Centre is 'Leaving No Scope for Democracy' in Kashmir: Mehbooba Mufti
In an exclusive interview, the PDP president says the government has gone all out to disempower Kashmiris.
In a wide-ranging interview to author and columnist David Devadas, the former Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir and president of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Mehbooba Mufti, said Kashmiris feel suffocated, but she also spoke of the inevitability of reconciliation by the Centre.
“Dum ghut gaya hai (one can’t breathe),” says former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, in what she describes as “an open-air prison”. Acknowledging that there has been repression in the past, too, she says, “I haven’t seen it so bad” that “people are scared even within the four walls of their house”.
That is indeed true of many in Kashmir. Few say that they are satisfied, although many are getting on with their lives placidly.
To emphasise her point, Mehbooba says that boys who came for a protest she led were asked to sign a bond that they would not protest again.
When she didn’t go to meet the Delimitation Commission, her mother got a notice from the Enforcement Directorate. And when she organised a public meeting of the Peoples Democratic Party, of which she is the president, her mother was summoned by the ED.
Holding that one “can’t hold people under the gun for a long time”, she speaks of a lot of resultant anger: “People feel humiliated and hurt” for “they [the government] have gone all out to disempower us”.
She points out double standards, too, saying she got a COVID-19 protocol notice for having more than 25 persons at a meeting, while the Lieutenant-Governor, and the relatively new Apni Party, have had huge programmes, and a BJP leader booked the entire sprawling Dak Bungalow grounds in Khanabal for a function at his son’s wedding.
Not just that. Passports have been suspended, and “they have threatened people into silence”, she points out.
The result, she says, is that several of those who worked with her party in the past (she takes a couple of names) have been persuaded to join other parties, such as the People’s Conference.
So, she holds, “I am just fighting for that,” adding that she spoke strongly at the meeting the Prime Minister called in late June. “Mei zabardast boli,” as she puts it — something National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah independently confirms.
She says she told the Prime Minister that “Mufti sahib had thought that the RSS would do anything for the nation, but you have given up J&K for votes”. She adds that she referred at that meeting to a ruling party Chief Minister talking about Kashmiri girls, and another about plots in Kashmir.
Confidence-Building Measures for Reconciliation
Asked whether she sees herself as having replaced the largely jailed or defunct Hurriyat Conference, Mehbooba immediately says she does not. “My role is very clear cut. My father’s vision [was]that Kashmir must stay in India … [with] a changed status, [perhaps with soft] borders.”
Perhaps the hard line she has recently taken stems at least partly from the need to survive politically in a challenging milieu. Since several leaders have left her party, Mehbooba has no political option but to try and shore up the party’s image for at least the long term.
But she makes her arguments in the framework of the constitution. Asserting that “this [constitutional changes on Jammu & Kashmir], Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), [and] NRC, go against the Constitution”, she stresses that “if we stop resisting, we stop existing”.
Despite that, she seems open to a political rapprochement with the Centre. Mentioning talks that were held under former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, she says that “at some point, they will have to come for reconciliation”.
She suggests that the Centre should “take some measures” for confidence-building. The release of political prisoners could be one. She seems particularly concerned about the arrest of her party’s youth president, Waheed-ur-Rehman Para.
Not only does she have no time for secessionism, but Mehbooba also links issues in Kashmir with those in other parts of the country. Referring to “how ruthlessly they beat farmers”, she holds that Kashmir has become an “experimental ground”, and what was done there would be repeated elsewhere.
She says the nation’s institutions have been subverted, but “the worst is the godi media”.
As for politics, she notes that “secular has become something anti-national”, and says that since parties “don’t want to be branded anti-national, the Opposition is trapped”. One “can’t blame them” if parties are defensive, she adds, but then points out that Rahul Gandhi is ‘still fighting it out, Mamata too”.
'Officials Pressured to Process Domicile Claims Fast’
Asked about elections, Mehbooba asserts, “I have my own doubts about elections …They are leaving no scope for democracy here.”
Talking of prospective elections as an ongoing process from the “illegal scrapping of (Articles) 370 and 35-A”, she says it was done for certain things such as changed domicile laws. She claims that officials have been threatened with sacking if they don’t process domicile claims fast.
She takes the view that “everything is ready” behind the scenes with regard to delimiting constituencies anew, all “micro-managed by the Home Ministry”.
She predicts that there would be a good turnout to vote — “unless the Centre does not want” it, in order to “favour their proxies”, adding that she does not want to name those proxies.
Daughter Iltija in the Wings
Asked if her politically visible younger daughter, Iltija, who ran Mehbooba’s Twitter account at least while her mother was locked up, would stand for election, Mehbooba promptly replies with a smile: “ask her”.
There is talk in some sections of the party of Iltija becoming the future face of the PDP, of which Mehbooba has been the president ever since her father, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, formed it in 1999.
Mehbooba has announced that she does not intend to contest elections until full statehood is restored. One wonders if that could pave the way for Iltija, who is already a confident and influential presence around her mother, to emerge as Deputy Chief Minister.
(David Devadas is the author of 'The Story of Kashmir' and 'The Generation of Rage in Kashmir' (OUP, 2018). He can be reached at @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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