IN a stormy fortnight in Kashmir, a cluster of mainstream political actors assembled at a single podium on October 15 at National Conference (N.C.) patron Farooq Abdullah’s residence in Srinagar and conveyed the unequivocal message that they were prepared to confront New Delhi head-on. Although the specifics of their plan were not mentioned, they attempted to bury their warring history with a profuse assertion of solidarity as they put the seal on the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration.
This coalition is the brainchild of Farooq Abdullah, 83, and came barely 36 hours after Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leader Mehbooba Mufti walked free late on the evening of October 13 after 14 months of preventive detention. As many of her supporters and critics expected, in her characteristic truculent spirit she called New Delhi out for the “robbery and humiliation” it had carried out.
The signatories to the People’s Alliance are Farooq Abdullah and his son Omar, Mehbooba Mufti, Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Sajad Lone of the People’s Conference, Muzaffar Shah of the Awami National Conference and Javid Mustafa of the People’s Movement. It advocates a constitutional battle for the restoration of the rights that the people of Jammu and Kashmir held before August 5, 2019, though the signatories have hinted at broader goalposts, stressing the need for a dialogue with all stakeholders of the Kashmir conflict.
On August 5, 2019, New Delhi ended Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status as guaranteed under Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution. This was done without any consultation with its people or their elected representatives, almost all of whom were detained. Just the day before, mainstream political leaders signed the Gupkar Declaration, which states that “any modification, abrogation of Articles 35A, 370, unconstitutional delimitation or trifurcation of the State would be an aggression against the people of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh”. The same statement was reiterated on August 22 this year. Also read:Kashmir: Murder of insaniyat
In Srinagar, several local journalists were sceptical about the People’s Alliance, describing it as a self-serving attempt by a discredited band of politicians who had outlived their utility to their political masters in New Delhi. While it is true that the Abdullahs and the Muftis have spent their public lives focussed on the cosmetics of electoral politics, which invariably legitimised New Delhi’s rule in Kashmir, and seldom or never articulated a morally forceful argument on behalf of the Kashmiri cause, these are extraordinary times in Kashmir. On October 27, the Centre notified a new land law that enables anyone living outside Jammu and Kashmir to purchase land in the Union Territory.
A study of counterviews expressed on social media suggests that there is a rising sense of panic and frustration over the political vacuum in Kashmir and a yearning for leadership. This stems from an overwhelming sense that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) ideological experimentation in Jammu and Kashmir—of realigning the region’s demography and making Hindus numerically superior—is reaching its climax. In this anxious climate, the resistance the mainstream actors offer is expected to find a reception even if it is without the glamour of widespread public adulation.
The younger leaders of the N.C. and the PDP express satisfaction that they have been able to create a space for the mainstream. Imran Nabi Dar of the N.C. told Frontline: “People are looking at the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration as a potent and effective political body, one whose core agenda is to restore the dignified life of the people of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh.” Aijaz Mir, a former PDP MLA from Wachi, claimed that the Alliance was “working on the ground”. However, such an assertion has also raised scepticism about the Alliance’s objective: Is the attempt just to cobble up a platform to redeem its politics or is it to make well-planned and calibrated moves involving the large-scale mobilisation of people to highlight the autocratic and morally brittle face of the Narendra Modi government to an audience in India and abroad? Will the constituent parties show the emotional resilience to sacrifice themselves politically and shun elections? Can they handle their grave disagreements? Why did it take the seasoned Farooq Abdullah so long to assemble this coalition? Did Mehbooba Mufti’s belligerence, voiced as soon as she was released, have something to do with the suddenness with which the N.C. acted?
After their release in February 2020, the Abdullahs appeared quiescent, unable to agree on how to respond to the crisis at hand. They cited the pandemic situation and the continued detention of front-rank leaders of their party to justify their inaction. While the N.C. leaders kept away from the delimitation process on the plea that they had challenged the legal changes to Jammu and Kashmir’s status in court, they were averse to quitting as Members of Parliament in protest. Their condemnation of recent cases of rights violation came after prodding from disgruntled colleagues within the party, spawning speculation on social media about a possible deal between the N.C. and New Delhi.
When the Gupkar Declaration was reiterated at an all-party meeting Farooq Abdullah chaired on August 22, Mehbooba Mufti’s close aides privately alluded to journalists that the exercise was perfunctory. The N.C. soberly but clearly pointed out the PDP’s reluctance to take on the Modi government, with Omar Abdullah recalling in interviews that the PDP had not challenged the Centre’s August 5 decision in court. Such allegations not only raised questions about the long-term viability of the People’s Alliance but also make one wonder why the N.C. jumped into action after Mehbooba Mufti’s release. Farooq and Omar Abdullah visited the PDP leader the night after she was released and called an all-party meeting a day ahead of her press conference, which was scheduled on October 16.
To understand the thought behind the hurried announcement of the People’s Alliance, one needs to take a look at the N.C.’s and the PDP’s respective political positions today and their starkly different priorities. Before August 5, 2019, the N.C. looked certain to sweep the next Assembly elections in the erstwhile State. In the general election, it comfortably won all three Lok Sabha seats in the Kashmir Valley, with new entrant (retd) Justice Hasnain Masoodi dealing Mehbooba Mufti a blow in her stronghold, the Anantnag constituency in South Kashmir. In the past 15 months, whereas the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been successful in engineering a vertical split in the PDP, the N.C. has managed to keep its flock together.
A private conversation with N.C. leaders revealed that the party is looking to counter New Delhi incrementally: winning a majority in the Assembly, bringing in resolutions to empower it, and waiting until a less hostile Central government replaces the current dispensation. According to informed sources, Farooq Abdullah issued a clear warning in one of the N.C.’s internal meetings telling dissenters to either abide by the party line or quit.
Omar Abdullah is of the opinion that people have stakes in governance. Members of his inner circle revealed to this reporter that Omar has been emphasising to them that people would not be dismissive if the N.C. went to the hustings. Omar has also been warning them that if the party gave an impression that it would abstain from election, the organisation would wither, with dissenters rooting towards BJP’s alleged proxies, such as the Apni Party.
For Mehbooba Mufti, the challenge is bigger. Her party has shrunk in size and appeal, and she is blamed for paving the way for the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status by facilitating the BJP’s entry into Srinagar’s corridors of power. The road ahead for her is mobilising people on the street, articulating their exasperation loudly and strengthening her commitment to them with powerful expositions of Kashmiri aspiration, perhaps combined with religious fervour. Also read: Abrogation of Article 370 & 35A
Since her release, she has repeatedly appeared in green salwar kameezes, referred to New Delhi’s office-holders as “dacoits” and said she would not hoist the Indian flag until the former State’s flag was restored. She was loud enough that her vehemence led to a reprisal. The BJP-RSS’s foot soldiers stormed into the PDP office in Jammu on October 26 in an attempt to hoist the Indian flag, and a section of the national media, which have been acting as promoters of Hindutva for quite some time now, demonised her. On October 29, her party created a flutter by taking out a march against Kashmir’s new land laws, which was met with a police crackdown.
The copious media coverage, where the establishment and its various agencies joined hands to create a menacing anti-India figurehead out of her, is what could resurrect her in the Kashmir Valley. This would come at the expense of the Abdullahs, however, and it would scupper their plans for an incremental resistance through generating a widespread mandate for street agitation, something they have so far been reluctant to do. Omar Abdullah said in an interview to The Indian Express on July 29: “I am not willing to put a stone or a gun into my own kids’ hands; I have no business doing the same to any young Kashmiri.” So how would a sagacious adversary deal with her? He would co-opt her in order to neutralise her. In all probability, the N.C. co-opted Mehbooba Mufti into its politics in order to preclude her extreme politics.
Mainstream unity desired
Saddiq Wahid, a prominent academic in Srinagar, felt that if the PDP had gone on its own path, the resistance would have fractured. “I welcome the unity of the pro-India unionists who want to fight New Delhi constitutionally, even though my personal identification is with the 80 per cent of Kashmir’s populace who do not trust Delhi and for whom the full derogation of Article 370 and the abrogation of Article 35A are but interim steps to erase Kashmiri Muslim history and culture,” he said. According to him, there is an urgent need to “effect an internal dialogue between the unionists and pro-resistance segments within the [erstwhile] J&K State and form a united front against Delhi”.
Despite its many contradictions, the People’s Alliance is set to emerge as a symbol against the coercive and unilateral incursions of Modi’s regime. The N.C. and the PDP share the belief that the geopolitical plates at India’s eastern border are likely to move seismically, giving them a historic opportunity to restore what Jammu and Kashmir has been stripped off since 1953, when its Premier Sheikh Abdullah was deposed from office.
The affiliates of the People’s Alliance converge on the need to “contest elections rather than leave the space open for BJP’s proxies”. Sources in the N.C. and the PDP say that the leadership has given them instructions to zero in on viable faces that could be fielded as candidates for the imminent panchayat elections. If the weight of public opinion forces them to abstain, the idea is to back undercover candidates, they say.
The People’s Alliance is planning to incorporate a wide range of civil society groups and also take its fight to Jammu, where it is scheduled to hold an important conclave on November 7. This expedition across the Pir Panjal range is not being undertaken without careful consideration. Over the past seven decades, the Sangh Parivar has used Jammu as an instrument to contain Kashmir. Its hegemonic political control over Jammu is an outcome of its ability to sell deceptive interpretations of events to people. The Gupkar architects plan to counter that by whipping up sentiment in favour of regional autonomy. Farooq Abdullah’s recent visit to the Durga Nag temple and his insistence that the mainstream is anti-BJP but not anti-India are steps towards gaining acceptance in Jammu. This has the potential to weaken the entrenched structure from where the Sangh Parivar operates its monstrous ideology and its related communally divisive games. If the BJP’s numbers dwindle in Jammu, the N.C. and the PDP would be in a position to secure a clear majority in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly and would then be able to restore land rights and other guarantees of the erstwhile State.
How much unease this has sparked in the Modi dispensation can be gauged from the magnitude of the crackdown witnessed in Srinagar recently. On October 28, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) was unleashed on several prominent civil society groups and individuals. Among those against whom it conducted raids were Khurram Parvez, coordinator of Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society; Parveena Ahangar, who heads the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons; the journalist Parvaiz Bukhari; and the office of Greater Kashmir , Jammu and Kashmir’s largest English daily. On October 29, the NIA raided the premises of several non-governmental organisations, including the Falah-e-Aam Trust, the J&K Yateem Foundation, Salvation Movement, Human Welfare Foundation and J&K Voice of Victims. Also read:A history of betrayals in Kashmir
The intent was to dissuade any potential new entrant to the People’s Alliance and send out a message to politicians, many of whom have graft cases pending against them. In the words of the journalist Anuradha Bhasin, the raids were done to “impose silence even on our whispers”.
Yet, the biggest challenge for the People’s Alliance will be whether it will be able to survive its internecine battles. A confidante of Mehbooba Mufti admitted: “The real test will be after the Assembly election. What if the BJP sweeps Jammu again? Will our allies be able to resist the allure of power?”
The past conduct of mainstream politicians does not assuage that fear.