After taking oath on 1 March 2015, as the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir (J-K), the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) founder, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, told journalists that he “must credit the Hurriyat, Pakistan, militant outfits for the conduct of assembly elections in the state.”

This statement laid the foundation of the beginning of the friction between the PDP and coalition partner Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP). Many in the BJP didn’t take the statement well, considering the party’s core Kashmir policy during elections was to fight against militants, Hurriyat, and Pakistan.

 

Mr. Sayeed called the alliance coming together of “North Pole and South Pole.” For the next one year as the CM, he had to walk a rough path along with the BJP. Yet, he couldn’t be overpowered, for his long background in politics – at the Centre as a former Union Home minister, and also in state for founding a regional alternative – PDP.

 

The alliance hadn’t gone well with the people of Kashmir, who saw the PDP bringing the BJP into Kashmir. Till Mr. Sayeed’s death on 7 January 2016, the alliance was still strong and functional. But when his daughter Mehbooba Mufti became the chief minister in April 2016, after weeks of reluctance, many in her own party found an opportunity to break the party for power.

A worker from Yaripora village of Kulgam, south Kashmir, Bashir Ahmad Mir, 53, believes that due to the PDP-BJP alliance, the situation turned hostile in the Valley. He is of the belief that PDP allowed BJP to “do everything here, and it ultimately caused suffering to common people”.

 

Going back to PDP’s root idea, he recalls how Mr. Mufti sparked a hope and worked for people, like weakening of “brutal” Special Task Force (STF), “which was a big relief to people in villages.” These things, he says, converted into vote bank of PDP in elections.

 

Citing the 2016 summer uprising – when the government forces killed a militant commander, Burhan Wani – Mr. Mir says, “[Since] BJP came to power, [government] forces feel more powerful than before. So, who is responsible?”

The decision to join hands with the BJP remains a hot topic in the party’s inside circle, with leaders divided over the issue. After two-years, the BJP pulled out support from the alliance in June 2018 and the state government fell. With that, the then governor administration – earlier, N N Vohra then Satya Pal Malik –took control until 5 August.

 

From alliance partner to adversary

 

Today, Ms. Mufti, once an alliance partner of the BJP, has not come out for the last six months of detention, several of her party leaders have quit, and the future is seen bleak for her to revive the party. Many political observers have opined the PDP has damaged its foundation by forming an alliance with the BJP – and now it will be hard to fight back. But is the PDP finished or the party’s role, what it had been formed for, remains intact?

 

Despite being angry with the role of the party in the recent past, 46-year-old Shabir Ahmad, a worker of the PDP in Pulwama, south Kashmir, still believes that the issues cannot be resolved by staying away from politics.

 

“The current scenario has changed,” says Mr. Ahmad. “If we will not support the party, then someone else will rule on our heads; that will only increase problems.”

 

Ahead of the 5 August 2019 decision by the Centre to abrogate the special status of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, Ms. Mufti was trying to gather support for a joint effort to stop New Delhi’s plans. She organised a meeting of all political parties at the house of National Conference patron, Dr. Farooq Abdullah. Once the meeting was over, and she was back at home, the government detained her. 

 

While all other political leaders, including former chief minister Omar Abdullah, were taken into custody till the next day evening. In the morning, the Central government stripped the Articles 370 and 35A – which had given state legislative assembly rights to form own laws on most of the social issues and also gave special rights over land to residents. The government also broke the state into two federally governed territories – J-K and Ladakh.

 

With many politicians released in the last few weeks, Ms. Mufti was booked under Public Safety Act (PSA) six months after being in detention at a government property; along with NC’s vice-president Omar Abdullah – extending their detention period. Dr. Abdullah continues to be under detention inside his residence under PSA. Regional politics continues to limp on the streets – visibility near to nowhere. For years, they stood on the claims of strengthening autonomy but the Centre’s decision – which they say is irreversible – has caught regional parties – NC, People’s Democratic Party (PDP), People’s Conference (PC) – in shallow waters.

 

After these developments, Mr. Ahmad, the worker, sees common people powerless now but he thinks that the regional parties still hold a chance “to do little for people”. 

 

“Mehbooba ji used to fight for us with the [government] forces,” recalls Mr. Ahmad. “Earlier, [government] forces used to take young boys for forced labour [in south Kashmir] and she helped us.”

 

Today, Ms. Mufti has been in detention for more than six-months and Mr. Ahmad couldn’t see anyone around who would listen to the woes of people. “[See] what BJP has done in Kashmir?” he says, angrily. “The treatment of the Central government is openly anti-Kashmiri.”

 

The formation of an alternative

 

Mufti Mohammad Syed, a senior Congress leader and the first Muslim Home Minister of India, was in the good books of the Central government for his work. In 1996, NC won the Assembly election and pressed for greater autonomy, bringing into picture the 1952 agreement, which stated that the Centre would have no control over the state, except in the areas of defence, external affairs, and communication.

 

Mr. Abdullah was becoming problematic for New Delhi. BJP leader, Lal Krishna Advani in his memoir, My Country My Life, wrote that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had advised Mr. Abdullah to not force into implementation of the 1952 agreement. Many observers believe that the demand by Mr. Abdullah had made New Delhi anxious and ended up supporting an alternative party to counter the claim.

 

It was during this time that a void had developed, for a new force to emerge and demand something different than the autonomy. By 1999, Mr. Mufti had gathered people and support to form a new political party. Many believe that the then NDA provided foundational support. However, an alternate theory proposes that the party was supported by pro-freedom leaders after the Central government rigged 1987 elections to keep Muslim United Front (MUF) away from power.

 

As the leader of a new party – demanding self-rule, opening of trade routes with Pakistan-administered Kashmir, rehabilitation of conflict affected, Ms. Mufti, then in her thirties, would visit the families of militants and other conflict affected places. With time, she became a shadow of her father, gained support across Kashmir, mainly in the south. People saw them as an alternative who would work for the betterment of people. It led them to a win of sixteen seats in 2002 assembly elections, and formed a coalition government with Congress. The NC was out, sitting in opposition.

 

Since 1999, a lot has changed now. From the PDP founder, Mr. Sayeed becoming CM first time in 2002 to his daughter, the current president of the party, Ms. Mufti losing the bastion – south Kashmir in 2019 parliamentary elections and now booked under the PSA, the party continues to walk on a thin floor. Many believe that the party has weakened and doesn’t stand a chance to recover.

 

Over the years, the PDP strengthened its base and worked to present a strong alternative to voters; in 2014 Assembly elections, the party got an overwhelming majority on twenty-eight seats – highest among all the parties. But, the result was a hung assembly. As matters took shape eventually, PDP ended up joining hands with BJP (who had twenty-five seats from Jammu, a Hindu majority region). The move caused party irreparable damage to the image of the PDP. By today, they are majorly recalled for bringing in BJP to the power in the state.

 

However, senior party leader and former legislator, Nizamuddin Bhat, refutes to accept this. “It is a false paradigm among the people,” he says. He believes that any alliance cannot decide the growth of any party in a given geography. “Should we have created a wall? You cannot stop an idea from coming in, especially when you have everything in your hand – like the BJP.”

 

Mr. Mufti had formed an alliance, as Mr. Bhat says, as he could foresee the growing Hindutva politics at national level, while J-K was a Muslim majority state. “Mufti sahib thought that if he would not ally with the BJP then he won’t be able to stop them for many reasons,” says Mr. Bhat. “By allying with them, he [Mr. Mufti] thought he could control decisions made for the state – keeping the BJP away from controversial decisions.”

 

“The Current Scenario Has Changed”

 

Today, Raja Waheed, 41, is PDP’s youth president of the Shopian district, south Kashmir. Back in 2008, he was a common man, fascinated by the idea of a “healing touch” by Mr. Mufti-led PDP. He believes that Article 370 was a bridge between Kashmir and the rest of the country; with that gone, “we lost political development of more than seventy years.”

 

The August decision, says Mr. Waheed, has widened the gap between people and electoral politics in Kashmir. Reiterating political parties’ safeguard-special status rhetoric, Mr. Waheed wonders, “It is gone now – what would they say to people now?”

 

Most of the people, who once voted or campaigned during elections, have only one question today: What will the political parties go to people with for votes? A senior party leader and former legislator from Charar-i-Sharief, Budgam, central Kashmir, Ghulam Nabi Hanjoora says that the party’s stand cannot be decided until Ms. Mufti, the party president, is released. “We have no communication with her,” says Mr. Hanjoora, who is currently under house-arrest. “How can we decide anything?”

 

The politicians complain that the government has disconnected them with their workers, thus the political activities have not revived. Most of those who were not under detention had been put under house arrest. 

 

Looking at this scenario, Nizamuddin Bhat, the senior party leader, sees the current political situation as an empty classroom: “a teacher will decide the topic once the classroom is filled; let everybody be released and then the teacher will say what to do.”

 

Though, the question is of legitimacy of the process of revival of politics that is always under suspicion, says Dr. Siddiq Wahid, who has a Ph.D. from Harvard University in central Asia’s History. “Politics is always local – so is the scope for regional parties,” he says. “The local parties are relevant. Their success, however, will depend on the legitimacy of the individuals and their political characters in the perception of people.”

 

Dr. Wahid believes that the future of politics in Kashmir depends on the degree to which politicians are given space to practice legitimate politics. He wishes that workers should continue their journey – “if it means their struggle to be heard and not as a job!”

 

Revisiting the Gupkar Declaration, Mr. Bhat adds that it has been a long time since the leaders met. “Is that declaration still relevant to them? Will they change something or make a slogan together?” he wonders. “It will only be decided once the main leadership will be released and has the liberty to talk.”

 

In the last few weeks, though, many politicians have been released. Sajad Lone, the chairman of People’s Conference (PC), who was part of the declaration was released on 5 February 2020 from MLA Hostel, a makeshift jail, and moved to house-arrest at his residence in Srinagar, but other top leaders are still under detention.

 

Among those who have been part of the PDP, mostly workers, there is very little faith in lower rank leaders, but only in Ms. Mufti. “Her call on the current atmosphere will decide everything,” says Mr. Ahmad, the party worker from Pulwama. “If she doesn’t change her stand then I maybe the first person to shout the party’s slogan.”

 

However, Nazir Ahmad Yatoo, youth general secretary of PDP, doesn’t agree with either of Nizamuddin Bhat or Ghulam Nabi Hanjoora that revival of political activity is dependent on Ms. Mufti, or other party president’s release. Why cannot patrons and senior leaders like Muzaffar Hussain Beigh and Tasaduq Mufti, says Mr. Yatoo, start working on ground.

 

Like Mr. Waheed, Mr. Yatoo was inspired by Mr. Mufti’s idea of “self-rule” and had left his job of a lecturer at Government Polytechnic College to join the party in 2008. After a decade, he holds grudges against other leaders and the role of party after Mr. Mufti’s death. “They could have conducted small meetings with the workers and received feedback of their stand and demands,” he says. “Irrespective of that, they are sitting in Jammu and other places for unknown reasons.”

 

After interacting with workers in his area, Baadipora village in Charar-i-Sharief constituency, Mr. Yatoo says, “Workers are feeling betrayed. Some are even denying that they were once part of the politics.”

 

Due to these reasons, he says, the party is losing day by day. He says that after August 2019, the common people are afraid as top leaders including three former CMs remain under detention. In view of that, he says that people wonder, “What will the BJP do to a common person?”

 

Talking of the current mood around electoral politics in Kashmir, he nods to people’s grievances but adds that the absence of political fronts cannot solve problems. “If not ten, then four people still have faith in my party,” he says. “So we must take this sign of hope forward.”

 

Is PDP still relevant?

 

The political party derives its strength from the support of masses. Fayaz Ahmad Mir, a Member of Parliament (MP) in Rajya Sabha and resident of Kupwara, north Kashmir, finds it difficult to answer whether the people will again support the PDP or not.

 

“But, if the party follows the path of Mufti sahib’s, they will have scope,” says Mr. Mir. “No political party is utterly clean; everyone has committed mistakes, but the work by Mufti sahib cannot be forgotten.”

 

After the decision by BJP, the revival of regional politics in the current times, Mr. Mir says, will not be an easy task. “Currently, we are directionless,” he says. “Now we are left with nothing to talk about with people.”

 

Mr. Mir cites an example of NC’s Justice Hasnain Masoodi’s approach during the 2019 parliamentary elections of safeguarding Article 370. “Imagine how he will face the people now? What will he explain to them?” he says, “same is the case with other parties. It will be difficult for all the parties to face the people.”

 

Mr. Waheed, PDP youth president from Shopian , agrees with Mr. Mir. “The Central government has damaged the image of local leaders,” says Mr. Waheed. “They snatched overnight everything that these parties have been promising to the people.”

 

He recalls how the mainstream parties would back the idea of India as they had given the special-status – wherein the pro-freedom parties had a different walk. He says, “Now, their [pro-freedom parties] claim has turned true and the political leaders are [standing] naked in front of people.”

 

The young generation, who grew up seeing their elders taking an active part in electoral politics, as Mr. Mir says, are now walking on a different narrative. Also, over the years, alongside political developments, the workers have changed too. “A worker’s child asks questions about the incidents that he has witnessed and the worker has no answers,” notes Mr. Mir. “This has also slightly changed their behaviour towards the party.”

 

Stressing over the release of all political leadership – “including the dissent voices” – Nizammudin Bhat notes that nothing will take shape. Even though the state was broken into an UT, every political entity matters.

 

“Unless a social discourse is initiated nobody can judge which way the wind of politics will blow and who will be relevant,” says Mr. Bhat. “Nobody can access that now.”

 

However, Mr. Waheed believes that even if he finds one person in the party’s support, the party will continue its journey. Wherein, for Mr. Bhat, the party’s stand on the current situation will be a turning point. “The current political dispute is very complex while the relationship with New Delhi has compounded,” he says.

 

But at the same time many are clinging to the hope of change. Mr. Ahmad, the south Kashmir based worker, adds that if people turn their back at the PDP or any other regional party, who will they support? “Is there any better option for us? At the end, we need to pass our demands to someone and if that someone is one of us then at least he will help. Won’t he?”

 

Cover Photograph by Arif Rasool for The Kashmir Walla.

Kaisar Andrabi is a Features Writer at The Kashmir Walla.

The story appeared in our 10-16 February 2020 print edition.


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