New Delhi and its officers in Kashmir 

In carefully charting the rise and fall of politicians in Kashmir’s history from 1953 till now, we can see the influence India has had on the politics of the region.

In Kashmir, the first week of August 1953 and that of August 2019 would appear no different.  

By 1953, there was a visible split in the National Conference, then prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) Sheikh Abdullah’s political party. Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad led the dissident group. The pro-communist bloc within the party, led by GM Sadiq, joined the dissidents because the Soviet Union changed its policy on Kashmir. 

But the dissent against Abdullah and his lieutenant, Mirza Afzal Beigh, did not come solely from an ideological difference. Delhi’s manipulations and desperate lieutenants conspiring against their boss fuelled the fallout. 

On 31 July 1953, the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, decided to oust Abdullah and the ground was prepared for his arrest. The army and DW Mehra, Nehru’s trusted intelligence official in control of the Jammu and Kashmir police, were put on alert. 

On 9 August, Abdullah was arrested and Mohammad took over as prime minister. During the Mohammad regime, several orders were passed that weakened J&K’s autonomy and superseded the previous provisions for fiscal and political autonomy. 

Beigh formed the Plebiscite Front to protest against Abdullah’s arrest and to advocate for the autonomy of J&K. In 1957, Sadiq separated to form a new party, the Democratic National Conference (DNC). But by 1960, Delhi had engineered a reunion between the National Conference and the DNC.

After serving Delhi for more than a decade, in October 1963 Mohammad was forced to step down as prime minister of J&K following stiff resistance within his party. After Mohammad’s ousting, Delhi sought more control. 

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In 1963, even as Mohammad stepped down, he made sure loyalist Khwaja Shamsudin ascended to prime minister, rather than Sadiq. But after a mass movement over the loss of a holy relic from the Hazratbal Shrine, Shamsudin was made to step down and Sadiq was sworn in. Abdullah was released for the time being. Sadiq took a huge step and merged the National Conference with the Indian National Congress in January 1965.

Though elections were held all along during the decades of Delhi-backed leadership, the election process was a formality. Most of the candidates were elected uncontested and unopposed. These officials aided Delhi in changing nomenclature and denting the special position of J&K by extending laws that otherwise were not applicable there. This meant that the post of prime minister was replaced with chief minister, like any other Indian state. J&K was to elect representatives for Lok Sabha, the Indian parliament, as well.

Just before the 1971 parliamentary elections, the Plebiscite Front wanted to contest the elections but most of its members were arrested and it was declared an unlawful party. In 1975, Abdullah buried his connections to Plebiscite politics and, together with his lieutenant, Beigh, signed an accord with New Delhi, ensuring he returned as the chief minister of state. By 1977, Abdullah headed a National Conference made up of Mohammad’s loyalists, converted members of the Indian National Congress (Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq, former Prime Minister of J&K and Mir Qasim, Former Chief Minister of J&K) and the Plebiscite Front. 

Abdullah died in 1982 and his son, Farooq Abdullah, took over as the chief minister of J&K. The Farooq Abdullah government was destabilised by his brother-in-law, Ghulam Mohammad Shah, as he, along with 12 other members of the legislative assembly, aligned with 26 Indian National Congress members to form a government. This marked the resumption of rivalry between the Indian National Congress and the National Conference in Kashmir. 

In the run-up to the 1984 parliamentary elections, Indira Gandhi promulgated the image of Congress as a nationalist force fighting Sikh and Muslim separatists in Punjab and J&K. In fact, in the 1983 J&K assembly elections, the Indian National Congress under Gandhi had campaigned vociferously in the Hindu majority belt of Jammu, evoking nationalist passions. It yielded results, with the Indian National Congress bagging 23 seats in Jammu. 

The 1987 elections 

In the 1987 assembly elections, after Farooq Abdullah made peace with Congress, the two decided to contest elections as a pre-poll alliance together. The National Conference-Indian National Congress coalition had to face a serious challenge from a spontaneous coalition in the form of the Muslim United Front, which brought together factions that opposed New Delhi’s policies in J&K and some of which demanded the right to self-determination. 

While the Muslim United Front was a “ragtag alliance”, it evoked a significant response and acquired an army of volunteers, who worked with zeal and fervour. This threatened the National Conference-Indian National Congress coalition, which finally resorted to mass rigging of elections. The National Conference-Indian National Congress won 62 out of 66 seats. The Muslim United Front volunteers and workers had to face a vindictive crackdown, with most of them incarcerated for months without trial. The post-1987 political environment in Kashmir was similar to what it is now. 

The militancy in J&K was becoming a perpetual headache for New Delhi. Most of the political formations Delhi had banked on were rendered useless. In 1995, India raised an army of counterinsurgents from the renegades and surrendered splinter groups of militants known as Ikhwanis. Ikhwanis became an important ally for New Delhi. 

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With the help of the Ikhwanis, India was able to neutralise militancy and carry out state assembly elections in 1996. But the Ikhwanis also contested the elections through their political front, the Awami League, founded by Ikhwan-Mohd Yusuf Parray from the Sonawari constituency. In many parts of rural Kashmir, it was alleged that the Ikhwanis coerced people into voting. 

After boycotting the 1996 parliamentary elections, Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference was able to contest the assembly elections and won as many as 57 seats. Later, in 1998, National Conference parliamentarians joined the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, and Omar Abdullah, son of Farooq Abdullah, a third-generation politician from the Abdullah family, was elected from the Srinagar constituency. 

Saifuddin Soz, who won from the Baramulla constituency on the National Conference ticket, proved to be detrimental for the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government, as he voted against his party as part of a no-confidence motion on 17 April 1999. This one vote actually brought down the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government as Soz was expelled from the National Conference even as he boasted about bringing down a communal government.

A new political party 

Mufti Sayeed, who had been the union home minister in Vishwanath Pratap Singh’s government in 1990 after contesting on the Bharatiya Janata Party ticket from Muzaffarnagar, won an Anantnag Parliament seat, this time contesting on the Indian National Congress ticket. Sayeed was a long-time congressperson in J&K and a bitter rival of the National Conference and Plebiscite Front. He was against the National Conference-Indian National Congress coalition. This undermined him as a politician and gave the upper hand to the National Conference in the valley when the seat and power-sharing agreements took place between the two political parties. 

Sayeed had several times been accused of being a conspirator against the National Conference government after failing to elicit many votes. In 1999, Sayeed founded the People’s Democratic Party, banking on the soft separatism and anti-Ikhwani sentiment of the people. 

He advocated a “healing touch” policy. This immediately struck a harmonic chord, given the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Ikhwani, the people’s diminishing militancy, the global situation after 9/11 and the fact that the Ikhwani and hard counter-insurgency had served their purpose for India. A new political formation was needed to harness the mirage of peace. In the 2002 assembly elections in J&K, the People’s Democratic Party won 16 assembly seats and formed a coalition government with the Indian National Congress.

The “diversion” of 800 kanals (about 405 000m²) of forest land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board for Amarnath Yatra in 2008 resulted in a massive uprising, and just a few months before the assembly elections, the People’s Democratic Party pulled its support from the alliance, resulting in governor rule. This was followed by an “economic blockade” of the Kashmir valley, followed by huge marches to Srinagar advocating the right to self-determination. 

In the assembly elections of 2008, the “summer uprising” played an important part. As the People’s Democratic Party increased its vote share in the Kashmir valley, so did the Bharatiya Janata Party in Jammu. But the government was formed by the National Conference-Indian National Congress coalition. 

In 2009, Sajad Lone, who had been active on prime-time television debate channels advocating self-determination, contested the parliamentary elections from Baramulla and lost. Lone, son of the assassinated People’s Conference leader and one of the founders of the Hurriyat Conference, Abdul Gani Lone, had inherited his vote bank from his father. His party, the People’s Conference, had been contesting elections mostly in North Kashmir until the 1987 assembly elections. 

The People’s Conference wasn’t part of the Muslim United Front and had contested elections in 23 assembly seats, managing to win none. In 2002, it was alleged that the People’s Conference had fielded proxy candidates, even as the Hurriyat Conference remained non-committal on the elections. 

Ghulam Mohiuddin Sofi, who had won the 2002 assembly election from the Handwara constituency, was a long time People’s Conference member. Er Rashid, who was at one time associated with the People’s Conference, also won a 2008 assembly election, thereafter forming the Awami Ittehad Party, popularised by his cries for self-determination and almost mimicking Mebooba Mufti in her political gimmickry by playing the soft separatist card – joining people in protests against oppressive forces, attending the funerals of militants and sympathising with the Hurriyat. 

The 2014 parliamentary election was a reflection of things to come, as the People’s Democratic Party won all three seats in the Kashmir valley and the Bharatiya Janata Party won in Jammu, Udhampur and Ladakh. 

The People’s Democratic Party had banked on soft separatism and anger against the Omar Abdullah government for the Shopian rape and murder case in 2009, killings and repression in 2010 and Afzal Guru’s hanging in 2013. The People’s Democratic Party also created a threat perception that boycotting polls or a low voter turnout could actually benefit the Bharatiya Janata Party. It promised to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party out of power in J&K.  

People in South Kashmir’s Tral, Shopian and Pulwama regions mostly boycotted the polls as militant numbers began to swell in these areas. Even elected Panch and Sarpanchs – village-level officials – either took refuge in police stations or resigned on polling day. 

Alliance of ‘inconvenience’

In the 2014 assembly elections, the People’s Democratic Party gained 28 seats mostly in Kashmir and the Bharatiya Janata Party won 25 seats, all in the Jammu Division. The People’s Democratic Party had entered into a pre-poll alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party and managed to win two seats in Kashmir.

After bad-mouthing each other in the election campaign and “othering” each other by creating fear of each other’s triumph in elections, the People’s Democratic Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party entered into an alliance with Mufti Sayeed as chief minister. In January 2016, Sayeed died and Mehbooba Mufti took almost three months to rethink the alliance. On 4 April, Mufti was sworn in as the chief minister of J&K. After the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani in July and subsequent protests, the polls for the Anantnag seat were jeopardised. 

On 19 June 2018, the Bharatiya Janata Party broke away from its alliance with the People’s Democratic Party. The Mufti-led People’s Democratic Party was the loser in this breakaway. The People’s Democratic Party had thrived on soft separatism, the oxygen of which was blocked by the Bharatiya Janata Party. The resentment against the People’s Democratic Party resulted in the resignation of many of its members. 

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The continuous strife in the alliance led to a disturbance in the political equilibrium of J&K, which always remained tilted in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The release of Hurriyat leader Masrat Alam Bhat in March 2015 and his subsequent rearrest was among the first indicators of the People’s Democratic Party’s meek surrender of its mandate. The beef ban, attacks on Kashmiri drivers in Udhampur and shutting down the internet on Eid were eye-openers for the soft separatist vote bank of the People’s Democratic Party. 

Mufti’s support for Delhi’s muscular policy in Kashmir after the killing of Burhan Wani and her comments on children killed and blinded during the 2016 summer uprising clearly showed that Mufti was kowtowing to the Bharatiya Janata Party and losing ground in her own constituency. The release of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees report on human rights abuses in Kashmir in 2018 only reiterated how the human rights Mufti claimed to champion when out of power was in stark contrast to what she did when in power. 

New political order?

The rejuvenation of militancy in Kashmir and the glorification of calls for the right to self-determination in the past few years is a major setback for India, which needs a new political order in Kashmir. 

India has always favoured using force in Kashmir. It always finds new allies – from Mohammad, Sadiq and the tamed lion of Kashmir Sheikh Abdullah to Farooq Abdullah, Sayeed, the Ikhwani and the “healing touch”. India has a knack for getting new people on board with new rhetoric. It also manufactures consent, even for its most unpopular decisions and lackeys. Likewise, it uses “morality” as an excuse to bring people down. 

They are masters of spin, be it the Kashmir conspiracy against Sheikh Abdullah, the corruption charges against Mohammad, the threat to secularism against the Muslim United Front, the political incompetency of Farooq Abdullah or his image as a disco dancer. Think of the counterinsurgency of the Ikhwani and then the human rights discourse against them, the image of Mufti as a mourner at the gravesides of Kashmiri militants, Omar Abdullah as a dashing young politician and the anti-national rhetoric for and against both Mufti and Omar Abdullah, the pragmatic transformation of Lone from separatist to the mainstream or the bright, bold, intelligent, diligent, post-ideological new-kid-on-the-block image of Shah Faesal as set against the image of Faesal as naïve. 

If the old politicians have been abandoned, expect a new political order with a rhetoric of the decentralisation of power or development or … whatever. 

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