Junaid Azim Mattu, the Mayor of Srinagar, has emerged as one of the key politicians in Kashmir. His approach towards issues concerning Kashmir is drastically different from that of the mainstream political parties. Mattu comes down heavily on the mainstream political parties and Hurriyat leaders in a free-wheeling interview with Organiser Correspondent Nishant Kr Azad. He talks about development initiatives and expectations of the people from the Centre. Excerpts:
It’s been two years of abrogating Article 370 and 35A from Jammu & Kashmir. How do you see the change in the Valley now?
I don’t think that the decision taken in 2019 can be judged entirely in a time span of two years. To know iwhether improvement has come about and where improvisation is still needed will take some time. But at the same time, I must say this, when Article 370 was abrogated, there were two arguments. One narrative was of Parliament of India and the Army that the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A would lead to the empowerment of the common man and pave the path towards development. I have always said that even if you look at this decision with neutrality, that argument needs to be proven on the ground. So we will have to see positives, if any on the ground, in terms of development, empowerment of the people, job creation, and eradication of unemployment and poverty. All these issues need to be assessed. The man on the street still sees the aftermath of the decision of August 5, 2019, with scepticism but not cynicism, that is a positive development. But the downgrade of the State to Union Territory has deeply grieved the people of J&K, across the religious and regional divides.
Still, a lot of development work might have taken place in these two years.
I am a product of alternative politics; I keep speaking against the mainstream. But I have 10-15 years of experience in mainstream politics. If we blame the two mainstream parties and generalise that all politicians were bad and saying that all developmental works have been done only in the past two years, then you are stigmatising the entire political class. This isn’t the idea of India but Pakistan. I do not deny the Government statistics. We have an able and competent person as our Lieutenant-Governor (LG). In the absence of a political Government, certain areas become easy for the Government to deliver. But that doesn’t mean that ‘less politics and less Government’ should be prized. I hear the officers discussing the committee report card that all is well in the last two years; throughout the seven decades before that, nothing happened. Well, it was you yourself who were working in the same system over the previous 30 years. Yes, I agree that many things went wrong during the previous 70 years — what were you doing then? The alternative leadership of J&K raised their voice against traditional mainstream politics and not the bureaucracy. For public servants to critique the political class in a democracy is the death of democracy. So I hope that someone from the top stops bureaucrats who come out in public and say that everything has changed in the last two years and the politicians have messed up everything in the past. They should be asked why they were working with the same set of politicians for the last 30 years.
'If J&K doesn’t get statehood, we have a mischievous country at the border that will manufacture the narrative that the Union Government of India doesn’t trust Muslim-majority Kashmir. What will we tell the Dogras and Pandits in Jammu, that the Centre doesn’t trust them with statehood?'
What is your idea of India?
For me, the idea of India is the idea of inclusivity, the idea of multi-culture, the idea of secularism, the idea of accommodation. The very idea is that a man can be anything and can become anything. I find the idea of India extremely empowering and equally magnanimous. I believe that my idea of India and your idea of India can be different, as long as we both believe that national interest is supreme, that nation’s integrity is supreme, that the forces inimical to the nation’s security are to be dealt with. But internally, we can accommodate each other’s intricacies, flaws and contrarian views; that’s my idea of India. This is completely opposite to the idea of Pakistan. Thus, when we say that the statehood of J&K should be restored and democratic institutions should be allowed to function, we are asking for the idea of India to flourish.
Weeks ago, an all-party meet was held in New Delhi. What is your opinion on that?
I think it was a nice gesture by the Prime Minister to have initiated this. Not just as the Mayor of Srinagar and a politician but as a citizen of J&K and a proud citizen of India, I hope this gesture is followed on the ground. The Central Government needs to make the bureaucracy realise that this is a temporary phase, we have to move forward to the political phase, we have to move towards a democratic J&K. The bureaucracy has its role, the officers have their role, but ultimately it is the will of the people choosing their representatives which is supreme. We believe in democracy; our Constitution says that we have ‘Lok-Raj’ (people’s rule) and J&K is no different.
How has the abrogation of Article 370 affected the separatist forces in J&K?
I think Hurriyat is sidelined not just by the Government only, but by the people at large. There is no doubt that once Hurriyat did command an aspirational foothold among the people of the Valley, but we have fought against that sentiment and have convinced people that the idea of India is way forward and our future lies with India. Hurriyat is losing relevance as its leadership lived a luxurious life of comfort and never shared a roadmap for the resolution of the issues. I think the people of J&K have realised that such people have exploited the rest for their personal gains.
PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti said Pakistan should be included in the talks on Kashmir.
Mehbooba Mufti can speak whatever she likes. As the Chief Minister of J&K she was the tallest nationalist in the State; she didn’t remember Pakistan then. Mehbooba Mufti is a politician who is supposed to be in Opposition, doing full melodrama, theatrics, which make her a capable Opposition leader. She knows that her electoral prospects are terribly bad. PDP for years told the people of Kashmir that BJP would come to power, hence vote for us. BJP came to power, BJP-PDP alliance Government was formed. While in the Government, they spoke a lot against the BJP, the policies of the Government. Eventually, PDP got disintegrated. Thus, she has now only one option, talking with Pakistan. The political issues of J&K need to be resolved, but when and how to negotiate with Pakistan is not a State subject; we have the Prime Minister of India, the Home Minister, and the Minister for External Affairs. Mufti should stop misleading people.
'Hurriyat is losing relevance as its leadership lived a luxurious life of comfort and never gave a roadmap for resolving the issues. The more the situation worsened, it benefited Hurriyat. There came many occasions on which they could have successfully carved a middle path and resolved the issue by aligning with the idea of India, but they chose not to do as the conflict had become an industry'
You are a vocal critique of the Gupkar Alliance. Do you think they are still relevant ?
When the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Conference decided to go the Gupkar way, I argued that we were emerging as an alternative to NC and PDP, why should we go to the offices of the same people and hobnob with those who are responsible for the entire mess in J&K. Due to my repulsion to Gupkar, I distanced myself. Gupkar represents political elitism, political nepotism, those who themselves remained in power but alienated the people of Kashmir from the rest of India. They sowed the seeds of discontent in the minds of the youth of the Valley while enjoying the power. They institutionalised corruption. In my opinion, Gupkar is responsible for the deterioration of the situation and the deaths of youths in the Valley.
The whole world suffered because of the COVID-19. As the Mayor, how did you deal with the crisis and what are your plans to tackle the situation if a Third Wave arrives?
I would talk about the situation in Srinagar because I was dealing with it here in the first and second waves. For J&K, I would say that we did far better than was expected from us, compared to other States, despite lesser resources. Srinagar district was included in the aspirational list of the Prime Minister, the top 10 districts in the country in the fight against COVID-19. We started sharing our best practices with the top Municipal Corporations of the country like Mumbai and Delhi; they used to ask how we manage. And we tried our best with meagre resources, we weren’t aware of how to manage the pandemic at first, but we poured our sweat and blood and fought. So the district administration of Srinagar has worked well in the containment zone, the vaccination ratio is also good. We have done a good job and I am satisfied. I commend all the officers involved, all the public representatives and the administration of the UT and the Lieutenant-Governor that our fight against COVID is very systematic, very productive. There are apprehensions about the third wave; let’s hope that’s not true, and the only hope we have is vaccination. The people in the age group of 45+, a majority of them have been vaccinated, most of the districts are 100 per cent or 99 per cent vaccinated. The strongest line of defence will be drawn only when vaccination numbers go high. The primary focus of administration is thus on vaccination.
Srinagar is a famous tourist destination. What steps have been taken to boost tourism?
We are trying to change the face of Srinagar. We want to see Srinagar as a modern, metropolitan, liberal, progressive, cosmopolitan city. Scenic beauty is nature’s gift to Srinagar, but tourism cannot thrive just on scenic beauty. Tourism infrastructure needs to be upgraded. Many places in Kashmir are not on the tourism map due to the lack of tourism infrastructure. My vision for Srinagar is to make it a model city. We want to construct multiplexes and other places like restaurants and cafes where people can socialise while maintaining the ecological balance. When I overtook as the Mayor of Srinagar, the city was one of the most polluted in India and our ranking was in the range of 400+. Now in the latest Swachh Bharat Sarvekshan, Srinagar comes in the list of India's top 30 cleanliest cities. This is our achievement.
'Gupkar represents political elitism, political nepotism, those who themselves remained in power but alienated the people of Kashmir from the rest of India. They sowed the seeds of discontent in the minds of the youth of the Valley, while themselves enjoying the power. It represents duplicity and duality, exploitation of the worst order, corruption of the highest order'
Your term as the Mayor has been full of controversies, once your own corporators sat on protest against you and the other time, you yourself sat on protest and ended it, for reasons unknown. What is the issue?
My corporators never sat on protest against me. The corporation is an elected body. Compare this to Jammu Municipal Corporation, which is stable, as 2/3rd of the people have been elected on BJP ticket; thus BJP forms a majority there. Here, the elections were conducted amid a boycott by a majority of the political parties. About 90 per cent of the corporators elected are independent candidates. This is the beauty of democracy, there is nothing wrong with that. If public servants protest for their selfish cause, then it is wrong, but there is nothing wrong with it if it is for the public cause. Even Vajpayeeji protested outside Parliament; this is the beauty of democracy. The reason for my sitting on the protest was against an officer related to building permits. When I became the Mayor, the revenue was Rs 1.5 crore, which increased to Rs 18 crore in one year. The problem is that no one asks these kinds of questions in our narrative about policymaking. Due to the Joint Commissioner of Planning, building permission got very difficult in the city, which resulted in large-scale corruption and illegal constructions. It takes 8-9 months to procure a house permit; most people don’t have the patience to wait for that much time. This issue was raised by us in a public meeting.
As a politician, I have no problem with agitation; I come from the street, come to the booth, am elected, and have no problem going back to the booth. If some officer works against the welfare of the people, he has been safeguarded by the Constitution; then as the elected representative, I have to become the people's voice, even when I am sitting on a statutory position. I shall not tolerate those who torment the people of Srinagar. People of Srinagar were aggrieved on the fact that building permissions were getting delayed. Taking cognisance of that, the LG himself has issued a discretion that the building permit has to be cleared within 22 days. I am grateful that he passed the decision that people should get the necessary permission in a time-bound manner.
A few months ago, you stated that you will repair all the damaged Hindu temples in Kashmir Valley, which was appreciated by the public. What actions have been taken by you so far in this regard?
It will be a challenge for us. Our housing department needs to be drastically improved. The urban local bodies including the corporations of both Jammu and Srinagar, work under the parent body named Housing and Urban Development Department. That department is in need of severe administrative reforms and drastic administrative reforms. I announced the decision as the Mayor of Srinagar. The parent department should meet halfway. It’s my wish to re-construct the damaged Hindu temples in Srinagar and rehabilitate Kashmiri Hindus. It will be a nice gesture towards the Kashmiri Pundits. When I discussed this idea with the LG, he expressed his satisfaction. We are pushing it; we, in phases, will arrange money and other sources and restore as many temples as possible.
'Drug menace is not just a social evil in J&K; there is terrorism-narcotics nexus in J&K. What Pakistan has done with the Kashmiri people is not just violence, they have broken their limbs, and terrorism-narcotics nexus has been part of that '
As per the official data of 2015, 2016 and 2017, there have been a rampant rise in drug abuse in J&K. As a youth leader, what are your plans to deal with this menace?
Drug menace is not just a social evil in J&K; there is a terrorism-narcotics nexus in J&K. What Pakistan has done with the Kashmiri people is not just violence; they have broken their limbs, and terrorism-narcotics nexus has been part of that. Unlike other parts of the country, our institutional mechanism to fight the drug menace have evolved comparatively slowly, as our previous Governments were not keen to solve this issue. They lacked the seriousness and responsibility to tackle this menace. The solution to this is to follow a multi-fold approach. There is stringent action, enforcement of the prohibition by law and order. The social role of the community is equally important. The religious leaders, opinion leaders, thought leaders, youth leaders should first accept that this evil exists in our society. Our religious leaders should play a role in making people aware. In the school curriculum, students must be taught how drug consumption ruins life. As the Mayor of Srinagar, it is my priority and in the near future, we will gain success in our fight against drug abuse.
J&K is under the direct jurisdiction of the Union Government. What are your expectations from the Central Government for the betterment of J&K?
The solution to all our problems lies within India. Our solutions will not come from anywhere else in the world but from within the country. The Central Government is the most powerful institution. I sincerely hope that the Central Government will restore statehood to J&K and initiate the democratic process. The Prime Minister himself called the meeting and chaired it; I think it is a beginning in the right direction. I hope that the entire trajectory is visible, phase cajole can be witnessed of which delimitation will be a step of returning J&K to the people. The rule of people is the very idea of India.
How do you see Narendra Modi as a political leader as well as the Prime Minister of India?
I see him as a charismatic leader; he is one of the most influential leaders in the world and in modern India. He is a self-made man. Despite the differences in the ideological stand of his party, I deeply respect him as a self-made leader and arguably one of the most influential leaders of modern India.