Can Politics in Kashmir Continue Without Mainstream Leaders?
Image of detained leaders Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti used for representational purposes.
Image of detained leaders Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti used for representational purposes.(Photo: Altered by The Quint)

Can Politics in Kashmir Continue Without Mainstream Leaders?

Exactly 20 weeks after Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was terminated by way of the abrogation of Article 35-A and provisions of the Article 370 on 5 August 2019, Nawai-e-Subah, the headquarters of Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference (NC) in Srinagar, witnessed an unusual but sombre hustle and bustle.

Over a hundred leaders and workers of the party gathered for deliberation over the political scenario created by the Narendra Modi government’s act of splitting the state into the Union Territories (UT) of J&K and Ladakh, and detention of most of the mainstream politicians.

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Farooq Abdullah’s Detainment Extended

Three former chief ministers, including NC’s Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah, and the Peoples Democratic Party’s (PDP) Mehbooba Mufti, are among the dozens of the leaders and activists in confinement since August.

Even as a few of the detainees have been either released or shifted from jails to ‘house arrest’ in the last four months, the octogenarian Farooq’s detention under the Public Safety Act (PSA) has been extended by three months.

Understandably, much of the concern of the participants of the NC’s first major meeting on Monday, 23 December, revolved around the party patriarch’s health, as well as his being prevented from interacting with his family, particularly the son Omar, his workers and friends across the world. Invariably the speakers voiced their disappointment, raising questions on how J&K’s highest-profile politician could be held incommunicado indeterminably.

120 Leaders & Office-Bearers Attend NC’s First Meeting Since 5 August

NC’s Kashmir Province President, Shaukat Mir, who has been a legal practitioner and a district magistrate, asserted that only someone posing a threat to the national security or involved in a heinous crime could be held under PSA, the law that mandates the State to detain without framing charges in a court, for up to two years. The speakers pointed out that the NC patron had served four terms as chief minister and two terms as a union cabinet minister while being elected five times as a member of the Indian Parliament.

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“Unanimously we rejected abrogation of J&K’s special status, its division into the two UTs as well as the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens on the basis of religion. But the decision about the party’s line of action would be taken only by our working committee whenever it would be permitted to meet, following the release of our leaders”, Shaukat Mir told The Quint. “For now, it’s reassuring that the authorities did not cause any impediments in holding this meeting which was attended by around 120 leaders and office-bearers from all the 10 districts in Kashmir”.

About 30 first-rung leaders including former ministers and legislators, according to Mir, are still in jail.

“Scores of our lower rung leaders and workers have been arrested and released in the last four months. We have no clue about their whereabouts, no contact with them”, he said.

Can PDP Discuss Politics In Mehbooba’s Absence?

On the same day, around a dozen of PDP’s junior leaders and activists met after a gap of 140 days at the party headquarters in Srinagar. Its president in Budgam district, Muntazar Mohiuddin, who was invited but couldn’t attend, told The Quint that the get-together was “simply about the Fatihakhwani” to be held in Bijbehara on the occasion of the founder Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s fourth death anniversary on 7 January. “I think they didn’t discuss any politics as that isn’t possible in Mehbooba ji’s absence,” he said.

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According to Mohiuddin, about a dozen of the party’s leaders had not been arrested or held under ‘house arrest’. They include Mehbooba’s brother and former minister Tassaduq Mufti, and the two estranged Rajya Sabha members, Mir Mohammad Fayaz and Nazir Ahmad Laway. Mohiuddin himself and former MLC Zaffar Iqbal Manhas were not arrested as both had health issues and were not in J&K for over three months. Three of the former MLAs, namely Noor Mohammad Bhat, Mohammad Ashraf Mir and Yawar Mir, have been recently released. None of them attended the meeting.

No Liaison with PDP & NC Top Brass

Both the NC as well as the PDP leaders maintained that despite ‘some indications of a thaw’, workers of the two largest mainstream parties have had no liaison with one another or the top brass in the last five months or so.

“Only her mother has met Mehbooba ji several times. I think her daughter (Iltija) and brother (Tassaduq) met her once each after the court’s permission. We made several attempts to meet her but every time permission was denied by the authorities,” Mohiuddin said.

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Mir said that some family members were permitted to meet Farooq Abdullah who has been held at his residence. “Other than the family, two of our MPs (Hasnain Masoodi and Mohammad Akbar Lone) met him once under court permission in September. Next time, a delegation of about a dozen leaders from Jammu was permitted by the authorities to call on Doctor Sahab (Farooq). Our requests for permission have been repeatedly turned down,” Mir asserted.

Lone, Faesal In Jail, Workers Dispirited

Peoples Conference chairman and former minister from the BJP quota in the Mufti Cabinet, Sajjad Gani Lone, and the IAS officer-turned-politician, Shah Faesal, are also continuously under detention. While Lone’s mother and sister have met him under court permission, Faesal’s mother, wife and other relatives have met him frequently at SKICC and MLAs Hostel. They have no clue whether the young leader would continue to practice politics or pursue a career in academics in the United States of America. He had been held in New Delhi while travelling to the US to complete a fellowship.

Lone’s PC has had a falling out with the BJP and he has vehemently spoken out against the abrogation of Article 370 and downgrading of the State into two UTs.

Significantly, PC was the only regional party which not only had a pre-poll alliance with the BJP in the 2014 assembly elections but also participated in the panchayat and municipal elections after the dismissal of Mehbooba’s government. Srinagar Mayor Junaid Azim Mattu, against whom a BJP-sponsored no-confidence motion was filed on Tuesday, 24 December, belongs to the same party. Some of its activists contested the recent Block Development Council (BDC) elections as independent candidates but, like other parties, PC has completely frozen its political activity too.

A Hiatus in Normal Political Activity

Notwithstanding the two meetings by the NC and the PDP, the revival of normal political activity appears to be distant for a host of reasons. Neither Congress nor any other opposition party has met since July. Even the BJP, the ruling party at the Centre, is said to have cautioned its rank and file in J&K against holding any rally or celebration over any electoral victory across the country.

Still, leaders in both the regional mainstream parties, the NC and the PDP, have complained that their cadre are being “selectively targeted and suppressed”.

“Day in and day out we hear about BJP’s rallies and statements in Jammu. BJP leaders say they would raise the number of constituencies in Jammu by delimitation next year and thereafter the assembly elections would be held. In other words, they are telling their vote-banks that the next assembly would be dominated by Jammu, and the next CM would be from that province. How are they carrying out their own political activity? How do they know when the Delimitation Commission would act and what would be its findings? How do they know when the Election Commission of India would hold the elections,” Shaukat Mir asserted.

NC, PDP ‘Relieved’ Over BJP’s Debacle in Jharkhand

Others in the NC and the PDP are currently upbeat over BJP’s defeat in Jharkhand. They feel that BJP’s failure to form a government in Maharashtra and Jharkhand, coupled with the countrywide mayhem over the CAA and NRC, would weaken the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combo which they hold responsible for the unprecedented changes in J&K. “BJP is losing in state after state. They don’t have any encouraging indications from Delhi and Bihar. In 2017, BJP ruled 71 percent landmass and 69 percent population in India. Today, it stands reduced to just 35 percent and 43 percent respectively,” said a PDP leader.

Much would depend over the behaviour and sentiments in the Valley which hasn’t seen violence since August even as it has seen the arrest of over 3,000 ‘stone-pelters’, detention of over 300 political activists, huge deployment of security forces, continued internet suspension, receding popularity of separatist leaders, disillusionment with militants, FATF pressure on Pakistan, economic recession et al. Much would also depend on whether the Modi government would lend enough space to the Kashmiri leaders like Omar and Mehbooba or continue to view them as ‘mainstream promoters of the Pakistani and secessionist narratives’.

(The writer is a Srinagar-based journalist. He can be reached @ahmedalifayyaz.)

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