A bend in the road

Published : May 19, 2006 00:00 IST

PDP president Mehbooba Mufti waves to supporters with a handkerchief featuring Pakistani colors. -

PDP president Mehbooba Mufti waves to supporters with a handkerchief featuring Pakistani colors. -

Byelection results in Jammu and Kashmir point to the mood turning away from ethno-religious issues to questions of governance.

"DAAM-E-HAMRANG zameen," a Hizb-ul-Mujahideen spokesperson had warned the terror group's cadre earlier this month: "This is a trap disguised in the colours of the earth."

Along with most political forces in Jammu and Kashmir, the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen cadre was seduced by People's Democratic Party (PDP) chief Mehbooba Mufti's pro-jehad campaign in the run-up to the byelections to three Assembly seats in the Kashmir Valley. After the results, however, it is evident that the PDP has fallen into the trap it had dug for its opponents.

Despite Mehbooba Mufti's aggressive campaign polemic, the PDP succeeded in winning just one seat, in Rafiabad. A party rebel succeeded in dethroning its official candidate in Sangrama, while the National Conference triumphed in Pattan. Coupled with an exceptionally high voter turnout, the electorate's message is clear: administrative performance and alliance-building acumen are more important to the people of Jammu and Kashmir than questions of ethno-religious identity.

On April 7, Mehbooba Mufti displayed her party's Islamist colours by waving a green handkerchief to the audience at a rally. Her gesture drew on one of the most famous events in the State's political history. In the fraught election of 1977, Chief Minister Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah's lieutenant, Mirza Afzal Beg, used to display a green handkerchief containing Pakistani rock salt - as opposed to Indian sea-salt. Abdullah, Beg silently signalled, intended to secede after winning power.

Unlike Beg's gesture, though, Mehbooba Mufti's campaign left little to the imagination. She described terrorists fighting in Jammu and Kashmir as mujahideen, or holy warriors, and those killed by the security forces her party helps to command as martyrs. On more than one occasion, she proudly pointed out that the PDP symbol, a pen and inkpot, was the very same logo used by the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen's Pakistan-based Supreme Commander, Mohammad Yusuf Shah, when he unsuccessfully contested elections in 1987.

Why did Mehbooba Mufti act she did? Plain desperation, history suggests. Heading into the 1977 elections, Sheikh Abdullah was confronted with a serious political challenge from the Jamaat-e-Islami, which had allied itself with the Janata Party. Both wore the haloes of their anti-Emergency martyrdom. Abdullah responded with appeals to the communal anxieties of Muslims in the Kashmir Valley. A vote for the Jamaat, he asserted, would be a vote for the Jan Sangh, whose "hands were still red with the blood of Muslims".

The National Conference administered oaths on the Koran to potential voters, through which they pledged their commitment to the party. Clerics were imported from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to campaign in Muslim-majority areas of Jammu. Sheikh Abdullah, wary of the consequences of pushing New Delhi too hard, was careful to assert that "Kashmir was a part of India and Kashmiris were Indians," but added that "if we are not assured of a place of honour and dignity in India, we shall not hesitate to secede."

Sheikh Abdullah's ideological volte face - he had, in the run-up to the elections, proscribed some 1,125 Jamaat-run schools, describing them as "the real source of communal poison" - has largely been censored out of history. In a recent article, the bureaucrat Wajahat Habibullah claimed to have probed the handkerchief affair while serving in Srinagar and found that it was an idle allegation. However, independent accounts from historians like Victoria Schofield make clear this investigation left more than a little to be desired.

In the event, the incendiary 1977 campaign paid enormous dividends. The National Conference won 47 of 75 seats in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, and 46 per cent of the popular vote. By contrast, the Jamaat-e-Islami secured just one of the 19 seats it contested, and received only 3.59 per cent of the State-wide vote. It was precisely this kind of outcome that Mehbooba Mufti and her political advisers hoped to replicate. History, they have now learned at some expense, rarely repeats itself in facsimile form.

The PDP faced intense political competition just as the National Conference did in 1977. In the seats of Rafiabad and Pattan, the party had put up former National Conference Ministers Dilawar Ahmad Mir and Iftikhar Husain Ansari. Both politicians had jumped ship after their party's defeat in the 2002 Assembly elections. However, the tactic of giving seats to defectors provoked resistance within local party units, and the fight turned out to be far sharper than PDP strategists anticipated.

Ansari's efforts to corral his mainly-Shia constituency behind the PDP were hit hard by a welter of credible corruption allegations. PDP members attempted to contain the damage by claiming to have the support of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, thus hoping to win over some numbers of Pattan's Sunni voters. As the results show, the tactic failed. For his part, Dilawar Ahmad Mir was helped by the fact that he faced National Conference lightweight Maqbool Mir rather than the Congress' formidable local leader, Abdul Gani Vakil.

In Sangrama, the National Conference, PDP rebels led by former Tourism Minister Ghulam Hasan Mir and even elements of the local Congress threw their weight behind the independent candidate Shoaib Lone, the son of former Minister of State for Education, Ghulam Nabi Lone. The elder Lone was killed in an October 18 Lashkar-e-Taiba terror strike in Srinagar, but the PDP chose to nominate a relative of Deputy Chief Minister Muzzaffer Hussain Beigh as its candidate instead of Lone's son.

More important than factional struggles was the fact that the PDP's alliance with terrorist groups had run its course. On April 17, the Jammu and Kashmir Police arrested Shabbir Ahmad, a terrorist-turned-political activist who had taken a Rs.150,000 contract to arrange the assassination of four politicians including Dilawar Ahmad Mir and Javed Dar, the PDP's zonal president for Baramulla. The arrest came just three months after another north-Kashmir PDP worker was held on charges of helping terrorists kill his party colleagues.

Such attacks on the PDP demonstrated, as nothing else could have, that its entente cordiale with the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen has broken down. In the build-up to the 2002 elections, PDP leaders had reached out to Abdul Rashid Pir, the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen's then-second-in-command for military operations in Jammu and Kashmir. While the PDP sought political support, Abdul Rashid Pir hoped to use its influence to compensate for diminishing support from the ranks of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen's traditional political patron, the Jamaat-e-Islami.

However, the relationship soured when it became clear that the PDP could not deliver on promises to ease security pressure on the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. In March 2003, security forces tracked down Pir's superior, Ghulam Hassan Khan, in an intelligence-led operation that targeted his communications infrastructure. Khan, the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen believed, was killed in custody several hours after he was captured - and the PDP leadership could have, had it chosen to do so, intervened to save his life.

Hizb-ul-Mujahideen leaders responded to Khan's death by initiating a full-scale assault on the PDP. Abdul Rashid Pir is believed to have ordered the assassination of several PDP members, including a relative of Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, in April 2003, as well as the bombing of the Parimpora Fruit Market in Srinagar two months later. He later agreed to requests by a top PDP leader for a peace meeting. However, the terror commander was killed in 2004, and the PDP-Hizb dialogue died with him.

Terror groups had, as in past elections in Jammu and Kashmir, worked hard to coerce voters in the build-up to voting day. An April 17 attack almost claimed the life of senior National Conference leader Ali Mohammad Naik, while grenade attacks in Srinagar claimed five lives and injured 40 just two days earlier. A similar grenade attack in the north Kashmir town of Sopore took place on April 18, while a Sarpanch was beheaded at the village of Sil Dhar, in the Gool region on the Pir Panjal mountains.

Unlike in 2002, however, terrorist coercion this time targeted all parties, not just the PDP's opponents. Moreover, National Conference leaders proved adept in responding to Mehbooba Mufti's use of Islamist themes with pro-jihad polemic of their own. National Conference president Omar Abdullah, for example, demanded that Hizb-ul-Mujahideen terrorists in training camps in Pakistan be allowed to return to India without facing criminal charges and that large parts of Jammu and Kashmir be demilitarised.

As things stand, the election is likely to strengthen the Congress' hands in Jammu and Kashmir. Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad won a spectacular victory from Bhaderwah in Jammu province, the fourth seat to go to the polls in Jammu and Kashmir. Although there has been some concern voiced in the PDP about the hostile actions of Congress members in Kashmir, the fact is that its poor performance and the dissension within its own ranks make it unlikely for the party to force a confrontation.

What lessons should the PDP learn from the results - and the record voter turnout seen in the Kashmir valley? Its leaders will, for one, have to understand that the PDP's growth within Kashmir is contingent on a functional relationship with the Congress. Congress members were incensed at the PDP's refusal to allow them to contest in any of the three seats, even though it had come in second in two of these in 2002. As a consequence, they offered tacit support to the National Conference in several areas.

Most important, PDP strategists will also have to consider the fact that communalism is not a one-player game. Both the party and its opponents would do well to introspect on the consequences of the competitive use of Islamist themes and issues on their long-term future. Most important, they need to hear what their constituents are telling them: that they wish to see their representatives spending their time ensuring good governance, not waving green handkerchiefs.

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