A man of many parts - and parties

Print edition : November 22, 2002

Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, a profile.

GURINDER OSAN/ AP

FOR most of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's 43-year-long political career, his opponents were sure of two things. The man wanted, more than anything else, to be the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir one day. And, second, he would never, ever hold that coveted post. "He had a suit tailored for his swearing in at a shop on Residency Road in Jammu," Farooq Abdullah acidly used to tell anyone who cared to provoke him on the issue, "and it's been gathering dust there for decades".

Sayeed's suit is, so to speak, off the shelf today, while Farooq Abdullah's has had to be mothballed for the foreseable future. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed now heads the first non-National Conference government in Jammu and Kashmir in more than 27 years. He is doing so not as an agent of the Congress(I), which he served with loyalty for many decades, but as the leader of a regional formation that stands opposed to many of the ideological postures he took for much of his political life. A decade and a half ago Sayeed was an architect of the state terror, on opposing which he has now built his political fortunes; and four decades ago he began his political life in the party to whose decimation he devoted much of his political life.

Born in Baba Mohalla at Bijbehara in January 1936, Sayeed's early life was typical of the new bourgeoisie that emerged in Kashmir in the middle of the century. Having graduated from S.P. College in Srinagar, he went on to obtain a degree in law, and a post-graduate degree in Arab History from Aligarh Muslim University. Although he hoped to gain government employment, he was persuaded by his friends to start a law practice in Anantnag, and to join politics. In the late 1950s he joined the circle around prominent lawyer and N.C. leader P.L. Handoo. He followed Handoo into the breakaway Democratic National Conference (DNC), led by G.M. Sadiq, along with D.P. Dhar, Syed Mir Qasim and G.L. Dogra. He was now appointed district convener of the new organisation, the first formal post he held.

When the DNC rejoined the N.C., Sayeed went with the flow. It paid him rich dividends. He was elected to the Assembly from Bijbehara in 1962, and retained the seat in 1967. As a result, he was appointed a Deputy Minister by G.M. Sadiq. He switched sides to Syed Mir Qasim after a New Delhi-engineered palace coup, and in 1972 was rewarded with a Cabinet berth and also made the party's leader in the Legislative Council. Soon afterwards, however, things began to go badly wrong. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made her peace with Sheikh Abdullah; Sayeed failed to do so. In 1975 he was made the leader of the Congress Legislature Party and Pradesh Congress president - his appointed youth wing leader was Ghulam Nabi Azad. But Sayeed lost the elections from Bijbehara in 1977 and 1983, on both occasions to the N.C.

Sayeed's wilderness years, at least as far as State politics was concerned, had begun.

In 1986, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi rescued Sayeed from near-oblivion in the State, and appointed him Union Minister for Tourism. This relationship too soon soured. Incensed by the Rajiv-Farooq Accord of 1987, which led the N.C.and the Congress (I) to contest that year's Assembly elections jointly, Sayeed resigned from the government and the party. The act of rebellion enabled Sayeed to hitch his wagon to Vishwanath Pratap Singh's rising fortunes, but did little to strengthen his position within Jammu and Kashmir itself. He was appointed Union Home Minister in 1989, after having won the Lok Sabha elections of that year as the Jan Morcha candidate from Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh. Sayeed was now appointed Home Minister a position without precedent for a first-time MP.

Sayeed's management of the second most important job in the Cabinet was an unmitigated disaster. On December 11, 1989, five days after he was sworn in, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front kidnapped one of his three daughters, Rubaiya Sayeed. While both the N.C. and Central intelligence officials were convinced that the JKLF would release her in the face of public outrage, the Home Minister ensured that the jailed terrorists for whose release the kidnapping had been committed were released. Most experts agree that the release set the tenor for an inchoate security response to an insurgency, which has by now claimed over 33,000 lives. Soon afterwards, Sayeed compounded the error. In February 1990, backed by the Bharatiya Janata Party, Sayeed secured the appointment of Jagmohan as Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, precipitating the resignation of Farooq Abdullah and laying the foundations for an ugly strangling of democracy.

Many experts believe that Sayeed's well-known mismanagement of the crisis in Jammu and Kashmir was just part of a larger inability to comprehend, and to engage with, the multiple problems of terrorism India was confronted with at the time. When he took office, former Punjab Director-General of Police K.P.S. Gill pointed out in a recent article in the South Asia Intelligence Review, Khalistan terrorism had been contained to just four of 15 police districts of Punjab, all along the border with Pakistan. Sixty-five per cent of terrorist crime was confined to areas under just 13 of 217 police stations. Where 1989 had seen only 2,072 terrorism-related fatalities, 1990 saw 4,263, and 1991 saw 5,265. By the end of Sayeed's term in office, only four of the 15 police districts registered an average of less than 10 civilian casualties, and violence had spread to the entire State.

Gill believes that the problem was conceptual. Sayeed and the dispensation he represented, Gill argues in his article, "assumed that with a few sympathetic, sentimental gestures, the terrorist movement at that time in its tenth year in Punjab would simply `wither away'." If that was indeed Sayeed's belief, it seems of a piece with his position now something that ought to give anyone with some respect for history some cause for concern. But, since 1996, when Sayeed returned to political life in Jammu and Kashmir, it is also true that there has been an enormous discontinuity in his understanding of politics. Until 1996, he believed that the keys to power lay in New Delhi; today his vision only just extends to the six districts of the Kashmir Valley.

HOW has this transformation come about? Any full understanding must be left to biographers, but it is possible to venture a few guesses.

Sayeed's return to Kashmir politics after having rejoined the Congress in 1996 holds some clues. His youngest daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, won the Bijbehara Assembly seat, although his wife, Gulshan Ara, lost from Pahalgam. Sayeed himself won the Anantnag Lok Sabha seat in 1998, but soon resigned from both his position and the party to form the People's Democratic Party (PDP). The key to this break seems to be the belief that the Congress(I), with its pan-State and pan-national character, could not appropriate the vacant political space in Kashmir. The PDP seemed to understand the space as that occupied by the Muslim United Front in 1987, an alliance of the religious Right and centre-Right against the N.C. The issues that were aggressively articulated by the PDP, notably the release of jailed terrorists and alleged atrocities by security forces, could never have become exclusive leitmotifs of any Congress(I) campaign.

Mehbooba Mufti appears to have been central to this ideological formulation. The only one of his three daughters still to live in India, she undoubtedly wields considerable influence on her father's appraisal of the situation. She, many people believe, is the true heart of the PDP. Whether she will go on to inherit a real political legacy, or whether a dynasty will crumble before it could be born, will depend on just what Sayeed manages to achieve in the three years he has now been promised in office.

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