Jammu & Kashmir

Political parties rallying forces again in Kashmir

Print edition : September 25, 2020

Farooq Abdullah (centre), National Conference president and Lok Sabha MP, along with senior leaders of the party, addressing a press conference in Srinagar on August 20. This was the first time after the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A that he was speaking to the media. Photo: Nissar Ahmad

Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah during an interview at his residence in Srinagar on July 28. Photo: Nissar Ahmad

Sajjad Lone of the People’s Conference, a file photograph. Photo: Subhav Shukla/PTI

Muzaffar Shah, president of the Awami National Conference, a file photograph. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Mehbooba Mufti, leader of the PDP, in Srinagar in July 2019. She is still under detention. Photo: Mukhtar Khan/AP

The August 22 declaration of six mainstream political parties represents the first major exhibition of resolve on their part to come together and leverage their political strengths and advantages and use their combined platform to take on New Delhi’s ideologically driven agendas in Kashmir.

ON August 22, former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah along with the leaders of five other mainstream parties in Jammu and Kashmir—once his foes but now united by a common struggle against the Narendra Modi government’s “incursions into Kashmir”—issued a joint statement “to collectively fight to restore the special status” of the erstwhile State. The six parties are Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference (N.C.), Mehbooba Mufti’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the Congress, Sajjad Lone’s People’s Conference, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Muzaffar Shah’s Awami National Conference. They reiterated that they would unwaveringly adhere to the Gupkar Declaration, a document the parties’ leaders signed on August 4, 2019. The day after the declaration, New Delhi unilaterally abrogated Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution that guaranteed Jammu and Kashmir its semi-autonomous status, and bifurcated the State into the Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.

The Gupkar Declaration, which came about under the aegis of Farooq Abdullah in the tense and uncertain atmosphere created by a troop build-up in Srinagar and other parts of the Valley, states: “[A]ny 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.”

However, a year later, as several prominent leaders, including Farooq and Omar Abdullah, were released from detention, they did not spell out how they planned to confront New Delhi over the sweeping constitutional changes it had imposed in Jammu and Kashmir. This triggered widespread speculation that mainstream actors may have agreed to be quiescent partners of the Centre, willing to accept, if not aid, its Hindutva pursuits in the Kashmir Valley.

Against this backdrop, the August 22 statement represents the first major exhibition of resolve on the part of the mainstream players in Kashmir to come together and buttress and leverage their distinct political strengths and advantages and use their combined platform to take on New Delhi’s ideologically driven agendas in Kashmir—“measures of disempowerment and a challenge to the basic identity of the people of J&K”, as the signatories described it in their joint statement.

Equally, the statement strives to address the antagonistic popular sentiment back home at a time when the mainstream finds itself beset with both distrust of the past and present complications that have deprived it of its political idiom, which was centred on the struggle to attain pre-1953 autonomy or establish “self-rule”. The exasperation was more loudly vented against former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, whose recent interviews led people to imagine that the fulcrum of his politics would now rest on the demand for mere restoration of statehood.

In an opinion piece Omar Abdullah wrote for a New Delhi-based English daily on July 27, he said that he would not contest an election so long as Jammu and Kashmir remained a Union Territory. His critics read this as his attempt to inject the idea among the Kashmiri people that much of what was done on August 5 was irreversible, especially the revocation of Article 370 and Article 35A. The twin Articles guaranteed the local people, among other things, exclusive rights in terms of employment and ownership of land.

Omar Abdullah dismissed the accusations as “lazy journalism”, reminding people of the watertight case his party had made in the Supreme Court against the Centre’s August 5 decision. But the controversy escalated. Mehbooba Mufti’s continued detention under the Public Safety Act not only created a contrasting spectacle but impelled people to speculate about a possible back-room deal between the Abdullahs and New Delhi. Ill-timed dissension from within the N.C., in particular from former Jammu and Kashmir Cabinet Minister Ruhullah Mehdi, who resigned as chief spokesperson of the party, precipitated a social media backlash against N.C. leaders.

This sequence of events makes one wonder whether the reiteration of the Gupkar Declaration was merely a salvage exercise in response to a very vocal spurning of the mainstream by Kashmir’s discontented youths or whether leaders across the political spectrum were willing to highlight people’s fundamental concerns regarding the onslaught on their identity and point out the misplaced priorities of the Modi government to a wider audience in India and abroad.

Limitations of mainstream politics

The answer eludes one at this moment. However, a constant berating of the N.C. or, for that matter, any other mainstream political party in Kashmir would amount to irresponsible grandstanding. One needs to factor in the limitations that hinder their politics. Government formation in Jammu and Kashmir is not the usual handover of power but a ceding of partial authority that can be reversed at the slightest crossing of the fine line New Delhi has drawn. Various instances illustrate this, including Prime Minister Indira Gandhi replacing Farooq Abdullah as Chief Minister with his brother-in-law G.M. Shah in 1984.

After August 5, the government of India underlined that it had no qualms about putting the rank and file of the mainstream political players in jail by invoking draconian laws meant to be used against anti-state actors. Its military might; its preparedness to “kill 10,000 civilian protesters”, as Farooq Abdullah recently claimed; and its near control of the mass media that passed off all the Centre’s actions in Kashmir without scrutiny compound the challenges of inventing and operating a line of politics in Kashmir that is inconsonant with the wishes of the ruling party in New Delhi.

Among the leaders of the PDP and the N.C., however, there is cautious optimism. Iltija Mufti, daughter of Mehbooba Mufti, hailed the August 22 initiative as a “collective response to Delhi’s onslaught on Jammu and Kashmir’s special status”. Sajjad Lone added that it was “no longer about power” but about “a struggle to get back what rightfully belongs to us”. It is pertinent to mention here that under the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019, so far domicile certificates have been issued to 11,398 refugees from West Pakistan, 415 members of the Valmiki community, 10 members of the Gorkha community and 12,340 registered migrants. People of the Kashmir Valley see this as the beginning of a programme that is aimed at realigning the demography of their region.

Talking to insiders in the N.C. and the PDP gives one a sense that they are enthused about the redrawing of political battle lines at the Line of Actual Control and also domestically, such as the increasing assertiveness of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) regarding the issues of a separate flag and constitution for Nagaland, which has proved to be a major stumbling block to coming to a final Naga accord. These leaders in Kashmir see the August 22 proclamation as an unequivocal political messaging to the Centre that as its fault lines with China grow, regional actors will not hesitate to engage it in confrontations inside the Valley. Certain other political signals seem to uphold that observation. From stressing on a battle inside the Supreme Court, Omar Abdullah is now vocal about exploring and utilising other democratic means and platforms as an important pillar of his party’s struggle against New Delhi. “We will fight using legal means at our disposal, which are two: one is the power that the Constitution gives us to challenge the decisions in the court, and the second is forums available, including Parliament, the media, social media and public meetings,” Omar Abdullah said in a recent interview.

Broadly, the idea seems to be to assemble a wide coalition of like-minded parties and civil society groups. What form their combative assertions would translate into and how these would be leveraged to reinvent politics in Jammu and Kashmir are unclear. There are few other questions that dampen the optimism that these leaders share amongst themselves. One, will the PDP, the N.C. and the People’s Conference overcome their grave disagreements and pragmatically engage with one another for the long haul? Two, will their struggle involve the task of mobilising people on the ground? And three, will they be ready to sacrifice their political stakes temporarily and convert people’s rage into a full-fledged election boycott that would renew global scrutiny of the Modi government’s dealings in Kashmir?

Although these parties have put up a united front, off-the-record interactions with their senior leaders betray their deep and unshakably hostile history. Whereas the PDP does not totally rule out a “deal between the Abdullahs and New Delhi” and is keeping a watchful eye on the N.C.’s actions and utterances, the N.C. downplays Mehbooba Mufti’s continued detention, which people in Kashmir view as an outcome of her refusal to agree to any fine lines set by New Delhi. “She has to redeem herself,” N.C. leaders say curtly, referring to her unpopular decision to form a coalition government with the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2015.

Boycotting elections?

On the question of participation in elections, opinion is divided. Waheed Para of the PDP told this reporter: “This is an unprecedented situation. There is nothing to fight for unless the dignity of the people is restored. We have the example of the ongoing Naga peace deal. There cannot be a different yardstick applied to Kashmir, marked by lack of deference for local sensitivities.”

However, he said he was not certain whether boycotting elections would be a pragmatic option to exercise. “I personally think abandoning political processes will not lead to a solution. We saw what happened between 1990 and 1996. A political vacuum is not favourable for anyone in the region. It would lead to chaos and uncertainty.” Omar Abdullah has so far avoided giving any definitive answer to that question, leaving it up to his party’s core committee to make the call.

Those who hold the view that mainstream politicians should shun elections are worried that New Delhi’s well-oiled public relations machinery would showcase any successful exercise at the hustings as acceptance of its decision to scrap Article 370. There is an overwhelming sense that Kashmir’s capacity to offer resistance is greatly reduced at this moment. Although there is steady recruitment to the militant ranks, most of the home-grown combatants operate with rudimentary training and, in most cases, minimal ammunition. A temporary fatigue with street protests prevents replication of the widespread uprising witnessed in the summer of 2016, when the 21-year-old militant commander Burhan Wani was eliminated. Pro-resistance leaders are nowhere in the action, as Syed Ali Shah Geelani pointed out when he resigned as the chief of the hard-line faction of the Hurriyat Conference on June 29. “After August 5, the leaders who were not arrested were expected to lead the people.... I searched hard for you, but you were not available,” he said. In this context, threatening to jeopardise the electoral process seems like the only option available to mainstream actors to mount pressure on New Delhi and drive a hard bargain. Why, then, are they loath to exercise that option?

Political observers concur that a lot of thought went into New Delhi’s actions of August 5, which took into account and thereby pre-empted all possible forms of resistance. The Centre deployed considerable obstacles to thwart any resistance. New Delhi’s alleged propping up of the Apni Party, which is led by a group of PDP defectors, is seen as part of its plan to use this as the “stick” in its “carrot-and-stick” approach with the mainstream.

Even if the PDP and the N.C. were to abstain from elections, the Apni Party, recently derided by Farooq Abdullah as an “Intelligence Bureau creation”, could save the day for New Delhi. The perception is that given the massive presence of Army camps across Kashmir, in particular in many pockets of North Kashmir where it is also the employer of impoverished local residents, a 10 to 20 per cent voter turnout could be stage-managed. If that happens, the N.C. and the PDP’s ceding of the political space would be wasted, and chances are that those who are berating them now as “power seekers” would not be keen to hail them as “great sacrificers”. Where does that leave Kashmir, one wonders.

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