elections but that the window opened up only now. Covid did not make it possible for the meeting to be held earlier, he said. What I can say is that we are relevant and you cannot wish us away.

The People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration – an amalgamation of political forces – was mocked as the “Gupkar Gang”. You have also been called “corrupt dynasts”. Did any of this come up in the meeting, and are you hurt by these comments? I have spent eight years in boarding school, and have a thick skin. I am a lot more pragmatic about these things. The important thing is that I have not been told to surrender my ideology. We had wide-ranging discussions and spoke our minds.

Did you leave the meeting feeling optimistic or are you circumspect? I am not given to either in large doses. I operate with a healthy dose of realism. It is one meeting; the start of a process; let’s welcome it.

Were back-channel talks held to set up the all-party meeting? I can’t comment on something I don’t know about.

When you look ahead, how do you see your political future? I don’t have a crystal ball. If I had one, I would have seen August 2019 coming. I am but one wheel in a large machine. As I said, it is a process and we have had only one meeting.

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