The Interview that wasn’t But Revealed Much

  • Bilal Handoo
  • Publish Date: Sep 17 2017 9:38PM
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  • Updated Date: Sep 17 2017 9:38PM
The Interview that wasn’t But Revealed Much

Kashmir Ink went to speak with the state law minister Abdul Haq Khan about the controversy over Article 35A. What happened?

At his residence in Chruch Lane, Srinagar, the state law minister Abdul Haq Khan is busy addressing a Gujjar delegation from Lolab. As I step in for the scheduled interview, he adopts his politically-correct tone. Then suddenly, he blurts out to me: “If you are here to talk about Article 35A, then it’s futile.”

Khan was palpably uneasy. A few days earlier, when I called the PDP’s general secretary to discuss the ruling party’s take on the State Subject Law and the row over it, he too had behaved similarly. He had agreed to an interview, only to decline it when I reached his residence at Tulsi Bagh, Srinagar, a little while later.

“Sorry, I can’t talk about it,” Nizamuddin Bhat had told me. Then, Mehbooba Mufti had recently flown home with "assurances" from Prime Minister Narendra Modi than Article 35A would not be tampered with.

“If you as a party general secretary won’t talk about it,” I told Bhat, “then who will?”

“Only the chief Minister and the law minister can talk,” Bhat said.

At Church Lane, all heads turned toward me as the law minister declared his reluctance to talk. “But Khan sahib,” I said, “you can still talk about this significant issue without raking up any controversy.” Hearing this, he resumed his address to the visiting delegation, mostly in Gojri.

About 15 minutes later, I followed him through a manicured garden where one could only hear kids’ giggling. Dressed in a slawar kameez, the minister sat on a sofa behind which hung Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s framed photograph.

“How do you see the hysteria on the ground over Article 35A?” I tried striking a conversation.

“I see no hysteria. Where is it?”

“Isn’t it quite overt? Even the former chief minister is questioning the state’s defence.”

“I don’t want to comment on this issue.”

“If you as the law minister of state won’t, then who will?”

“Listen, it’s a sub-judice matter. Any comment can lead to contempt of court. [He quoted a case that appeared in the New York Times.] “Once the paper carried a report on a legal matter, and it was held in contempt of court. Both the parties involved were penalised.”

For a while, as he turned to his cell phone -- some caller was pestering him -- a fleeting silence gripped the room. Then, he resumed: “When our case is in the highest court and I am the party to it...I utter any sentence here and there it can go against me.”

“But many are questioning the PDP’s ‘crippling silence’ at a time when your ally BJP is fearlessly campaigning against the law?”

“Listen, we are defending Article 35A to the best of our capacity. We have engaged the best lawyer in the country. That’s all. That’s my response in a single sentence.”

“But some legal experts are of the opinion that the PDP-BJP government has put up a puny defence in the Supreme Court?”

“I can’t respond to that. Let people say whatever they want. If tomorrow any contempt of court take place, at least I won’t be any party to it. I mean, Farooq Sahab is talking about setting everything on fire (in case Article 35A goes), how can I comment on that. Similarly, Geelani Sahab has his own say. But when the law minister says something, the Supreme Court may take note.”

“What about concerns on the ground?”

“Again, ask me anything other than this controversy. Listen, I don’t want to hide anything. Please understand, I am in politics and any politician’s activity remains under watch. Say, tomorrow the petitioner takes any of my quotes and presents it before the court, don’t you think the judge will take a biased view. He will. That’s the reason. Otherwise, I have no problem.”

“Alright, you seem to have concerns about answering my questions. So, why don't you give me your own take on the issue?”

“All I can say is this,” Khan measured his words carefully before answering, “you can ask me about the functioning of my law and rural development departments in general, and I will give you the answer. But on Article 35A, just ask me, how the state is defending it.”

“How?”

“Like I said, by engaging the best lawyer in the country.”

“But as a law minister, don’t you think you must address the allegations leveled against the state’s defence in court?”

“Again, I can’t comment on that. It’s a constitutional matter. Let me give you an example. Let’s say I have purchased a piece of land. And suddenly, a person comes and tells me that you don't own that land. Then the court asks me whether I own the land or not. To prove my ownership, I have to produce my legal documents, right? These are questions of fact. If I don’t produce such documents, then the judgement can go against me. Such is not the case with fundamental rights. I don’t need to give in writing or produce documents in such cases. I can straightaway tell the court, yes, I do have fundamental rights. Such rights are guaranteed by the constitution. So, you don’t need to provide any response. Since this row over Article 35A is a constitutional matter, we don’t need to give a response in writing. Now, there are technical questions being asked, whether or not the state has taken care of this or that thing. Such questions don’t matter in constitutional matters.”

“So, the state’s written response to the Supreme Court in this case doesn’t matter?”

“See, Article 35A is a provision of the Constitution of India as applicable to Jammu and Kashmir. Simple. We don’t have to give it in writing. The court has to just see whether the constitutional provisions of 35A are valid or not.

“Despite what you are saying, that it’s purely a constitutional matter, many questions remain, like why has Delhi withheld its response to the court?”

“These questions I can’t answer. But let me tell you, we are yet to get a reply from Centre on this. Till their response comes, how can I say whether they are with us or against us on this. Their response will be clear once the court hears arguments on the matter after Diwali.”

“But what kind of ‘understanding’ with the Centre was Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti talking about after meeting PM Modi in Delhi.”

“Wait. Are you recording this interview?! No, no. I won’t talk about it.”

At this, the minister suddenly ended our interview.