Will Altaf Bukhari’s ‘Apni Party’ Alter Kashmir’s Politics?
What’s all the buzz surrounding ex-Jammu & Kashmir minister Altaf Bukhari? Ahmed Ali Fayyaz explains.
Apart from the scrapping of Article 370 and creation of the two Union Territories in August 2019, New Delhi has covertly triggered two major political operations in Jammu and Kashmir since the outbreak of the secessionist militancy in 1989-90. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which drew most of its cadre from the Congress party, coupled with support in several elections from the pro-Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami, was the first in 1999.
Businessman-politician Altaf Bukhari’s Jammu Kashmir Apni Party (JKAP), floated in Srinagar on Sunday, 8 March 2020, with 23 former ministers and legislators at the forefront — 14 of them being late Mufti’s colleagues — is only the second.
Interestingly, both the PDP as well as the JKAP were launched during BJP rule at the Centre.
Obviously on both occasions, the objective was towards further division within the Valley-centric groundswell that exclusively accommodated either Sheikh Abdullah’s pro-autonomy National Conference (NC), or a separatist movement. The usual objective would be the establishment of a pliant, manageable regime. Perhaps more interesting is the fact that the political experiment during the Narendra Modi regime has come in contrast to the PDP’s launch during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s rule, which has failed and proved to be counterproductive for India.
How Kashmir Virtually ‘Became Pakistan’ Under PDP-BJP Rule
The ‘licence’ or the camouflage given to Mufti, apparently for stealing space from separatists and militants, proved beneficial only to the Valley’s secessionist constituency that got reprieve from Farooq Abdullah’s counterinsurgency drive, revived and reclaimed base, particularly when Mufti or his daughter, Mehbooba was chief minister. Pro-Pakistan and pro-azaadi elements got too much space in the institutions, so much so that the PDP-BJP regime in some circles was sarcastically known as the Hizbul Mujahideen-RSS coalition.
The RSS influence, however, was restricted to the Hindu-majority areas of Jammu.
Hizbul Mujahideen’s militant of the Caliphate ideology, Burhan Wani, flourished in Mufti’s one year in 2015. As Wani’s father, a government school teacher, continued to inaugurate cricket tournaments in his son’s name, the militant emerged as an icon for youths across the Valley. South Kashmir turned into a ‘liberated zone’. Thereafter, Kashmir needed just a trigger. It erupted with Wani’s death in an encounter in July 2016. Chief Minister Mehbooba got the police officers involved in the encounter transferred. She told journalists that she would have spared Wani if she would have been informed about his presence in the village of the encounter in Kokernag.
With Kashmir virtually turning into a ‘Pakistan’ with pro-jihadist demonstrations, Pakistani flags and slogans had become commonplace in 2015 itself. Two months before Mufti’s death, three militants of his hometown, Bijbehara, were killed in an encounter. Five to ten thousand people attended their funeral prayers.
For Mufti, no shops shut.
The government failed to find a grave for him in his ancestral cemetery. He was interred in a public park as less than 3,000 people gathered for the funeral.
Escaping of militants from jails and hospitals and executing assassinations like that of the journalist Shujaat Bukhari were just the logical conclusions of a dismemberment that set in with Mufti’s order of releasing another separatist icon Massarat Alam in days of his taking over as chief minister in March 2015. Finally, that era ended with the dismissal of Mehbooba’s government in June 2018.
Is Altaf Bukhari Being Considered as Future CM?
Days before the expiry of the suspended animation of the J&K Assembly, Altaf Bukhari, who served as Finance Minister in Mehbooba Mufti’s regime, staked claim to form the government with the support of MLAs from PDP, NC and Congress. The NC even committed its support to him, making clear that the party would stay out of power. Soon, there was a parallel claim from the Peoples Conference chairman, Sajjad Lone, who, from BJP’s quota, had served as a minister in Mehbooba’s Cabinet. Even as the BJP leader Ram Madhav appeared to be Lone’s patron, Governor Satya Paul Malik rejected both the claims and dissolved the Assembly.
Altaf Bukhari, who was expelled from the PDP, was among the very few politicians who were neither arrested nor put under house arrest when New Delhi abrogated Article 370 and split J&K into two UTs.
It indicates that he is well-connected in Delhi and perhaps being harnessed as a chief minister for the future. His influence could be gauged from the fact that most of the former ministers or legislators, who were expelled or resigned from the PDP, joined Bukhari’s camp. He has also poached seven ex-ministers, ex-MLAs or ex-MLCs from the Congress party. NC alone has stood safe as only two of that party — ex-MLA Kamal Arora and ex-MLC Vijay Bakaya — have turned to the JKAP.
Altaf Bukhari: A ‘Master’ in Political Manoeuvring
Bukhari is known for his mastery of political manoeuvring and manipulation. He was just 24-years-old when he, along with his father Syed Mohammad Iqbal Bukhari, executed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s ambitious operation of splitting the NC, deposing Farooq Abdullah and installing a dissident Ghulam Mohammad Shah as Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir in partnership with her Congress party in 1984. However that unpopular dispensation lasted for less than 20 months. Fearing reprisal from the NC, Bukhari remained close to the establishment in New Delhi, and years later, joined Mufti’s PDP. Many in the Valley perceive him to be very close to the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
Significantly, with the abrogation of Article 370, Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have made it unmistakably clear that, post-2019, there would be no room either for the sworn separatists or for the mainstream politicians who allegedly have promoted only the separatist or Pakistani narratives in the last 20 years.
PDP aside, even the pro-autonomy NC is facing the brunt of the Centre’s crackdown.
Sajjad Lone, who was BJP’s pre-poll ally in 2014 and later a minister from BJP’s quota, has not been spared either. The Centre is said to be angry as Lone and Shah Faesal too resisted the Centre’s move to withdraw J&K’s special status last year.
‘Apni Party’ Silent On 370, Says It Is ‘Sub Judice’
While all others have been critical of the Modi government’s J&K operation, Bukhari’s conglomerate is the first political outfit that has chosen to remain soft. In his inaugural address, Bukhari asserted that the decision of breaking J&K into the two UTs had “badly affected the self-esteem and pride of the people of J&K” but he was noncommittal on abrogation of Article 370, pleading that the matter was sub judice with the Supreme Court of India. The rest of the JKAP commitments — equitable development of all regions, dignified return of the Kashmiri Pandits et al — are known to be on the BJP’s own agenda.
Bureaucracy is the only area where Bukhari resorted to rhetoric and a populist tone.
“The bureaucracy is acting as though there is martial law imposed in J&K. Why shouldn’t we talk about it? J&K Bank has been converted into sub-office of the Anti-Corruption Bureau. We are aware of these issues and will raise them, come what may,” Bukhari asserted. He has described JKAP as “a party that can respond to the rational aspirations of people without promising them the moon or stars”. Bukhari has called Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad his role model, who was installed as ‘prime minister’ after Sheikh Abdullah’s dismissal and arrest in 1953, and is still remembered for his unparalleled contribution to J&K’s infrastructural development.
Bukhari’s Party Colours
Equally remarkable is the colour Bukhari has chosen for his party flag. It consists of two vertical but wide stripes, one each in red and blue. Most of the parties since 1986 had chosen green, as it symbolises integration either with the religion of Islam or with the country of Pakistan. Mufti’s PDP had picked green as also the erstwhile Muslim United Front’s 1987 election symbol, pen-and-inkpot. Apart from its inclusive and secular ideology, NC for years suffered for the red colour of its flag.
Now that the lockdown in the Valley has ended and a ‘Trojan horse’ for the Centre has broken the ice, it remains to be seen how Farooq Abdullah’s NC, which has stood united, would respond to the situation and adapt to the new political scenario.
With the PDP almost finished and Lone’s influence being limited to only two segments in Kupwara, NC’s cadre is still spread across the Valley and parts of Jammu division. The only foreseeable challenge to New Delhi’s move would come from the NC which has the capacity to do it alone or forge a larger alliance – even with Mehbooba, Lone and Faesal.
(The writer is a Srinagar-based journalist. He can be reached @ahmedalifayyaz. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)
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