(This is Part 1 of a two-part series on the current political developments unfolding in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir)
The scrapping of Article 370 pushed a reset button on the regional politics in J&K and three years after the epochal decision in August 2019, the consequences continue to play out. The political equations that were shaken up have since struggled to reposition themselves.
This year, the erstwhile state saw the implementation of the potentially game-changing delimitation exercise that resizes the constituencies as well as the revision of electoral rolls that has added new voters. Both these moves have raised the political tempers in the Union Territory because they touch upon issues that have historically been sensitive.
It was against this backdrop that Dr Farooq Abdullah, the three-times former Chief Minister of J&K, struck an ominous note when he warned that he will spearhead a political uprising should BJP decide to “meddle” in the forthcoming assembly polls.
J&K Gears Up For Election Season
“The BJP will do anything, even attempt to buy your loyalties, but God will fail all their designs,” he told an enormous crowd recently. “If there will be any interference in elections then there will be such a storm which you will not be able to control.”
Abdullah’s 6 December speech is essentially a curtain-raiser for the upcoming election that is expected to take place next spring. The solicitor general Tushar Mehta’s recent statement in the Supreme Court in response to a petition challenging J&K Delimitation suggests that the Central government too wants early elections in the UT.
From the excerpts of Farooq’s address delivered near the historic Hazratbal mosque, amid draughts of frosty wind drifting through Dal Lake, it is, however, clear that J&K is marching headlong into an election season every bit of which is going to be tumultuous.
There’s perhaps no one in Kashmir who understands the machinations that the successive Central governments have been capable of orchestrating, better than Abdullah.
What Led To The Discord between Indira Gandhi and Farooq?
In 1983, fresh into her second term as Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi became so deeply invested in J&K assembly elections that she had proposed an offer of alliance to Farooq whose party National Conference (NC) was riding on a wave of popularity after the demise of his father Sheikh Abdullah, Kashmir’s popular leader and a fixture of regional politics for four decades.
Attuned to the political sensibilities of Kashmiris, Farooq hesitated and instead, offered to field “weak” candidates in the constituencies that the Congress was contesting. Gandhi took it as a slight to her prestige.
Not accustomed to disobedience by the state governments (at the very start of her political career as the Congress president, she was involved in the dismissal of the Communist Party in Kerala in 1957), she set about dismantling the J&K regime headed by Farooq.
So determined was Mrs. Gandhi to oust Farooq that she even booted out the then J&K governor Braj Kumar Nehru, her own cousin who had refused to yield to her persuasions, and replaced him with Jagmohan, an ambitious but also deeply opportunist political flunkey. The resulting chaos meant that the entire decade was marked by cycles of political strife and culminated with the eruption of armed insurgency.
Rising UAPA Cases, Militancy Dominate Kashmir’s Political Climate
BJP may have replaced Congress at the Centre, but the historical dislike for federalism remains and so do the tactics of cutting the political opponents to size. Today, Kashmir is again gripped by the same sense of political despondency.
Brief spells of breakthrough militant violence directed at the members of religious minorities have called into question the claims that abrogation of Article 370 would bring permanent peace. On top of that, a slew of administrative changes including the tweaking of laws pertaining to ownership of land in Kashmir have ignited local suspicions.
A fierce political clampdown has all but subdued independent media, civil society and dissent and catalysed a groundswell of political anger which has not yet surfaced, thanks to overzealous policing of “anti-national” displays.
Of a total of 814 cases filed under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in 2021 in India, J&K accounts for the largest share (289). Latest court data shows that 780 habeas corpus petitions were filed in J&K High Court this year by the families of the persons booked under Public Safety Act (PSA), a feared preventive detention law.
“Previously we would fight 200 to 300 cases of PSAs in a year. Now there has been a three-fold increase,” said a lawyer who fights PSA cases on behalf of detainees in J&K High Court in Srinagar. (The spike in numbers, however, cannot entirely be attributed to exigencies stemming from politics and insurgency as there is now evidence that J&K Police is frequently deploying PSA to deal with drug menace as well.)
Farooq Abdullah and other mainstream leaders are intimately aware of what a situation like this could hold. Their adversarial political posturing comes from their deep understanding of the region.
Can Local Parties Rise Upto the Centre In Polls?
Recently, NC leader Omar Abdullah touched off a political storm after promising to revoke PSA if his party comes back to power. A big political leader using the repeal of PSA – the law whose use had once been upheld as a major political plank, underscores the nature of anger that there is on the ground over the relentless crackdown.
Recently People’s Democratic Party (PDP) president Mehbooba Mufti, another former CM, urged the youth in Kashmir not to leave any political space uncontested. Delivering an acidic broadside at the BJP, Mufti said, “J&K had a powerful Assembly but now, the panchayats are tipped as vital institutions. Yet still, the BJP leaders themselves prefer to occupy the highest seats elsewhere. Let them limit their role to panchayats only.”
Even Altaf Bukhari, who is generally considered hand-in-glove with the Centre, recently launched a political campaign for the release of young J&K detainees lodged in various prisons in the country. This was once the political mainstay of leaders like Mufti.
The August 2019 decision has overturned the ability of Valley’s mainstream leaders to mediate between the political aspirations of Kashmiris and the periodic assertions of overweening authority by the Centre, both of which have historically been on confrontational terms with each other. The great odds notwithstanding, they appeared to have succeeded so far.
Repeal Of Article 370 and BJP's strategy to rule Kashmir
We are yet to see what the full impact of this immediate cessation of that 70-year-old experiment will look like. One possibility is certain. BJP will soon find itself grappling with the dilemma of either perpetually governing J&K as a police state or allowing some democratic freedoms and risk the political remobilisation averse to “national interests.”
The latter has happened in Kashmir thrice. First was in mid-1960s when newly anointed Chief Minister Ghulam Muhammad Sadiq inaugurated a period of “liberalisation” and the restrictions on press were eased, freedom of peaceful assembly permitted, political detainees released and the ‘Conspiracy case’ against Sheikh Abdullah (for which the evidence the government had was Sheikh’s correspondence with a Chief engineer in Pakistan “talking about a pair of scissors and pruning of trees”) withdrawn.
Result? The J&K government was stunned by euphoric processions roaring through the streets of Kashmir in support of the Plebiscite Front, the group which kept alive the movement for Kashmir’s ‘independence’ after Sheikh Abdullah was jailed under sedition charges. Small-scale campaigns of armed violence led by groups such as ‘Master Cell’ and ‘al-Fatah’ also began to emerge.
These displays prompted Hindu hardliners in Delhi to bring pressure to bear upon the Sadiq regime in the State as well as the Congress at the Centre. Their provocative responses included introducing a bill in Parliament to repeal article 370.
J&K’s Political Instability and the Demand for 'Political Resolution'
Wilting under pressure, the Indian government announced a decision to steamroll articles 356 and 357 over J&K, thus, making governor rule enforceable without the State’s concurrence, kindling new fires of political unrest that rippled through the valley. Thus, instead of pacifying the situation, the “liberalisation” only succeeded in fuelling further cycles of instability in Kashmir.
Second instance came in the late 1970s when the Janata Party replaced Congress at the centre and J&K saw its first “free and fair” elections in which Sheikh won triumphantly. But alarmed by the growing resentment towards the “humiliating” accord he had signed Mrs. Gandhi in 1975 – when he agreed to forgo the demand of referendum – Sheikh began making “inflammatory” gestures to the point of saying that Kashmiris were not the slaves of India or Pakistan. He still failed to placate the situation in the region where the demand for ‘independence’, this time waged by the confessional groups like Jamaat-e-Islami, grew shriller.
And the third occasion was in the year 2008, when the relatively peaceful period marked by economic boom and some degree of political freedoms was tempered by a civil uprising sparked by the transfer of land in Kashmir to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board.
How Will Fresh Crop of Voters Affect J&K Elections?
The militancy figures are no doubt on their way down. But a fragile political situation means the UT will continue to remain a powder keg and exposed to security-related vulnerabilities. During a recent reporting tour, this correspondent came across one case of Natish Shakeel, a 17-year-old boy from Khanyar area of Srinagar who died as a militant in a gunfight in April earlier this year.
A few preliminary questions threw open a surprising fact that Natish was the grandnephew of Yousuf Halwai, the iconic “national martyr” associated with NC who was killed by JKLF militants at the onset of militancy in 1989.
When asked what may have led Natish into taking this drastic step, his uncle Showkat Ahmad pointed to the state of “political despair” in the region. “The choking of political spaces has created an unusual situation,” he said. “Government is also responsible to some extent. The youth are channelising their resentment in different ways.”
His sense of bitterness was echoed by others as well. “They (BJP) are trying to establish political supremacy here by dismantling local institutions,” said Majeed Larami, former lawmaker from South Kashmir’s Hom Shali Bug assembly constituency which was splintered into four parts by the Delimitation Commission. The exercise has almost skewed the level playing field by fragmenting (at least 19 of them) and renaming constituencies long nurtured by the mainstream leaders, creating new voting blocs.
Many former lawmakers like Larami say they have become estranged from the people they have long served. “One part of my constituency went to Kulgam, others were divided between Devsar and Bijbehara with a small slice going to Anantnag West. My constituency was completely wiped out from the map,” he said.
“A working relationship between the MLAs and their people has been disturbed. My new constituency is now Anantnag West and it will take me another five years to familiarise myself better with the new voters,” he added. Under Special Summary Revision (SSR) of electoral rolls 7.72 lakh new voters have been added to J&K.
As election buzz picks up speed, political tensions are also resurfacing. A successful transition towards an elected government is easily achievable but is also fraught with the risks of unforeseen consequences.
(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He has also written for The Wire.in, Article 14, Caravan, Firstpost, The Times of India, and more. He tweets at @shakirmir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)