MUFTI'S TURN

Print edition : November 22, 2002

In Jammu and Kashmir, a new government confronts old problems.

Newly sworn in Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed shakes hands with Governor Girish Chandra Saxena, after taking the oath of office in Srinagar on November 2.-FAYAZ KABLI/ REUTERS

"WHEN you see Tom Sawyer immediately after Mozart or you enter the case of The Planet of the Apes after having witnessed the Sermon on the Mount with Jesus and the Apostles," wrote Umberto Eco after a visit to a waxworks museum in the United States, "the logical distinction between the Real World and Possible Worlds is definitely undermined."

The Real began to intrude on the Possible in the hours before Mufti Mohammad Sayeed became the Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister on November 2. A day earlier, his daughter Rubaiya Sayeed had returned to Srinagar to witness the swearing-in. Shaukat Bakshi, the terrorist who had kidnapped her in 1989, also returned to his home, having been released on bail after 12 years. Three hours before the swearing-in, suspected members of one of the same terrorist groups with which Mufti Mohammad Sayeed has promised negotiations, fired rifle grenades at his home. The attack came after the al-Umar chief Mushtaq Zargar, released from jail in December 1999 in return for the safety of the hostages on board Indian Airlines Flight IC 814, warned the People's Democratic Party (PDP) against entering into any alliance with the Congress(I). A little later, Sikandar Khan, a Congress(I) candidate who narrowly lost the Karnah Assembly seat, was shot dead along with his security guards while shopping in a Srinagar market. The new Jammu and Kashmir seems as depressingly surreal as the old.

Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi, flanked by the party's Jammu and Kashmir chief Ghulam Nabi Azad and PDP vice-president Mehbooba Sayeed.-

All this did little to puncture the curious political reverie in Srinagar, perhaps because the circumstances of the new government's birth have done not a little to affirm the faith that the impossible can be willed into existence. Until October 21, the Congress(I)'s mediator with the PDP, former Union Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, had failed to arrive at even a minimum understanding with Sayeed. Manmohan Singh even offered Sayeed a rotating chief ministership deal, which, sources say, was rejected out of hand. On his return to New Delhi, the Congress(I) began to consider staking a claim to power on its own. Senior Congress(I) leaders in Srinagar believed that they would be able to manage a majority with the aid of PDP rebels. As the prospect of a split in the PDP accelerated, Sayeed backed down from his hardline stand, and flew to New Delhi for talks with Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi on October 25. Former Prime Minister V.P. Singh, Congress(I) insiders say, played a key role in moving Sonia Gandhi to hold back on her party's plans to break the PDP and resume a dialogue with Sayeed.

Sayeed was now willing to accept Manmohan Singh's rotating chief ministership plan, but with key caveats. First, the PDP would have the first shot at the top job. Second, it would hold it for all of three years, half the length of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly's tenure. Congress(I) MLAs found both proposals unacceptable, but Sonia Gandhi thought it best to override the State party unit. Senior Congress(I) leaders like Arjun Singh persuaded her that a Congress(I)-led government would end in disaster. A fractious alliance, with only tenuous support from maverick figures like Panther's Party leader Bhim Singh, would be too busy fighting internal fires to get on with governance. The Congress(I) would be blamed for encouraging defections, Arjun Singh is believed to have argued, and would be criticised if and when an unstable alliance fell apart. Sonia Gandhi also held broad consultations with several intellectuals, who insisted that blocking Sayeed's rise to power would fuel popular alienation in Kashmir. Speaking to journalists after the deal with the PDP was inked on October 26, Sonia Gandhi made this concern explicit: the decision, she said, was made "in the larger interests of the people of the Valley".

Outraged Congress(I) and Independent MLAs responded with unprecedented public protests, and threatened to boycott the swearing-in. The Congress(I) MLA from Uri, Taj Mohiuddin, described Sonia Gandhi's decision as a ``betrayal". A group of 14 MLAs held a series of meetings through October 27 to consider their course of action. The three-year term given to Sayeed was unacceptable, they argued, since there were no guarantees that he would not bring the government down after that time. In any case, the Valley-based MLAs in the group of 14 said, the decision to accept Sayeed's claims to represent the Valley amounted to political suicide. Key MLAs from Jammu like Yogesh Sawhney also made known their view that the decision would cost the party dear in that region. The newly elected Congress(I) Legislature Party leader, Ghulam Nabi Azad, tried to quell the rebellion on the phone from New Delhi. But it took a visit by him the next afternoon, and generous promises of significant ministerial representation, to avert a break in the Congress(I)'s ranks.

Border Security Force personnel secure a street in Srinagar on November 2, after terrorists fired two rifle grenades at the house of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.-

SONIA GANDHI'S notion of the "Valley's larger interest" needs examination, since it is widely shared by much of New Delhi's intelligentsia. Effusive newpaper editorial writers who have greeted the rise of the PDP as something of a latter-day resurrection might have done well to spend a little time with a calculator and a piece of paper. The PDP's share of the 2002 vote does nothing to affirm the proposition that it is the principal voice of the Kashmir region (see Table). Indeed, the combined vote share of the PDP and the Congress(I) in Kashmir only narrowly exceeds that of the defeated National Conference (N.C.). In the north Kashmir district of Baramulla, over half of the PDP's votes were cast in a single constituency, Gulmarg. The PDP exceeded the N.C.'s vote share in only three of the Valley's six districts, all in central and southern Kashmir. Two of those districts registered below average voter turnout, and five of the PDP's 16 MLAs were elected in constituencies where terrorist violence led to an exceptionally poor turnout. Indeed, three of them won by a margin of less than 1,000 votes.

To say this is not to undermine the decisive rejection of the N.C. in the elections, but only to show that the battle for oppositional space has had a multi-dimensional outcome. Prior to the elections, the PDP had rejected efforts by the Congress(I) and smaller parties like the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to arrive at a seat-sharing arrangement. PDP tacticians believed that its special character as a sub-regional party would allow it to emerge as the main axis of the evident resentment against the N.C. Indeed, the party symbol, an inkpot, was chosen with care, for it was used by the centre-Right and anti-N.C. Muslim United Front in 1987. In the event, the decision cost the Opposition the opportunity to win a decisive majority in the Assembly. While the PDP did eat into the N.C.'s electoral base, it principally eroded the electoral constituencies established by independents in the 1996 Assembly elections. Had it chosen to arrive at a seat-sharing deal with the Congress(I), the alliance would have gained a staggering number of 11 additional seats in the Kashmir Valley.

While the PDP's Kashmiri-chauvinist position has allowed it to gain the office of the Chief Minister, the victory is not without its costs for the party. It has, most important, given a new lease of life to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-backed Jammu State Morcha, which has been demanding the creation of a separate State for the southern region. The Morcha succeeded in winning just one seat, which went not to an RSS activist but a long-time Congress(I) dissident who jumped ship after being denied the ticket. But on October 28, RSS activists were able to shut down much of Jammu in a protest strike. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which won only a single seat in the elections, has now started demanding that local body elections be held in the State: evidently it is hoping to cash in on regional anger. Similar regional aggression is evident in Kashmir. On November 1, for example, the Kashmir Bar Association threatened to boycott the courts, claiming that Muslims from the Valley were under-represented in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, and demanding that Kashmiri Muslim judges currently posted outside the State be brought back.

At least one potential flashpoint is already visible on the horizon. Jammu has for long been under-represented in the Assembly, because of constitutional provisions that had suspended the delimitation of constituencies until after the completion of the 2001 Census. In the last Assembly elections, approximately 78,000 registered voters in Jammu and Ladakh were represented by each of 37 MLAs; in Kashmir, each bloc of approximately 55,000 voters was represented by 46 MLAs. Now that a Commission has been charged with redrawing constituency boundaries to ensure equitable representation, a struggle seems to be inevitable. Sayeed's demands for a Kashmiri person as Chief Minister, said Bhim Singh a day before he accepted his leadership, "substantiated the claim of the people of Jammu that the future growth of their identity, culture and language is possible only when they are accorded statehood." Unless the new government handles Jammu's legitimate concerns with care, its historic contribution might just be the tearing apart of Jammu and Kashmir along ethnic-communal lines.

FEW people in the new government, sadly, are likely to have time to address long-term problems. With the caucus of 12 independent MLAs on whose support the government depends, having decided to offer only issue-based support, survival itself will be time-consuming business. Then, the alliance will have to find acceptable ways of implementing its 31-point Common Minimum Programme (CMP). The CMP rests on three major pillars, all intended to bring what Mehbooba Mufti tirelessly refers to as a "healing touch". First, the CMP mandates the assimilation of the Special Operations Group (SOG), alleged to be responsible for a welter of human rights abuses, in the Jammu and Kashmir Police. Second, the alliance has said it will terminate the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), and release alleged terrorists held for long periods of time facing trial for minor offences. Along with this, the quantum of compensation to the families of victims of terrorism is to be doubled, while the children of killed terrorists will receive state support for their education. Finally, the CMP calls for an unconditional dialogue with terrorist groups.

At least some of these promises mean very little. The SOG has always been part of the 60,000-strong Jammu and Kashmir Police, and constitutes less than 5 per cent of its overall strength. Its troops and officers are drawn from the same ranks, wear the same uniforms, earn the same pay, and report to the same superiors. As such, its "assimilation" will mean little other than a re-branding of the product. The end to the use of POTA and the release of prisoners will also have marginal impact. An estimated 190 people are held under the Act, eight of them of Pakistani origin, including those released on bail. Figures on the precise numbers of people held on terrorism-related charges are unavailable, but data published in October 2001 suggested that the number of those who had not by then secured bail was just 366. Interestingly, all of 13 individuals have actually been convicted of terrorist crimes since 1989 an index both of the efficiency of the criminal justice system, and of the kinds of redress available to victims of terrorism.

Senior Congress(I) leader Mangat Ram Sharma taking oath as the Deputy Chief Minister.-SAJJAD HUSSAIN/ AFP

The PDP-led coalition's promise to initiate dialogue with terrorist groups is another case in point. Each Prime Minister since P.V. Narasimha Rao has offered to initiate such a dialogue; Atal Behari Vajpayee actually began negotiations with the Hizbul Mujahideen faction of Abdul Majid Dar during the Ramzan Ceasefire of 2000-2001. Why such dialogue went nowhere is a matter of record. Groups ranging from the mainstream Hizbul Mujahideen to the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad have made clear that they will not engage in a dialogue until India commits itself to final status negotiations with Pakistan. Pakistan's military establishment sees continued violence as an instrument to secure concessions from India, concessions of a scale no government in India can make. Sayeed may succeed, as others have in the past, in beginning a dialogue with secondary terrorist groups, but such initiatives have had little concrete impact. Nor has the PDP made clear just what it intends to negotiate, since India-Pakistan issues are outside its remit.

What is perhaps most disturbing about the CMP is that it appears to have no real vision of what political vision its authors have for Jammu and Kashmir. As the CPI(M) recently pointed out, the document has no reference to greater federal autonomy. Nor is there evidence that the new government has any real conceptual framework to address issues of violence. Speaking in New Delhi after the PDP-Congress(I) alliance was formalised, Arjun Singh, a former Governor of Punjab, said the alliance drew on his experience in Punjab, where terrorism was solved by means of dealing with "each and every small thing". He perhaps forgets the record. Arjun Singh's own signal contribution to Punjab was installing the Surjit Singh Barnala-led Ministry, whose indiscriminate release of jailed terrorists and winding-down of police operations laid the foundations for five more years of bloodshed. Six months on, Governor Siddharth Shankar Ray and Director-General of Police Julio Ribeiro were brought in and assigned the impossible task of fighting terrorism without the cooperation of the State government. When terrorism was finally stamped out, not one of the issues that Arjun Singh had privileged, from the status of Chandigarh to the sharing of river waters, had been resolved.

In May 1990, three young men walked into the home of Srinagar religious leader Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq, and shot him in his study. The leader of the hit squad, Mohammad Abdullah Bangroo, was shot in an encounter less than a month later. The bodies of both of them rest today in a graveyard near the idgah in downtown Srinagar, just a few dozen metres apart. Both victim and assassin are revered as martyrs; martyrs, moreover, for the very same cause. The PDP is now in power having marketed itself as a representative of the same cause. Now it needs to work out just what the cause might be.

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