Kashmir: Deepening tragedy

Al-Bilad

Kashmir: Deepening tragedy

July 05, 2018

Showkat A. Motta

The BJP pulls out of the ruling alliance and brings down the government in Jammu and Kashmir in a move made with the Lok Sabha elections in mind even as the State sinks into greater depths of violence and militancy.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah has demonstrated a ruthless streak ever since he arrived in New Delhi. He has broken political alliances in States from outside (Bihar), staked a claim to government without a legislative majority (Goa, Meghalaya), and won in some States by poaching other parties’ leaders (Nagaland). He played the “Hindu card” to achieve a last-minute win in his home State (Gujarat), and has taken on established parties through the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) by portraying RSS workers killed by activists of the opposition as “martyrs” (Kerala), and encouraged infighting in two other State parties (West Bengal). Jammu and Kashmir remained relatively distant from Shah’s Machiavellianism until June 19, when he pulled the rug from under the feet of Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and brought down the three-and-half-year-old coalition government in the most volatile State of India.

Long before the BJP’s sudden announcement of withdrawal from the alliance, however, the daggers were drawn within the forced political marriage between the BJP and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The two parties, which had overzealously campaigned against each other right until the end of the 2014 Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir, were bound to cut loose, sooner or later. Remaining in the alliance was costing the BJP support in the Hindu-dominated Jammu region that gave it 25 members in the Assembly. The saffron party was essentially behaving more like a disgruntled opposition than a partner in government. Much to the PDP’s chagrin, the BJP, while still in power, oversaw RSS activists marching through Muslim areas of Jammu brandishing firearms and making violent attacks on Muslim nomads. Some senior Ministers from the BJP even had the audacity to organise rallies in support of the accused in the infamous rape and murder of a minor Muslim girl in Jammu’s Kathua district. There was also a relentless campaign for the scrapping of Article 35 A of the Indian Constitution that gives the Jammu and Kashmir legislature a carte blanche to decide who are “permanent residents” of the State.

Clearly, there is a sense of euphoria in the BJP’s ranks, as the party believes it will be able to exploit its dumping of the PDP to peddle its “Hindutva” politics in the run-up to 2019 Lok Sabha election. Amit Shah has, in fact, already dropped hints about that. On June 23, four days after the BJP-PDP alliance ended, Shah landed in Jammu to join a function to mark the death anniversary of Syama Prasad Mookerjee, founder of the Jana Sangh, the precursor of the BJP. Shah accused the PDP of “discriminating against Jammu”. It prompted Mehbooba Mufti to take to Twitter to remind him, and rightly so, that his party was an equal partner in the fallen government.

Diatribes and point-scoring apart, the BJP, whose raison d etre is abolition of Article 370, which accords special status to Jammu and Kashmir under the Constitution, is preparing to pull up its socks to see its dream come true before heading for the 2019 election. “There was political suffocation for us in that alliance,” says Ravinder Raina, the State BJP president. “It was very hard for us to separate ourselves from our core political issues revolving around Article 370 and two separate Constitutions for the state.” Earlier, after the BJP came to power at the Centre, the contentious issue made it to the Supreme Court through a litigation campaign sponsored by the RSS.

Sense of foreboding

In Srinagar’s civil society and media circles, there is already a sense of foreboding that the BJP is deliberately pushing the verdict on Article 35A closer to the 2019 election to score electoral points. Amid all this, the BJP is throwing its weight behind the hard power—the new “muscular policy”—against Kashmiris, according to the PDP. While the coalition lasted, party members say, the PDP’s “soft” approach vexed them and escalated the “alienation on the ground”. But after the Narendra Modi government’s deputation of some hardened counter-insurgency experts from the Maoist heartland to Kashmir as advisers of Governor N.N. Vohra, the party wants action not only against insurgents but also their sympathizers and supporters.

The PDP, on the other hand, appears, although belatedly, to be filled with remorse and shame. Almost all of its leaders, barring the likes of Naeem Akhtar and Haseeb Drabu, the architect of the Agenda of Alliance (AoA) with the BJP, are conscious of the fact that Kashmiris nurse a visceral hatred for them, which stems from the PDP’s role in virtually inviting the RSS to Kashmir. This was evident when celebrations erupted in many parts of south Kashmir, the erstwhile bastion of the Muftis, when the government fell. Now, the PDP, which was founded by the only Muslim Home Minister of India, the late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, for providing a “middle ground” in Kashmir’s politics, is staring at an existential crisis. A senior party leader and former Minister, currently cooling his heels behind the tight security at his Srinagar residence, sees in the government’s collapse a “divinely preordained plan”. He says the PDP contested the 2014 election on the promise of keeping the “Gosanis” (a dysphemism in Kashmir for the RSS) away from Lakhanpur (the entry point to Jammu and Kashmir). “But we later not only embraced them, we entered into a political wedlock with them,” he told Frontline. “It was an unnatural alliance formed against the wishes of Kashmiris. It was supposed to be a coalition based on the common minimum program for development and peace, but it ultimately proved a Frankenstein’s monster for us.”

The PDP, in the manner of all pro-India parties eager to please the Centre, had defined its alliance with the BJP in grandiose terms, something like a marriage between “north pole and south pole”. The late Mufti began to envision this alliance, seen as unnatural by everyone except him, as harmonising relations between Hindu-dominated Jammu and Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley. This was delusional, as Hilal Mir, a senior editor with the daily Greater Kashmir, put it. “The PDP shut its eyes to the fact that the BJP never gave up on its anti-Muslim and anti-Kashmir agenda. Just go through the statements of BJP leaders during these three years. You will find nothing but malice for Kashmiris there.”

The coalition was deemed unnatural from the word go. It was bound to collapse under the weight of its inherent contradictions, and both the alliance partners knew it very well.

Mehbooba Mufti today stands reduced to a failed, humiliated politician. She betrayed her exasperation at her farewell press conference where she made a show of taking the fall of her government in her stride. So disconnected was she not only from the ground but from the developments taking place in her courtyard that on the day when the BJP called it quits, she and her party’s Ministers were sitting comfortably in their offices in the civil secretariat in Srinagar. This was despite the fact that all 25 MLAs of the BJP had been camping in New Delhi for two days on Amit Shah’s call, fuelling speculation in Srinagar and New Delhi that the BJP had decided to pull out of the coalition. “Mehbooba was either caught off guard or was hoping against hope that all was well,” said Tariq Ali Mir, editor of Belaag, a Srinagar-based Urdu magazine. “Either way, she displayed her political immaturity,” he said.

Her two decades of experience in guileful politics notwithstanding, the BJP outwitted Mehbooba on most occasions. So meekly did her party surrender to the BJP that in its three-year rule it never spoke of its political bible, self-rule, and seldom insisted on the implementation of the AoA, a document it had attempted, in vain, to sell to the people of Kashmir as sacred. Nothing agreed upon in the AoA, such as talks with the Hurriyat Conference and Pakistan, was pursued with conviction with the BJP. “It was, therefore, politically naive for the PDP leadership,” said Sheikh Qayoom, a senior journalist and well-known political commentator, “to expect that the terms of the AoA would be fulfilled in the remaining period of the coalition’s term of office.” He said if past governments in New Delhi could effortlessly back out of the Delhi Agreement (1952) without any remorse, what would have stopped the Modi government from backing out of the AoA, which could not be even remotely compared to the Delhi Agreement which had constitutional legitimacy?

Certainly, Mehbooba Mufti cannot blame anyone but herself for not running away from the “unholy” alliance when she twice got an opportunity to do so. First, it was after the death of her father in January 2016, a year after the coalition regime assumed office. The writing on the wall was already unmistakable: a storm was brewing against the PDP in Kashmir. The public anger at Mufti’s joining hands with the BJP came to the fore at his funeral in Bijbehara, his home town, which attracted fewer than 1,500 people. The mourners were mostly bureaucrats, Ministers and politicians. Contrast this with the funeral two months earlier of the slain Pakistani militant commander Abu Qasim in southern Kulgam town. Around 50,000 people attended the militant’s funeral after clashing with the Army over the custody of his body. The imam who led the funeral prayers for Qasim was later sent to jail, and since then as a policy bodies of Pakistani militants killed in the Valley are not handed over to the local population and are buried secretly in north Kashmir.

After her father’s death, Mehbooba Mufti did initially dither about wearing the crown of thorns. She, however, took the bait, after more than two months, because it was suspected that some of her party legislators were planning to form a government with the BJP’s support in case she decided to break with the saffron party. She knew, in her own words, that her party’s decision to ally with the BJP was like “putting our hands in tezaab [acid] knowing well the damage it may cause. But we have taken this risk in hope of achieving something for Kashmir.” It proved to be wishful thinking.

Mehbooba Mufti got a second chance to salvage her sinking ship during the 2016 protests sparked by the killing of the popular militant commander Burhan Wani. Many Kashmiris would possibly have forgiven Mehbooba for having made one compromise after another if she handled the agitation properly or resigned in protest when soldiers were killing young boys with impunity on the streets. But she displayed “neither courage, nor vision, nor morality to end that unholy alliance,” said Rajiv Kumar, a Germany-based scientist from Kashmir. He said Mehbooba Mufti got so blinded by power that she could not see the writing on the wall or realise that she had become irrelevant. She waited until “the ultimate ignominy of being dumped by the fascists themselves,” he said.

Tragically for Mehbooba Mufti, she met her Waterloo on her home turf, south Kashmir, the epicenter of the protests. The region had given the PDP the epithet of “soft face of Kashmiri separatism”. In the five-month agitation, more than 120 civilians died in police and paramilitary forces’ action; the four districts of south Kashmir accounted for the lion’s share of the body count. Over 15,000 civilians were injured, including 1,200 who were blinded partially or completely owing to the unrestrained use of pellet guns. Many thousands were jailed, too. Far removed from the compassionate Mehbooba Mufti of the late 1990s who empathized with the kin of slain militants—her detractors would call her “Rudaali” for that—the Chief Minister presented herself as an iron-fisted leader during the agitation.

“Who will forget those taunts: ‘toffee lene gaye thay, doodh laane gaye thay?’” asked journalist and political commentator Gowhar Geelani, recalling how Mehbooba Mufti justified the gruesome killing of small boys by claiming that they were not on their way to buy candies or milk when they were slain, suggesting that they were pelting stones at the police or the Army when they were killed. In the process, she virtually dug her own party’s grave. Two years after the agitation, the very areas that swore by the PDP are now up in arms against it.

It is argued that the ground situation deteriorated so much after that agitation that neither remaining in power nor giving it up would have helped the PDP’s sliding political graph. “If getting into power is the main objective of all political parties,” Qayoom said, “the cost paid for getting into power by the PDP today seems totally unaffordable.” An unenviable situation brought the PDP to a place where even getting out of power was not the easy way out for Mehbooba Mufti, he said. Kumar added: “Handing over Kashmir to fascists will remain the lasting legacy of Mufti.”

Now, when Mehbooba Mufti has all the time in the world, she will have to rebuild her party brick by brick. It looks easier said than done, though, as factionalism has eaten away at the party and many leaders are intriguing for their own gains. The foremost challenge is to regain lost credibility. “But for this,” said the veteran political analyst Professor Siddiq Wahid Radhu, “they will have to have some magic wand, given how unpopular they have become today.” Tariq Mir, the editor who belongs to Mehbooba Mufti’s native district Anantnag, said insurgents were enjoying a huge popularity in southern Kashmir and people come between them and soldiers during gunfights. “It would be foolhardy to presume that a PDP legislator, who has never been to his village in the last three years, will dare ask for votes now. Also, people can’t so soon forget the unprecedented repression they had to face under the PDP government. People’s memory can’t be so short.”

The Jammu and Kashmir Assembly has been kept in suspended animation, keeping alive the possibility of another party trying to cobble together numbers to throw up a new political formation. But Mehbooba Mufti, whose party has 28 legislators in the 87-member Assembly, has made it clear that she will not ally with the National Conference (15 MLAs) or any other party to form the government, for which 44 seats are required. The BJP’s Kashmir point man Ram Madhav also put to rest all speculation fuelled by his Srinagar visit on June 28. “Show me the option [for forming the government]. We have severed links with the PDP and there is no question of going back. An alliance between the N.C. and the BJP will not happen because Omar Abdullah has categorically ruled it out. There will be no attempt from our side,” said Madhav. He said there was a “need” for Governor’s Rule in the State, which had witnessed “severe governance deficit”, to achieve the three-pronged strategy: “Tackling terror and militancy, giving real experience of governance to people, and undertaking massive development.” He said: “We are not in any position to suggest any government formation and if all fails we will have elections after six months.”

The young take to militancy

More and more young boys are, meanwhile, disappearing into the woods. They later appear on social media with guns slung over their shoulders to announce joining militancy, a phenomenon that picked up after the killing of Burhan Wani in July 2016.

Most of these amateur rebels survive for only a few days or months and perish in gun battles with the Army—over 200 militants were killed in Kashmir in 2017, the highest number in seven years, after the Army launched “Operation All-Out”. Unlike most of their peers in the 1990s, these boys when trapped in a cordon prefer to give up their lives rather than surrender to the Army. The day after, their funerals turn into carnivals of sorts, where besides holding massive anti-India and pro-freedom protests, young boys take a pledge to follow the path of the slain insurgents.

On June 23, for instance, Srinagar saw the angriest stone-pelting in recent years, lasting seven hours, over the killing of the “Islamic State Jammu Kashmir” chief Dawood Salafi. A resident of Srinagar’s HMT area, Salafi, died along with three associates in a gunfight with the Army in Anantnag a few days after the Modi government called off a month-long unilateral Ramzan ceasefire. Next day, a boy from Salafi’s neighbourhood left his home to join militancy.

On June 25, tens of thousands of people participated in the funeral of Shakoor Dar, a Lashkar-e-Taiba militant from southern Kulgam district. At least six militants appeared at the funeral site and fired off many rounds to pay tributes to their fallen comrade. A video shows people jostling against one another to kiss the gun-wielding militants. It was said to be the second biggest funeral after Burhan’s. Since June this year, at least 10 boys, including a physiotherapist, incidentally named Burhan, a special police officer, and an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer’s brother have enlisted as militants. The number is rising by the day.

Burhan, as former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had predicted, is proving more dangerous in his grave than in his living room. Omar should know it; after all, it was during his turbulent rule that Burhan became a militant in the wake of the 2010 uprising that the junior Abdullah crushed with the jackboot, killing around 130 civilians. It led to the N.C.’s worst-ever defeat in the 2014 election. One can, meanwhile, only hope the consequences of this second wave of militancy will not be as drastic and dreadful as that of the 1990s.

Showkat A. Motta is a Srinagar-based journalist and Editor, Kashmir Narrator.