“PM Modi said no demographic changes will be done; I think he is a man of commitment."

File Pic of Altaf Bukhari

After being expelled from PDP for his criticism of Party’s policy matters, Bukhari is now president of Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party (JKAP) that was formed by a significant number of political veterans having different political backgrounds. His party assumes significance for being the first in the entire political mainstream in  J&K that took the initiative to revive an almost dead political process by meeting the Prime Minister Narendra Modi after abrogation of Article 370.

Bukhari, is now again at the centre stage of political discourse in Jammu and Kashmir. In an exclusive conversation with  Syed Amjad Shah, He explains the reasons behind the formation of JKAP, and its vociferous advocacy of the rights of the people of J&K.

GK: What was the need to form a new political party in J&K?

AB: See, we live in a democracy. And there is no bar on formation of new political parties. As far as the formation of JKAP is concerned, I have stated many times before, that we were a like-minded group who could feel the fatigue among the people about the traditional style of politics being practiced in J&K.

The people in J&K have always been exploited with symbolism and election campaign pledges. So the conventional wisdom held that politicians can’t be trusted to keep their promises. And to a large extent that public assumption holds ground because of the lofty promises made by political parties in J&K, which were never fulfilled even during their stints in power.

We always felt this frustration among the public and its detestation of the mainstream politics. In an effort to fill this political vacuum, we decided to chalk out an alternative for the people, pledging to fight only for whatever was achievable and within the realm of possibilities. This pragmatic political conviction became the bedrock for formation of Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party.

What is the core agenda of your party?

Our party has a clear vision on all aspects of socio-economic and political empowerment of the people of J&K.But the core agenda of Apni Party revolves around the restoration of Statehood, Domicile Rights on land and jobs for the residents of J&K, and an equitable and holistic socio-economic development of all regions and sub regions of the State, keeping in view the modern day requirements.

You talked about restoration of statehood. Is there any breakthrough on this account so far?

We believe that people in J&K had not realized the embodiment of statehood before August 5, 2019. For JKAP the statehood is a reference to the glorious past and a privilege for solidification of the idea of pluralism and respectful coexistence in Jammu and Kashmir which was unique among all the states in the country.

You know from day one JKAP has been relentlessly in pursuit of securing special rights and privileges for the people of J&K at all forums available to us. Let me tell you that we have met the Prime Minister and Union Home Minister submitting our memorandum of demands and first and foremost demand was about restoration of Statehood to J&K.

We have vigorously put forth this demand and we are of firm belief that it will be fulfilled very soon as per the commitment of the country’s top leadership on the floor of the Parliament. Need of the hour is that the government of India should take a call on this and restore the statehood to J&K at an earliest so that the people of J&K become masters of their own fate.

How do you see the August 5, 2019 developments?

To me, like any other resident of J&K, the abrogation of Article 370 was a watershed moment. But you know these decisions have been challenged and the case is sub-judice. The Hon’ble Supreme Court is yet to decide the matter. I can only hope and pray that the verdict of the Apex Court be as per the hopes and aspirations of the people of J&K.

Are there any chances of this becoming a reality?

As far as the Supreme Court decision is concerned, it will surely be based on constitutional jurisprudence involved in these political decisions. But in the second case, I see very bleak chances at least in the near future, for any political consensus evolving on revocation of August 5, 2019 decisions as the issue has gained immense political hype across the country. Except for murmuring against the way abrogation of Article 370 took place, it seems that no political party in the country is ready to burn its fingers by taking a firm stand against the annulment of J&K’s special status. So, personally speaking, my all hopes are pinned in the Supreme Court’s decision.

What is your opinion about the decision of bifurcation of J&K and turning a State into a Union Territory?

J&K’s bifurcation into two union territories and downgrading of a state into a union territory has personally baffled me a lot. This was an unprecedented move. Usually the trend has been to turn a Union Territory into a state, thereby bridging the gap between the administration and the people, and reducing the direct central hand in day-to-day management of state affairs.

As far as the bifurcation of J&K is concerned, though a bitter reality, let us accept it that there was a brewing demand in Ladakh that the region be sliced out followed by the grant of status of a Union Territory. Right or wrong, that is debatable. However, downgrading J&K State into a Union Territory is a subversion of the principle of federalism that respects the autonomy of the states. Even the Union Territories with elected Legislature do not have complete autonomy.

It is an undeniable reality that the developments which took place in August 2019, particularly the deprivation of statehood has badly affected the self-esteem, pride and confidence of the people across Jammu and Kashmir. This has resulted not only into a complete breakdown of the political institutions but has also stalled the result oriented and purposeful developmental activity. There is a sense of intense discontentment on one side and an attitude of complete indifference on the other side, which at any cost, can’t be left unattended. That is why the restoration of statehood to J&K forms the core of our party agenda and we are hopeful that the leadership of our country will surely fulfill its promise on the subject made on the floor of Parliament, very soon.

Almost all political mainstream leaders, including Dr Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah have been released. You have been vehemently demanding their release. Any special reasons?

I am more than happy that most of the mainstream leaders are out of detention and also take this occasion to reiterate my party’s demand to remove restrictions on PDP president Mehbooba Mufti and release other workers irrespective of their political affiliations, who have been lodged outside J&K. They should be immediately shifted to J&K and released subsequently. Similarly, a compassionate policy needs to be framed regarding detainees jailed under PSA. This can be a big confidence building measure.

I personally believe that politics is all about tolerance for ideas of your opponents. You can agree or disagree but any kind of disagreement should not mean that you will silence your political opponents by putting curbs on their movement and freedom of expression. There is no special reason behind this demand except for the fact that this is against the rights guaranteed by our constitution.

Omar Abdullah has said that he will not participate in elections till J&K remains a UT. How do you see these remarks?

I think it was Omar Sahab talking in his individual capacity, so leaving no chances for commenting on his personal opinion. In a democratic set up everybody is entitled to have and express his or her opinions. Why he will not contest, it is better to ask Omar Sahab to elaborate on the issue.

On one side you are said to be very close to power corridors in New Delhi and on the other you have been critical of various government policies in J&K. Please explain a little bit about this public perception.

Raising public issues and being critical to anti people policies is a cherished right in a democracy. You remain faithful to your conscience and the people, only when you remain impartial and do justice with your position.

As I told you earlier, our party believes in practical politics and it hardly matters whether you are in power or in opposition.And it also doesn’t matter whether you are close to power corridors or not.The pragmatism in politics warrants us to speak and fight for issues of public importance and not to bother about consequences.

Let me assure you that taking reins of power or being close to power corridors will never deter me, or my party, from preventing the regimes from implementing policies which are detrimental to the public interest.

You have been critical of the new Domicile rules vis-à-vis qualifying period for a person to become Domicile of J&K. What was it all about?

Our party expressed displeasure with regard to the period for becoming a domicile in J&K. We are thankful to the union home minister for protecting our right to preference in government employment which was initially restricted to class fourth jobs only. But we will continue to demand that the qualifying period for becoming a domicile in J&K should be at least 25 years.

Similarly, on land ownership rights, we believe that there should be no colonisers. No agricultural land should be allowed to be bought by non-domicile people. There should be a ceiling on how much land one can purchase in J&K.

The youth of Kashmir have been the worst hit in this decades old conflict. What is JKAP’s vision for the youth of J&K?

Altaf Bukhari: I feel youth in J&K are extremely alienated due to multiple reasons. This alienation, especially in Kashmir valley, makes most of them an easy fodder for those who want to foment trouble in the region.

We cannot afford loss of another generation which otherwise can be addressed with a meaningful engagement with the youth and their aspirations. JKAP has a concrete and comprehensive policy that will ensure socio-political and economic empowerment of our youth. We need to reach out to our youth and understand their problems and issues they face in their daily lives. One of the biggest problems our youth faces today is an alarming unemployment ratio.

We would like the central government to help J&K youth in this regard. Opening up of new avenues through liberal investment in different economic sectors would eventually generate employment opportunities for our youth who want to earn a dignified livelihood and live in peace.

Delimitation Commission has been constituted recently. Many believe that this is an exercise to give an upper hand to Jammu region especially in government formations. What is your take on this development?

The public opinion that adjustment of boundaries and description of the extent of parliamentary or assembly constituencies has been thrust to pit Jammu against Kashmir to gain for some political mileage needs to be addressed by the leadership of the country.

I believe that the functioning of Delimitation Commission should be fair and transparent and if the number of seats of assembly or parliamentary segments is to be increased the same should be carried out rationally and not thrust on people in an arbitrary fashion. I think at least seven seats likely to be carved out by the Delimitation Commission can be filled on nomination basis and the same should not be used as a justification for delay in elections.

But nevertheless, our party has already started examining the pros and cons of the mandate of delimitation commission and we will come up with suggestions and objections, if needed, at an appropriate time and will not allow anybody to have a walkover.

You have already voiced your concern on possible demographic changes in J&K. Could you please explain a little bit more on this issue?

See, there are some apprehensions among people with regard to demographic transformation in J&K. But we have been assured by the top level leadership of the country that there will be no fiddling with the demographic character of J&K. On March 14, this year, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself assured our party delegation that there will be no demographic change to Jammu and Kashmir. PM Modi said no demographic changes will be done. I think he is a man of commitment and he has dispelled these notions.

Q: What do you think about elections? Is there any chance of elections taking place in near future?

See, there are multiple factors being attributed to delay in elections in J&K. Delimitation process, and now the COVID Pandemic, are seemingly the main justifications being propounded for this delay. But I think there should be no further delay in holding elections in J&K. When the election commission can go for election preparation for Bihar amid COVID pandemic, why not J&K? I think the government of India is weighing the options and let us be hopeful that elections take place very soon.

Do you think the government of India has been selective in its approach on implementation of laws in J&K after abrogation of Article 370.

I know you are talking aboutcertain union laws and laws governing union territory that are beneficial to the public, which are yet to be enforced in J&K. Let me tell you that we have not only raised this issue in the public domain but we have properly mentioned this issue in our charter of demands submitted to the government of India. We have been assured that there will be no selective approach in enforcement of laws. The union home minister has himself assured us that he will ensure applicability of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 in Jammu and Kashmir and address the issue accordingly.

You have on many occasions criticized government interference in the JK Bank? Any special reasons for that?

We have stated our position clearly that the Bank should enjoy functional autonomy in letter and spirit. The government should not run this historic and prestigious financial institution as one of its treasuries. This Bank needs to be run by professionals. Bureaucrats who disappointingly don’t see a reason to empathize with the suffering masses of J&K should be restrained from calling shots in this Bank. JKAP pledges to foil any sinister designs which aim at diluting the functional autonomy of this Bank. We are glad that the Bank responded to our call and cancelled the appointment of a non domicile as CFO who was appointed clandestinely in April this year.

Similarly, we demand that the Bank declare results of over 1,50,000 aspirants who had appeared for examination for the posts of banking associates and probationary officers but are waiting for the results for last over two years. What is the sin of those candidates who cleared a three-phase-examination process conducted during Governor S.P Malik’s tenure? Cancelling the selection list after two years is gross injustice with the youth of J&K.

Sadly there is an unwarranted and extra ordinary interference which has limited the functioning of this bank, thereby causing immense sufferings to the people especially the farmers, horticulturists, traders, businessmen, hoteliers, restaurant owners, houseboat owners, gold associations, transporters, manufacturers, small, medium and big industrial units and other allied sectors of trade and commerce who are the basic pillars of economy of Jammu and Kashmir.

Recently the Bank stopped salaries of around 2800 employees. What is their fault? They are the permanent employees of the Bank and have been giving their best to expand its business on the ground.

Also attempts are being made for the last over two years to malign the integrity of this institution by continuous raids and searches being conducted by Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB). The J&K Bank’s corporate office has virtually turned into an ACB office with the Bank’s executives being found assisting the investigating agency round the clock. The union home minister should intervene into the matter and ensure this iconic financial institution gets rid of the intimidating atmosphere.

In the history of the annual Darbar move, the Government has for the first time bifurcated the civil secretariat, retaining some major offices in Jammu and shifted some offices to Srinagar. What in your opinion has compelled the government to take such a decision?

I think this is a mockery; a cruel joke with people of both the divisions of J&K. Retaining some offices in Jammu and shifting some offices to Srinagar, instead of full Darbar Move is a deliberate attempt to create administrative anarchy in Jammu and Kashmir. It seems this government decision was aimed at keeping a section of officers and employees in good homour. But in the long run, this decision will have serious ramifications for the interests of people.

Also the officers in civil secretariat or in the field who are natives of J&K have been assigned insignificant postings while the officers from outside J&K who have only a faint idea about the local culture, needs, and problems, are enjoying plum positions. This is in a way a deliberate attempt to turn J&K into an administrative minority which means the officers from outside J&K would come and rule the roost.

I fail to understand; it was said that Article 370 was an impediment in development of Jammu and Kashmir, then please suggest one example of development J&K has witnessed after its abrogation? This means it is not the laws, but the people who implement them that really matters. Bureaucratic wrangling and red-tape have always been impediments in the development of J&K. We need to think over it.

Instead of ensuring home delivery of essential items during the COVID lockdown, the government had recently decided to open new liquor sale points in Jammu and Kashmir. Over 60 locations in Kashmir valley alone were identified for this purpose. What do you think should be the priority of the government?

If I am right, a clarification was issued by the government in this regard. But nevertheless, openingof new liquor shops in J&K is totally unacceptable to JKAP especially in Kashmir valley which we believe is an open onslaught on our cultural ethos. Such decisions are highly condemnable. Kashmir is a land of sufis and saints and such obnoxious proposals are mooted to vitiate the peaceful atmosphere. These decisions are bound to breed immorality among the local youth, who are already fighting against the drug menace. We have already voiced our concern over this issue saying that when states like Gujarat, Bihar, Nagaland, Mizoram and Lawkshdeep can ban liquor sale and consumption, why choose predominantly Muslim areas of Kashmir Valley for opening large scale liquor sale points . The government should utilize its time and resources in assessing the basic needs of families in J&K who are in dire need of food and ration due to the COVID crisis.  We will not allow any such mischief that is bound to propagate immorality and crime in our society.

You were the first to demand establishment of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) in J&K. The government of India accepted your demand but established a CAT Bench in Jammu. Why not a similar bench at Srinagar?

As far as establishment of Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) is concerned, we are thankful to the government of India for conceding to our demand of setting up a CAT Bench in Jammu instead of shifting service matters from J&K High Court to CAT in Chandigarh. If you recall, we had demanded two separate CAT Benches; one for Jammu, and one for Srinagar. Since one bench has already been established in Jammu we have already reiterated our demand for a separate CAT bench to be established in Srinagar so that the employees and the youth get justice at their doorsteps.  Let me add here that we also want the President of the country to intervene and take a review of the strength of judges in two wings of Jammu and Kashmir High Court. We appeal the President to alleviate the regional and religious imbalances in J&K’s judicial set up.

You have many times demanded special financial packages for various economic sectors. Do you believe these packages reach the stakeholders in J&K?

See, J&K’s economy was already in recession due to multiple factors particularly the law and order situation. This dismal economic scenario worsened since August 5, 2019. Industries, tourism, agriculture, horticulture, handicrafts, transport, hotel industry and all other allied sectors are reeling under tremendous distress. Absence of a practicable mechanism to support the stakeholders of these sectors is still missing.

JKAP demands the central government needs to go for a liberal economic package to boost all these sectors of economy of Jammu and Kashmir. Fiscal incentives, interest subvention, tax exemptions, Kisan Credit loans waiver can be some major confidence building measures in this regard. And Ibelieve thattimes have changed and the government at the centre is serious in rebuilding the lost trust and confidence of stakeholders of the J & K economy.

Q: You have been one of the successful public works ministers in J&K. Don’t you think the government of India has miserably failed in developing a dependable National Highway connecting Kashmir division with the rest of the country? Similarly, the work on railway connectivity still seems a distant dream.

When we met the union home minister last time, one of the demands we raised was about the road, railway and air connectivity problems faced by the people of J&K. I completely agree with you on this count. The government of India has miserably failed to develop an all-weather National Highway between Srinagar and Jammu. This is otherwise the only land connectivity between the people of Kashmir with the rest of the country.

Last when JKAP delegation called on the union home minister, he assured us that development of Jammu-Srinagar National Highway which has been a source of perpetual distress for the people of Kashmir region will be taken up on urgent basis.

He had also affirmed that the cap on airfare will be also taken up with the concerned ministry and similarly construction of tunnels to connect different regions of Jammu and Kashmir would be taken up on priority.

On railway connectivity between Kashmir and rest of the country, we believe that the hurdles will be removed very soon. I hope and believe that the union home minister will deliver on his promises made with us on the development of Srinagar-Jammu National Highway and other inter regional connectivity links on fast track basis.

The Mughal road has to be kept as an alternative route for fruit and vegetable transportation. Road connectivity is also a major problem for our farmers of R. S.Pura who produce Basmati but can’t get it properly marketed.

You have been education, R&B and finance minister in the past. Even as a former minister for public works, people still remember you for the development of roads in your tenure. Do you think there is something missing in governance on the ground nowadays?

There is no popular government in J&K. And whenever there is no popular government in place, it is the bureaucrats who call the shots.In such a scenario the element of accountability remains missing.Elected governments are accountable before the public and they know that if they don’t deliver they would not return to power.

I don’t deny that developmental works are not going on under the present dispensation led by Lieutenant Governor but there is a visible administrative inertia which is eating into the vitals of the governance in J&K. There is total disconnect between the people and the administration. People are suffering for want of basic amenities like roads, water, electricity, drainage, street lights and so on and so forth.

Since the J&K was reduced to a union territory, there has been lobbyism within the bureaucratic ranks. I think this has dented the apparatus of governance in J&K. Some officers enjoying proximity to the power corridors at the Centre think they are unaccountable before the present regime in J&K. This issue needs to be addressed by the home ministry on priority. Similarly, the local officers have been pushed to oblivion. They have been running the government affairs in a more effective manner knowing the ground realities. But there is some nefarious design to isolate them which we will never accept as a regional political party.

What is your plan to revive tourism and horticulture in J&K?

Tourism has to be revived. In the tourism sector, people should be given one-time interest free loans to maintain their properties. At least 50 per cent of their cost must be borne for three years. They should be able to keep their properties intact till tourism returns to J&K. There will have to be air fare protection. It should not be such that people prefer to go abroad than come here.

To start with, first of all the horticulture sector should be compensated for the losses due to snowfall, which was the worst since 30 years. We will have to subsidize the transport cost also. Market intervention scheme introduced last year was an utter failure. It should be planned well in advance and we should see that payments are made immediately on receipt of consignment.

There are over a lakh daily wagers, daily rated workers, contingency paid, consolidated workers, need based employees who are awaiting regularization. What does JKAP think about this vast section of hapless employees of J&K?

Daily wagers and other employees are suffering immensely for the last over three decades. They must be regularised without any precondition since they have served for decades. This should also apply to employees of the J&K Bank who are facing termination because of none of their fault.

Government recently removed engaged people from the Information and Public Relations Department. They were selected after following proper procedure and guidelines. Why were they removed? They must be taken back.

Since you are yourself a prominent industrialist, don’t you think this sector is suffering from perpetual sickness in J&K and no concrete measures are being taken by the government to revive this important economic sector?

The J&K industrial policy 2016, though with many loopholes, had ensured viability of the local industrial units including micro, small, medium and large in view of the geographical and economical limitations faced by the unit holders.

The inevitable cost of achieving competitive efficiency which is being projected by the government cannot be applied to J&K unit holders who are not in a position to compete with their counterparts from the rest of the country. This is true with all Micro, Small, Medium and Large industrial enterprises in J&K.

I think the industrial unit-holders in the rest of the country are far more ahead in terms of availability of raw material, cheap labour costs, uninterrupted power supply and constant working allowances. While as in contrast, the J&K unit holders work only for a few months in a year and most of the time especially in Kashmir valley these units’ remains shut.  Besides, the J&K unit holders have a limited market and primarily depend on government tenders. In my opinion the government of India should not equate J&K unit holders with their counterparts from the rest of the country when there is a huge difference between the parameters of industrial feasibility.

The government should accord preference to the J&K unit holders in extending incentives or otherwise the local unit holders here will have no other option but to close their units rendering lakhs of skilled and unskilled youth unemployed in both divisions of Jammu and Kashmir.

To sum it up, what I want to say is that the industrial sector in J&K needs protection. We are at the tail end of this vast country. If we become a producing state, the entire country will be a market for us. Whatever industries we set up should be able to compete. If somebody sets up an industry in Kathua and somebody sets up industry in Karnah, both should be able to compete in Delhi. If an industrialist in Kathua gets ‘X’ as subsidy, the man in Karnah must get ‘X plus’. Unless industry gets protection it cannot flourish. Protection for trade and industry must be a basket of everything.

GK: One of the main reasons behind shortage and skyrocketing prices of key construction material in J&K is that the government has auctioned the mining blocks to non residents of J&K. You raised your voice against this practice. Was there any success?

You know that I raised this issue publicly and also called on Lt. Governor G C Murmu in this regard. A delegation of my party colleagues also called on him seeking his intervention. I am delighted that the Administrative Council headed by the Lt Governor later approved the amendment of Jammu and Kashmir Minor Mineral Concession, Storage, Transportation of Minerals and Prevention of Illegal Mining Rules, 2016. By virtue of these amendments the extraction and lifting of raw material including sand, stones, aggregate and gravel has been allowed on a short term permit basis and in rural areas Panchayats were empowered to allow such activities. However, I am not fully satisfied with the government decision in this regard as the Short Term Permits have been kept valid for 45 days and in the meantime the authorities ask for environmental clearances (ECs) from the mining contractors. Obtaining ECs takes at least six months and till then your Short Term Permits are expired. This makes no sense. The government should review its decision and come clean on the issue. Our party believes that the first claim on local resources rightfully belongs to the natives of J&K and the government must chalk-out a protective mechanism for ensuring the rights of locals on minor mineral resources are safeguarded.

At a time when the whole world has advanced in mobile internet technology and people are switching over to 5G technology, how do you see the ban on 4G mobile internet in J&K?

The restoration of 4G internet connectivity in all regions of J&K needs to be looked on top priority. It’s one year since the ban on 4G mobile internet was imposed. The ban is totally unjustifiable and has caused huge inconvenience to the people especially students and traders community in J&K. I think the government of India must review its decision and lift the ban on high speed mobile internet.

The Bandipora incident in which three BJP affiliates belonging to a single family were killed in suspected militant attack.  Don’t you think political activists in Kashmir valley are vulnerable to such threats and the same hampers the political process on the ground?

First of all I condemn that incident. After the recent barbaric and mindless killings at Bandipora, the political activists irrespective of their affiliations feel insecure, humiliated and left out midway as per the past practice. The front row political activists are humiliated by withdrawal of security from their residences. They are constantly deprived of security cover in their respective electoral segments. Hence they are forced to cool their heels in Srinagar, bringing the much talked about political process to a halt. The issue needs to be decided either way once for all.