Full statehood should be restored in J&K: Sajad Lone on the Gupkar alliance and the future of Kashmir

Shahid Tantray for The Caravan
31 August, 2021

Sajad Lone is the chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Conference party. Lone’s father, Abdul Gani, founded the party in 1978. In 2002, suspected militants gunned down Abdul Gani while he was attending a remembrance meet of another Kashmiri leader. Lone took over the People’s Conference after his father’s death. Towards the beginning of his political career, Lone advocated for an independent Jammu and Kashmir and was part of the Hurriyat Conference. Over the years, he began to take a pro-India stance. In the 2014 assembly elections in the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state, Lone won from the Handwara constituency, in north Kashmir. His party later joined the alliance of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party, which went on to form the government in the state. Lone was appointed a minister in the BJP-PDP regime, which fell in June 2018.

In August 2019, the Indian government revoked Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 and Article 35A of the Indian constitution. It bifurcated the state into union territories, intensified the militarisation in the region and enforced a brutal communications blockade. The night before the announcement, Lone was arrested alongside various other mainstream politicians from Kashmir. He would stay in detention for a few days short of an year. In late 2020, mainstream political parties in Kashmir formed an umbrella group called the People’s Alliance for the Gupkar Declaration, or PAGD, whose demands include the restoration of Article 370 and statehood. Lone was appointed the spokesperson for the PAGD, which has since held various talks with the Narendra Modi-led central government. 

In January this year, the People’s Conference withdrew from the PAGD. In a letter to the PAGD leadership, Lone cited the allocation of seats in the recent District Development Council elections in Kashmir as the reason behind his exit. He stated that “no party is willing to sacrifice” and that “we fought against each other in Kashmir province not against the perpetrators of August 5.” In June, the union home ministry invited Kashmir’s mainstream political leadership, including the members of the PAGD and Lone, for a dialogue with the prime minister Narendra Modi. Lone was reportedly the first to accept the centre’s invitation.

In July, Shahid Tantray, a multimedia reporter with The Caravan, spoke to Lone at length. They discussed the meeting with the prime minister, Lone’s approach to politics in Kashmir, and his hopes for the future of the region.

Tantray: You recently met the prime minister Narendra Modi. What happened in the meeting? 
Lone: What happened inside is a proprietary matter, I wouldn’t want to say or explain here in detail. But all I can tell you is that we had all gone from here to reflect, express the pain, the miseries of the people of J&K. We talked about Kashmir, we talked about Kashmiris, we talked about J&K, we talked about 5 August, we talked about everything. As I said in the press conference I held a few days after coming back from there, everybody [who went there] made their people proud.

Tantray: The Delhi–Kashmir relationship is seen as broken. Is it so? 
Lone: It certainly is under strain, and it has been under strain from time to time. Governments come and go, individuals come and go, but these relationships—they can be under strain, but they cannot be obliterated. They are much bigger than individuals, than governments. This is a phase and this too will pass. This is my belief. 

Tantray: What is Delhi promising now? 
Lone: See, you can stop something by virtue of the power that you have—physical, governmental or administrative power. But what they have done on 5 August, a part of it—the abrogation of Article 370—is their ideological promise, which they have delivered to their constituents at our cost. I don’t expect them to give that back, because that will mean they get finished. No political party is going to commit suicide. For that I believe that we need to go to court and wait for a future date, or for a liberal government to come someday and deliver back to people of J&K what is rightfully theirs.

But as far as the [removal of statehood] is concerned, it was never a part of their ideology. I don’t think the people of India are in anyway against the people of J&K or in favour of taking statehood away from them. And this isn’t a matter of charity, this is a matter of rights of the people of India, of which we are a part. This is less about Kashmir and more about India. It’s about federalism. What happened in J&K, some government can do it tomorrow in some other state. This is a very dangerous thing. I don’t know why the Indian people are sleeping when such challenges are being mounted against federalism. What has happened here can be replicated somewhere. Since 1947, a state has never been relegated to a UT. It cannot happen. It’s unnatural, and I doubt whether it’s within the ambit of law. 

Tantray: Did you raise this issue in your meeting? 
Lone: As I told you, we talked about everything. The team that was sitting there, there was the home minister, the prime minister, the LG also, who is their representative in J&K today [referring to the lieutenant governor, who heads the union territory of J&K]. If we don’t say it to them, then who do we say it to? He [Modi] is the one who has to deliver. If anything can be given to the state of J&K, it is the prime minister [who can give it].

But I think the real responsibility of leadership starts when you come back [to Kashmir]. It doesn’t matter to them whether they deliver today, day after or maybe after a year. So, we have to encourage them. We have to create an environment where they don’t find it politically hostile. If they find it hostile—this is politics, they will walk away, and say, “Okay, let’s do it after one year.” And who pays the cost? The people of J&K. So, as the leadership, if we have said anything, bitter, sweet, we should keep it to ourselves. We can address our constituents later on. We can fight for our votes later on. But as on date, our sole audience, our sole gallery, has to be the gallery of the prime minister of India. Try and convince him that it is in the interest of the country, it is in the interest of federalism, to deliver as soon as possible. 

Tantray: What was the response from the prime minister?
Lone: He spoke at the end, and there was nothing like a point-by-point response, because there were many leaders. But I did not see a hostile prime minister. Prime ministers, per se, cannot be hostile to their own people. 

Tantray: Was the home minister hostile?
Lone: No, not at all. Even if you don’t like someone, yeh toh seedha sa baat haina? [this is straightforward, right?] Governments can’t be hostile to their very own people, sitting across a table.

Tantray: But the same government arrested you. The same government arrested three former chief ministers.
Lone: That’s the beauty of democracy, that they are still sitting across the table. You take democracy away, they would not have been sitting across the table. It’s not about the Modi government. Had there been a Congress government, a Janata Dal government or whatever government—governments can’t visibly be hostile to their own leaders from provincial governments or provinces. 

Tantray: Could you describe your arrest in August 2019? You have been arrested before as well, during the 1990s. Which of your arrests was more emotionally acceptable? Which was on the right side of history?
Lone: I have seen violent arrests. I have been interrogated in [the 1990s, when militancy was rampant in the region]. This was a very mild jail compared to that. It was a political jail. But otherwise, it was fine, very comfortable. 

In the 1990s, it was physical pain, and this was more of a psychological pain. This was more humiliating. Somehow, I felt very humiliated within me. The same people who were, until yesterday, protecting you—your personal security officers—were now guarding you to prevent your escape.

There is one thing that always kept haunting me in jail— why are we so alone? Why isn’t anybody from the mainland India with us? The Lefties [members of the Left] and even Congress’s own MPs voted against us. Congress leaders were not taken in the way we were taken. Maybe house arrest or something, but they were not arrested like us, because they were from the national mainstream.

No doubt, there must be some right-wing wave, but somewhere we are at fault also. We have created misunderstandings which might not be necessarily true, but they [other political parties] don’t want to be with us. The only way to get back what is being taken away from us is to join them, and together with them, struggle and advocate to get everything back.

The problem is that some things are out of our hands. At times, I see someone on TV who even I don’t know, representing me [as a Kashmiri]. He goes on and abuses India and Indian institutions. I am not a part of that, but the people of India think that perhaps he is a representative of all Kashmiris. We need to tell them [that it is not so]. The people of Kashmir fought to bring the Muslim majority area into a Hindu majority country, and today it is very painful that they are taking everything away from us. The people of India need to know, that those people you see on TV, dubbed as terrorists and killed—that’s not Kashmir, there’s another Kashmir.

Tantray: Do you think that Article 370 will be restored? Should it be discussed even though it is sub-judice? Some in Kashmir feel that it awaits the same fate as the Babri Masjid issue, which remained in the courts for years.
Lone: There is this story, of a land marooned far away from the world. A man was being sought after by the police, and he ran, ran, ran across the mountains and went into this land. The unique thing about this land was that everyone was blind. They were all sensitive and they knew this newcomer is here. As time passed, he stayed there, but he used to tell them, “I have something here, between my nose and my forehead, which you all don’t have. I can see.” They used to laugh at this, because they had never had sight. Finally, the seeing man decided to get married, and the father of the bride gave his consent. But before the wedding, they told him, “We are to do a purification ceremony.” They said that they would rid him of his mental ailment, where he says that there is something between his nose and forehead. They caught him, they tied him up, and whatever there was, they destroyed it. They took out his both eyes. They thought they are now making him [normal]. 

Article 370 or federalism, or federal rights over land and other issues, is something which India might need all across the country. But it is like those blind men—gouging the eyes of one sighted person, not knowing what sight is. You might need [federal safeguards] in a country like India, which is uneven in terms of infrastructure and urbanisation, as well as the amenities you need to live a civilised life, where people tend to migrate into big urban centres. You might have ended such safeguards across the country but you had one place [where they existed] and you took it away from them. But whatever anybody might say, nothing is carved out of stone. [The matter of Article 370] is in the court of law, and you can’t fight the court of law.

There is an element of humour in this tragedy. They say they have abrogated it, but there perhaps was not that much to abrogate, because the Congress had left very little. So the people of India are being shown a movie which basically is not there [regarding Article 370]. But Article 35A was very potent. That’s the real challenge that the people of Kashmir have today. Having said that, I think the people of J&K should now ask for a new social contract with Delhi. Seek safeguards in consonance with today’s times, which are rooted in economics. Have these political concessions, but also further our economic interests.

I think in the years to come, there will be a new government or generation probably, which will be more liberal and which will appreciate cultural sub-identities. I think one day, India will see that dawn. 

Tantray: Why did you leave PAGD? What was the reason? 
Lone: I have made it very clear that day in that statement [issued after quitting] that after this, I will not add a word, and I have kept my promise. I don’t think I need to talk about it. 

Tantray: Even before the Taliban took over, an Indian Army general had said that the prevailing situation in Afghanistan might  spill over into Kashmir since Handwara and Kupwara are close to the border. Are you afraid? 
Lone: Yes. It’s nightmarish. It’s very nightmarish because that’s an ideology [referring to the ideology of the Taliban] which people don’t subscribe to here. Policy makers need to understand that apart from many things, Kashmir is a border state. They really need to go for a path of reconciliation if people are unhappy with them. This Taliban thing can be battled only by the people of Kashmir. You can’t battle ideologies militarily. I don’t know whether they will understand what I am trying to say, but I don’t think guns can stop an ideology. It’s the people who can stop it. 

Tantray: As a politician, do you see any difference between the present central government and previous regimes? 
Lone: Absolutely none. On Kashmir, the overlap between the liberals of India and so-called illiberals of India is one hundred percent. The methodology is different. They are totally the same, and Kashmiris should understand that. Be intelligent enough to understand that when it comes to Kashmir, there is no liberal or illiberal, left or right. It all coincides. 

Tantray: What fits Indian \politics better: Nehru’s politics or Modi’s?
Lone: The people of India have to take a call. But I have to tell you one thing. Governments are for five years. It’s not an ideology. Every country in the world has a wave of right-wing politics, normally followed by left-wing politics. So, this is a phase.

Tantray: What is the difference between the People’s Conference under you and the party under your father?
Lone: There’s a lot of difference. I would say I am where he had started. When my father initially founded the People’s Conference, he was a part of the mainstream. Then he was—the way I put it—chased out of the mainstream, and he lost faith in democracy. I am different. I have taken People’s Conference on a path to reconciliation within the current system. We will try to make this system better. 

Tantray: In 2008, during a press conference, you said that the separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani killed your father. Do you still believe Mr Geelani killed him?
Lone: My father had gone on a commemoration ceremony of a very senior leader of the J&K, Mirvaiz Mohmmad Farooq sahab. He was shot there. They were non-state actors and to the best of my knowledge, it was terrorists—militants. 

Mr Geelani is an old man, and per se he cannot commit killing. But what has happened in Kashmir—I am not talking in the context of just my father—but our utterances, either intentionally or unintentionally, have been the cause of killing of several hundreds. The way we speak about someone, which creates some sort of a perception amongst the violent elements, who come and kill. So I must have said it in that context, because I would never mean that he would literally kill him. [I would say there was] a lot of space for improvement in the way he used to make his utterances.

Tantray: You were a minister in the PDP-BJP alliance, from the BJP quota. Do you regret being a part of that combine? 
Lone: I don’t regret anything. I did a lot of good work. We were all in the government. There is not a single party in J&K which has  not allied with BJP at one point or the another. When I look back, go to Handwara [Sajad’s constituency], I see that now there’s a tender apparently extended for a medical college which came during our time [in power]. [There is a] medical college in that area, bio-tech parks, hospital buildings—that delivery makes me proud. These things are small, what I did, and whether I had done that or not, what happened on 5 August would still have happened. But at least I got my poor people some sort of relief in some areas. So, I don’t regret anything.

Tantray: Do you think separatist politics is over in Kashmir?
Lone: It seems so. But I still, as I told you, at the core of my heart, I will always be a liberal. I don’t believe that force, coercion and fear can finish anything. You could see separatists being finished, but the separatism can lie low for some time and then come up again. You could curtail the freedom of the separatist here, but then you will have a separatist in a foreign country. The battle against separatism will have to be fought here in Kashmir, won or lost here, by consent. Fear cannot be consent.

Separatist movements will lose steam in a globalised world anyway, the more Kashmiris go out and see the world. When I went to Britain to study, I was in class 12. My worldview was [limited to] India and Pakistan. When I went abroad, I found out they are nowhere—there’s Europe, there’s America.

We have our problems with Delhi, and we should solve those problems, and Delhi should not exacerbate those problems. But the next seven to eight years might be tough for Kashmiris.

Tantray: Why do you think it will be tough?
Lone: It’s a different wave [that is ongoing]. I think it will pass but it will take time. I am a practicing Muslim, and I love my identity of a Muslim. But I believe governance has to be done by people. God is not for governance. Today you have a right-wing wave across the country, where God perhaps has a role in governance. Unless and until people come out of that, this is going to stay.

Tantray: Every day in Kashmir we hear that someone has been killed. What will calm the guns here? 
Lone: I think we have to stigmatise the concept of violence. Whether we agree to it or not, some segments of the populations acquired a certain social sanctity for the concept of a gun. We have to reject it in all forms. We don’t grow guns, we grow apples. These guns come from somewhere and they come with conditions. The biggest threat to the Kashmiri today is the gun. It doesn’t belong to him. [The use of the gun] depends who has given it. That gun is more to discipline the people of Kashmir and less to fight the army or the security forces. Once the gun is here, the right-wing elements in mainstream India then get their justification for everything. Once there are bullets, the rights of the civilians vanish. Since these guns came to Kashmir, we have lost everything. We have lost statehood, we have lost special status. We have lost our rights within the state. We are less powerful. Maybe on paper we are as powerful, but on the ground we are less powerful.

Tantray: How do you see the situation of Indian Muslims in India?
Lone: Things are not good at all. This is a phase where minorities will have a problem. Maybe the government doesn't want it, but once you’ve whipped up a frenzy, anything can happen. I just hope that [Indian Muslims] are able to ride past this with minimum damage.

Historically, Muslims in India did not get tall leaders. We got Congress leaders, we got Janata [Party] leaders. We got many leaders, but we never got Muslim leaders per se. So the Muslim clout is totally scattered. And I don’t think that it will come together very soon.

There are some movements Muslims have to rethink. In 1989, I had just finished my graduation from Britain and I’d come back. My father was an ex-MLA at that time, the 1987 election rigging had taken place [referring to the assembly elections in Kashmir in which the Indian government was accused of interfering with the outcome]. I remember walking into the room and there was this Muslim leader from India—Mr Shahabuddin, a great intellectual. And I saw him and my dad talking about Babri Masjid.  [The late Syed Shahabuddin was a Janata Party leader who was known for his opposition to the Ram Mandir movement.]

I was young at that time, and I told both of them, “Why are you fighting for this mosque? It will create trouble for Muslims.” I told them that a mosque means nothing to us, it is just a building, just a place for congregation. I said that for us, Mecca-Medina is everything. And they said, “No, it won’t, Muslims have to fight for their rights.” 

Now today, retrospectively, just calculate the damage that the movement did to Muslims. Subtract the Babri Masjid, and there is no rise of the Hindu Right. What else came out of the Babri Masjid movement except the BJP? Today, they [Muslims] gave [the Babri Masjid] without any contest. Had they done this 30 years back, there would have been no Right or the rise of the Right, there would have been no polarisation.

I think Muslims in India need to take a call on emotionalism, on realism, on their place in the society. Here in Kashmir, we are in a majority, but they [Indian Muslims] are not. They are with family, with sisters, mothers, daughters, in places with the threat of a communal riot. Sitting here and sermonising is very easy, but they have to take a call on everything. One has to be tactical at times, one can’t be religious at all times.

Tantray: In 2006, you wrote a book titled Achievable Nationhood, about the situation in Kashmir, to be presented to the prime minister at the time, Manmohan Singh. Do you think that is achievable now? Or even in some decades?
Lone: It’s an academic piece. And never rule out the power of any piece of academic literature, whatever the quality. I’m just putting my ideas for a debate. The thought process behind it is economic sharing [of Kashmir]. Not changing borders but making borders irrelevant. It is an idea about peaceful co-existence. At the end of the day, what is going to happen is that countries will live in peace eventually, India and Pakistan included. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when—when people are politically, economically and militarily secure, when they don’t have a hangover of colonialism. Once you’re economically secure, you abandon your dogmas and your myths, you come and live in the real world.  I don’t know. I wrote it nearly twenty years ago and in another twenty, it will be outdated.

Tantray: If it’s an idea, as you say, do you still believe in it?
Lone: Yes, who doesn’t? But you know, we talk as civilians. There are military realities, there are other realities. Better would be to just read it.

Tantray: You are often heard on television, being vocal about human rights of Kashmiris. In the past few years, the last rites of the militants or the suspected militants have often been banned or prevented from taking place. What is your stance on this issue?
Lone: When we were in government, we indulged in the same practice [of disallowing funerals]. All governments have done it in their time. So what was permissible then, from a security point of view, will be permissible even now. I have done it, whether directly or indirectly, as part of a cabinet which may have done it. So is it not better for me to shut up and let someone else do the talking who has not done it? I don’t have the moral justification to talk about it because [speaking on this] is tantamount to making fun of those families [of the deceased].

But having said that, as a simple Kashmiri, not as a politician, [I think] this should be allowed. This is very personal and emotional. Somebody dies, and whatever he was, his family should be able to see him one last time, bury him. But the worst thing to happen is to get a dead body out of a dead body [referring to the idea that allowing funerals may result in more violence]. At times, we have followed one dead body with seven or eight dead bodies. We have to learn not to inflict all the pain on ourselves, and treat life as very sacred, because if you don’t, why do you expect your rivals or so-called enemies to treat your lives as sacred? The sanctity of life will have to flow out of the people of Kashmir. We have to show that we care a lot about our lives.

Tantray: What do you think is the future of Jammu and Kashmir in the next ten years?
Lone: I don’t know. There are very turbulent times. I expect that at least full statehood should be delivered, and when I say statehood, I mean full statehood. That is what I want. But I wouldn’t give any guesses [about the future]. 

[I don’t know if] it will be a peaceful J&K, and I am not talking about peace between Delhi and Srinagar. I’m talking of upheavals in our neighbourhood [referring to border conflicts]. I just hope that we don’t become victims, and that we have a very peaceful and prosperous J&K. That we actually make strides in economics, in politics, that socially we are able to rediscover ourselves—that’s the dream. That’s why the stakes are the highest for peace, because if there is violence, only we are going to be impacted. The fatalities will always be from the Kashmiri side.

The interview has been edited and condensed.