Jammu and Kashmir’s grand old party, the National Conference (NC), suffered a setback on 28 July 2020, when its senior leader from Central Kashmir’s Budgam, Aga Syed Ruhullah Mehdi resigned from the position of party chief spokesperson.
The resignation came after NC’s vice-president and former chief minister of the erstwhile state, Omar Abdullah, wrote an article for The Indian Express, where he spoke about the restoration of statehood to the newly created Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir.
Earlier, the former minister in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir questioned the National Conference leadership over their silence on the Centre’s decision to abrogate J&K’s special status in August 2019.
A three-time MLA, Ruhullah is from the influential Aga clan, a strong Shia clergy that holds sway over the minority Shia population in central Kashmir. He was brought into politics by Farooq Abdullah after the assassination of his father, Aga Syed Mehdi, in an IED blast by militants in 2000.
On 5 August 2020, Ruhullah was among the few politicians who completed one year under detention.
‘I Never Thought I Would Be Detained. I Feel Betrayed’
In an exclusive interview with The Quint, Ruhullah spoke about the abrogation of Article 370, one year of his detention, and his differences with his party.
Here are edited excerpts from the interview with this reporter:
Reporter: Tell us about your detention period? How difficult was it to spend a year in one room?
Mehdi: It’s very difficult for anyone. It was a very tough experience. You are confined to a place against your will and there are many social issues which you aren’t able to deal with. After all, you are a human being. The confinement against your will is torture. But I guess today anyone’s personal life is not important to talk about. We can talk about it some other day. Right now we have many other – bigger issues at hand.
Reporter: Since you represented the ‘idea of India’ in Kashmir for so many years – did you ever think that you would be detained?
Mehdi: I never thought that I would be detained. We feel betrayed and we were punished for a crime we never committed. We were punished for agreeing with the Union of India on the principles of secularism and democracy and tolerance. That is how I feel. We believed in democracy, the Constitution, peace and progress, and ultimately after 70 years, we were punished. We never called acceding with India a crime, but BJP very arrogantly decided to call it a crime on 5 August 2019.
‘Only Settling For Special Status Of J&K Will Be A Mistake’
Reporter: Can you tell us what is the future of mainstream politics in Kashmir, post abrogation of Article 370?
Mehdi: After the abrogation of Article 370, the future course of all the political parties would be shaped around the survival of parties. I think all the political parties, irrespective of ideologies and differences, are having to think about their survival, and restoration of the special status that was snatched from us on 5 August 2019.
Reporter: Do you think that regional parties in Kashmir, who are talking about the restoration of statehood, have compromised over Article 370 and have surrendered before New Delhi?
Mehdi: I won’t name anyone in particular, and I hope everyone will fight for the restoration of the special status. However, if any political party satisfies itself with the restoration of statehood only, then it will be a reconciliation — which will be a grave mistake. So, I would suggest not to settle for anything less than the restoration of the pre-5 August 2019 position.
‘BJP Govt May Not Be Tolerant Towards Us – That Shouldn’t Stop Us’
Reporter: What do you think will be the cost of raising this pitch against BJP? Are you ready to bear it?
Mehdi: I have already thought about it and I know what the cost will be, knowing how the BJP regime in New Delhi behaves, which doesn’t tolerate any dissent and which calls any dissent anti-national and tells them to go to Pakistan. I am very sure the BJP government will be not tolerant towards us – but that should not stop us. The repercussions will be very strong. They may put us in jail, but we need to stand by our people and fight democratically for our rights.
Reporter: Many political commentators and analysts in Kashmir maintain that New Delhi has ‘used’ J&K’s mainstream politicians for their needs and then thrown them out. What do you have to say to that?
Mehdi: Post-5 August 2019, if the regional political parties in Jammu and Kashmir would have given up, surrendered and reconciled, then these claims would have been proven to be true. But if they now stand up beside their people and fight it out, then these claims will carry no weight. So it’s up to the regional parties to tell them what kind of relations they have with New Delhi. It depends on what kind of stance they take.
‘Whatever I Say Is My Opinion & Not As NC’s Chief Spokesman’
Reporter: Can you tell us why you resigned from the post of the NC’s chief spokesperson? What went wrong?
Mehdi: I felt there were contradictions that came to the fore after what happened during the last two-three months, and especially after Mr Omar Abdullah’s article and the interview came out. There was some opinions on his side and then some contradictions on my side, so I decided I should resign as the party’s chief spokesman because there shouldn’t be any contradictory views within the party. I believe if I express my opinion it should be without any contradictions, so it doesn’t hamper the smooth functioning of the party. Let’s hope things get clear after the working committee of the party sits and things get clear from Mr Abdullah’s side. But I want to make it clear that whatever I say, it’s my own opinion –– and NOT as NC’s chief spokesman.
Reporter: Was the opinion of Omar Abdullah regarding the restoration of statehood his own or is it your party’s stand?
Mehdi: The interview, according to him, was in his personal capacity, and I take that on face value –– and let’s wait till the working committee sits and we get to know the official stand.
Reporter: Do you think that some of your colleagues might be okay with Mr Abdullah’s view?
Mehdi: There are different opinions within the party and I think there may be people who might be satisfied with the prospect of only having J&K’s statehood restored...
‘Decision-Making Process Within the NC Is Very Democratic’
Reporter: How democratic is the decision-making process within the National Conference?
Mehdi: As far as my experience goes, it is pretty democratic, and the working committee behaves in a very democratic manner, and everyone is allowed to express his or her opinion freely. Opinions of the individuals are respected and heard. However, it will be very interesting to see how the working committee behaves at this historic moment and how the party behaves as well.
Reporter: Do you have apprehensions that your party might surrender before New Delhi?
Mehdi: I wanted to take a clear line. I wanted to send a clear message to the party that restoration of statehood has little or no importance to us –– rather we should fight back for the restoration of Article 370. I had certain apprehensions. That is why I resigned as chief spokesperson, and I said what I said and I did what I did. But I hope that the party, when it meets, aims for the restoration of the special status of J&K.
Reporter: In a tweet, you said you wouldn’t contest elections again till the restoration of J&K’s special status. What if your party agrees to contest elections after the restoration of statehood only?
Mehdi: I think we should ask hypothetical questions only if that situation arises. At this moment I just hope that the party will stand with the people and simply the restoration of statehood won’t satisfy us at all. But if that situation arises, where the party decides to fight for the restoration of statehood only, then I will give my answers.
Reporter: What is the value of mainstream politics in J&K post-Article 370?
Mehdi: The value is the same as that of the entire society. We were treated the same way other common people were treated on 5 August. But I also understand that people have lost trust and faith in mainstream politicians post revocation of special status — which is the result of the 5 August decision. But what happened last year was unconstitutional and a betrayal. The whole population of Jammu and Kashmir including the political parties were betrayed by New Delhi. The Union of India actually betrayed its own principles and promises.
(Auqib Javeed is a Srinagar based Journalist at tweets @AuqibJaveed. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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