Mufti Mohammed Sayeed: A bridge to the Valley

Mufti Mohammed Sayeed (1936-2016) played a big role in changing the political destiny of Jammu and Kashmir at several stages in his life and weathered many political storms.

Published : Jan 20, 2016 12:30 IST

Mufti Mohammad Sayeed with his daughter Mehbooba Mufti.

Mufti Mohammad Sayeed with his daughter Mehbooba Mufti.

AS Jammu and Kashmir waited for its new Chief Minister to assume office, the trouble-torn State set a new precedent. Normally delays in appointing a Chief Minister occur because it becomes difficult to arrive at a consensus on a name. In the case of Jammu and Kashmir, it is not who but when that is the reason for the delay in the appointment of a Chief Minister. Mehbooba Mufti, the obvious choice of her People’s Democratic Party (PDP) as the successor to the post following the death of her father, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, on January 7, was taking a long time to say yes. Although the official explanation was that she was in mourning, the inordinate delay in arriving at a decision made the media trot out stories about possible change of alliance partners (the ruling PDP is in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP) and also saw the bizarre drama enacted by PDP chief spokesperson Mahboob Baig. Baig first made a virtual press statement by claiming that the alliance with the BJP was intact and Mehbooba Mufti would be sworn in as Chief Minister once the seven-day mourning period was over. He even added that as the swearing-in ceremony was a celebratory occasion, it could not take place during the time of mourning. He subsequently backtracked on his statement and used the favourite ploy of politicians in such situations: blame the media for twisting his words.

But even as Baig was swearing allegiance to the BJP, another senior PDP leader, Tariq Karra, queered Mehbooba Mufti’s pitch for a smooth takeover. A Member of Parliament from Srinagar, Karra issued a statement asking his leadership to ditch the BJP and, for the “sake of secularism and saving the party”, switch allegiance to the Congress. Even as all this was going on, the opposition National Conference (N.C.) was taking potshots at the PDP, ruing the lack of a government, and the extremists, through a series of encounters in the Valley, were boldly declaring that any new Chief Minister would have to deal with the question of increased militancy.

However, terrorism and matters of administration were not Mehbooba Mufti’s immediate concern. What concerned her most was finding the right answer to her difficult conundrum: whether to break the alliance with the BJP and align with the “secular” Congress and risk antagonising the Centre and the Jammu region, or continue the partnership with the BJP and weather the storm caused by PDP dissidents. It is at times like this that Mehbooba Mufti will sorely miss the guiding hand of Mufti Sayeed, who had weathered such storms without any fuss ever since he was elected Chief Minister of the State 10 months ago, in March 2015.

Mufti Sayeed started his innings as a political firebrand. In the early 1960s, Kashmir saw the arrival of a bright young law graduate from Aligarh Muslim University. Born in the ancient south Kashmir town of Bijbehara in Anantnag district on January 12, 1936, Mufti Sayeed initially had dreams of joining the local government. But during the course of his practice, he came in touch with a group of lawyers who belonged to the progressive group within the N.C. At that time, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the tallest leader of Kashmir, was under house arrest in Kodaikanal (Tamil Nadu) and Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, as the Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, presided over an administration that was considered authoritarian and corrupt. The group of progressive lawyers and others that Mufti Sayeed came in contact with were planning to split the truncated N.C. to form a party that would adhere to the principles of secularism and socialism. The progressive group, led by Ghulam Mohd. Sadiq and D.P. Dhar, formed the Democratic National Conference (DNC). Mufti Sayeed became one of its foremost members. Soon Mufti Sayeed gravitated towards the group that was close to Dhar, who became a mentor to the young Mufti.

Holy relic case

It was during this period that Kashmir saw one of its major political upheavals. The agitation that followed the disappearance of the holy relic from the Hazratbal shrine in 1963 saw the removal of Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad from the post of Prime Minister of the State. Sadiq was appointed Prime Minister in 1964. It was during this period that the title of Prime Minister was abolished and replaced with that of Chief Minister. (Sadiq was the Chief Minister from 1965 to 1971.) Mufti Sayeed, who by now had given up his dreams of joining the government as an official, was appointed as a junior Minister by Sadiq in his new Ministry and the DNC was converted into the Indian National Congress. This was perhaps the best period of modern Kashmir when peace and tranquillity prevailed; when Bollywood used the Kashmir Valley to shoot almost every second romantic film produced during the time. Mufti Sayeed was soon elevated to a senior rank in the Cabinet. During this time, he held portfolios as diverse as Forests, Power, Public Works, and Housing. It was during this time that Dhar moved to New Delhi to become one of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s advisers. It was also at this time that Mufti Sayeed became an active leader of the Indo-Soviet Cultural Society (ISCUS) and travelled to the erstwhile Soviet Union, especially to Dagestan (now Chechnya), a state that enjoyed fraternal relations with Kashmir. On the political front, Mufti Sayeed and his mentor started having differences with the Chief Minister. In the Kashmir Valley, Mufti Sayeed became closely associated with senior Congress leader Syed Mir Qasim, and he, along with Ghulam Rasool Kar and another Congress leader, M.L. Fotedar, formed a trio that pleaded the case for replacement of Sadiq by Mir Qasim as Chief Minister.

In 1971, the trio was successful in replacing Sadiq with Qasim as Chief Minister. Mufti Sayeed became one of the senior-most Ministers in Qasim’s Cabinet. The status quo prevailed until 1975 when Indira Gandhi inked her historic deal with Sheikh Abdullah. Under this deal, called the Indira-Sheikh Accord, Sheikh Abdullah was to head a Cabinet of his choice with support from Congress legislators. Qasim was made a Central Minister and Mufti Sayeed was elevated to the post of president of the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC).

The arrangement with Sheikh Abdullah continued for two years, when under active persuasion from Mufti Sayeed, Indira Gandhi gave permission to the local Congress to withdraw support to Sheikh Abdullah. Sheikh Abdullah dissolved the State Assembly, and in the elections that followed in 1977, the Congress managed to get a sizable number of votes in the Kashmir Valley, but it could not win a single seat. After the party’s defeat, Mufti Sayeed started rebuilding the party in the State and, gradually, it occupied the main opposition space in the Valley. In 1980, Sheikh Abdullah died and his son, Dr Farooq Abdullah, was appointed Chief Minister. It was during this time that the rivalry between Mufti Sayeed and Farooq became intense and often degenerated into slanging matches. In 1984, Mufti Sayeed once again managed a major coup engineering a defection in the State, when G.M. Shah, Farooq’s brother-in-law, split the N.C. and became Chief Minister with Congress support.

However, the Congress withdrew support within a year and a half, and Farooq came to power. Meanwhile, Indira Gandhi was assassinated in October 1984 and her son Rajiv Gandhi took over as Prime Minister. Rajiv Gandhi aligned with Farooq despite opposition from Mufti Sayeed. To placate Mufti Sayeed, Rajiv Gandhi made him a Cabinet Minister at the Centre, with the Tourism portfolio. Mufti Sayeed was not happy with his removal from the State, and when V.P. Singh formed the Jan Morcha in 1989, he shifted sides. In the ensuing parliamentary elections, he was elected from Muzzafarnagar in Uttar Pradesh and became India’s first Kashmiri Muslim Union Home Minister, in V.P. Singh’s National Front government.

This was also one of the most controversial periods in Mufti Sayeed’s career. Soon after he assumed office, his daughter, Rubaiya Sayeed, was kidnapped and held hostage. Her release, in exchange for the freedom of some militants, and the subsequent outburst of terrorism in the Valley is well known. Mufti Sayeed has been unfairly blamed for the decision to free the militants. Actually, in the Cabinet meeting conducted on the exchange of militants for hostages, the decision was taken by Prime Minister V.P. Singh and not Home Minister Mufti Sayeed. Mufti Sayeed’s another major error of judgment as Home Minister was the appointment of Jagmohan as Governor of Jammu and Kashmir in 1990. Jagmohan, a favourite of Indira Gandhi, had been Governor of the State in 1984, when Farooq lost power to G.M. Shah. Farooq, who was the Chief Minister, opposed the appointment of Jagmohan and resigned, leading to the collapse of the civilian government and the imposition of Governor’s Rule.

V.P. Singh lost power in 1990 and with the onset of terrorism in the State, Mufti Sayeed remained politically dormant until 1996 when he rejoined the Congress and became the State party president. Elections were held in Kashmir after a gap of nine years. Mehbooba Mufti, who too joined the Congress, was elected to the Assembly from Pahalgam in south Kashmir. She was made Congress Legislature Party chief. Incidentally, this post, which entitled her to be the Leader of the Opposition, is the only executive post Mehbooba Mufti has ever held. This was a period when Farooq’s N.C. was the only mainstream party in the electoral fray. The opposition space was occupied by the separatist Hurriyat Conference, which never took part in the Assembly elections, thus virtually leaving the space open for the N.C.

In 1999, Mufti Sayeed took a historic decision. Along with Mehbooba Mufti, he decided to float a regional party to offer voters of the State a “democratic regional alternative”. Thus, the PDP was born. The PDP, which was a mirror image of the N.C., barring a few changes in political rhetoric, gave voters, especially those in the Valley, a regional alternative. The PDP contested the Assembly elections for the first time in 2002, and, to everyone’s surprise, won enough seats to form the government in alliance with the Congress. Under an agreement to rotate the Chief Minister’s post, Mufti Sayeed became Chief Minister for the first three years. His tenure as Chief Minister was a fairly productive one. He reined in the brutal local police, made the administration more responsive and became a major votary of peace between India and Pakistan. It was during his tenure that the Srinagar-Muzzafarabad peace bus was started and the road to Pakistan was reopened. Three years later, Mufti Sayeed was replaced by a Congress Chief Minister and two years later, in 2008, the PDP broke its ties with the Congress over the transfer of land in Amarnath for setting up temporary shelters for pilgrims. In the Assembly elections that followed, the N.C. won the largest number of seats and aligned itself with the Congress to form the government in the State. Omar Abdullah became Chief Minister and Mufti Sayeed occupied the opposition space.

In the Assembly elections held in 2014, the tables were turned once again. The PDP won 28 seats to emerge as the single largest party. The BJP, for the first time, won 25 seats to become the second largest party in the State. To provide a stable government, an alliance between the PDP and the BJP became necessary. After 40 days of hectic negotiations, the unthinkable happened: the BJP gave up its insistence on the abrogation of Article 370 (granting special autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir) and agreed to allow Mufti Sayeed to be the Chief Minister for the entire term of the coalition government. It was his crowning glory, for the alliance, which he described as the “meeting between North and South Pole”, largely favoured the PDP agenda. Mufti Sayeed finally realised his dream of becoming the Chief Minister of the State for a full term. His death has once again brought the fissures in the PDP to the fore. Perhaps, Mufti Sayeed’s and his daughter Mehbooba’s only regret would be that the grand old man of Kashmir politics did not find the time to see Mehbooba Mufti occupy the chair of the Chief Minister. Death came faster than what he had planned for.

Rahul Jalali is a senior journalist and has specialised in Kashmir politics and India-Pakistan relations.

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