The ruling dispensation in New Delhi is helping fuel Mohammad Altaf Bukhari’s political ascent, but it is an unlikely proposition that a loose congregation of stooges and opportunists headed by the former finance minister would be a viable alternative to a genuine political process in Jammu and Kashmir (J-K).

While it appears that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants “restoration of statehood” as a new and the only pragmatic political slogan in Kashmir Valley, nothing beyond that, but will the old political experiment reap rich dividends in new Kashmir?

The sudden emergence of Mr. Bukhari, a well-known business tycoon-turned politician and former cabinet minister in the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)-BJP coalition government – from March 2015 to June 2018 – telegraphs a message that the BJP perhaps wants to help install a puppet regime in J-K by taking a leaf out from the Congress party’s book. Rewind the clock backwards to 9 August 1953.

Or, in other words, the BJP wants to stamp its authority by repeating the unpleasant history of investing in puppet regimes and rigged elections in J-K. With the objective to meet its ideological and political objectives on the Valley’s slippery political turf, Mr. Bukhari’s services are being exploited to dismantle the PDP led by former Chief Minister, Mehbooba Mufti.

Ms. Mufti is under detention since August last year. Mr. Bukhari is a free bird.

Though Mr. Bukhari repeatedly denies reports and allegations that he is working at the BJP’s behest or that his group is pressurising leaders of other unionist parties in J-K, the facts on the ground speak otherwise. He has been a senior PDP leader – now expelled by the party for ‘anti-party activities’. But that is not all about him. He has more to offer – he is wealthy and well connected; he enjoys close proximity with major players in the regional media as well.

During the latest visit of over a dozen foreign envoys, including the US Ambassador to India, Kenneth Ian Juster, to the Valley, Mr. Bukhari, wearing a formal suit and a tie, was seen interacting with the visiting delegates. Generally a media shy, he occasionally offers carefully worded quotes and sound-bites to the press.

After meeting the envoys, Mr. Bukhari said that there was no harm in meeting them. “We met [foreign envoys] with the aim to apprise them about the present situation of Kashmir. Our interaction is in no way going to delay the release of our political prisoners,” he said, adding, “Our interaction has no connection whatsoever with my colleagues who are behind the bars.”

Last year, in October, Mr. Bukhari had also met a group of the Far-Right European parliamentarians who visited Kashmir, raising many an eyebrow. Prior to meeting the foreign envoys in Srinagar on 9 January this year, he also led a delegation of disgruntled PDP leaders to meet J-K’s Lieutenant Governor, Girish Chandra Murmu, in Jammu. On 7 January, the Mr. Bukhari-led delegation also submitted a memorandum “regarding socio-economic and political aspirations of people of Jammu and Kashmir” to Lt. Governor, Mr. Murmu.

“Since the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status embedded in Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and bifurcation of the State into two Union Territories — Jammu and Kashmir with a legislature and Ladakh without one — the majority of its residents are yet to reconcile with this decision,” the memorandum reads. It says that the people of J-K feel hurt, but “showed extreme maturity while registering their peaceful protest”. In the memorandum, several demands — including restoration of Statehood, safeguarding rights over land and jobs, release of political detainees, withdrawing cases against youth and revival of tourism industry — were made.

“Just a month after Operation Blue Star, Indira Gandhi pushed ahead with her plan to topple the Kashmiri CM, Farooq Abdullah. She claimed that Farooq had been colluding with Kashmiri dissidents and that he was anti-national and had condoned Pakistani aid to secessionist movement.”

While Mr. Bukhari’s ‘friends’ and former cabinet colleagues continue to remain under detention, he is enjoying his freedom. With no restrictions placed either on his movement or political overtures, many in Kashmir are wondering whether Mr. Bukhari could be the new Ghulam Mohammad Bakshi, or the next Ghulam Mohammad Shah of Kashmir.

Today’s Kashmir story is no different from what it was in the aftermath of Sheikh Abdullah’s arrest and dismissal as Prime Minister of J-K on 9 August 1953. A Prime Minister was arrested. Not a joke. Mr. Bakshi, then Mr. Sheikh’s deputy, was installed as Prime Minister. A joke. If one were to wind back time, the same old story is being repeated in Kashmir. The characters are, indeed, new. The template remains the same, though.

The Bukhari’s Boat Will Not Have a Smooth Sail

The difference why this new experiment in Kashmir’s political laboratory would not work is because Mr. Bakshi was Sheikh’s deputy and had some administrative acumen.

Professor Gul Wani, who teaches at the political science department of the University of Kashmir, says that the political situation in Kashmir is not favourable to Mr. Bukhari. Answering the why part, he adds that when top leaders are under detention Mr. Bukhari is seen as the BJP’s proxy. 

After the scrapping of J-K’s autonomy and statehood in August 2019, it is almost certain that the BJP wants “restoration of statehood” to be the new political slogan in Kashmir, not the “aazadi (freedom), self-rule, autonomy, or any solution according to the United Nations Resolutions”. 

As three former Chief Ministers, Dr. Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah, and Mehbooba Mufti, and hundreds of political workers affiliated with formidable political formations across the ideological spectrum continue to remain under detention in various prisons since 5 August 2019, there are signals that the BJP-led government in New Delhi has a ‘Plan-B’ for J-K as far as the ‘political process’ is concerned.

In the absence of any democratic consent from either the J-K Legislative Assembly or the Unionist Camp for scrapping of J-K’s autonomy and statehood, what could be the BJP’s roadmap moving forward?

Bukhari Leads the Possible ‘Third-Front’

rajiv gandhi - farooq abdullah
In 1986, Rajiv Gandhi with Farooq Abdullah and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. Photograph courtesy Hindustan Times

Mr. Bukhari is emerging as a strong contender to lead the “alternative” or a possible “third-front” in J-K as the top leadership of J-K’s oldest political formation, NC and the PDP continue to be in detention. Mr. Bukhari is considered close to the BJP, especially to the National General Secretary, Ram Madhav. He enjoys backing from another former minister, Ghulam Hassan Mir, one of the founding members of the PDP, now heading Democratic Party Nationalist (DPN).

The duo has roped in around a dozen unionist leaders in their fold.  It is widely known that Usman Majid, a Congress leader from north Kashmir, is also in touch with the duo comprising Mr. Bukhari and Mr. Mir.

In politics, they say, rats marry snakes. Loyalty is on sale and, more often than not, tilts in favour of the highest bidder. Is the BJP then following the same path to get the job done in Kashmir?

Senior Congress leader and J-K’s former Chief Minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, levelled a serious charge against Mr. Bukhari that his group is infiltrating into other camps and pressurising political leaders to join their group. Mr. Bukhari vehemently denies such allegations.

“It is really unfortunate that Azad Sahib (Ghulam Nabi Azad) despite being so senior leader has made a childlike remark. I challenge him, if he can prove his allegations right I will resign from politics,” maintains Mr. Bukhari. “Or else, he should take a moral call and call it quits. We are not in the government. We have nothing to do with the government.”

Other leaders who are perceived to rally behind Mr. Bukhari-led group include Rafi Mir, Dilawar Mir, Zaffar Iqbal Manhas, Qamar Hussain, Noor Mohammad Sheikh, former Members of Legislative Assembly (MLA) Abdul Rahim Rather, Abdul Majeed Padder, Javed Beig, and Shoaib Lone of the Congress.

BJP’S Counter Narrative

While Kashmir’s unionists and resistance leaders are behind the bars, the BJP is going ahead with its stated ‘public outreach’ programme in J-K. The key Kashmir watchers and political scientists see the BJP’s move of parachuting ministers to the restive region as “propaganda in panic mode”.

However, the BJP claims that more than thirty federal ministers, including the likes of Ravi Shankar Prasad and Smriti Irani, would be visiting different parts of the two provinces — the Valley and Jammu division — in a visit coordinated by India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). The BJP says that “a group of central ministers would also visit sensitive parts of the Kashmir Valley. They will create wider awareness about the development(al) activities initiated by [Narendra] Modi-led government” since revoking J-K’s autonomy and statehood in August 2019.    

The saffron party’s plan to send thirty-six ministers and party leaders to J-K has drawn ridicule from the Congress and also from the formidable Kashmir watchers. The BJP’s Kashmir Mission is being dubbed as a propaganda programme.

In the last Legislative Assembly elections 2014, the BJP didn’t grab any seat in either the Valley or Ladakh, but won all twenty-five assembly segments from the Hindu-dominated Jammu province. It is being widely reported that fifty-one trips are planned for Jammu while only eight for Srinagar. This lends credence to the argument that under pressure from the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests across the country, the BJP is focusing on consolidating its Hindu vote bank in Jammu by talking about the ‘positives’ in the aftermath of Article 370 purge. The party maintains that abrogation of Articles 370 and 35-A was not anti-people decision, but would actually pave the way for development in the region.

Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, a leader of Communist Party of India (Marxist) and former MLA from south Kashmir’s Kulgam assembly segment, says that the BJP’s claim that its outreach programme was aimed at resolving all the issues confronting people in J-K is nothing but a hoax.

Will Mr. Bukhari become Kashmir’s next Mr. Bakshi, who remained in power as PM for a decade from 1953-64, or the next G. M. Shah whose stint as CM didn’t last long in 1984? Kashmir will soon provide all the answers.

“People are eking out a tough existence in Kashmir. Daily wagers are not able to find work to feed their families. Thousands of businesses can’t pay their staff or keep them on their rolls. Shikara-wallas of the Dal Lake, pony-wallas of Gulmarg, handicraft sellers and hoteliers, their staff and their suppliers are facing worst crisis since the last August,” Mr. Tarigami says in a statement. 

“Political activities of all other parties other than BJP have come to a standstill in J-K for the last six months. Almost all the political leaders are either under detention or their activities have been restricted,” he adds. “In such a situation parachuting union ministers to J-K and trying to project ‘all is well’ theory is nothing but a sham.”

The problem with Mr. Bukhari’s political experiment is that he has a commercial approach to politics. He does not enjoy popular public support and the leaders who surround him do not have a mass appeal and are not crowd pullers.

History Lessons

Bakshi Ghulam MohammadOn 8 September 1982, Sheikh Abdullah, the former Prime Minister and Chief Minister of J-K, passed away after a cardiac arrest. Prior to his death, his relationship with the then Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, had fluctuated. Soon after Mr. Sheikh’s contentious accord with Ms. Gandhi in 1975, the rapport between the two had waned.

Katherine Frank, an American author, records in Ms. Gandhi’s biography, Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi, that “She (Ms. Gandhi) and many others in Congress never trusted his (Mr. Abdullah’s) loyalty to India.”

In the early 1980s, when Rajiv Gandhi was making his debut in Indian politics, Mr. Abdullah also named his son, Farooq Abdullah, as his successor. Junior Mr. Abdullah’s coronation was a given. It was, therefore, no surprise that junior Mr. Abdullah was sworn in as J-K’s next Chief Minister in less than two hours after senior Mr. Abdullah’s death. But junior Mr. Abdullah’s progression was anything but smooth.

Ms. Gandhi was not fond of junior Mr. Abdullah. Late senior Mr. Abdullah’s son-in-law, Ghulam Mohammed Shah, also known as Gul Shah, had political ambitions and wanted to take over as a CM himself. According to Arun Nehru, a former politician, Ms. Gandhi wanted senior Mr. Abdullah’s daughter, Khaleda – also the wife of G.M. Shah – to be the CM. At the time, Braj Kumar Nehru – Ms. Gandhi’s cousin – was J-K’s Governor.

Meanwhile, when junior Mr. Abdullah took over as J-K’s CM and called for elections the following year; he did not forge an alliance with Ms. Gandhi’s Congress party. According to Ms. Frank’s account, “Indira’s habit of running states from the centre was by this time inveterate.”

“…but just after a month after Operation Blue Star, she (Ms. Gandhi) pushed ahead with her plan to topple the Kashmiri CM, Farooq Abdullah. She claimed that Farooq had been colluding with Kashmiri dissidents and that he was anti-national and had condoned Pakistani aid to secessionist movement. Indira was convinced that Pakistan was supplying arms and training to Kashmiri as well as Punjabi separatists,” Katherine Frank notes in Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi.

  1. K. Nehru as J-K’s Governor had refused to topple junior Mr. Abdullah’s government, saying the act would be unconstitutional. According to him, the necessary funds — “the standard rate was two lakh rupees’ per bought defector” — were supplied in cash from the Congress Party in Delhi and transported to Srinagar in the mail pouches of the Intelligence Bureau. By this time “the use of official machinery for party purposes had…become so commonplace that no eyebrows were raised,” he notes in his memoir – Nice Guys Finish Second.

Ms. Gandhi replaced B. K. Nehru with Jagmohan Malhotra and told the new governor in no uncertain terms to “get rid of Farooq Abdullah forthwith and replace him with Shah (G. M. Shah),” according to Mr. Malhotra’s My Frozen Turbulence in Kashmir.

In politics, they say, rats marry snakes. Loyalty is on sale and, more often than not, tilts in favour of the highest bidder. Is the BJP then following the same path to get the job done in Kashmir?

In his memoir Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, Amarjit Singh Dulat, the former special director of the Intelligence Bureau and former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing, writes that “Money in Kashmir goes way back, even to Sheikh Abdullah’s time. After all, why was Sheikh Abdullah dismissed as prime minister of J-K in 1953?…thus, since Sheikh Saheb’s time, anybody who’s been on the right side of Delhi has been getting money from Delhi. It’s as simple as that.”

On 9 August 1953, Sheikh Abdullah was unceremoniously dismissed as PM and imprisoned for over two decades in separate stints from 1953 to 1975. Not only was senior Mr. Abdullah accused of being “seditious” he was also falsely charged for “receiving money from Pakistan” in The Kashmir Conspiracy case. Similarly, in 1953, his son, junior Mr. Abdullah, too was neither trusted in 1984 nor now in 2019-20.

Soon after senior Mr. Abdullah’s dismissal from office and subsequent arrest in 1953, the Congress party installed Ghulam Mohammed Bakshi’s regime. Mr. Bakshi’s regime was considered both brutal as well as corrupt and, according to a renowned historian, Perry Anderson in The Indian Ideology, “depended entirely on the Indian security apparatus.” When after a decade in office Mr. Bakshi’s utility was over and he too was considered a liability to Delhi, the Congress installed another man named Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq.

Will Mr. Bukhari be Kashmir’s next Mr. Bakshi, who remained in power as PM for a decade from 1953-64, or the next Mr. Shah whose stint as CM didn’t last long in 1984? Kashmir will soon provide all the answers.

This story was published in our 27 Jan – 2 Feb print edition.

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