A man. A mess. A map. Omar Abdullah plots a way out for Kashmir

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By  Vijay Simha

Photographs By Shailendra Pandey

HALF A glance, and Omar Abdullah knows what he needs to fix. He is on the banks of the Sindhu, 40 km from Srinagar, about to begin a mass contact campaign. There’s no way a stone hurled by a human can reach him here from Srinagar. A stone from God, maybe. For the moment, God does nothing like that. But Omar still doesn’t like what he sees. There are 300 people waiting for him under a canvas tent. They are barricaded by a concertina wire. Omar’s sofa is on a dais 30 feet from the nearest listener. It creates an ‘us and them’ scene. This is terrible; it’s the very heart of the matter in Kashmir. Instantly, Omar knows he has to do something. The wire is dragged away and Omar’s sofa is brought closer to the crowd. When he settles down, Omar is six feet away. He has sort of closed the gap. There’s a murmur of approval from the gathering.

Reaching out Omar Abdullah interacts with residents of Kangan, 40 km from Srinagar
Reaching out
Omar Abdullah interacts with residents of Kangan, 40 km from Srinagar

This is the start of Omar’s tehsil contact programme across Kashmir, part of his response to the unrest in the state. There’s a sun beating down. Omar is in a light blue half-sleeve checked shirt, cream-coloured trousers and moccasins. He has sunglasses on. His fingers are pink and manicured and there’s more salt than pepper in his hair. He is here to lay the foundation stone for a bridge. Watching him are mostly older men with craggy skin. They are in cheap and billowy robes, described as pathan suits. They have cotton waistcoats and turbans. Their fingers are coarse and their hair is grey. Omar and his people inhabit different worlds.

Patiently Omar listens. A dozen men speak, some of them drone on. There are merchants, contractors, political workers, and the unemployed. They have a host of requests and it takes concentration to keep track. The sun is high and Omar sits unflinching. It is, oddly, hotter than Delhi. It’s a rare sight of a chief minister in India sitting in the sun while the people are sheltered from the heat under a tent. It must count for something. Finally, 90 minutes later, it is Omar’s turn. He speaks in Hindi, though he can do Kashmiri as well. “Often, conversations between us become oneway. This leads to a break in flow and the path between us is damaged. We need to mend it. The larger issue of Jammu and Kashmir is not in our hands. It is between New Delhi and Islamabad and we can only seek Allah’s blessings for both sides,” he says.

“We don’t know what Allah has planned for us. Each time we come close to a solution to the Kashmir issue, something happens that pulls us back. Today, we have reached a point where the foreign ministers of the two countries hurl accusations at each other in press conferences. I pray that Allah gives the leaders courage to get us together, not take us apart. Like every ordinary Kashmiri, I dream of going to Pakistan. Just to see how things there are. To buy something there. See what’s different there from here.”

At the crossroads A family is out on a deserted street during a shutdown in downtown Srinagar
At the crossroads
A family is out on a deserted street during a shutdown in downtown Srinagar

It’s only the first stage of a longdrawn campaign for Omar, but he launches into the heat of the Kashmir problem. He lays out what he thinks it’s all about. The 300 men have gone silent. They listen. “We will not solve the Kashmir problem by having strikes after strikes. We will become a state of the illiterate. Our children cannot compete. We are headed for ruin. We are about to hand over to our children a Jammu and Kashmir of the unemployed and the useless. We will be fit only to beg. Is that what we want? Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh give us money. We are not ungrateful. Thank you for your help. But it’s a lie if they say money will solve the issue. Jammu and Kashmir is not a Naxal problem, which you can solve by giving land. It is a political issue that started in 1953, with the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah. My legacy is here. My inventory will be taken here, not in Delhi.” Those who have seen Omar say this is about the best shot he gives it in public. He is not a man of words, and he has spoken a bit.

ON THE streets, though, no one is listening to Omar. Especially in Srinagar, the hub of the resistance movement, they couldn’t care less for Omar, or any other mainstream politician. Rambagh is a busy spot in Srinagar. It’s been raining stones and tear gas shells here for a couple of weeks. A typical day begins almost in silence. The shutters stay down. The women stay indoors. Slowly, the young gather. By midday, there is fury and yelling. A crowd of about 500 has collected on a Friday afternoon. These are the stonepelters. Omar’s administration has just banned a local television channel for what it calls inflammatory content, and the youngsters are livid. They see a conspiracy to keep them off the news. They have heard that two people died in firing that day. They want to lynch.

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Tough postures Opposition politicians, led by PDP’s Mehbooba Mui, at a protest rally
Tough postures
Opposition politicians, led by PDP’s Mehbooba Mufti, at a protest rally

A skinny lad is one of the more active ones in the Rambagh crowd. He says his name is Ashraf, but it doesn’t matter. He could be anyone. He could be everyone. He says he is a Class 12 student. His voice has gone hoarse from the shouting. “They (the security forces) don’t allow us to attend school. They stop me from buying milk. This morning they shot a man who was walking home with milk sachets in his hand. We will not allow them to rule. They must go back. We want azaadi (freedom).” Ashraf hurtles from thought to thought, often incoherent. It’s a string of minor slights that have gained energy from an older and bigger hurt. Around us is frenzy. The stone-pelters have morphed into a rally and are heading dangerously towards a posse of constables half a kilometre away. There are youngsters all around, out of control. They have wet masks around their faces and there’s no saying what they will do next. Suddenly, they start to run. They hurl abuses and stones. One, two, twenty, forty. In a jiffy there are missiles raining over the policemen.

It is hotter than Delhi and Omar sits unflinching. It’s a rare sight of a chief minister sitting in the sun while the people are sheltered from the heat

The constables radiate anything but menace. They stand limp and mostly have to be goaded into a response. Their uniforms are well worn; they have cane shields and lathis. Some have helmets. Some have a paunch. This is not a killing machine. This is a confused group of people, whose skills at work have waned and whose emotions have been torn apart by the suspicion they generate among their people. They start to evade the stones and take shelter. This encourages the stone-pelters and they rush forward. Some of them are so young that their parents ought to be somewhere around. The stone-pelters look menacing now, the khaki looking vulnerable.

The policemen radio for assistance. Within a minute, a convoy of armoured jeeps rushes past at high speed, sirens blaring, into the crowd of stone-pelters. Some tear gas shells have also been brought. The constables start to fire the tear gas shells. There’s smoke in the eyes and lungs. There is brick and stone on the roads. The stone-pelters back off into the myriad lanes and bylanes. The constables take position. Now, the policemen begin to hurl stones. And so it settles, into an uncomfortable rhythm that will last into the evening. This is life in Kashmir. At some places, bullets could be fired and there might be deaths. The constables at Rambagh, however, have poor aim. Most of their stones crash into the windowpanes of nearby houses. One goes into a mosque.

Kashmiris have a need to be hugged. They like to show affection physically. Omar has a problem hugging. This is disaster in an emotion-driven state

For both the constables and the stone-pelters, Omar is a distant figure. He was billed as the young hope of Kashmir barely 18 months ago, but today they are not sure. Omar, too, appears unsure as we fly with him in his helicopter to his second mass contact meeting. He has a senior adviser to him in the helicopter. As soon as we take off, though, Omar withdraws into his iPad. He is listening to music, Lionel Ritchie he says, and reading at the same time. This one is Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight, by Karl Rove. Every few moments, we draw him into a conversation and soon after a couple of thoughts are exchanged, Omar is back to his iPad. He says he rents movies and buys books online. He’s just finished Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. “I’ve even seen the movie, in Swedish with English subtitles,” he says. He has barely spoken a few words with his adviser, though all of them precise and relevant.

It’s easy to see that Omar’s thrill with gizmos is back. Early on in his life as chief minister, he was elected in January 2009, his fascination for his BlackBerry led to a few tough moments in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly. During a debate, Omar was busy with his phone when an Opposition MLA was speaking. The furious MLA walked out saying Omar had insulted him. For a few days after, Omar kept his BlackBerry away. Now, he and his personal secretary are the only two in Jammu and Kashmir to use an iPad.

Tough postures Opposition politicians, led by PDP’s Mehbooba Mui, at a protest rally
Tough postures
Opposition politicians, led by PDP’s Mehbooba Mui, at a protest rally

SOME OF Omar may have been shaped by his boarding school days in The Lawrence School, Sanawar. He spent eight years here, away from his flamboyant father, Farooq Abdullah, former chief minister of Jammu and Kash mir. “This is where I learned to keep time. You are never to be late,” he says. More than time, Omar may have learned to rely on himself. Almost imperceptibly, he began to shift away from those around him. Even today, he is most comfortable when with himself. He picked up strong corporate discipline, which makes results important for him. Farooq, the father, was famously spontaneous. He could be indiscreet and frivolous at times, but he mostly created uproar around him.

Omar, the son, is the opposite. He isn’t spontaneous at all. It would appear that he lacks emotion. This makes it difficult for him to connect with people. He seems to have difficulty reaching out and warming people up. Only with his closest circle of friends, is he known to have Kashlet go and had a good time. Omar’s life outside Jammu and Kashmir also makes it tough for him to trust people he doesn’t know. His style of administration thus gets impersonal. While the best governors need to be impersonal to do a good job, Kashmir makes it complex for Omar. He is modern and secular, and is good at giving directions, which he expects to be implemented. He is appropriate and correct. These are his assets.

No child’s play  A Kashmiri youth hurls stones at the police during another slanging match
No child’s play
A Kashmiri youth hurls stones at the police during another slanging match

But, they can make him look dry and bureaucratic. It can make him look like he lacks emotional substance. It can make you feel he is not sympathetic even when he is. In a Kashmir driven by emotional logic, this is disaster. Kashmiris have a need to be hugged. They like to show affection physically. Omar has a problem hugging. Those in the know say they have never seen him hug anyone, nor have they seen him laugh heartily. Smiles, though, he does a lot. Kashmiris need to have a dream that excites them. Omar comes across as matter of fact, with his staccato style. Often, people have difficulty reading his face. They are unsure about what he is feeling, and that makes them nervous. It makes him a sort of a red rag to a bull. In the process, almost everybody, the young, the old, the women, the intelligentsia, and the Opposition parties have made him the target.

Since his public appearances are so controlled and few, impressions get created that Omar is not in control. His opponents ridicule him saying Governor NN Vohra runs the administration and Union Home Minister P Chidambaram oversees law and order. Omar, therefore, is up against plenty. In his home one morning, he opens up to us. “I am up against the continued desire on the part of our neighbour to internationalise Kashmir. I am up against the inability, so far, of the government of India to lead a sustained political dialogue. I am up against a sense of disillusionment creeping in amongst people that they are seeing no progress in the peace process; both externally and internally. I am up against a huge problem of unemployment, which, in Kashmir, takes on a whole different connotation.

Much to do  Omar on the banks of the Sindhu to lay the foundation stone for a bridge
Much to do
Omar on the banks of the Sindhu to lay the foundation stone for a bridge

“I am up against an Opposition that wants to be destructive rather than constructive. They have an almost scorched earth policy that if they can’t govern, they are not going to let anybody else govern either. Wherever they go, they try and leave a trail of destruction. I am up against the vested interests of various forms that don’t want to see normalcy in Jammu and Kashmir. I am even up against my own age; the fact that I am only 40. Certain quarters that are not well disposed towards me, would like to see me fail right in the beginning so they don’t have to worry about me for the next 30 years.”

IT’S A mess. There’s India, Pakistan, the Hurriyat, the stone-pelters, the militants, the security forces, the US, and Afghanistan. By any standards, Omar’s job is among the most sensitive in the country. Into this, he has to marry his famed corporate style with overt warmth and intimacy at all times. Anger is high in the state but there’s no single big reason for this. Several incidents have come together to create a mosaic where fury is being targeted against Omar and the forces. It doesn’t have the air of an insurgency; it does have the air of resistance.

So, after much discussion, Omar and his party arrived at a strategy. They decided they would exhaust the protesters. This means Omar will sit tight and apply law and order measures while talking all the time of the political nature of the dispute. He has subtly made it seem like an anti- national movement, which it isn’t. “I would gladly try and get them to the table. It may not be as a sort of open dialogue in the full glare of the world media; but quietly. I know the government of India did try and they started a quiet dialogue but unfortunately, again, circumstances sort of conspired to end that dialogue before it really got off the ground. If nothing else, I’d like to see some of these groups and individuals start a meaningful long-term engagement with the government of India to try and narrow the differences.”

As soon as the helicopter takes off, Omar quickly withdraws into his iPad. He is listening to Lionel Ritchie and reading Karl Rove at the same time

A CM’s meeting Omar chairs a review meet of health programmes, including distribution of sanitary napkins to poorer families
A CM’s meeting
Omar chairs a review meet of health programmes, including distribution of sanitary napkins to poorer families

“Sometimes, the problem is that the people, who we want to engage in the dialogue process, want the dialogue on the part of the government of India to be without pre-conditions, while they come forth with a whole list of pre-conditions themselves. You talk about the revocation of the Armed Forces Special Protection Act, you talk about demilitarisation, you talk about relief for prisoners, etc. These are steps that would be taken, or decisions that would be arrived at, as a result of the dialogue. Not as a precursor to the dialogue. If they are going to set pre-conditions, then the government of India would be free to set pre-conditions. And the moment they do that, this dialogue is not going to get off the table,” he says.

Some of the quiet engagement may have worked, at least for a while. On 5 August, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the extremist Hurriyat Conference veteran, held a press conference, in the course of which he asked his followers to adopt Gandhian ways of protest. Geelani re-ferred to the burning of railway stations and said this was not what he wanted. That day, barely anything moved as the forces imposed strict curfew in Srinagar, prompting people to say that Omar had worked over Geelani and allowed a press conference on such a day only to ensure the peace message went across.

But even this is largely fire-fighting. There’s little evidence of fresh thinking in Kashmir today. It’s the same long list of grievances, with a large dose of fresh fury. “Perhaps there isn’t fresh thinking,” Omar says. “Perhaps we have convinced ourselves and locked ourselves in this vicious cycle, where we are not willing to come forward and contribute positively. I can understand that the separatists have a vested interest in people dying so their movement can keep going. The moment some youth is killed as a result of a law and order disturbance, these guys are able to carry on with their calendar of protest for another week after that.

“But I fail to understand what the interest of the PDP (Mehbooba Mufti’s party, the People’s Democratic Party) is, other than discrediting my government and me personally. The more the separatists are able to keep their calendar of events going, the more the PDP space will also shrink. In the past few weeks, while we have been trying to reestablish contact with the people, where I have been travelling to Kangan, Handwara and other places, the only thing the PDP has seen fit to do is to lock the gate of the Secretariat. The PDP has 21 MLAs. I’m not saying they should have vast public meetings, but there ought to be at least some chatter against what is happening. Against the closure of schools, shops and government hospitals; against the suffering of the patients in hospitals. I haven’t heard one positive noise from them. You then have to worry about who you are and whether there is fresh thinking. Obviously not.”

OMAR HAS also taken one step that could mean a big difference on the streets. He is getting the police back to what they should have been doing anyway: deal with the people without guns. “It is an ongoing exercise,” he says. “There are two types of footprints we need to establish. One is the anti-insurgency one, which gives us some scope of moving around because of the lower level of violence. But where insurgency is going down, law and order disturbances are going up. I am no expert in conflict resolution, but experts have told me that this is a pattern. That an insurgency is followed by a period of law and order disturbance, which also has to be sorted out.

Tech solace In his helicopter, Omar with his iPad where he reads, downloads movies and listens to music
Tech solace
In his helicopter, Omar with his iPad where he reads, downloads movies and listens to music

“It is important to reorient some of our security forces to look at dealing with law and order disturbances, equip, train and orient them accordingly. We have five battalions of the Indian Reserve Police who were to go for specialised commando training so we could involve them in anti-insurgency operations. But we have realised that anti-insurgency operations are less of a priority for us than law and order. We have decided to reorient these battalions for law and order and train them like the Rapid Action Force; give them nonlethal equipment for crowd control. This is the sort of thing we have to do.”

What we are seeing of Omar is just the first stage of what he thinks will be a long time in Jammu and Kashmir. It took a series of meetings, not always pleasant, in the Abdullah household before Omar’s career was moved from hotel management to politics. It was a Rajiv Gandhi moment, the difference being that Omar’s wife agreed to his career shift. This is the youngest chief minister of India’s most sensitive state. He might make more mistakes, like anyone else. It could also mean he is chipping away at his weaknesses. In today’s Kashmir, that is one story worth following.

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