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The importance of being Omar

  • Published at 11:57 pm February 13th, 2020
Omar Abdullah

The former J&K chief minister is behind the curtains of an unfunny burlesque

In direct contradiction of Karl Marx’s maxim about history continually repeating itself -- “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce” -- current Indian politics are staying anchored almost entirely in the latter stage. It would be quite hilarious, if the entire country weren’t being held hostage, with the fate of its democratic systems gravely imperiled.

The newest absurdities centre on Omar Abdullah, the urbane former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir (his father and grandfather previously held the same office), and serving leader of that state’s opposition. He was taken into “preventative detention” on August 4 last year, just before Narendra Modi’s BJP-led government abrogated Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which accorded special status to J&K, and immediately cleaved it into two union territories administered directly from New Delhi.

This was accompanied by an unprecedented communications blackout, now the longest ever imposed in a democracy. The drama played out especially starkly on social media, where Abdullah was both deft and popular. 

He told his 3.1 million Twitter followers: “I believe I’m being placed under house arrest from midnight tonight & the process has already started for other mainstream leaders. No way of knowing if this is true but if it is then I’ll see all of you on the other side of whatever is in store. Allah save us.” Then he was gone.

So much was happening then, with many more political eruptions in succeeding weeks, that Abdullah’s abrupt incarceration became just one more shocking data point amongst too many to count. But then, on January 25 this year, a recent photograph of him leaked: Twinkling eyes, handsome as ever, but with an unrecognizable shaggy beard just like the aforementioned Marx. 

The image immediately went viral.

The next day was an important Indian historical milestone, and veteran television anchorman Rajdeep Sardesai spoke for many when he tweeted to his 8.8 million followers: “A picture that should haunt us this Republic Day. What is the ‘crime’ of former CM @OmarAbdullah for him to be in detention for six months and counting? And don’t engage in whataboutery: This is just a blot on our conscience as a sovereign republic that respects individual rights.” The chief ministers of Kerala and West Bengal shared similar messages.

But there was also much taunting and glee. The Tamil Nadu BJP (later compelled to delete the jibe) tweeted: “Dear Omar Abdullah, It is very disheartening to see you like this while your corrupt friends are enjoying life outside. Kindly accept our sincere contribution, in case of any assistance, feel free to contact our counterpart (Congress) for further help in this regard” and included a receipt for cheap razors couriered via Amazon.

Such crassness is expected online. But in India noxious trolling also pervades public discourse, with hatefulness spewed from the highest levels of officialdom. Campaigning for the recent New Delhi assembly elections, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath railed “goliki bhasha nahi manenga toh golike bhasha samjayega” (roughly, “those who don’t understand words, will surely understand bullets”), echoed by junior Finance Minister Anurag Khanna with “deshke gaddaronko, golimaaro saalonko (roughly, “shoot the traitors”).

Even though the BJP was eventually thrashed in New Delhi, there’s no indication its leadership intends on backing off the unhinged rhetoric.

That became clear when Omar Abdullah’s six months of detention without charges ended a few days ago. The state made its case for continuing to hold him under the Public Safety Act, which required claiming this obviously moderate, mainstream politician was somehow “acting in any manner prejudicial to” either “the security of the state” or “the maintenance of public order.”

Thus, pure doublespeak, “despite the fact that the subject has been a mainstream politician, he has been planning his activities against the Union of India under the guise of politics.” 

Abdullah was said to have the uncanny ability to “influence people for any cause [which] can be gauged from the fact that he was able to convince his electorate to come out and vote in huge numbers even during peak of militancy and poll boycotts.”

In this way, unimpeachable commitment to democracy was portrayed as treasonous, and alacrity at the hustings as criminal. Here it should be noted no militant or actual, proven separatist is being held in Kashmir under the PSA, only established adherents to the electoral process (including Mehbooba Mufti, who was chief minister until her state was peremptorily downgraded). 

Oscar Wilde’s most famous line in The Importance of Being Earnest, the “Trivial Comedy for Serious People” is “the truth is never pure, and rarely simple.” The absence of truth has no such nuances. Perhaps that will provide some solace for Omar Abdullah on his 50th birthday on March 10, most likely still behind the curtains of an unfunny burlesque. 

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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