On 15 October 2020, the signatories of the Gupkar Declaration – a commitment to the restoration of the region’s limited autonomy as it was before being abrogated on 5 August 2019 – announced the “People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration”.
“Our battle is a constitutional battle,” Dr. Farooq Abdullah, the National Conference (NC) patron, flanked by prominent Kashmiri unionists, stated shortly after the meeting of the signatories at his residence. “We want the Government of India to return to the people of (J-K) the rights they had before 5 August.”
The idea of a grand alliance of unionist parties against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was first floated five years ago; Jammu and Kashmir was then still a state and had thrown up a sharply polarised mandate in the 2014 elections to the assembly.
An alliance between the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the BJP (the People’s Conference was also part, as a nominee of the BJP) had seemingly kept the peace for three years until the BJP withdrew support and imposed the President’s rule and political drama–including a failed, or staged, attempt at government formation.
Today, more than a year after the abrogation of J-K’s semi-autonomy, most unionists are seemingly on the same page having come together in an official alliance against the Hindu nationalist BJP and its ideological-driven onslaught against the region.
Ladakh, Kashmir, Jammu
But the question of semi-autonomy is not of Kashmir alone. The reigns of politics have remained with the Kashmir-based leadership creating resentment among the political class in the Ladakh and Jammu regions and taking them onboard will not be without contest.
On the alliance’s part, Dr. Abdullah told reporters, gathered outside his residence, that the alliance wanted the resolution of J-K’s political matters at the earliest but also that the alliance would “meet people from the other regions of the (erstwhile) state for a broader discussion on the issues to be put before the people of the state as well as the Centre.”
Admitting that getting the two regions on board was a challenge even as the NC had strong cadre and the PDP its presence in Jammu, former minister and senior PDP leader Naeem Akhtar said that “there is a common sentiment among all three regions” that manifested differently. Be it the resentment in Ladakh over the denial of Article 370-like constitutional safeguards to Jammu’s anxieties over failing economy, “everyone had a grouse”, he said.
Mr. Akhtar, however, added: “We need to have a more authentic representation from these areas.”
However, the narrative of alleged discrimination in development has deepened the resentment and manufactured consent for 5 August in Ladakh and Jammu. Since then, development is the BJP’s solution to all of J-K’s problems; a solution that is uncannily endorsed by the Apni Party which terms “equitable development” in all regions of J-K as its core agenda. The party has overtly dissociated itself from the BJP.
In an earlier interview to The Kashmir Walla, the party’s patron and former finance minister, Altaf Bukhari, had termed the Gupkar Declaration a “smokescreen” to deceive the public and that the restoration of Article 370 “is not achievable.” Kashmir, Mr. Bukhari had said, “can’t get anything in isolation, it is a state and [it will get] what people of the state would like.” The implicit reference was to the opinion in the Jammu and Ladakh regions.
The Kashmir based leaders, said Kavinder Gupta, senior BJP leader and former deputy chief minister of J-K, “have finished their base and are fighting for their survival. They are dreaming that article 370 will be returned. Instead, they should work for people’s development, [but] they don’t have any agenda.”
“Separatism and militancy peaked because of them,” Mr. Gupta held the Valley’s unionists responsible. “They say talk to Pakistan or China, how can these [countries] interfere here? We didn’t let the United Nations interfere here in the last 70 years, who are they?”
Mr. Gupta is among the BJP’s twenty five elected legislators, almost all of whom had entered the J-K legislative assembly for the first time after a Hindu resurgence and a “Modi wave” swept Jammu in the 2014 elections, just months after the BJP secured power in New Delhi.
“They [Kashmiri unionists] are afraid of BJP,” said Mr. Gupta. “It is BJP versus all.”
The announcement of the alliance comes two days after the PDP’s president and former chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, was released from a 14-month detention. Shortly after her release, Ms. Mufti vowed to not accept 5 August and implored the public to “keep struggling for the solution of Jammu and Kashmir, which has led to the sacrifice of thousands of lives.”
“I do agree this path won’t be easy but I believe that our courage and determination will be our companion as we walk this path,” she had said in her brief statement posted on Twitter.
Successive governments in New Delhi and now the BJP led Government of India have shown no sign of good faith towards Kashmiris but “this time the mainstream [as the unionists describe their politics] in Kashmir is wiser,” the PDP’s Mr. Akhtar said of the post 5 August reckoning. “The goal is only one — to reverse this 5 August [decision of abrogation].”
However, with New Delhi’s intensifying authoritarian outlook, the degree of unionist’ success will depend on their perseverance in standing their ground. “We feel that whatever that they say [or do], they can’t stop us from talking,” said Mr. Akhtar. “They tried that [detaining the unionist leaders] for one year but couldn’t succeed in wiping out the narrative that we want the world to hear.”
“The fact is that New Delhi has always tried to snatch [rights] from [J-K] rather than giving anything to it. That has been the obsession of New Delhi,” said Mr. Akhtar. “They are not tolerant of a Muslim majority state which voluntarily [acceeded to India] – which is also the crux of the problem.”
Forming a government with the BJP in 2015, said Mr. Akhtar, who was also the coalition government’s spokesperson, was a “question of democratic consent but now it is something else, because democracy itself is hijacked and the constitution has been scrapped.”
After 5 August, said Mr. Akthar, “we are on a different plane now.”
There are “challenges galore” everyday for J-K, said Mr. Akhtar, with New Delhi imposing “a new order, an amendment. All of that targets two things: completely disenfranchising [J-K] politically and to promote their larger design of demography [change].”
In the turbulent history of Kashmir’s political past, New Delhi’s lopsided policies have pushed Kashmiri political leaderships – both unionist and pro-freedom – into amalgams and united fronts over the years; and each time, New Delhi did not shy away from flexing its muscles to force a compromise on J-K that favored it.
“There are enormous challenges before the alliance,” noted political scientist Aijaz Ashraf Wani. “There is very little space for them [unionists] and how they are going to make use of that to restore the confidence of the people, that they are sincerely fighting for them because whatever is said, the public is still unwilling to believe that they [unionists] are [sincere]”.
Unlike the pro-freedom leadership — whose recent politics was to ride on the popular waves in Kashmir — the unionists have taken an initiative in the absence of public uproar. “This is a very important stage in the movement,” said Mr. Wani, “where they have to mobilise public opinion and that will be the first challenge: how to get people to rally behind them.”
Mr. Wani noted that the People’s Alliance was politically somewhere between the Muslim United Front, an amalgam of Kashmiri political parties that “essentially had an internal dimension in the sense that it was as much against the NC as against the Centre”, and the Hurriyat, which is “against the state itself, not to change the government”.
“This [alliance] is neither against the state nor is it about an immediate power grab,” he said, adding that even if the Hurriyat or the (now banned) Jamaat-e-Islami were not part of this alliance, its goal was “something desirable by all”.
However, what persists across this timeline is the Kashmir based leadership’s inability to forge alliances across J-K. “That has always been the problem,” said Mr. Wani, for both the unionists as well as the pro-freedom leadership. “They have never been able to go pan-Jammu and Kashmir. Deep regional divides can be countered only with a united front but the challenge is the counterargument. The leadership here has always struggled in creating a narrative [acceptable to all].”
With New Delhi having restricted political maneuverability and seemingly the scope of a compromise if at all, it is a do or die situation for the unionist leadership. “The issue is that how strong and committed the current central government is to its cause, we can not expect the unionists to be stronger than the Centre,” said Mr. Wani. “If they have risen up against them now, tomorrow they have now justification to back down.”
Yashraj Sharma contributed to reporting for this story.
This story was first published in the 19-25 October 2020 print edition.