Kashmiris don’t see their future with India: Shah Faesal

Kashmiris don’t see their future with India: Shah Faesal
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Says won’t contest elections if people believe poll boycott is the solution

Srinagar: The aspiring politician Shah Faesal, whose resignation from bureaucracy triggered political storm in the Kashmir valley, stated that people do not see their future with India saying there is a ‘history’ behind it.
The first Kashmiri IAS topper from a far-flung Sogam village in north Kashmir said that people are against his joining any existing political party and he would not ‘contest election’ if there is a complete poll boycott. In an exclusive interview with Kashmir Reader correspondent Junaid Nabi Bazaz, Shah Faesal talked about issues ranging from the electoral politics to Public Safety Act. Here are excerpts.

Kashmir Reader (KR): What have you concluded now after you have held conversations with people about your decision of joining existing pro-India political party or are you going to float your own party?
Shah Faesal (SF): More than consensus, there is a lot of confusion. There have been various kinds of suggestions. There is a lot of energy. People want big things to happen, but I want to take some time, let the tempers cool down and let the bubble burst. One salient thing was that they don’t want me to join an existing political party.

KR: Where does your heart lie?
SF: I want to do social service. Elections are just a means for that. It does not make any sense to me if I get elected but do nothing for the public, and they feel that I am not representing them. I am ready to be independent, and contest the upcoming parliamentary elections, but this depends upon the kind of support I generate in the field.

KR: You have been thinking for two years about resigning? What were you thinking about?
SF: We have seen a lot of violence; we have seen educated young men picking up the gun against the state. We have seen serious governance issues as well; it was more about the political situation. Perhaps I realized that the system was not responding properly to the existing political situation. I was not able to respond to do something happening on the ground, but as an officer, I could not have done anything about it, because it was a political issue. At most I spoke about it, but the time has come to make a statement. My resignation is a small act of defiance to remind New Delhi of its responsibilities.

KR: What you are referring to is not something that is has happened for the first time. Thousands of Kashmiris took up arms in 1990s. There was Ikhwan; your father was killed too, so why and how did the last two years change your thoughts?
SF: I was a kid in the ‘90s. What happened in the last two years, we saw revival of violence, we witnessed killings of a different scale with the number of deaths increasing drastically.

KR: No. The last year’s figures were highest in the decade. There were more numbers before?
SF: For me I could not have done anything about it because I was in primary school. My political understanding started to develop after I was done with middle school (which is around 2002-2003). I started thinking about issues after that and my last 10 years of work in the field gave me a robust understanding about what was actually happening. As a district magistrate (DM), I was enforcing the Public Safety Act (PSA). I was enforcing section 144 and imposing curfews. This exposure was not something, which I had before. All this exposed and gave me a different perspective on the conflict.

KR: Do you regret the enforcement of PSA’s?
SF: I have not slapped many people with PSA’s and I was diligent while dealing with it. There was always a sense of regret in me. I wish there were more moderate and less harsh laws, which could be invoked to deal with the law and order situation. I always regretted that while slapping PSA’s we did not consider the context and socio-economic conditions of the victims and the fact that the conflict brought them to this point. So, I could never later convince myself to be district magistrate again, I did not want to do it.

KR: Was there any force, explicit or implicit, on you when you were DM?
SF: Honestly, no. But, there was always a sense of urgency at what we were doing. We were concerned about public order. We wanted traffic to ply, stone pelting to stop that time, because it was part of our job, and we were not supposed to be concerned about why all that was happening, and about the nature of the conflict.

KR: So you were at the helm. Why did not you do things in a humane way?
SF: PSA is the bread and butter of an officer to restore law and order. It cannot be changed at DM’s level, but at higher levels.

KR: What I meant was that how can a PSA be invoked when there are bizarre loopholes in the police dossier?
SF: I have not slapped many PSAs. But, yes, there are some PSAs which were repeatedly sent to me and the logic given is very strong by the administration, and it becomes incumbent for us to deal with it at that time. At a given moment in time, this makes us feel that it makes a difference because it improves the security situation, but it is extremely harsh on people.

KR: What is your understanding of the Kashmir issue?
SF: I see it as an inheritance from the past. The problem is about what kind of future people of Jammu and Kashmir want. Kashmiris do not see their future with union of India. Why is that so? There is a history to it. Is that good or bad? I reserve my comments on that, but people feel that way. And, it is up to the Indian state to make sense of it and they should.

KR: I don’t think that is possible in any extreme circumstances. You will at least vote for yourself if you are in the fray of elections?
SF: I will not contest elections if there is complete boycott, if people are convinced that boycott is the solution.

KR: Does logic justify injustice done on people?
SF: The district administration is concerned about the maintenance of public order. So it is those questions that how do you deal with justice, which is linked to the political justice, because all the stone pelting and other things occur due to the conflict. DM can, at most, look at it as a public order perspective and not from the point of view of justice. It is the politician who has to fill the gap. District administration does not care about aspirations; the politician has to play his or her role.

KR: How difficult was it for you to do what you were supposed to do, and not what your conscience was asking you to do?
SF: When it comes to being in the chair, and then feeling like a Kashmiri and, at the same time, when you are an officer as well, there is always a discomfort in the mind. You cannot hide from your inner self that there is conflict going on; there is a sentiment, and there is a motivation that is pushing a person to commit an act. People are ruining their futures: they are leaving their colleges, having good prospects, and choosing violence. But, as I told you, a DM can, at max, maintain public order, resume routine normal life, wherein the interim administration is workable. You can give a feedback to a politician that for how long you can keep a person behind bars. Then there is political failure. The DM is forced to take recourse to PSA’s when there is political failure; otherwise we don’t ever need PSA’s at the first place.

KR: So how would you represent the same administration when you know how it responds to an aspiration?
SF: My point is that it is a political failure. I am out of administration now. You cannot ask me administrative questions. It is up to the politician what kind of atmosphere he creates which can only happen when you enlarge the public space. A person takes to violence because his all avenues of dissent and expression are blocked, When you open the avenues of the expression when it comes to Kashmir, you have to be large hearted. It is only then you can expect this situation to calm down. Otherwise , you have given up, and passed the buck to the military, the district magistrate and so on, and then expect them to deal with what is essentially a political problem, wherein you will end up perpetuating only injustices. The end result is that you end up creating more PSA detainees and more stone pelters.

KR: So how can you represent it now?
SF: There is a governance structure in place which can fill the gap to some extent. There is a provision in the United Nations that talks about emergency administration that can take care of the day to day needs of the people while the process for resolution is on. So I believe that politics of the aspirations is the responsibility of the Hurriyat. They are the custodians of the sentiment, and no mainstream political party should try to encroach on this space. What electoral politics can, at max do, is that it be honest about this sentiment. It is a battle of ideas and they should provide them space. We should, in fact, say that we never got votes for the sentiment but for basic civic issues.

KR: So you won’t represent this aspiration in the parliament?
SF: My idea is that we should tell the people of India that this is how people feel: People don’t want to be with the union of India. It is the reality. Do you want a solution for it? Yes. Please go and talk to the Hurriyat; please talk to the people. We have not got that mandate. As a politician I will never go to the parliament and tell them there is no problem in Kashmir, and that the whole issue is of roads and so on. We have to engage with India.

KR: Do you think that Government of India does not know what Kashmiris want?
SF: It is never going to be enough; people have to continue this conversation, and I believe that we always abandon this conversation, and leave it half way, or we confuse the nature of the conversation. The moment it starts on aspirations, it moves to grievances; the interlocutor comes, and he starts transferring tehsildars, and agenda gets distracted. So our responsibility is to tell the GoI and people in the rest of the country there is an aspiration in Kashmir. We can’t dirty our hands with the blood of our people. You have one team of politicians coming and killing people another coming killing people; this cannot go on. Mainstream politics has to rise to the challenge and convince Indian state that this cannot go on.

KR: More than seventy years have gone into same exercise, but nothing came through it?
SF: That is why we are in a mess. Look, I am not going to be somebody who is going to change everything. I am saying that because you are asking me that I will continue that conversation in more or less manner. I am not somebody who is going to do something drastic. May be it happens. I don’t know. May be some miracle happens. May be it does not.

KR: Do you mean to say that mainstream politicians before were dishonest?
SF: No, I am saying that I am bringing something extra to the table. I have an experience of the field. That extra is a bit of honesty. I think I have a little bit of fearlessness; there is a little bit of sacrifice that was important, and I am ready for that challenge.

KR: Do Kashmiri people vote for India?
SF: It has never been even a part of political agenda. And, I am not asking them to vote for India. My vote is not for India, and I am not even asking them to allow me to represent this sentiment. I am telling them there is a entire space which has been occupied by Hurriyat, but they are not participating in elections, and they have every right not to because they don’t believe in that process, so they are the representative of the sentiment, and they will take care of it. I am no body to be representing the sentiment in the parliament. I can only tell the parliament that there are people always to be heard. I will have to be honest with people that I am not going to confuse elections as the resolution.

KR: You have said you need six months to prove yourself. What can you do even if you become the member parliament (MP)?
SF: I can build the trust of people on me because they got confused (and why not, we live in a conflict zone). It is hard for people to trust me. I say don’t trust me at a moment. Give me six months, and see what I mean by what I am talking. If you think I am talking sense, then trust me. That is the deliverable, and not that I will change something. One MP cannot change anything, but he can represent, present in a very better manner. Parliament is a very important institution in the country, and it matters. I am not here to change Kashmir.

KR: As an MP, you said there cannot be change. What if you become Chief Minister after five years, do you think things can then be changed?
SF: Absolutely not. All I am saying is that there should be a political initiative which addresses the fundamental nature of the Kashmir dispute.

KR: How do you rate Indian democracy in Kashmir?
SF: There have been problems in the way it has been operationalized in Kashmir because we have a history of rigging. Even in recent times elections became more like a military operation. Why so? We need to change that.

KR: Do you think you would be able to change that?
SF: Yes.

KR: How? You are not at the helm, but going as a candidate?
SF: I am not saying that I will change it overnight. Why are elections seen as military exercise because people see participating in elections equals betraying the blood of martyrs. Why is so? Because people feel that once you participate in elections, international community and India people are told that they came out for vote, so they believe, there is no sentiment. If we tell people that we will truthfully represent them rest of the world, elections would not mean endorsement of the status quo; people might even vote then for civic amenities. It will be absolutely okay, because they would feel nobody will cheat them: A mainstream politician would be telling the truth to the rest of the country.

KR: But, the Indian state does not think the way Shah Faesal thinks?
SF: If electoral politics is not seen the way it is seen right now, it will change.

KR: How would you ethically feel right when you would ask people to vote while dissent in the form of resistance leadership is locked either in their homes or jails? How fair do you see this electoral process?
SF: This is a very important question. I will say that we have election boycott in recent years, but we have seen that people still get elected here. I am here telling you, if there is a consensus in society we should boycott polls one hundred percent; I say I will never contest election. This is my categorical answer to you. I won’t contest elections if you assure me that there will be one hundred percent boycott.

KR: That is not possible?
SF: That is. The moment you have hundred percent boycott, that you have wrong people getting elected; it hurts in the long run. We have to wait for six years to get these wrong people do get down the chair because they misrepresent before the world and then it becomes a double edged sword for us. This is my on record challenge, if there is one hundred percent boycott, people won’t vote, they assure us they won’t, I will never contest elections.

KR: I don’t think that is possible in any extreme circumstances. You will at least vote for yourself if you are in the fray of elections?
SF: I will not contest elections if there is complete boycott, if people are convinced that boycott is the solution.

KR: What will you do if such a situation arises?
SF: I will wait for the resolution because there is nothing to be done and local administration has to be carried by other means.

KR: But my question still stands? You will ask people to vote while those who call for boycott will be locked?
SF: I believe they should be completely free that time. Had it been up to me, I would support their political activity, and keep them free to go door-to-door and appeal people for boycott.

KR: What about the civil liberties, political participation and political culture?
SF: Civil liberties in a conflict zone are a rarity. It is not something which we often talk about. We know that state tries to deals with it with a heavy hand to put down what you called resistance. And, in that there is a problem with the freedom of speech and expression, people’s freedom of movement, people freedom of association and gathering, that is always there. If we want violence levels to drop, we want levels of confrontation to drop; in that case, we will have to respect these civil liberties. If you don’t, then tempers will always be running high. It will be pushing people to the wall and there will be a complete confrontation and war.

KR: So you don’t claim to represent Kashmiri sentiment in the parliament, you don’t claim to change everything, but yet you claim disrupting and reimagining politics. Disruption is a political term used by Marx for transformational change, but where is that?
SF: I have not used disruption the way it is defined in political theory, but the way it has been used for start-ups. It is like getting new ideas; it means doing the same thing, but differently, in more efficient way.

KR: What is the solution? Nothing comes from international community, nothing from the GoI?
SF: As you said rightly we are disappointed by the international community, as there is not enough international solidarity over Kashmir. So what does it leaves us with? What options do we have? The option is that we ask India to engage, to come and talk to people, and ask them to take the relation to the next level. What is happening in return is that what is already left is being taken away. The existing constitutional arrangements, even as per United Nations, can’t be tampered with. This constitutional arrangement has to be respected. So, who will tell the GoI that it is important to respect these? For this, electoral politics is important.

KR: Kashmiris picking up the gun, boycott and other many things did not encourage India to resolve Kashmir?
SF: It is because nobody in India is going to resolve the dispute unless people of India want to resolve it. (People of India means its electorate). How Kashmir dead bodies function in the rest of India, you know it. We have never worked on public opinion in rest of the country. Have we? We don’t. The narrative in the rest of the country is that it is a counter terrorism issue. When a coffin goes from here, it creates a lot of hatred. We have martyrs this side, we have martyrs that side. So what happens? During elections this issue becomes a highly politicized and a highly explosive issue. Imagine a situation where people of rest of country, have a consensus. We already have support from left wing liberals in New Delhi and many metropolitan cities. So, public opinion doesn’t go waste. No war can solve it!

KR: But that will take years?
SF: That is how it is. You speed it up, hasten it, and then it will take lesser time.

KR: But, people are getting killed on a day to day basis?
SF: That is why we need to tell India that there is a sense of urgency. And, that is why I resigned. The Indian state needs to immediately start the process part of the resolution which means to release political prisoners, take too much of security forces from civilians areas, repealing draconian laws. These are CBMS, and it can be a starting point for a discussion over the dispute. I think Hurriyat has been very clear about these points. This needs to be done.

KR: What would you vote for, if at any point, a plebiscite is held in Kashmir?
SF: Well I think, it will be secret ballot, so I cannot reveal it before, but you can guess my choices. .

KR: How do you define Aazadi?
SF: It is a very difficult question for me because it does not matter how I does define it; it depends upon how people define it, but I think for people it means right to self determination. It means people have agency for their future, but how that is going to happen within the existing legal framework, is something that constitutes a challenge. How can we convince New Delhi that we need to add these taboo words that the public narrative can be more tolerant of. This is my idea.