As Delhi undoes history, workers of Kashmir’s oldest party feel bitter

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In his vivid memory, Suleman Peer remembers his lawn filled with militants who had come to threaten him – possibly to shoot him dead too – for his affiliation with National Conference (NC), the region’s oldest party which has harvested favours as well as antagonism from New Delhi and also faced a fatal hunt from militants. 

Peer, who is from north Kashmir’s Kupwara district, evaded the militants then and survived and continued to be affiliated with the NC, for a time maintaining a secretive relationship with the party during the 1990s era when various militant groups dominated the region.

“I had threats glued to the windows and walls of my house that if I don’t stop working with NC, I will be killed,” he recalls.

NC is one of the oldest parties in Kashmir – having been formed in 1939 as a political front against the repressive Dogra rule – and it has maintained a loyal base of cadres whose association with it has outlived the tests of time. The party had remained part of several governments during past decades that also allowed easy access to incentives to its workers, which further cemented their loyalties.

Peer, 77, does not remember when exactly he became a member of the party. He feels it has been since the beginning of his life. “All my life, I never joined any other party,” he said.

For men like Peer, who were wedded to Article 370 – a law that protected Kashmir’s demography and also guaranteed limited autonomy, the day of its abrogation in August 2019 felt like a “doomsday”. 

“BJP doesn’t understand what we have lost, they must have some agenda or greed,” he said. “They are ruling and they must be wanting things to work according to them. It’s our bad luck.”

Article 370 – the major parts of which were revoked by New Delhi on 5 August 2019 that ended a lengthy phase of constitutional protection of Jammu and Kashmir’s demography – was always trumpeted by the NC as its foremost achievement. The Article had, for decades, been the bedrock of the party’s politics and its revocation served as a shock for its members and workers.

The shock was further intensified as New Delhi ordered an unprecedented crackdown against the political groups in Kashmir that led to lengthy detentions of leaders of the NC, and other political parties also, which had remained loyal to the idea of India in Kashmir.

Abdul Khaliq Lone had joined the NC in 1969 and remembers Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the party’s founder whose political journey was intertwined with the mercurial relations between India and Pakistan, visiting his village twice.

Like many workers of the NC, Lone too had to migrate from his home in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district to Srinagar during the turbulent 1990s. The circle of life, however, has been strange for Lone who was threatened by militants in 1996 for “being Indian” and feels now being treated by New Delhi as an enemy.

Lone said that militants would say “we are Indians and India, on the other hand, is (now) saying we are Pakistanis. Nobody trusts us today.”

“Without a doubt, our party says that we are Indians. We want to stay with India because it’s a democratic country. But what they did, we feel disheartened and due to which our coming generations, our youth will be violent and that may give a boost to the militancy,” Lone said.

While Peer and Lone promise to stay with the NC as long as they are alive, Mohammad Yusuf Gilkar from Srinagar became bitter with Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s politics in 1975 when the NC founder abandoned the idea of plebiscite.

Sheikh’s accord with New Delhi had come at an extraordinarily depressing moment for Kashmir’s separatism as Pakistan – which has the official position of extending “moral and political support” to the region’s anti-India figures – had lost the 1971 war and was bifurcated. 

Gilkar, who had his political awakening as a supporter of Plebiscite Front was dismayed when Sheikh Abdullah, who had led the Front during his lengthy jail term that lasted two decades, decided to go for an accord with New Delhi in 1975. 

The accord saw Sheikh Abdullah giving up on the demand for plebiscite and agreeing to rejoin the electoral politics that saw him immediately becoming the Chief Minister of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

“I was a student then … we were satisfied with his (Abdullah’s) speeches. We had a regard in our heart for him. No one was like him, he was fearless, everyone else was cowardly,” Gilkar said. 

“He saw that people were being arrested whose family members would be dependent on them and they would starve due to which he was compelled to sign the accord. (I left) because I believed in the right to self determination and he signed the accord,” he said.

Gilkar, even as he had remained cold to the NC and its founder in the post-accord decades, said the abrogation of Article 370 was “a huge injustice and was like a black day”.

“It was a suspension bridge, a temporary relation with them. Otherwise we didn’t have any full-fledged relation with India,” he said.

The new political reality that an aggressive government in New Delhi may not cede to the demands of Kashmir’s political structures for reinstalling a special status or limited autonomy is now making the workers of NC live another wait and watch moment.

Peer, the veteran worker, said that the party alone cannot bring back the special status till the BJP government is in power in New Delhi. 

“If any other party comes in power — be it Congress or any other party — or the ruling party faces international pressure then something can happen,” he said.

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