The sudden collapse of the Mehbooba Mufti government in Jammu and Kashmir on June 19 added to the growing instability of the conflict-ridden state. Complicating the situation, the governor N.N. Vohra had only a few days left to complete his second term when the BJP withdrew from the coalition government led by Mehbooba’s Peoples Democratic Party. Looking for the right person to replace Vohra, the Union government considered the names of several bureaucrats and retired generals, but it wanted someone with proven political acumen as well as administrative skills.
On August 21, it appointed a seasoned politician, Satya Pal Malik, as the new governor. Malik was the governor of Bihar when the announcement came. “I was told I had been chosen after a one-month deliberation and asked to take a flight to Kashmir that very moment and take the oath the next day,” Malik told THE WEEK in an exclusive interview.
A former Union minister from Uttar Pradesh, Malik has been a member of Parliament three times and an MLA once. He has clean image, suave negotiating skills and personal rapport with J&K politicians like Farooq Abdullah of the National Conference and Ghulam Nabi Azad of the Congress. Mufti Muhammad Sayeed of the PDP was a friend and colleague of his in the V.P. Singh government.
Even after Malik’s appointment, there was talk that the BJP might form a new government in the state with the help of Sajjed Gani Lone of the Peoples Conference and PDP dissidents. Malik, however, stated in this interview that a new government would be formed only after holding fresh elections to the J&K assembly. Excerpts from the interview:
How has been your Kashmir experience thus far?
I am trying to understand the situation in Kashmir. I am liking it here. There is a lot to do. People are very cooperative and we are trying to provide a sensitive and responsive government. For example, all deputy commissioners and my advisers will listen to the grievances of the people. The problem is that people are not being heard.
Many development projects were stuck for lack of funds. But we have secured 18,000 crore to finish the work on all incomplete projects in six months, in all three regions of the state. Dal Lake will be restored to its original glory in a year. In the first meeting, I took up the issue of the flood threat. Preparations to deal with any eventuality are being made on a war-footing.
You have been the governor of Bihar and Odisha before. How do you compare the two states with Jammu and Kashmir?
The problems in Bihar and Odisha are different from Jammu and Kashmir’s. There's a lot of poverty in Bihar. The state is very fertile, [but] there is a need to improve the agricultural production. [Chief Minister] Nitish Kumar is working very hard. I have good relations with Nitish and [former CM] Lalu Prasad Yadav. I worked a lot for the improvement of higher education in Bihar. There were a hundred colleges owned by politicians. I ensured the closure of those colleges by introducing the centralisation of examinations. I enjoyed my tenure in Bihar. People are very warm and supportive there.
Odisha is an ideal place to invest time and energy. There, I went to places where Naxals are active. I also went to tribal areas. The chief minister of Odisha [Naveen Patnaik] is doing a fantastic job.
You have worked with prime ministers Charan Singh and V.P. Singh. How do those times compare with today and with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the helm?
I have found one common thing in all three: honesty and integrity. Charan Singh and V.P. Singh were impeccably honest. So is Narendra Modi. And India needs it. In the past, the focus was on politics. Modi-ji focused on development. Take, for example, his Swacch Bharat Abhiyan, which seems a very mundane thing. But on the ground, it has a huge impact. Modi-ji is innovative and has perspective.
How do you intend to steer J&K to stability?
The problem in Kashmir is not the Hurriyat Conference, the political parties or New Delhi. All of them are responsible for creating the problem. The frustration level in the age group of 13-20 is very high. They trust nobody—neither us (state government) nor India or Pakistan. We have to show them a ray of hope about the future. This is the path to resolve the Kashmir problem. You cannot change the mind of the youth. The indoctrination is too deep. There is Saudi moulvis’ influence. They have sold the dream of paradise to the youngsters.
[But] nobody can create an independent country now. The LTTE couldn't do it [in Sri Lanka], despite the support of many countries and the level of commitment they had. Their (militants’) organisations are not bigger than the LTTE. And they don't have the same commitment as the LTTE.
The LTTE couldn't gain anything. Ultimately they had come to the negotiating table. I say “this is your Kashmir, nobody is taking it away. It is one of the best places in the country, run it yourself. Let the youth of Kashmir run the country.” But at this stage, we cannot make them understand.
They have no access to means of entertainment. We have decided to build two international stadia for cricket and football; some work has already been done.
The IPL chairman told me that they can hold an IPL match in Kashmir. We are also working to make our IPL team from Kashmir. One boy was selected in an IPL team and 20,000 people went to his home to congratulate him. The football team of Kashmir defeated the Mohun Bagan of Calcutta. Now we have decided that in every district there will be an indoor stadium. FM radio will be extended in villages. I will see to it that merit is upheld in all employment. Nepotism will not be allowed.
How much cooperation are you getting from the Centre to salvage the situation in Kashmir?
The cooperation is total. There was a discussion for one month at the Centre on who should be sent as governor to J&K. Top bureaucrats participated in the discussions. When I heard I was being considered for the job, I told them I was happy in Bihar. In the end, they decided to send me. I was told I had been chosen after a one-month deliberation and asked to take a flight to Kashmir that very moment and take the oath the next day. Nitish then arranged a special plane for me.
There is a political vacuum in J&K. The assembly is in suspended animation and MLAs cannot go to their constituencies. What is the way out of this impasse?
On the very first day after I took over, I restored the constituency development fund of the MLAs that was suspended by the previous governor after the fall of the government. They have been provided security, so they should go to their constituencies. Why shouldn't they? They should work. That way the political process will continue. We have also allowed them to stay in their official accommodation.
Do you think the death of Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, who was your colleague in the Jan Morcha, was a setback to political stability in J&K?
The loss of such a leader does create a void. He was a leader of high stature. So is Farooq Abdullah. Mufti sahab and me together moved out of the Union cabinet when the Bofors gun controversy broke. People look up to such leaders with a lot of hope. New leaders like Mehbooba [Mufti], Omar [Abdullah] and even Ghulam Nabi Azad also command the support of people. All of them are good for the state.
There's a feeling in Kashmir that the BJP treated him unfairly after he formed the government with them.
No, that's not true. When there was a flood in 2014, the prime minister visited the state several times. There is nothing that Mehbooba asked and the Centre didn't provide. Contradiction lay in the functioning of their party. There are problems in the party.
Two major parties—the National Conference and the PDP—have decided to boycott the municipal and panchayat polls over Article 35A, yet the state is going ahead with the polls.
Farooq sahab, twice in my presence, told people at a rally that “these elections are not for me or Delhi but for you so you must participate in these elections and I will also fight these elections”. I spoke to all political parties and leaders. I didn't call them together because then they watch each other before taking a stand. Farooq sahab was also ready. Basically, this is posturing for the assembly elections to show “what we did for Article 35A”. The issue of Article 35A was already there when elections to Kargil Hill Development Council were held. That was also a local poll. This election is also the local election. This is for the people of Kashmir. Every sarpanch will get 120 lakh for developmental works.
Militants have threatened to punish those who contest the panchayat elections, and panchayat offices are being burnt down in south Kashmir.
I know. That will happen but we will take care of it. For how long will they do it? We are going to provide an insurance cover of Rs 10 lakh to every candidate. We will provide the candidates with security also. If they ask for a safe place to live, we will provide that, too. We will hold these elections in the best possible way. There's nothing to fear.
You recently said that the time is not right for the NC and the PDP to take a stand on Article 35A.
My point is that just 15 days back, all political parties took part in elections in Kargil, and Article 35A was an issue then also. It's going nowhere. On Article 35A, the Supreme Court has pronounced its judgment twice in the past. This is all happening due to political reasons. My stand is that we are not an elected government. An elected government will be back very soon in J&K and only they will take a stand on Article 35A. Omar Abdullah has said the same thing. I had a very good meeting with him. We don't represent the people of J&K. I can assure you that no underhand deal will be done to form a government in the state. Also, the state will not be kept under governor's rule for long.
An all-party meeting recently demanded the removal of Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta for telling the Supreme Court that it cannot be denied that there is gender discrimination in Article 35A. That has created a doubts in people’s mind about his role.
We have taken note of it. And inquired about his statement in the court. It's very unfortunate. The judge had asked something, not to him, but to someone else. The hearing had ended. He was moving out of the court, but turned around and, without addressing the judge, made a casual comment about gender discrimination in Article 35A, which is not our position.
The political parties argue that challenging Article 35A afresh is tantamount to betrayal of the constitutional guarantee about the special status of J&K.
Some people have challenged it. The government never said anything about this Article. Have you ever seen the prime minister saying Article 370 should be abolished?
The PDP-BJP government was accused of nepotism and corruption. How do you plan to end that?
One of my top priorities is that merit will be upheld in all appointments. No nepotism will be tolerated. Like IAS officers, the state administrative officers will be asked to declare their property and put the same on the internet.
How was life before politics?
I was one and a half years old when my father died. [As a boy] I tilled my own land and then walked a long distance to attend school. I was fond of literature. I also read newspapers and gained a lot of knowledge from that. I decided at a very young age that I would join college. In college, I took part in debates and in two years I became president of the students union. That year a big student movement took place and 40 students were killed. I was a Lohia socialist. Then Charan Singh invited me to join his party, and I was made general secretary.