“It has become clear to people like me that there are only two ways to do politics in Jammu and Kashmir – you either have to be a stooge or you have to be a separatist”.
This is what Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement (JKPM) leader Shah Faesal said in an interview to BBC barely a few days before he was detained at Delhi Airport, sent back to Srinagar and placed under house arrest.
Now, the question that arises is: what does Shah Faesal see himself as: a “stooge” or a “separatist”?
There are two theories being put forward:
The first theory is that Shah Faesal and his Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement are being propped up as the new set of Kashmiri political actors who are willing to work within the framework of the Indian Constitution.
Those following this line of argument raises questions such as why was Faesal detained only on 14 August and not on 4 or 5 August like most other Kashmiri politicians?
Some have even alleged that he was initially detained and then let off and allowed to go to Delhi, where he gave the interview to BBC.
The second line of argument is that detaining Faesal was nothing but New Delhi’s way of silencing yet another Kashmiri voice. Here the argument given is that Faesal’s interview to BBC caused precisely what the Narendra Modi government dislikes most: international embarrassment.
Therefore, Faesal was detained to prevent him from giving more ammunition to international media and from making statements on Kashmir during his visit to the United States. He was on his way to Harvard University where he is doing a course.
A related debate on Faesal’s colleague at the JKPM, former JNUSU Vice-President Shehla Rashid Shora, has emerged as well. On one hand there was a campaign by right wing groups on social media demanding her arrest, on the other hand some pro-separatist Kashmiris alleged that she too, is being propped up by New Delhi like Faesal.
Faesal and Shehla’s Background
In some ways, Faesal and Shehla are different from prominent pro-India politicians in the Valley like Omar Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti and Sajad Lone as they are not from political families.
Both are self-made individuals and lateral entrants in politics. Faesal was a doctor before he topped the UPSC examination and joined the Indian Administrative Services. His father, a teacher, was killed by militants when he was just 19.
Shehla Rashid was a software professional, who was selected for a political leadership programme by IIM Bangalore. She later joined Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to pursue her research in Sociology. There she joined the left-wing All India Students’ Association and became the first Kashmiri woman to be elected as the vice-president of the JNU Students’ Union.
Like another contemporary, singer Qazi Touqeer, who won the reality show Fame Gurukul in 2005, Faesal and Shehla were products of a brief period of normalcy Kashmir witnessed in the 2000s. They were young Kashmiris from non-elite backgrounds who competed with mainland Indians and did well in their respective fields.
Faesal in particular achieved the ‘great Indian dream’ by topping the UPSC exam. For New Delhi, he became a poster-boy showing what Kashmiri youth could achieve if they shunned separatism.
When it became clear last year that Faesal and Shehla would join politics, it was initially speculated that they would join the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference. Faesal already had a good equation with NC’s Omar Abdullah and he was given important responsibilities during the latter’s tenure as chief minister. For Shehla too, NC was a more natural choice as it was ideologically left-of-centre compared to the PDP, that was dominated more by conservative and landed interests.
However, they chose to create an independent outfit – the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement – instead of joining the NC. But it was always clear that they would choose to do politics within the Constitutional framework rather than join separatist ranks.
But the government’s decision to scrap Jammu and Kashmir’s special status has complicated matters for the JKPM as well as for more established parties like NC, PDP and People’s Conference. Now doing politics would mean accepting the harsh terms set by New Delhi.
Stance After Abrogation
Faesal and Shehla appear to have recaliberated their position after the abrogation of Article 370 and bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories. It was initially speculated that Faesal would champion the cause of statehood for Jammu and Kashmir. Being a climbdown even from the NC and PDP’s position – which was based on the supremacy of J&K’s Special Status, it would have meant completely playing into New Delhi’s hands.
However, Faesal didn’t pursue that trajectory. Instead, he took a line that bordered on what New Delhi would call separatist.
In his interview with BBC, Faesal said, “Everybody who wants to champion the political rights of Kashmiri people – the path and methodology has changed. Right to self determination is the only framework. People are not willing to listen to anything within the Indian Constitution”.
This was a clear hint that the former civil servant is willing to look beyond the ‘mainstream’ Indian political framework. However, his comments on Pakistan showed that he wasn’t looking towards it for any help.
“Pakistan has behaved like an international NGO – wringing its hands and showing tremendous amounts of helplessness,” he said.
Elaborating on the methods he advocates, Faesal called for a “sustained non-violent political mass movement” in Kashmir.
His comments on self-determination, distrust of Pakistan and push for non-violent means would put Faesal broadly in the ideological position espoused by JKLF chief Yasin Malik after his unilateral ceasefire in 1994.
Shehla Rashid has focussed much of her attention in the past few weeks on attacking the government and security forces on the alleged atrocities that are taking place in Kashmir. The army issued a denial regarding her allegations. However, she did express her appreciation of the efforts of Srinagar district collector Shahid Choudhary, who has emerged as an important face for the government.
She also took part in the DMK-led Opposition protest on Kashmir at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar on Thursday, 22 August, indicating that she intended to continue pursuing politics within the Constitution’s framework.
The JKPM’s ally – Engineer Rashid of the Awami Ittehad Party – has been sent to judicial custody on terror charges. Rashid is an MLA from Langate in Handwara district and this is the harshest punishment given to a mainstream politician in the ongoing crackdown.
It remains to be seen how Faesal and Shehla position themselves in the months to come, after restrictions in Kashmir are eased and the government begins preparing to hold elections in the new Union Territory.
A lot would depend on how the government acts.
Modi Govt’s Kashmiri Leadership
The Modi government has made it clear what kind of a Kashmiri leader is acceptable for it.
In an article in The Indian Express published earlier this week, BJP’s General Secretary in-charge for Jammu and Kashmir Ram Madhav wrote, “Kashmir needs a new leadership, built not on the separatist narrative of the 20th century but on the development narrative of the 21st century. It is here that the investment and focus of the central government should go. Failing in that will mean a return of not just the old leadership...”
In the article Madhav described PDP as the “political organ of separatists in the Valley”. This makes it quite clear that the BJP isn’t in favour of a Kashmiri party that favours autonomy and talks about human rights abuses.
Pin-pointing the kind of leadership BJP is looking at, Madhav wrote, “Today, the calmness in the Valley is partly due to those sections of the social leadership, that include, students, youths and the non-PDP, non-NC political leadership, that have engaged with the BJP and Narendra Modi over the past few years.
The most direct reference would be to Sajad Lone’s People’s Conference that has been BJP’s ally in the Valley.
It is clear that BJP wants Kashmiri politicians who do not raise issues like identity, autonomy or human rights violations. It wants politicians who focus only on issues such as health, education, service-delivery and civic infrastructure.
It also wants political competition to be more localised and centered around civic bodies. This is evident by the fact that earlier this week, the government announced that the mayors of Jammu and Srinagar would be given the status of a Minister of State. The direct beneficiary of this in Kashmir is Srinagar Mayor Junaid Azim Mattu, who last year quit the National Conference and joined BJP ally People’s Conference.
Even though both Mattu and his party chief Sajad Lone are under detention, the BJP may not be averse to projecting them in the Valley.
So where does that leave Shah Faesal and Shehla Rashid?
As things stand presently, they are in the same category as NC and PDP as far as the BJP government is concerned. The government would want them to do politics on its terms. But for that Faesal would have to become exactly the term he used in the BBC interview: a “stooge”.
On the other hand, if Faesal sticks to the views he expressed, he would have to face the government’s crackdown.
By filing a Habeas Corpus in the Delhi High Court, Shah Faesal has hinted that his politics lies in opposition to the BJP but still within the framework of the Indian Constitution.
Perhaps there is a need to move beyond the binaries of “mainstream vs separatist” in Kashmir. If at all there is a mainstream Kashmiri opinion, it lies in opposition to New Delhi and its policies in Kashmir.
The opposition could lie in demanding a return to special status within the Indian Constitution or a demand for Azadi. It remains to be seen which erstwhile ‘mainstream’ parties continue to adopt the constitutional route, which ones move towards separatism and which ones ally themselves to New Delhi’s plan.