Farooq Abdullah, former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister and head of the National Conference, was released after spending 221 days under house-arrest. Only two days ago, his detention was extended till June under the stringent Public Safety Act. A number of domestic and international factors seemed to have persuaded the J and K administration to take what, hopefully, would be the first step in releasing others and in lifting the remaining restrictions imposed in the erstwhile State on August 5. Various PILs challenging his and other leaders’ detention in the apex court, the somewhat peaceful atmosphere in the valley, the continuing criticism from the international media and human rights activists, etc., seem to have prevailed in the release of the 82-year-old leader of the National Conference. His son and a former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, as also another former chief minister and leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, Mehbooba Mufti, are still held under the PSA. In all likelihood, the authorities would wait and watch how Abdullah Sr., reorganises political activity in the J and K, marshalling his followers to chart out a new course of action under the new constitutional order in the Union Territory. Particularly of interest will be his equation with the central government and what space for the resumption of democratic activity it would countenance within the overall security exigencies. Aside from the stringent clampdown, which included for a while a complete telecommunications lock-out as well, the Government has been trying to bolster panchayat-level self-government, though these polls carried little conviction. Also, a new political party formed by former members of the three parties, namely – NC, PDP and Congress, is scarred by the widespread suspicion of its proximity to the ruling establishment. It is unlikely to receive a positive nod from the ordinary people given the fear of the Hurriyat and other separatist elements. Fear of the jihadi prevents ordinary Kashmiris to choose a course of action which would ensure peace and security in the State. Besides the prominent political leaders still under detention, a number of separatist elements too are in prison since the nullification of Article 370 and the conversion of J and K into two separate union territories, one of J and K and the other Ladakh. The latter celebrated its new status, while Kashmir, not Jammu, vehemently opposed it. Meanwhile, the only sensible course of action for restoring confidence and a sense of security among ordinary Kashmiris is for Abdullah Sr to play the role of an elder statesman rather than merely as a leader of the National Conference. At this extraordinarily sensitive time in Kashmir, it needs his services to forge together a genuine alliance of all the diverse elements in the valley. It could take the shape of a wider consensus government of the NC, PDP and Congress, even BJP, if possible, to impart a sense of confidence and stability to the shattered psyche of Kashmiris. For nearly three decades, Kashmir has been in the grip of jihadi violence and the resulting heavy-handed response of the security forces.
This cycle of violent action and equally strong reaction by the security forces needs to be broken by the injection of a new political narrative centered around peace, security and normalcy. Farooq Abdullah has the rare opportunity in his rather long and cosseted political career to rise above himself and play the role of an elder statesman sans bitterness and animosity towards his captors and old political foes to try and pull Kashmir out of the cul-de-sac of violence and more violence. The task wouldn’t be easy. He will have to contend with the ISI proxies and other separatist elements, besides will be called upon to neutralise sections within the J and K administration who have come to have a vested interest in continuing conflict. It is a huge challenge. But at this stage in his life, he can shun personal and political to devote himself to ridding Kashmir of the cancer of violence and ISI jihad. Should he undertake this onerous mission, it would be appropriate for the central government not only to cooperate fully, but, in order help his task, to engage Pakistan to try and persuade it to stop terror exports into this country. Granted, it is a tough ask, but, then, Farooq Abdullah has nothing to lose if he fails, but if he succeeds he would earn the lasting gratitude of his people whom, truth be told, he did not particularly well serve thus far.