Omar, The Boy From Essex Trying To Tame Kashmir

4 April 2009
Times Online


London: WHEN Omar Abdullah returns to Britain he enjoys visiting his mother in Essex, taking in a West End show and relishing his anonymity. For back home the British-born scion of Kashmir’s “first family” has already survived three assassination attempts from separatists armed with rifles, grenades and landmines. As chief minister of India’s strife-torn state of Jammu and Kashmir, even a shopping trip is fraught with danger. Since its partition in 1947, Kashmir has caused three wars and has been blamed for fuelling much of the terrorism that has destabilised the region, including Afghanistan. Now aged 39, Abdullah is the youngest leader to take on the flashpoint state and says his UK background has shaped his vision for restoring stability. Born in England to a British mother and Kashmiri father, Abdullah spent his first five years in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex. Although educated at boarding school in India, he frequently travelled to Britain to visit his mother, Mollie, and his three sisters and was there last month when he watched Rowan Atkinson perform in Oliver!. However, the weight of destiny draws him back to Kashmir. His father, Farooq, and his grandfather, Sheikh Abdullah, the Lion of Kashmir, were both chief ministers before him. Having served twice as a minister in the Indian national government before becoming chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir in January, the Abba fan is a rising star of Indian politics. He is also close to another dynasty, the Gandhis, and is in constant touch with his peer and fellow political pin-up Rahul, son of Sonia and Rajiv, with whom he shares a love of motorbikes. Sitting opposite the imposing portrait of Sheikh Abdullah in his Jammu office last week, he admitted that it was hard to live up to his family’s legacy. His grandfather was credited with lifting the state out of poverty and shaping its future by aligning it to India rather than Pakistan. “This state hasn’t produced a leader like him and it’s unlikely to, but there is always that comparison that is drawn,” he admitted. “You have to be willing to accept that – if you accept the advantages of having that surname. My entry into politics wouldn’t have happened without the surname I have.” Although only 100 days into the job, Abdullah has a clear vision. While urging the international community to support democracy in Pakistan, and Washington to facilitate peace between Islamabad and New Delhi, Abdullah sees his role as “keeping things on an even keel”. By regenerating the region, he believes he can create the political and economic conditions needed to eradicate terrorism and move towards an Indian peace deal with Pakistan. Central to his strategy is the reinvention of the state as a beautiful tourist destination and this, he says, has been influenced by his visits to Britain. Kashmir is struggling to overcome not only its image as a terrorist haven, but also the damaging pollution that threatens to close the stunning Dal Lake to visitors. “If you look at the management of the Lake District, that’s something we would love to be able to replicate. Or if you look at the way the UK promoted the Peak District, we could use that for our mountain regions,” Abdullah said. On security he is also drawing on his British links to improve the state approach to crowd control. An incident in which Indian troops killed two young men after firing bullets into a gathering prompted him to seek advice from the British high commission. British police trainers are soon expected to offer courses in the region on unarmed crowd management. Having spent so much time in the UK, he says his friends accuse him of having a “stiff upper lip”. This might have helped him to face the frequent attempts on his life. “I tend not to dwell on it, otherwise it would be difficult to leave the house,” he admitted. “The worst was a landmine exploding a few feet away as I got out of the car.” Despite the danger, Abdullah wants his legacy to be the transformation of Jammu and Kashmir’s blood-soaked image. “For the past 20 years the only stories that have come out of Jammu and Kashmir have been bad ones,” he said. “If I can change the perception that the majority of the people have about Jammu and Kashmir, that it can be known for more than just bloodshed and violence, I’ll be more than satisfied.” Lake at risk The idyllic tourist haven of Dal Lake in Srinagar lies at the foot of the Himalayas, surrounded by orchards and gardens. Traditionally the jewel of Kashmir's tourist trade, its 1,200 ornately carved wooden houseboats were built as holiday homes by Raj officials in the 19th century. Years of neglect and pollution have threatened the lake's survival. It has halved in size to five square miles and its waters are polluted by untreated sewage from the houseboats.