Farooq Abdullah
Farooq Abdullah addressing his party workers before August 2019. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla

In April this year, the central government imposed the domicile law to begin a new process whose logical end the Valley’s pro-freedom leaders have long warned against: changing the demographic of Jammu and Kashmir and the dilution of local identity.

The imposition of the domicile law is widely perceived by Kashmiris as a part of New Delhi’s final assault against their identity, beginning with the unilateral abrogation of J-K’s semi-autonomous status and statehood on 5 August 2019.

Apart from feeble criticism of New Delhi, no unionist politicians have come out in the open to speak of the ramifications of or a roadmap to resist the Modi government’s policies. Speculation of a compromise has already been fuelled by the emergence of a new party–the Altaf Bukhari led Apni Party–and the relative silence of the established unionist parties.

Silence of the Abdullahs

The last time former chief minister and patron of the National Conference (NC), Dr. Farooq Abdullah, had disappeared from the political scene after losing the 2014 parliamentary elections, making a comeback nearly a year later and shortly after a kidney transplant. Dr. Abdullah visited the press enclave in Srinagar in his typical flamboyance and roared for the cameras: “Tiger is back”.

Fast forward to 2020, the only headlines that Dr. Abdullah – a member of the parliament – these days makes are of him buying a mobile phone from Srinagar’s commercial hub or inaugurating an ice-cream outlet. Jammu and Kashmir’s so-called special status and statehood were revoked on 5 August 2019 and days later the “tiger” was put under a detention that would last nearly eight months.

Since his release on 13 March, however, Dr. Abdullah has maintained a conspicuous silence over what has been, since the party’s inception, the party’s main political plank. It was the promise of further strengthening the erstwhile state’s autonomy that had imbibed confidence in the veteran leader to contest the first elections after the eruption of insurgency, in 1996.

With the disintegration of the NC’s arch rival, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and its support base is in apparent disarray after a central crackdown on the Jamaat-e-Islami, the stakes and role of J-K’s grand old party in future politics has come under even greater scrutiny.

Dr. Abdullah’s son and also a former chief minister of J-K, Omar Abdullah, too, has shied away from coming forward with a future course of action. The junior Abdullah was released from detention on 24 March and announced that he would discuss political issues once the pandemic had ended.

According to insiders in the party, Mr. Omar Abdullah refused to discuss the revocation of special status even in a private video conference with the party’s leaders based in the Jammu division on 18 May, once again citing the pandemic. “He spoke about the situation caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” a party member who attended the zoom meeting said. “There was no question on political lines and some were not invited to the meeting.”

One such party leader from Jammu division, who was not invited to the zoom meeting, has already expressed his displeasure to fellow members and later approved of the party’s chief spokesperson, Ruhullah Mehdi’s public criticism of the party’s silence. Some party leaders in Jammu also believe that any step without talking about the abrogation was “criminal”. 

After a nine-month-long silence, Mr. Mehdi, on 24 May lashed out on Twitter over an article written by Tanvir Sadiq, a close aide of the party president and former chief minister Omar Abdullah, attempting to strike a reconciliatory tone with New Delhi.

Later, in April, Mr. Mehdi, who has been a cabinet minister in the past, publicly criticised New Delhi not only for altering the region’s political dynamic with the Indian Union but also the “humiliation” with which it was brought about. “I have not forgotten the ugly dance of ‘democracy’ on the floor of Parliament on 4, 5 August last year,” Mr. Mehdi wrote on Twitter.

Mr. Mehdi had also tweeted that he had not forgotten “how a coup was mounted against a population of the entire state and all their democratic and constitutional rights were murdered”.

After the Twitter spat between Mr. Sadiq and Mr. Mehdi, Omar Abdullah said that views of both expressed in a private capacity doesn’t change NC’s stand “taken in the SC and outside regarding 5 August.” Abdullah also added that the party remains “committed to challenging what happened on 5 August using all lawful means.” 

In an apparent reference to Mr. Mehdi, Mr. Abdullah had added that it was “better to discuss [shades of opinion] amongst ourselves before we decide to make them public” but has, since then, shied away from commenting on the party’s future course of action.

No roadmap for the future

The NC broke its silence in a measured statement issued as tensions mounted at the India-China border in Ladakh; believed to have been precipitated by, among other reasons, New Delhi’s unilateral actions on J-K which saw Ladakh being separated from the erstwhile state.

On June 19, the NC welcomed what it termed a shift in the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s stand “from belligerence to amity and peace”—a stance that the statement described as a “conciliatory posture”—discerned by statements of cabinet ministers Nitin Gadkari and Rajnath Singh, the country’s defence minister.

The statement called for an “unconditional dialogue with all the stakeholders” and demanded the “immediate annulment of all the 5th August 2019 decisions and restoration of the 4th August 2019 constitutional position of Jammu and Kashmir”.

Incidentally, the contentious article by Mr. Sadiq, published in the Valley’s daily newspaper Greater Kashmir, had argued for a “reconciliation” and “reaching out” without directly seeking “restoration of autonomy”.

Mr. Sadiq has suggested: “As a starting point for this, let all political prisoners arrested post ‪August 5 be released before EID, revisit the domicile law and lift all curbs on the internet and telecommunication and let the end of the pandemic and the beginning of the political process be run along parallel lines. Kashmir, its people and the country needs this.”

Hasnain Masoodi, also a Member of Parliament from the NC, speaking to The Kashmir Walla, shortly after Mr. Mehdi’s public statements, had said that there was no discontent with the party, which won’t step down from its position. “Our stand is firm, we want restoration of the 4 August position,” said Mr. Masoodi. 

“We are fighting judicially and also politically. We have made it clear that we don’t accept the 5 August decision and any other developments like domicile or anything in future. We don’t accept it. No question of diluting autonomy at any cost,” he had said.

Mr. Masoodi adds that the NC stand is clear that the 5 August decision is “unconstitutional, unilateral and ignoring the commitments made to the people of Kashmir. Identity, autonomy and territorial integrity must be restored.”

Equally clueless rivals

Mehbooba Mufti
Mehbooba Mufti during a meet with her workers at her Srinagar residence in 2019. Photograph by Bhat Burhan for The Kashmir Walla

Though the NC’s 19 June statement endorsed the popular sentiment in Kashmir, it still did not offer a concrete roadmap on how it envisioned achieving its stated demands. The same could be said of the NC’s arch rivals in the People’s Democratic Party, whose president Mehbooba Mufti remains under detention.

Waheed-ur-Rehman Para, a close aide of Ms. Mufti and president of the party’s youth wing, for now has limited the immediate demands to the release of the party president. “Once she is out we will decide the future course of action,” he claimed, echoing the NC’s earlier stance–which since the release of its senior leaders hasn’t changed much.

Mr. Para said that Ms. Mufti’s release would give the party “clarity” on “what party roles are going to be” and review the situation. “Politics is not just coming and fighting elections,” he said, adding that there was still uncertainty over whether elections would be conducted. “Politics is also about the sentiments of people.”

Ever since the last elected state government in J-K fell, the PDP has suffered one blow after another. “Our party has been dented as over 30 people have left the party,” admitted Mr. Para. “We need to assess our situation and where the ground is. We also need to see what is the government side and what are the fresh challenges. I have no view on other parties but only our party president can speak about the issues.”

Mr. Para believes that the unionists of Kashmir still have a role to play. “[The] NC has a crucial role in the times to come. It is an organized party that has been historically assaulted, they definitely have a crucial role in the future,” he said, adding that Kashmiri unionists were “custodians of [the] constitution, democracy, identity, and dignity. It definitely owes a lot of answers to people collectively, it is not just one party. We all need to introspect what is not working for us.”

However, the politics on the ground isn’t black and white; even as the established unionist parties have shied away from making public statements, they have continued to hold public offices in the parliament as well as the region’s city councils. As the BJP attempts to expand its influence, it was hoped by many that unionists of Kashmir would set aside their differences.

However, the turn of events at the Srinagar Municipal Corporation–the ousting of the People’s Conference Mayor, Junaid Azim Mattu–has seemingly dropped hints of a possible compromise with the BJP in the future. “[If] a certain Kashmiri party is not willing to own up its alliance with a national party and is trying to hide it from the people of Kashmir, then we have a right to ask questions,” the party said in a statement. “It is no longer about the mayoral elections.”

The party’s head, the separatist turned unionist Sajad Lone remains in house detention. Prior to the elections, Mr. Lone has publicly owned up his good relations with the BJP and Mr. Modi, drawing flak. This time, the party said that “the onus of proving that a certain regional party did not align with a national party lies on the regional party. They have every right to align with them but have no right to hide it in plain sight.”

“We were “maybe” deluded to believe that it will mark a new era amongst the regional parties. And this new era would be defined by more transparency, less slanging matches and more respect for each other,” the party said in a bitter statement, implicitly accusing the NC of joining hands with the BJP. The PC’s future, too, now remains uncertain in the absence of coherent leadership. 

Restarting politics?

Altaf Bukhari, Kashmir, kashmir politics, kashmir politicians, Altaf Bukhari BJP, BJP kashmir
Former People’s Democratic Party (PDP) leader, Altaf Bukhari, who is soon launching a new political party. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla

With the special status revoked and the predominantly Muslim Kashmir’s fears all the more pronounced, it is unclear what the unionists will now use as a political plank to try and fill the political void. New Delhi’s answer to this–and the general discourse over the region as evident through its new media policy–seems to be development.

That is precisely the plank that the Altaf Bukhari led Apni Party is banking upon. “I talk of what is achievable in my capacity,” Mr. Bukhari told The Kashmir Walla. “I do not talk of [delivering] the moon, not even the sky, my capacity is [limited to] just a five storey building.”

Mr. Bukhari said that his party’s “core agenda” was the restoration of statehood, domicile law on land and jobs, and the equitable development of both Kashmir and Jammu regions. He is of the opinion that the delimitation process should be expedited despite the unwillingness of some. “If you don’t contribute, then you can not complain,” he said, adding that while a resolution of the events of 5 August was awaited, a bureaucratic administration could not be “an alternative to a rule by the public”. 

The Apni Party is widely perceived as having been propped up by New Delhi as an alternative to the established unionist parties, its members are drawn from various parties, including the PDP of which Mr. Bukhari was himself a member and a former minister in the last government headed by Ms. Mufti.

But Mr. Bukhari said that he has been “misunderstood”. “[The abrogation] is a tragedy but it is also natural to move on and not stop at that,” he said. “If someone can deliver azadi, I am not stopping them. If someone is giving back Article 370, I am not stopping them. If somebody has a better solution [than us], then they should give that. I say that I don’t want to leave people in a limbo, I tell them what is achievable.”

Mr. Bukhari says that he is a man of “small politics” and that now was the time to find ways to move ahead. “Everything that could have been, has been sold in the last seven decades. Now we have to seek concessions and get back what we can,” he said, taking a jibe at established parties. “If someone says they will [fight for] pre-1953 position [the original terms of accession], we believed them for the last 50 years but did they bring it back? For 20 years we tried for self-rule. I don’t talk about these issues.”

Accusing the established parties of misleading the public, Mr. Bukhari said none of these parties’ elated members of parliament–the NC’s three in the Lok Sabha and the PDP’s two in the Rajya Sabha–or councillors and panches have so far resigned from office in protest. “I have not seen them take a single step towards their publicly perceived agenda,” he said. “They have to decide if the release of their leaders is an issue or Article 370. What concrete steps have they taken [so far]?”

On 4 August 2019, even though both Abdullahs and parliamentarian Mr. Masoodi had returned from a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and despite assurances – amid an unusual build up of troops in Kashmir – that nothing sinister was to come, a major commotion was in play at the fortified Gupkar that is home to the unionist elites.

By evening a joint face of the unionist politicians had come up with what they called the “Gupkar Declaration”, a brief common point agenda agreed to by the unionist leadership. The first of its points was that “all the parties would be United in their resolve to protect and defend [the] identity, autonomy and special special status of the JK against all attacks and onslaughts whatsoever.”

For now, only Mr. Bukhari seems to have somewhat a solution in first demanding statehood and subsequently amending the domicile law to extend the eligibility criteria to 25 years–in reality, a proposal to slightly delay Kashmir’s fears. “I agree that this is a genuine apprehension,” he said. “But this requires the intervention of top leaders of the country. [Only] that will diffuse the tensions.”

Nearly a year has passed since then but Kashmir remains rudderless even as a storm clearly approaches. Kashmir is slowly inching towards a new dystopian reality, where—unlike the 1990s—the local press also might not be able to document its history. Unrest is brewing in the hearts of Kashmiris, its outburst is a matter of when and not if.

At this critical juncture, are Kashmir’s politicians willing to live up to the challenge?

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