Separatist leader Sajjad Gani Lone's political party, People's Conference, is fighting the Assembly elections in Jammu & Kashmir after 27 years. Lone, the son of the slain Abdul Gani Lone, is a candidate from the Handwara Assembly seat in north Kashmir. Lone, whose party has a vision document called Achievable Nationhood, created ripples recently by meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi. He spoke to Joyeeta Basu in Handwara. Excerpts:
Q: What made you join the election process?
A: I've fought the Parliament elections in 2009, so it's an old story. After that we fought again in 2014. I felt there was a pressing need and all sectors of our life cannot be focused in one direction only. Development is a day-to-day process and it has an overall impact on the human resources that we produce and how we develop as a society. I felt there was a need to contribute some element of change, some new ideas. And I thought it was better to utilise our capabilities in terms of developing our state. Development is a prerequisite in any case, irrespective of ideological barriers and ideological impediments. That is why I thought that we should contribute in some other form.
Q: Are you a chief ministerial candidate?
A: No. We are making a very humble beginning. We are fighting Assembly elections after 27 years. Our basic aim this time is to make an entry into the Assembly with as many people as we can... As on date our aim is to go in and contribute to change, be seen as a change. If you look at the last Parliament, we fought only one Parliament seat, but by the number of votes we are the third biggest regional party in the Valley. This time around, we are going outside north (Kashmir), fighting in other places also. I think we might be able to pull off a few surprises.
Q: How many seats do you expect your party to get?
A: I have no idea. We are fighting around in 25 places, but I don't think I should be going into the numbers game at this stage. See, in this area (Handwara/Kupwara), there is a lot of voting. Here a person would get 20,000 and lose. But in south Kashmir, in Srinagar, with 20,000 you can get 4-5 seats. But at the end of the day, people look at the number of seats that somebody gets. We have put up candidates outside of Kupwara where voting is low. On a particular day, it depends on which village votes and which doesn't. When we were fighting for Parliament, we got a totally emotional vote. A Parliamentary constituency comprises 15 Assembly segments, out of which we did not have any base in seven segments. So people who voted for us knew that they were not going to win, but they still voted for us. (Since these are Assembly elections), our candidates will be taken much more seriously because they know they might win, or they are going to win. So there is that 20% shift, which we are seeing... (But) you don't get prizes for guessing that a party that has not fought elections for 27 years might not have all the resources.
Q: Did the Prime Minister promise helping out your party with resources?
A: No. It is my humble opinion as a Kashmiri that the Government of India should reach out to the people in Kashmir. My perception is that Delhi has always reached out to individuals in Kashmir. I've always thought that there has to be an alternative discourse, that of development in Kashmir; and that Government of India has to listen to other voices apart from the Muftis and the Abdullahs. So it was a very good opportunity which I availed of and talked to the PM and brought to his notice what all could be done in Kashmir. What if proper investment, proper tourism infrastructure is created? It could do wonders.
The first thing that any government would do is to make a motorway across the valley so that tourists can move around... Till date nobody has entered this place (north Kashmir). The economy in north Kashmir is centred around government jobs, government contracts, roads and buildings or rural development contracts. So it is an economy which is totally driven by the government. It's not self-sustaining. And it cannot become self-sustaining unless and until the (Central) government comes in and creates the infrastructure. And then the private sector could come in. The two parties (National Conference and People's Democratic Party) don't believe in this. Their mantra for New Delhi is that Kashmiris have to be managed, not engaged. I believe Kashmiris can be engaged and the start would be to make them self-sufficient.
That's what I talked to the Prime Minister about — need for development, need for massive investment and how the state budgets are totally inadequate. And it's not about running an economy, it's about building an economy which in the next 10 years, 20 years would be a great foreign exchange earner, generate jobs and be self-sustaining, instead of this patchwork tourism.
And I don't see all this only as charity for Kashmiris, but from an Indian viewpoint, from a national viewpoint, I see it as a good investment for future.
You have these white collar killers sitting in Srinagar. They write to kill. They speak to kill, they wink to kill. My father was a victim of the press... A commoner meeting the PM looks very strange to the elite forces. “How did he reach there?”
Q: And what was Mr Modi's response to your ideas?
A: Very positive. I think he too shares the dream that we could make Kashmir as one of the most beautiful spots on earth... Now we are under attack from all sides after meeting Mr Modi. Here in Kupwara, NC is telling people "don't vote for us, vote for PDP" and PDP is saying "don't vote for us, vote for NC". They want this guy (Sajjad Lone) out because this guy has started to emerge as an alternative — not in 2014, but maybe in 2020. Mufti Saab and Farooq Saab have the precious duty of projecting their son and daughter. The idea is, kisi tareeke se isko mat aane do, kaat do (don't let this guy come under any circumstances, cut him down). I will give you recordings very soon, which we took a day back with spy cameras. They are saying openly that it's all right if you are not voting for us, but vote for NC or PDP. We are fighting two parties. And there will be a lot of cross-voting between them. In Srinagar, they are sworn enemies, but out here, they want to prevent the new entity from entering the political scene.
Image 2ndQ: So they are unhappy that you got a positive response from the Prime Minister.
A: They are very unhappy. Only yesterday somebody came here shouting slogans "Modi ka jo yaar hai, gaddar hai, gaddar hai (He is friends with Modi, he is a traitor)". Then somebody got up from our side and replied that "Rajesh Pilot ka jo yaar hai, gaddar hai, gaddar hai (The one who is friends with Rajesh Pilot, i.e. Congress, is a traitor)". I am a person who has seen interrogation. I've been hung upside down, tied from my feet and given the beating of my lifetime during interrogation. Now if Mufti dictates me about Kashmiri nationalism, it is a shame. Or Farooq Abdullah, he is the guy who signed PSE detention orders, ordered those encounter killings. We cannot take our lessons in Kashmiri nationalism from these two people.
They talk of Article 370. Who is the author of (J&K) constitutional erosions? It is the PDP. It is the Congress, with which both of them (PDP/NC) slept with in 2002 and 2008. Why are they asking me about Article 370? I am not a game changer. Mai kaunsa usko udaney wala hun (Who am I to do away with it)?...
We believe that in an achievable nation goal, the role of economics is paramount in resolving conflict and that redrawing of geography has a limited role, I would say no role. Economics makes borders irrelevant. Economics makes conflicts irrelevant. And when it comes to Article 370, they repeat the BJP stand. They don't repeat our stand. Now the Kashmiri media, they are the lackeys of Mufti. When the AAP came up in Delhi, the media played a huge role. Here the media is not ready to give space to anyone else. No newspaper here can survive on private advertisements. It comes from the state government. The media is pro state government and keeps a lookout for who will form the next government. They felt threatened when I met them. "Now it is too late, but still let us try our bit. However much we can belittle Sajjad, let us do so." The thing is they lie (to the Kashmiri public) and whoever comes from Delhi is also fed the same. And they end up creating a perception.
I am no angel, but the media here is no angel either. The Army apologises for the first time in 25 years (for killing civilians in a car). But has the Kashmiri media written a word about it, that why in the Congress governments' time nobody apologised? Why? Because it does not fit into their scheme of things. It is not just Mufti Saab or Farooq Saab's family who are impediments to change. It is also their lackeys. These people think like "These men (Muftis and Abdullahs) are our masters. Who is this third master? Let us give him a bad name. He is IB, he is a traitor." As if they are saints. If I am IB, then Mufti Saab was (Union) Home Minister and the IB chief would report to him. The IB chief today was his (Mufti's) personal secretary. Nobody is talking about it.
This can lead to people getting killed. They did the same thing with my father. They got him killed. You have these white collar killers sitting in Srinagar. They write to kill. They speak to kill, they wink to kill. My father was a victim of the press. Vendetta. "He said this and he said that" and when he died they said "what a great leader."
Kashmir needs a change. Somebody needs to come and shake them up and tell everyone, forget about everything else, if you are here to work, then work. Out with the excuses. We need to tell people to stand on their own feet. We cannot afford to keep a readymade excuse for every failure of ours. We got an IAS topper. We have sent so many to the IAS. They are going to the corporate sector. They are wonderful kids. Give them the environment, the academic ambience and they will do superbly.
I am a commoner. My grandfather was a poor farmer. A commoner meeting the Prime Minister looks very strange to the elite forces. "How did he reach there?" I might speak English, and I have studied abroad, but my roots are here.
Now if we talk about elections, not one question was asked about why I (the party) was fighting Parliament elections in 2014. In 2009, everybody asked because it was the first time. But now in the 2014 Assembly elections they have started asking the questions again. Why? To create a suspicion in people's minds. Why were these questions not put to me in 2014 Parliament elections? Because I was not supposed to win. I was not a threat. This time I am a threat.
We are confident. Our people are working and there is a lot of enthusiasm. There is a writing on the wall that many people do not want to read — that the dynamics, the discourse has changed.