Jammu & Kashmir

Jammu & Kashmir: Political parties gearing up to take on the Centre

Print edition : December 31, 2021

Omar Abdullah, N.C. vice president, at a rally in Kishtwar district of Jammu on November 29. Photo: PTI

Mehbooba Mufti (centre), PDP president, and party leaders protesting against the abrogation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and the killing of civilians, in New Delhi on December 6. Photo: Sajjad HUSSAIN/AFP

The overwhelming sense among the Kashmir-based parties is that the Modi government is on the back foot at the moment, so this is the opportune time to strike back at the BJP and the Sangh Parivar and rebuild their own credentials and space in the Kashmir valley.

POLITICAL parties in Jammu and Kashmir have swung into brisk campaigning mode even though there is no confirmation from either the Election Commission or the Centre that elections will be held in 2022 and the Delimitation Commission is yet to finish its task of redrawing the Assembly constituencies of the Union Territory.

The general impression among a cross section of mainstream leaders is that elections in Jammu and Kashmir could be held as soon as the elections are completed in the five States that are scheduled to go to the hustings in March 2022, especially if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) returns to power in Uttar Pradesh. That outcome would act as a magnet to draw the Hindu populace of Jammu towards the BJP’s majoritarian agendas, chiefly its promise of a first-ever Hindu Chief Minister.

The National Conference (N.C.) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) sense that and so do the BJP’s alleged covert allies, Sajad Lone’s Peoples Conference and the Altaf Bukhari-led Apni Party. Of late, these four parties have been holding large rallies and public meetings, with a divided Congress, torn between the party’s State president G.A. Mir and Ghulam Nabi Azad, focussed on avoiding fragmentation of its ranks.

The N.C. had been mostly quiescent since its top leaders Farooq and Omar Abdullah were released from detention in February 2020. There as an overwhelming sense in the party that as the Centre realised the cost of its wayward actions in Jammu and Kashmir—an all-time high alienation of people and growing condemnation from the United Nations and other global platforms of human rights violations—it would be forced to seek reconciliation with them. However, that did not happen, and the N.C. is now fully prepared to take on the Narendra Modi government, step up its campaign for restoration of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and statehood, and openly berate the BJP for its anti-Muslim politics.

Also read: The BJP game plan to consolidate its position in Jammu and Kashmir

The understanding now in the N.C. is that it has to vent the frustration of the common Kashmiri in order to consolidate its position as the primary challenger of the BJP’s majoritarian agendas in Jammu and Kashmir.

The rank and file of the N.C. also realise that their delay in doing so, coupled with Mehbooba Mufti’s aggressive street politics, has harmed them. Omar Abdullah’s acrimonious barbs about the BJP in his rallies during his week-long tour (from the end of November to early December) in Kishtwar, Doda and Ramban districts in Jammu, which have considerable Muslim populations, reflect that realisation and also the intent to carry out some speedy damage control.

Omar’s salvos

At a well-attended rally in Doda on November 28, Omar Abdullah fired salvos at the Modi government over its contentious decision to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its special status. “All the claims of the government with regard to J&K to justify abrogation of Article 370 [have been] proved wrong. The reality is that J&K is faced with destruction, helplessness, unemployment, poverty and injustice after the August 2019 development,” he said. The former Chief Minister also catalogued how the Modi government had reneged on its promises and contrasted this with his time in office: “They promised peace in Jammu and Kashmir, but it is nowhere to be seen. During our rule [N.C.-Congress between 2009 and 2015], we removed security pickets from interior parts of Srinagar, which were cleared of militancy, and were also thinking of revoking the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.

“From Kupwara to Jawahar Tunnel, we see all the militancy-cleared pockets witnessing a revival in militancy. The militants have not come from outside, but the disillusioned local youths are picking up the guns…. And they [ruling dispensation] are making claims that nobody is joining militant ranks.”

Holding the government accountable for the uptick in the recruitment of militants, Omar Abdullah said that the BJP’s narrative of normalcy was misleading “If the youth are still joining militants’ ranks, whom do they want to mislead? The separatists called for a general strike in protest against the killing of innocents in the November 15 Hyderpora encounter, and the strike was total with not a single shop open in Srinagar. They are claiming that the separatist sentiment in J&K is dead,” he said.

Also read: Jammu and Kashmir’s apparatus of repression

The N.C. knows that given the BJP’s aggressive pro-Hindu posturing, there is a possibility of the votes in the communally sensitive Doda, Kishtwar and Ramban districts being decided purely on the basis of sentiment. And in order to ensure that the Muslim vote consolidates behind the N.C., the party is trying to appeal to the Muslim sentiment. “The BJP sees a Pakistani in every Muslim, especially the Muslims of Jammu and Kashmir,” Omar Abdullah said at a public meeting in Ramban on December 2.

He batted strongly for restoration of Article 370 and iterated that this was the premise of Jammu and Kashmir’s relation with the Indian mainland. “We have our bond with the country and the party has given supreme sacrifices to defend it. We in the N.C. have shouldered the bodies of our colleagues and workers who gave their lives to protect this bond. The relations made possible due to the promises to Jammu and Kashmir [were] later given constitutional cover. Under Article 370, it needed to be protected. What wrong are we talking about?... We did not take that benefit, but the people of Jammu and Kashmir benefited from it, whether it is land to tillers, rehbari-e-taleem [an old J&K government programme to promote rural education], Roshni [schemes],” Omar Abdullah said, as he vowed to put up concerted resistance against the politics of hate and division.

Differences in PAGD

Besides the noticeable opposition to the Modi government, an important contour of the N.C.’s latest politicking is its attempt to project itself as the only credible alternative to the BJP while taking potshots at Mehbooba Mufti, who appears to be gaining ground in pockets of South Kashmir with her relentless street mobilisation and the vociferous stance she is taking against the BJP, something the Abdullahs have not done so far.

The feeling within the N.C. is that the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), Farooq Abdullah’s brainchild, had so far benefitted only Mehbooba Mufti and helped her erase the stain of her alliance with the BJP. A majority of N.C. leaders are now of the opinion that instead of accommodating Mehbooba Mufti and making electoral understandings with her PDP in the District Development Council elections, the N.C. should have focussed on consolidating its position as the lone warrior against the BJP. Omar Abdullah’s surprise attack on the Muftis upholds that point of view.

Also read: ‘Alienation of people in Kashmir at an all-time high’

While addressing a rally at Chatroo in Kishtwar, Omar Abdullah framed the BJP-PDP alliance as a facilitator of the eventual revocation of the State’s special status and the repression and bureaucratic control that followed it. In what many political observers believe is aimed at containing Mehbooba Mufti’s political resurrection, he also reminded people that he had sounded the warning bells against the alliance. “I had foreseen such a situation and went to Mufti sahib [the late Mufti Mohammed Syed, Mehbooba’s father and a former Chief Minister] to extend unconditional outside support for forming the government [coalition government without the BJP]. I told him that the path he is going to tread [by forming the government with the BJP] will be a disaster for J&K, and we will not be able to save ourselves…. I have no greed for power. Neither do my associates want to be Ministers. We don’t want to be Rajya Sabha members or MLCs. We will extend unconditional support to you. You form the government, but at least don’t bring those people [to power] whose intentions about this region are not good.”

The N.C.’s campaign trail leaves no doubt in people’s minds that the party is set to chart a course independently of the PAGD, save ritualistic optics created to give a sense of uniformity of purpose amongst the PAGD allies. The design is to recreate the pre-August 5, 2019, political landscape that had witnessed the N.C. decimate Mehbooba Mufti’s party on its home turf: She lost the parliamentary election of Anantnag in 2019 to Justice (retd) Hasnain Masoodi, an N.C. first-timer contestant. In his public exhortations, Omar Abdullah made no secret of it. “We have started a fight for Jammu and Kashmir and its people following the changes which were forced on us, the changes which were possible because the National Conference was weak. If we had not lost the [Assembly] seats in the 2014 election and [had] formed the government, neither would they have removed Article 370 or Article 35A,” he said in Kishtwar.

But there are questions galore about how the N.C.’s politics will play out in the larger context. Where does this leave the PAGD and the united struggle that is imperative if any meaningful resistance is to be offered to the Centre’s political incursions in the Kashmir valley? Why has the N.C. appeared amenable to New Delhi so far, and what is the assurance that its new-found assertive actions and utterances will not peter out in the event of the decision-makers in New Delhi making overtures to the party? If the two principal Kashmir-based parties, the N.C. and the PDP, were to be at the loggerheads, how would they be able to prevent the BJP’s alleged proxies from benefiting from a division of votes?

The Congress’ state of affairs adds to that predicament. Recently, a battery of leaders form the grand old party who are known to have allegiance to Ghulam Nabi Azad quit as office-bearers. His camp has not been turning up for the party’s official programmes such as the Jan Jagran Abhiyan, and this uncertainty has fuelled speculation that he might be contemplating an alternative formulation, though the leader himself rebuffed that idea, at least publicly. It is not clear as yet how the PDP is going to position itself now that the chances of a broad-based understanding between the N.C. and the PDP are feeble, at least on the question of seat-sharing as and when elections are called. As of now, the PDP is content with optics generation. On December 6, the PDP brought its street protest to the heart of New Delhi. The former Chief Minister and her colleagues staged a sit-in demonstration at Jantar Mantar against the spate of civilian killings in Kashmir. “Kashmir has become a prison where people are not allowed to express their opinions. They are being repressed since August 2019 and what surprises me is how the government is busy portraying that everything was hunky-dory in the valley with the help of some of the paid media,” Mehbooba Mufti said at the protest site.

Also read: Central government policies and escalation of violence in Jammu and Kashmir

She also drew a contrast between Nagaland and Kashmir. “You have seen what happened in Nagaland where 13 civilians were gunned down. An FIR [first information report] has been lodged immediately. Why does the same not happen in Kashmir as well? Though I do not have much hope that anything is going to come out of these inquiries, still the government is seen doing something.”

All the same Mehbooba Mufti is avoiding any confrontation with the N.C. If anything, she has asked her colleagues to not engage in any provocations. A tweet from the party’s official handle on December 7 read: “Party President @mehboobamufti has directed all the party office bearers and colleagues to ensure that no reaction/statement be issued that may be detrimental to the unity of PAGD and thus the larger cause of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.”

One of the driving forces behind the N.C.’s sudden bellicose posturing against the government, and Mehbooba Mufti’s foray into Jantar Mantar is the overwhelming sense that the Modi government is on the back foot. The government’s repeal of the farm laws has betrayed its scepticism regarding its electoral supremacy. The Kashmir-based parties believe that this is an opportune time to strike back at the BJP and the Sangh Parivar and rebuild their own credentials and space in the Kashmir valley. If the BJP believes that Kashmir will remain subdued for long, it is mistaken. The sentiment against the Centre is extreme, and if the saffron party falters on India’s electoral map, there is a possibility that both the mainstream and the pro-resistance groups will swing into action to coalesce that sentiment into widespread street protests.

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