With PDP and NC leaders in detention, the rise of non-BJP-averse leaders in Kashmir sets parties on new trajectories

Shakir Mir

As the Central government lends a helping hand to carve out new political formations in Jammu and Kashmir, older parties are withering away due to the inattention and perhaps aware of their dire situation, are also in a mood to renegotiate their party agendas.

The rise of  a 'third front' €" a separate bloc of political forces led by PDP deserter Altaf Bukhari, who served as minister in coalition with BJP, has put pressure on the prominent mainstream parties. Both the Peoples Democratic Party and National Conference have turned comatose after the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution. Prominent leaders from both parties including three former chief ministers were detained under the Public Safety Act that empowers the State to hold them in detention without trial for up to two years.

Left without their party-heads, the rank and file of these political groups are finding themselves disoriented and clueless especially when such a major political churn is underway. The Centre aims to engineer a new political setup in Jammu and Kashmir, and Bukhari €" who makes back-and-forth visits between Delhi and Srinagar €" is at the heart of this change. He has also recently earned an endorsement from the BJP's local unit.

Earlier this month, Bukhari floated a new party whose manifesto goes beyond the discourse of maximising autonomy. Instead, its main themes are suffused with demands about the restoration of statehood and application of domicile rights €" the rules of engagement with which the Centre should have no grievance. "We don't know how leaders of the PDP and NC are going to react to everything that has happened while they were locked up," said Siddiq Wahid, a senior fellow at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, "They will have to take into account the shutdown, incarcerations, crackdown on dissent and everything that happened all these months and act accordingly."

Two remarkable developments are underway that can exert an overriding influence on political trajectories of mainstream parties in the region. First, Muzaffar Hussain Baig, founding member of the PDP, who has been more responsive to the Central government and less critical of it after 5 August, appears to have considerable latitude over party affairs in the absence of its top leadership. Baig was first to opine that special status held no real value for people in Jammu and Kashmir. He excoriated Mehbooba Mufti for threatening Home Minister Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in vain.

"We won't get anything from it," he said last month, "Modi and Shah are not anti-Muslim." He made clear his desire to become a new power broker in the PDP when he expressed the need for a fresh party resolution that excludes any reference to Article 370 and instead sticks to restoration of statehood. He also unfurled the Indian flag at the PDP's Jammu headquarters on Republic Day calling for every person in the former state to commit themselves to "the welfare of this country".

This posturing has not gone down well with the party rank and file in Kashmir.

"Each of his statements contravenes the avowed party stand," said a senior PDP member who did not want to be named, "We are not in touch with him. In fact, whatever we decide at the Srinagar headquarters of PDP is hardly discussed with him. His thoughts and actions are independent of party consensus." But their opinion barely seems to matter as Baig appears to have both the will and wherewithal to negotiate with the Centre on behalf of his party. While he has not faced much curtailment from the local administration for his political activities, other key party members continue to be under detention.

"We have not really been able to meet our senior members, who hold decision-making authority," said Hameed Kosheen, general secretary, PDP, "The police stops us whenever we try to meet any of our political leaders €" from party president Mehbooba Mufti to national spokesperson Waheed Para."

Furthermore, mainstream parties will certainly feel threatened by the delimitation exercise set to take place in Jammu and Kashmir. The administration is presently nominating members for the commission to expand the existing share of 107 seats to 114. The last delimitation exercise took place under President's Rule in 1995 when Kashmir had 87 Assembly constituencies. "Certainly, delimitation is going to assuage the people in Jammu region who have always felt that they had no share in government-formation, even thought it's a misplaced notion. It's set to directly benefit the BJP electorally," explained Noor Ahmad Baba, a retired political scientist, "An increase in seat tally from the BJP stronghold will indeed force parties in Kashmir to review their stand and reflect on it. They simply can't let themselves get run over like this."

Next, as most leaders find themselves locked up under the PSA, it is Altaf Bukhari who gets to occupy the headlines where he often figures taking up one issue after another of utmost consequence to locals. He was the first to call on the government to evacuate Kashmiri students from China in the wake of the coronavirus scare. His denunciation of the abolition of the Jammu and Kashmir cadre in civil services and the five-year age relaxation for aspirants from the UT are slapped prominently across local newspapers. When the government announced relief for apple farmers, he was among the first politicians to emphasise that the compensation (Rs 900 per 0.125 acres) was meagre.

He also led a campaign demanding that medical assistants from Kashmir must be brought under Central Pharmacy Act for their benefit. Recently he wrote to the lieutenant-governor urging the release of piling liabilities of contractors who had carried out reconstruction work after the 2014 flood in Kashmir. "He appears to have tremendous leeway to elevate his profile ahead of the supposed restart of the political process. Kashmiris are very well-schooled enough to recognise that a formation non-averse to the BJP and increasing seats via delimitation have a connection and are part of a political stratagem to serve BJP's electoral ends in Jammu and Kashmir," Wahid said.

All this is adding new pressure on regional political parties to mobilise and try to neutralise the threat. But the political freedom that Altaf Bukhari and Baig enjoy is being denied to others. For instance, Congress leader Ghulam Ahmad Mir wasn't allowed to enter the state last week. "We are not boycotting the panchayat polls. We just want a level playing field which is not being given to us," said Ravinder Sharma, chief spokesperson of the Jammu and Kashmir Congress. The other mainstream leaders who were released from custody have been put under house arrest and they have not been able connect with their party rank and file. "Authorities have been preventing us from meeting our leaders who are under house arrest," said Imran Nabi Dar, spokesperson, NC.

There is also a new dynamic to the political landscape of Jammu and Kashmir, which finds itself on the cusp of a radical departure from the older setup. Of the two big mainstream parties in the Valley, the PDP's political fortunes have been fading. Since 2018, it has grappled with a wave of desertions of high-profile former legislators including Altaf Bukhari, Haseeb Drabu, influential Shia leader Abid Ansari and Basharat Bukhari, brother of slain editor Shujaat Bukhari.

The PDP is fundamentally an ad hoc party that was brought into existence to serve ad hoc measures in 1999.

When Farooq Abdullah spurned an offer of an electoral alliance from Indira Gandhi in 1977, the adversarial relationship between him and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who was at that time a key poll campaigner for Congress, became a forgone conclusion. Thus, drawing on this mutual antagonism, the Central government fashioned the PDP out of a regional Congress unit to counter the NC whose emphasis on autonomy had upset it. "It's a party without a history," Wahid said, "It was plucked out of thin air and parachuted onto people in Kashmir. That's why sidelining the party has been much easier."

Its headquarters in Srinagar lie desolate and empty €" a spacious white cottage with a manicured lawn. Inside, voices bounce off the wall. The staircase is ridden with the dust and corridors are littered with trash. Rooms are unoccupied except one big hall above where a dozen men are conversing in subdued tones. The edifice appears to be in the same state as the party that it serves: Tattered and deserted. The members are busy trying to hold as many meetings as possible in different districts to reconnect with people. "It's been very difficult for us in the absence of the party leadership, but we're still doing it," Kosheen said.

Consider the fact that of its 10 district presidents across Kashmir, only three are free, three have switched loyalty to different parties and the other four are under house arrest. By contrast, the NC is the political godfather of modern Kashmiri identity. Its political mobilisation as the Reading Room Party during the 1920s and later as the Muslim Conference, before it eventually changed appellation in 1937, introduced Kashmiris to modern political thought. That makes it a deeply entrenched political force.

When Jammu and Kashmir was a princely state, Sheikh Abdullah capitalised on the British-led Glancy Commission €" whose mandate was to investigate the Kashmiri Muslim grievances against the Dogra state €" as a stepping stone for his political career. Those efforts culminated in the creation of a legislative Assembly called Praja Sabha and the authorisation of free press and liberty to form political parties. Later, Sheikh Abdullah also enacted sweeping land reforms that created around a million land proprietors in Jammu and Kashmir.

The abundance of landed wealth and economic prosperity across rural Kashmir is a product of those land reforms €" considered the most radical in any non-communist state. A cadre-based organization, the NC has remained in power for much of Jammu and Kashmir's post-Partition history. Its influence, however, bean depleting after the 1975 accord with Indira Gandhi in exchange for which Sheikh Abdullah agreed to forgo the demand for referendum and took oath as chief minister.

"The creation of PDP also served purpose of having a mainstream party with whom separatists could have a tacit understanding. That's why the PDP's symbol was that same as that of the Muslim United Front who, upon facing defeat in rigged elections in 1989, turned to militancy," explained Altaf Hussain, a historian who has authored The Making of Modern Kashmir. "That's also why Jamaat-i-Islami mobilised their ground cadre to ensure votes were given to PDP and we saw polling percentages swell enormously in 2002 elections. These are all pressure tactics to force the other parties to come to terms with the Centre."

Para believes that parties like National Conference will most likely return to electoral process. "The only radical move expected from the party was the revival of the Plebiscite Front that sought the resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute through referendum but was dissolved by Sheikh Abdullah after the 1975 accord. They did not do it. That means they are awaiting the new terms of engagement being made clear to them so that they come to public with new agenda. Just like Omar's grandfather did after 1975. For a party so grounded in the political and social fabric, it is impossible to efface the NC in the manner of the PDP."

No wonder then that NC hasn't formally announced a boycott of the panchayat elections €" an idea with which the PDP appears to be toying. It's the NC leaders €" Farooq Abdullah, Hasnain Masoodi and Akbar Lone €" who occupy all three Lok Sabha seats from the Kashmir Valley and none of them have tendered their resignations either after the abrogation of Article 370 or appalling treatment meted out to party president Farooq Abdullah, who is currently serving internment under the PSA.

Recently, the NC members hinted that they will contest the panchayat polls if the Centre removes "roadblocks". The statement has since courted controversy. "We neither confirmed nor denied our participation in the polls," said Dar, "Our working committee is under detention. We cannot take any decision on such issues until they are released."

Last week, Jitendra Singh Rana, a Union minister confirmed reports that safeguards regarding a domicile law were around the corner. The concessions seem to be in line with the political agenda around which the new Bukhari-led formation is coalescing. "It's likely that they have a tacit understanding with Bukhari," said Baba, "The BJP is in power at the Centre, so they have full authority to call the shots over the state of affairs in Jammu and Kashmir, and meddle as they please."

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