J&K Politics Witnesses a Silent but Big Churn Amid Civilian Killings

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Jammu & Kashmir is in the midst of brisk political activity. Like a game on a chessboard, political players are shuffling from one quarter to another. The whole political panorama appears to be experiencing a reordering, especially when so many consequential developments, including the delimitation process followed by the Assembly elections are in the offing.

Earlier this week, Javaid Mustafa Mir, a former minister in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) government joined Altaf Bukhari’s Jammu & Kashmir Apni Party (JKAP).

The proverbial ‘Grand Old Party’ of Kashmir is grappling with its own internal crises as the party’s two prominent faces from Jammu, Devender Singh Rana and Surjit Singh Salathia, defected to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Sunday.

The defections are likely to result in staggering losses for the National Conference (NC) in the Hindu-dominated Jammu region, where Rana’s political messaging had previously translated into some sort of meaningful electoral dividends. But if there’s a single group where most of the deserters are thronging, it's the Sajad Lone-led People’s Conference (PC).

An Exodus of Big Names

Consider this — recently, the party welcomed the re-entry of an influential politician, Nizamuddin Bhat, a key PDP leader in north Kashmir and two-time former legislator. Bhat’s inclusion is likely to further elevate the party's electoral prospects in the three districts comprising north Kashmir. Recently, a group of women rights activists joined PC, suggesting that the party is seeking to flex its muscles in the Jammu region as well. Similarly, other big entrants into the party include Haji Farooq Ahmed Mir, who heads a District Development Council (DDC) seat in Wavoora in north Kashmir’s Lolab region, former J&K Bank chairman Parvez Ahmed, former Srinagar deputy mayor Sheikh Imran, veteran NC leader Nazir-u-din Baba, former Congress politician Syed Najeeb Naqvi, Ghulam Mohammad Reshi of PDP, former senior bureaucrat Haji Mohammad Muzaffar Thakur, former PDP Parliamentarian Nazir Laway, etc.

Also Read: Can Politics in Kashmir Continue Without Mainstream Leaders?

These are all big names that have served for years in other mainstream parties such as the PDP and the NC, and this steady exodus suggests that Sajad Lone’s party is likely priming itself for a strong role in the forthcoming Assembly elections as and when they would happen.

The Post-Article 370 Picture & the PAGD

Two years ago, the politics in the region went comatose after the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution. Prominent leaders were jailed under preventive laws such as the Public Safety Act. Their release from the internment came in fits and starts. Yet, in the post-Article 370 scenario in Jammu & Kashmir, most political parties have been struggling. Prominent faces of People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), an association of political parties committed to reinstatement of Article 370, have been enmeshed into legal troubles of their own, with leaders ranging from Farooq Abdullah to Mehbooba Mufti facing attachment of their properties at the hands of or receiving summons from the Enforcement Directorate (ED).

Also Read: Could a 1977-like Polling Wave Upend Delhi's Jammu and Kashmir Plans?

The PAGD had earlier suffered a depletion of sorts when Sajad Lone withdrew from the conglomerate. The departure had come amid a wave of controversy about the fielding of proxy candidates in the DDC elections, although the PAGD still delivered a stellar victory bagging nearly 100 out of 280 seats. Together, the PAGD commands chairmanship over eight out of the 20 DDCs (PC’s exits resulted in the loss of two DDCs).

All Eyes on Delimitation Now

Rivalries and competing political interests ensured a stalemated and fractured mainstream political terrain, where generating a consensus became harder than ever. Such an outcome, in fact, was likely favouring New Delhi, until a host of political imperatives prompted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to call the entire class of political leaders to Delhi in June earlier this year. It is being speculated that pressure from the US was one of the reasons why the Modi administration decided to make a U-turn and agreed to start a dialogue with parties it had previously demonised as the ‘Gupkar Gang’.

Around 14 leaders were part of the three-and-a-half-hour-long meeting held with Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Prime Minister Modi, during which restoration of statehood and Assembly elections figured prominently.

Also Read: After J&K Move, Delimitation Is the Buzzword: What’s It All About?

All eyes are now on the delimitation exercise, which envisages the redrawing of existing voter units. The exercise is already fraught with apprehensions that the BJP-led Central government may carve out new units in ways that will undermine the numerical preponderance of the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley. Seven new seats are likely to be added to the Jammu & Kashmir Assembly, taking the total number of seats to 90. A majority of new seats will likely be allocated to Hindu-majority Jammu as the Commission has taken geographical size as the criterion to determine the redrawing and reallocation of constituencies.

PDP & NC's Relationship With the Centre

In Jammu & Kashmir’s larger political arena, two new trends are materialising, which will decide the outcomes of the current power jostling. First, the PDP seems to be spearheading a kind of political mobilisation that is increasingly putting it on a collision course with the BJP. Mehbooba Mufti prefers going hammer and tongs after the Central government over policy measures that are being steamrolled into the region and are demonstrably unpopular. The party has called the BJP a ‘modern version’ of the East India Company.

The PDP has slammed the Modi government for its persecution of journalists in Jammu & Kashmir and recently solicited the intervention of the Press Council of India to address the issue. It has denounced the government for subjecting public employees to new strictures spelt out via communications issued by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). The PDP recently blamed the Centre for the deteriorating security situation in the Valley as around seven civilian killings took place within the span of just five days.

Also Read: Will New Delhi ‘Gain’ From Sajad Lone’s Exit From Gupkar Alliance?

In fact, in June, the party refused to meet members of the Delimitation Commission, arguing that they cannot participate in the process as the party at present has no incumbent Member of Parliament (MP) as well as a Member of Legislative Assembly. The way the Commission has been designed, only elected representatives are entitled to participate in the exercise.

In contrast, much of the NC’s opposition appears circumspect barring Omar Abdullah’s bold statement in August, in which he said he won’t fight elections in the “foreseeable future”.

Of late, though, his father, Farooq Abdullah, has been seen sharing the dais with Lt Governor Manoj Sinha, a BJP appointee.

During one such recent event, Abdullah even expressed regret for not participating in the 2018 Panchayat elections that the NC and PDP had boycotted “unless and until the Government of India clears its position and takes effective steps to protect [now gone] Article 35A in and outside the court”. Recently, Abdullah was also seen in the company of Union Minister Nitin Gadkari and Minister of State Gen (Retd) VK Singh during the foundation-laying of four new national highway projects in Jammu & Kashmir.

How PC May Benefit From the Confusion

In August, at least 19 opposition parties demanded the restoration of full statehood and the release of political prisoners, but kept mum on the issue of Article 370, provoking a political barb from Sajad Lone, who wondered how could Jammu & Kashmir leaders “justify their presence in the meeting if they could not convince the leaders to talk About 370”. Just days later, the PAGD passed a resolution seeking restoration of J&K’s constitutional position as on August 4, 2019.

It’s clear that the PDP’s adversarial relationship with the government and that of a bittersweet one shared by the NC end up creating a sort of confusion that enables a third group of players, such as the People’s Conference, to vie for political space.

Also Read: Are Gupkar Alliance’s Days Numbered After NC-PDP Rift Widens?

“These people have been in power for three generations,” Sajad Lone told The Quint in an exclusive interview that was punctuated with oblique references to the NC. “In 1975, they were given power during the Indira-Sheikh accord; in 1987, they almost lost but the Congress government saved and helped them by rigging the polls. The 1996 polls were more of a selection than an election.”

Recently, Lone and Abdullah entered into an exchange of words after the NC patron expressed concerns over the “division of Muslim votes”. The remark drew a sharp reaction from the PC.

"“I remember reading a Sunday magazine edition in school days wherein Sheikh [Abdullah] sahab said that there are some people like Abdul Ghani Lone, who are put up by the Centre to divide votes. Sheikh sahab had got power because of the Centre in 1975, he had no MLA. Yet, he was accusing my father of being planted. Then Farooq sahab also repeated the same allegation. My father subsequently left politics. He spent almost a decade in jail and was eventually killed. Then his son comes after 20 years and now they say he has been sent to divide votes. It’s like, give a dog a bad name and kill it"" - Sajad Lone, People's Conference

Sajad Lone's Keshubhai Patel Example

Lone made an allusion to the Gujarat Parivartan Party founded by former Gujarat Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel in 2012. “Patel was a strong leader and did not like Modi, and the common wisdom was that his party will cut into the votes and the BJP will lose. But Modi had a strong incumbency and still won. These people have been in power for three terms, and assuming for a moment that I or somebody else has been put up by Delhi, why don’t they give the good work so that nobody will break their votes?” Lone asks.

Buoyed by a flurry of fresh recruitment, PC members have become quite optimistic about their chances in the forthcoming polls.

Party members say they are aiming to bag nine to 11 Assembly seats out of total 15 seats in north Kashmir, where their chances of winning were heightened after the entry of former legislators or leaders like Fayaz Mir, who have been formidable runner-ups in the 2014 polls.

As for Srinagar, the party is honouring leaders like Khursheed Alam and Abid Ansari, both of whom have been former legislators. In the south, the party hopes that candidates like Peerzada Manzoor, Nazir Laway and Parvez Ahmed will deliver some meaningful victories.

Also Read: DDC Election Results Reveal Limits of BJP’s Strategy in J&K

“We have the same view about Article 370 as everyone else in Kashmir,” Lone said. “But there are only two avenues to get it back: the court and Parliament. PC was among the first parties to have filed a petition in the SC. As for taking the Parliamentary route, we believe dialogue is the key. It’s a long-drawn process. First, we should get our statehood back. Otherwise, they are implementing law after law, disempowering the people of Jammu & Kashmir on a daily basis. At least that will stop. Once you have your own state, there are many things you can stop.”

Lone also said that the People’s Conference was ready to support an alliance with the National Conference. “Let them support us. Let them not fight against us. We will give it in writing. Whatever they want we will do,” he said.

But It's Still Too Early To Decide

The National Conference, however, does not see the People’s Conference as a significant electoral threat. “At the end of the day, real parameters that decide a party’s potency are elections,” said Imran Nabi Dar, the party’s spokesperson. “We will leave it to elections to evaluate who is what.”

Political analysts say the current political climate in Kashmir is too uncertain to assess the political prospects of any party.

“Every party appears to be losing ground here in the aftermath of the August 2019 decision,” said Noor Ahmed Baba, a political scientist. “What impact they will have depends on a range of factors, including the public mood, the overall scenario, and many more things. As far as the PC is concerned, it has taken the path of least resistance. Political survival could be why a lot of people are flocking there.”

(Shakir Mir is a freelance journalist who has reported for the Times Of India and The Wire, among other publications. He tweets at @shakirmir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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