By M J Akbar
We can set a precise date for Omar Abdullah’s “ideological war”, which is how he chose to describe his present troubles. On June 11, 1939, a special session of the Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference, born in 1932 and led by Omar’s grandfather, Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, changed its name to National Conference.
How long does it take to win an ideological war? A confrontation between the armies of ruling elites is conventional and therefore comprehensible: it lasts as long as the powder is dry and the will of the subaltern to fight for the interests of his general can be sustained.
A war of ideas is circumscribed by different ponderables and imponderables: conflicting definitions of justice; a vision often compromised by power pitched against a dream stretched into fantasy by a surreal sense of self. The ideological Armageddon starts in the mind, so it is difficult to know when it began. But since it descends to the street we generally know when it ends.
We can set a precise date for Omar Abdullah’s “ideological war”, which is how he chose to describe his present troubles. On June 11, 1939, a special session of the Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference, born in 1932 and led by Omar’s grandfather, Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, changed its name to National Conference. The 179 delegates debated through the night. In the morning, there were only three votes against the resolution. This was a remarkable event. Not only due to its intrinsic values, but because it went against the trend of Muslim politics in the rest of the subcontinent, since the mood of the principal party, the Muslim League, was hardening against the secular, inclusive vision of Gandhi, Azad and Nehru. On March 26, 1938, the Sheikh told the sixth session of the Muslim Conference, “We must end communalism by ceasing to think in terms of Muslims and non-Muslims when discussing our political problems…” And at Anantnag in 1939, the National Conference endorsed Gandhi’s policy towards the world war, setting course towards a partnership with plural India. Enter, caveat. History is so often the safest alibi for misrule. After 71 years has curfew become an ideology?
Who would have carried the June 11 debate if it were being held today, the 176 members with Omar’s grandfather, or the three against him? Since the past is the favourite pastime of alibi-seekers, a compendium of dates can always be trotted out in explanation. But history can as easily be an 18-month-old baby as a hoary 71-year-old. In the winter of 2008 and the summer of 2009 the 1939 partnership of National Conference and Congress won the support of Srinagar and large sections of the valley. You cannot hold an election in a curfew.
Every incident does not become a conflagration. Omar Abdullah’s mishandling of police-people confrontation has fanned a spark into a rage and this rage is waiting to become arson. The flaw might be in the fundamentals. The people of the state did not elect Omar Abdullah as chief minister. They voted for his father Farooq Abdullah, who repeatedly clarified during the campaign that he was the chief minister-designate. Omar Abdullah was enthroned chief minister by one man’s vote, that of Rahul Gandhi in an effort to remodel the Kashmiri young in his own and Rahul Gandhi’s image. But Kashmir’s youngest chief minister has lost the youth of Kashmir.
What is the difference between Farooq and Omar Abdullah? Socio-political DNA. Farooq is a Kashmiri in his nerve cells; Omar is a new-elitist offspring of English-accent India, which has confused its good fortune with a divine right to rule. Omar resides in Kashmir and lives in Delhi; the opposite is true of his father. Farooq persuades in Kashmiri and sings in Urdu, Omar speaks in English and spends the more comfortable part of his week in Delhi. Perhaps it is a four-generational syndrome typical of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic India, where fresh stalks reduce a family tree’s roots to a distant memory. Omar is sincere, and represents his state sincerely, but cannot communicate with it. More important, the valley cannot communicate with Omar Abdullah. Father and son are in the wrong jobs.
The opportunity for a switch will not last forever. In fact, Omar might make the Srinagar secretariat inhabitable for the Abdullahs if there is no course correction very soon. He still has time, but not as much as his friend Rahul Gandhi might want to give him. Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah were close friends, but the former’s perception of Indian national interest superseded sentiment in 1953.
The irony is that Pakistan cannot be a role model for Kashmiri youth. Our subcontinent has seen violence in the name of faith or power, by state and civilian, party and maverick over the last thousand years. The worst tyrant would never dare disturb the immaculate peace beyond the doorstep of the shrine in Lahore of the beloved Data Ganj Baksh Hajveri, who came from Persia in the 10th century. Lahore is synonymous with Datasahib, whose shrine has survived Rajput, Turco-Afghan, Mughal, Sikh and British rule. On Friday, Muslim terrorists nourished by a culture of violent sectarianism crossed the ultimate threshold. Such sacrilege would be beyond a Kashmiri’s imagination.
Why is Omar Abdullah losing what such a Pakistan cannot gain?