For Kashmir PDP Is The Best Bet

Madhu Purnima Kishwar

Nov 23, 2015, 06:51 PM | Updated Feb 10, 2016, 05:54 PM IST

The success of the BJP-PDP coalition in Kashmir would be the most befitting response to the ideology that created Pakistan. History will not forgive either of the two parties if they fail to live up to the huge trust and responsibility reposed by the people of J&K in the alliance.

Long before the recent dastardly petrol bomb attack on Kashmiri truckers, resulting in the death of young Zahid Rasool Bhat, by goons posturing as a cow protection brigade, Kashmir Valley was already on the boil. The state and Central governments do not seem to be working in a coordinated manner to deal with the fast-growing Islamist radicalization of Kashmiri youth that makes even a hardliner like Geelani appear a moderate in comparison. The radicalized section of the youth, though minuscule at this time, does not hide its fascination for outfits like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Unlike the old generation of secessionists, the neo-militants are not just anti-India—they are also anti-democracy, which they openly condemn as being un-Islamic. This process of virulent rejection of democracy and adoption of a jihadi ideology has been brewing for over two decades now. Although it was conceived and nurtured in the womb of the Pakistan-backed secessionist movement, the current phase of radicalization has gone far beyond the demand for a plebiscite to a desire for establishing the global supremacy of Islam through total annihilation of all that stands in its way. Democracy is seen as an inimical distraction in this project.

It is noteworthy that the separatist/secessionist movement arose as a protest against the thwarting of democracy in Kashmir by the National Conference (NC) with the tacit backing of the Congress at the Centre. Although Sheikh Abdullah facilitated the accession of Kashmir to India, after coming to power, he and his party did not allow democracy to take deep roots in Kashmir. His brand of authoritarianism did not brook even token opposition. Abdullah acceded to India but did not allow Kashmiri Muslims to integrate with India either psychologically and emotionally. To enhance his bargaining power vis-à-vis the Centre, Sheikh Abdullah kept the secessionist option alive.

Whenever faced with the slightest resistance from the Central government, he would tilt towards Pakistan and revive the azadi slogan. Though he was popular enough to sweep the polls, he could not stand anyone standing against his party to offer even a nominal challenge. He got away with it because of his mass appeal and also because Nehru bestowed the halo of martyrdom on him by putting him under house arrest on suspicion that he was hobnobbing with Pakistan. By the time his son Farooq tried the same formula for winning the 1987 election, the people were through with their unconditional romance with the Abdullah family.

At the time of the 1987 election, the Muslim United Front (MUF) emerged as a noticeable challenge to the hitherto unquestioned power of the NC by occupying the same political space and constituency that the NC once occupied. It is noteworthy that NC was originally named Muslim Conference when it was founded in 1932. It changed its nomenclature to National Conference only in June 1939. Right from its inception, Sheikh Abdullah used the historic Jamia Masjid, the traditional seat of temporal and religious power, and megaphone for mobilizing Kashmiris to support the Muslim Conference.

When Sheikh Abdullah renamed his outfit and called it National Conference, Mirwaiz Maulvi Farooq, the founder of the Pakistan-propped Awami Action Committee, took control of the mosque and used it as his base for political mobilization. Sheikh Abdullah made the revered Hazrat Bal shrine the citadel of NC mobilization. Friday sermons at these mosques by the two political rivals had little to do with religion or spirituality and everything to do with politics. But today neither Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who inherited the mantle of controlling this mosque from his father, nor the Abdullah family would dare challenge youngsters carrying ISIS flags to demonstrate outside these two bastions of religio-political power.

In 1987, Geelani and others who joined the Muslim United Front (MUF) stood for election against the NC to seek legitimate political space through democratic means. MUF thus emerged as an anti-NC force seeking to assert the right to dissent with and oppose the authoritarian politics of NC through democratic elections. The brazen rigging of the 1987 election by NC with the backing of the then Rajiv Gandhi-led Central government and subsequent repression let loose against opponents led to the anti-NC sentiment turning into anti-India sentiment. That was a godsend for Pakistan, which astutely channeled this anger into a full-fledged anti-India insurgency.

Since then, Kashmiri politics has got polarized into:

a. The pro-NC opinion that oscillates between the demand for more autonomy and secession depending on the convenience of its leaders. As recently as October 20, 2015, Farooq Abdullah publicly justified and endorsed Jinnah’s demand for the Partition of India in 1947.

b. Anti-NC sentiment in response to the highly corrupt and autocratic rule of Abdullah family, which continuously deprived Kashmiris of free and fair elections. That has consolidated into anti-India sentiment because the Centre was seen as being complicit in the misdeeds of NC leaders and their kin. The Abdullahs deftly manipulated this situation by projecting an image that they alone stood between secession to Pakistan and accession to India. But if ever the Central government tried to curb their misdoings, they raise the banner of “azadi”, thus adding fuel to the Pak-lit secessionist fires.

From 1989 onwards, the NC support base among the youth began steadily declining because they denied legitimate space to their political aspirations. Their vote base is today largely confined to the older generation that saw Sheikh Abdullah as a symbol of Kashmiri Muslim aspirations. The Sheikh and Farooq Abdullah generation of NC voters have not switched their loyalties. That is how, even in the 2014 elections, NC got nearly 10 lakh votes.

How PDP is Weaning Away Youth from Jihad

But the young voters are virulently anti-NC, which they consider a puppet of Delhi. It is in this context of the youth’s growing estrangement from the NC and India and the increasing appeal of militant Islam that is quintessentially inimical to democracy that the PDP emerged as a saviour of democracy in 2002. The PDP’s electoral base has been wrenched from all those elements that had turned anti-NC and, therefore, gravitated towards militancy. The nearly 11 lakh votes secured by the PDP have come from weaning away the youth from the separatist camp. That is why the likes of Yasin Malik, Mirwaiz Farooq and other militant leaders ferociously hate the PDP; its success makes them irrelevant and marginalizes their very existence. They work towards its failure to prove that the Indian democracy is incapable of meeting the aspirations of Kashmiris.

Mufti Sahib was the first politician in Kashmir to come out openly against the gun culture with his clarion call, “Na bandook se na boli se, baat banegi boli se” (Neither guns nor bullets will work. Dialogue is the only way to solve problems). That became the guiding philosophy of PDP. Muzaffar Hussain Baig added the intellectual gravitas to it by crafting the “Healing Touch” policy of PDP, while Mehbooba Mufti implemented it on the ground under the most adverse circumstances.

Mehbooba began the process of reaching out to alienated youth at the peak of militancy in the late 1990s when most Congress and NC leaders had abandoned the Valley. Whenever a young man was killed by the armed forces on suspicion of being a militant or by terrorists for being an informer for security forces, Mehbooba was the first one to reach and commiserate with the parents, widows and children of the deceased. She cleverly owned the symbol of Muslim United Front by claiming their legacy. She travelled to the remotest of villages at great personal risk to apply balm to the wounds of grieving families who faced a very precarious social situation.

If the army killed their sons on account of being suspected militants, they would be socially ostracized because of the fear of becoming targets of army wrath. If militants killed them on suspicion of being army informers, they would likewise be treated as outcasts. At such a time, PDP lending a sympathetic ear to such families and offering even token forms of financial help meant a great deal. Such gestures also encouraged the families of active militants to put pressure on their sons to abjure the path of violence and put their faith in democracy for redressal of their grievances.

On coming to power in 2002, the PDP also provided a far more responsive and relatively efficient governance with corruption under far greater check than had even been the case under NC rule. Even at the risk of annoying its cadres, the PDP-led coalition government ensured that new recruitments, whether for jobs of schoolteachers or other government departments, were mostly merit- based. That was unlike during NC regimes when it was taken for granted that government jobs were reserved for NC members, but they too had to “purchase” them. Within three years of PDP rule, the state witnessed the setting up of three new universities: Mata Vaishno Devi University in Jammu district, Baba Ghulam Shah University in Rajouri, and Islamic University in Kashmir Valley.

It was also the most accessible state government J&K had ever witnessed. During the phase of militancy in Kashmir, the government had ceased to exist. Most Kashmiri politicians, including the Abdullahs, literally abandoned the Valley and spent most of their time either in Delhi or abroad. Even other political representatives stayed low key under security cover. They stopped engaging with their respective constituencies. Thus, people were left totally at the mercy of a corrupt and uncaring bureaucracy and the security forces. There was a total clampdown on political dissent, which only helped swell the ranks of militants.

The PDP brought about a sea change in the political atmosphere with its highest leadership being easily accessible to ordinary citizens. Instead of remaining confined to a high security zone, CM Sayeed himself chose to live in the heart of the city and started travelling to every nook and corner of the state, to listen and respond to people’s grievances and demands. Mehbooba Mufti as party president was also on constant move and available on the phone to all and sundry.

The youth in particular connected to her with enthusiasm and she began building a whole new cadre of youngsters as a counter to NC hegemony, while Muzaffar Hussain Baig as Deputy Chief Minister and Finance Minister took charge of providing effective administration. During those three years of PDP rule, there was a close connect between promises made and delivery on the ground, especially with regards to development work.

Even while in government, PDP ensured that separatists did not get the opportunity to exploit and capitalize on stray cases of human rights abuses by the police or security forces. The moment any such unfortunate incident came to light, the seniormost leaders of PDP rushed to the area, not just to commiserate with the family and placate local sentiments but also offer instant financial compensation and support.

That this hard work paid off in reviving faith in democracy is evident from the fact that, in the municipal elections of 2003, the vote percentage went up to 88 per cent in several constituencies. The Chief Minister himself travelled all over the state urging people to make demands on the system to make it responsive.

PDP as a Bridge with Mainland

Another noteworthy aspect of the PDP-led government from 2002 to 2005 was that the CM constantly acted as a bridge of goodwill between the Centre and the state government. That too was in sharp contrast to the strategy followed by NC leaders who spoke with different tongues, depending on the audience. In Delhi, they would project themselves as the only saviour of India’s claim to Kashmir. But in Kashmir, they stoked anti-India sentiments by targeting the Centre as a hostile entity that did not allow “autonomy” or self-governance in Kashmir. Whenever things got too hot for them in the Valley due to their mismanagement, they raised the demand for a plebiscite.

Whatever its other flaws and limitations, PDP effectively marginalized the demand for referendum and secession, and shifted the focus to governance. Unlike the NC, the PDP did not use strong-arm methods against separatists. It released almost all of them from jail and allowed them the freedom to hold demonstrations, condemn the government and whatever else, so long as violence was eschewed. Earlier, all those with grievances against the government would land up at the doors of separatists. But Mehbooba Mufti ensured that her door became the first and most preferred option for all those with a genuine grouse for which they actually wanted a solution.

How PDP Blundered

However, the Muftis couldn’t handle the party’s relationship with the Congress, their alliance partner, once Mufti Saheb had to give way to Ghulam Nabi Azad as Chief Minister in 2005. That was as per the agreed upon terms and conditions of the Congress-PDP alliance in 2002. The manner in which Mehbooba led a hysterical campaign, outperforming even separatists in militant rhetoric, over the Amarnath land row damaged her credentials, not just among the Hindus of Jammu region, but also in the rest of the country. She earned for PDP the dubious distinction of being a party of “soft separatists”.

She justified her militant stance by saying that if PDP had allowed the issue to be monopolized by separatists, the party would have been wiped out in the forthcoming assembly elections. That is not borne out by the fact that Muzaffar Hussain Baig won the Baramulla seat with a comfortable margin even though he took an open stand against his party’s cynical position vis-à-vis the land row. The truth is that by bringing down the Ghulam Nabi Azad government on this spurious issue, which was originally raised by NC as a trap for PDP, the latter actually paved the way for the former’s return to power as an ally of the Congress in the 2009 assembly elections.

PDP paid a heavy price for that indiscretion because, after the 2009 elections, the Congress chose to ally with and prop up an NC-led government. But true to habit, the NC government was not only scam-ridden but also extremely gross in handling political discontent, leading to a massive youth-led agitation in 2010 that resulted in 114 killings of teenagers in police firing. The Valley witnessed an endless series of strikes and revival of militancy, especially among teenagers. The Congress-led government at the Centre gave blind support to Omar Abdullah’s misdoings instead of acting as a corrective, which led to a massive revival of anti-India sentiment.

The May 2014 parliamentary elections resulted in a resounding defeat for NC with all three MP seats being won by PDP. In the December 2014 assembly elections, NC and Congress lost power with PDP winning 28 seats, most of them in the Valley, while the BJP made a clean sweep in the Jammu region winning 25 seats. The voter turnout at 65 per cent was higher than the national average. The two parties had taken on a high-pitched adversarial position towards each other during the campaign. Therefore, it took them several weeks to sort out their differences and cobble together an uneasy alliance that left a significant section of their respective cadres befuddled and confused.

Strains in Coalition and Mutual Misunderstanding

Mufti Saheb gave his tenure a rocky start by thanking Pakistan for allowing peaceful polls in the state. That caused a huge embarrassment for the BJP and annoyed the army no end because it was their hard work that had kept the terrorists at bay. The CM added further fuel to the fire by claiming credit for releasing the jihadi Masarat Alam as a gesture of the “Healing Touch” policy, even though Alam had been released on the orders of the Supreme Court.

When the media and the BJP went ballistic, Mufti Saheb had to eat humble pie and re-arrest Alam on fresh charges. That lent strength to separatists who charged that Mufti was a mere puppet in the hands of the BJP high command. On the other hand, the BJP rank and file felt justified in mistrusting PDP for its pro-Pak, pro-militancy proclivities. The memories of the role played by Mehbooba Mufti during the Amarnath land row agitation added fuel to the fire of deep mistrust.

A major reason for the mutual tensions in the BJP-PDP alliance is that the BJP cadres and leaders are not really well-versed with the politics of the Valley and do not understand the vital role being played by PDP in favour of India. The PDP support base mostly comprises the youth, which is and has been virulently rejecting NC. If PDP did not exist, the 11-lakh-odd votes secured by the party would not have gone either to NC or Congress. They would have added to the numbers that heed the boycott call of separatists. Today 65 per cent of Kashmir’s population is below 35 years of age. The youth of Kashmir has a much higher influence on the state’s politics as compared to other states because they are excessively politicized and have been sucked into street protests since their schooldays.

Despite all its limitations, it is only PDP that is engaging with this volatile group and directing their discontent as well as aspirations onto a democratic platform. Within PDP, Mehbooba Mufti has emerged as the anchorperson for this mobilization. While the separatists want to keep the youth on the boil and forever traumatized, Mehbooba approaches them as a caring sister qua mother figure and acts as a healer and hope giver. In the process of marginalizing the separatists, she has to often steal the wind from their sails by protesting louder than them against occasional cases of human rights abuses even when her party is in power.

That often gets interpreted as Mehbooba and PDP being indistinguishable from separatists. This misunderstanding is a major cause of tensions between BJP cadres and PDP. The leadership at the top that cobbled together the alliance has not taken the trouble to explain to their respective cadre, the rationale and compulsions under which both sides are operating.

The Importance of being Mehbooba

There is no doubt that Mehbooba has the tendency to go overboard on sensitive issues, which often gives credence to the negative stereotype painted of her by opponents. By contrast, Muzaffar Hussain Baig is among the rare Kashmiri leaders who know how to address the concerns of people outside Kashmir even while safeguarding the legitimate interests of Kashmiri Muslims. He understands and responds sensitively to the concerns of Kashmiri Pandits, people of Jammu and Ladakh, as well as the people of India outside the state in a manner that bridges the emotional divide engineered by unscrupulous politics over previous decades.

But whatever her limitations, BJP cadres and leaders need to understand Mehbooba’s unique qualities. At a time when most mainstream male politicians had abandoned Kashmir, she ventured unarmed into remote insurgency-infested villages where even security forces were afraid to go. She built PDP’s political base bottom up—and that too in the most turbulent of times. Mufti Saheb and Muzaffar Hussain Baig were no doubt the brains behind PDP. But the actual groundwork has been done primarily by Mehbooba.

The importance of Mehbooba can be better understood if we take into account the politicians challenging her. Pitched against her are the likes of Yasin Malik, Masarat Alam, Asiya Andrabi, and Syed Ali Shah Geelani. All these separatists are brazenly acting at the behest of Pakistani agencies and are on the payroll of ISI. They thrive on organizing “atrocity-mongering tourism” for national and international media. These worthies justify terror attacks and instigate the youth to take to arms to destroy India at the behest of Pakistan.

The growing tribe of Asiya Andrabis castigate democracy as being anti-Islam and support Hafiz Sayeed’s jehadi ideology, which is fast moving closer to the ISIS brand of bestiality. These are the forces coercing Kashmiri women to adopt burqa and hijab, which militate against the liberal ethos of traditional Islam in Kashmir. They ban music, dance and whatever else can bring some joy and cheer into social life. Their main agenda is to cultivate a sense of victimhood and instigate the youth into nihilistic destruction.

By contrast, Mehbooba is galvanizing youth to stand up for democracy and aspire towards a constructive future. She appeals to Kashmiri pride as opposed to Islamic separatism. She challenges the Wahhabi version of Islam by her own example. She and her family are Sufi by conviction. They even visit and owe allegiance to Hindu spiritual gurus. Her two daughters have all the freedom that youngsters in other parts of India have. They don’t even cover their heads, leave alone wear burqa or hijab.

This is the first time Kashmir has thrown up a genuine grassroots-based woman leader—that too at a time when the state is tilting towards Salafism that denies women basic human rights. She is the only self-made woman leader in the entire Islamic world who is triumphantly challenging the Salafi version of Islam. Even as a symbol, the rise of Mehbooba Mufti in a Muslim-majority state under siege by Pakistani terror brigades is a tribute to Indian democracy and traditional Kashmiri culture.

She is the most befitting response to the Pakistan-propped many Asiya Andrabis. By mistrusting Mehbooba Mufti and trying to squeeze her role, the BJP cadres would be expanding the space for murderous separatists. The BJP hotheads would also do well to remember that PDP is the only force that has never internationalized the Kashmir issue—something even the supposedly mainstream NC is guilty of doing. Neither Mehbooba nor any other PDP leader has ever gone breast beating to America or Europe demonizing India as the separatists routinely do. If they have grievances or complaints, they insist on a hearing within India.

Mehbooba is not much of a favourite with the Pakistani establishment because she doesn’t sing its tunes and is actively weaning away the separatist cadre. That is why the likes of Yasin Malik hate her with frightening ferocity. By contrast, they have a cozy relationship with the NC because the Janus-faced scam-ridden politics of the Abdullah clan creates a rich soil for the growth of pro-Pak militancy and general estrangement with India. But PDP politics aims to strengthen people’s faith in India’s democracy.

When PDP first came to power in 2002, I had asked one of the senior JKLF leaders why Yasin Malik hates PDP so much. The answer I got speaks volumes-

When NC is in power, they water the roots of terrorist/separatist politics while pretending to oppose it by merely trimming the branches. However, when PDP is in power, they don’t oppose us in words, they may even appear soft on us, but they are cutting our roots even while making a show of being soft on us.

The people of J&K gave a historic electoral verdict in 2014 requiring the BJP and PDP to work together to bridge the regional and communal divides in the state. Both the parties need to understand the compulsions and limitations of each other, instead of creating difficulties for the alliance. They need to take each other into confidence and evolve joint strategies for dealing with contentious issues being raised by vested interests.

Total lack of experience of governance among the BJP’s first-time MLAs and ministers and the oppositionist mindset cultivated over decades of being a marginal opposition makes the task doubly difficult. On the PDP side too, there are plenty of greenhorns and hotheads who keep rattling the fragile alliance. The inexplicable sidelining of able and seasoned administrators like Muzaffar Hussain Baig in preference to inexperienced and unreliable ministers like Haseeb Drabu has also made PDP performance in administration much weaker than it was during 2002-2005.

Similarly, gross mishandling of the cow slaughter issue by BJP leaders has created an easily avoidable crisis for the two alliance partners. The fact that PM Narendra Modi appears to have forgotten all the grand promises he made to the youth of J&K that he would work to make it a “super state”, only serves to strengthen the hands of troublemakers in the Valley.

The inexplicable delay in delivering the promised development package from the Central government has also created a wave of disenchantment with the current dispensation. Had the Rs 80,000 crore package been given to J&K within the first couple of months of the new government assuming power, it would have created good faith in the Valley, set into motion the much-needed development work and strengthened the PDP-BJP alliance.

Now the same package is being treated with disdain, because NC and the separatists have had the time to define the terms of the discourse and build up hysteria against PDP as being a puppet of the BJP. In such a situation, PM Modi’s open snub to CM Mufti Sayeed at the joint rally they addressed in Srinagar on November 7 has created a furious wave against the alliance with separatists on the offensive.

Even if Modi did not like Mufti’s advice regarding reopening the dialogue with Pakistan, there was no need to humiliate the CM in front of his people. If nothing else, Modi should have respected Mufti’s age and experience and handled the matter more deftly. Apart from damaging the prospects of the alliance, Modi damaged his own image by coming across as arrogant and disdainful of his party’s most vulnerable but valuable alliance partner.

Voices are growing louder on both sides that this alliance should be scrapped. At a time when all other political parties are hell- bent on polarizing Muslims against the BJP, which in effect translates into the widening of the Hindu-Muslim divide, the coming together of BJP-PDP coalition—that too in the sensitive state of Kashmir—provides both these parties an opportunity to set into motion a historic new trend of constructive engagement between the people of Kashmir and the people of the rest of India.

The success of this democratic experiment in Kashmir–as a Muslim majority state in a Hindu majority India—will also provide a role model for the rest of the Islamic world, which is going through unprecedented turbulence and open warfare between the forces of democracy and the forces of annihilation. It will also provide a major fillip to the Prime Minister’s initiative to strengthen bonds with the Muslim world bypassing Pakistan.

The Congress is desperate to sabotage this alliance and take Kashmir back to the dark days of the insurgency. If this alliance fails, the Congress can go around triumphantly declaring to the world that the BJP is incapable of inclusive politics. On the other hand, the success of this coalition would be the most befitting response to the ideology that created Pakistan. History will not forgive either of the two parties if they fail to live up to the huge trust and responsibility reposed by the people of J&K in the alliance.

Madhu Purnima Kishwar is Maulana Azad National Professor, ICSSR, and the founder of human rights organisation, MANUSHI.

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