Photograph by Sanna Irshad Mattoo

On the late evening of 4 August, when Kashmir was filled with rumours and apprehensions, all the premiers of Jammu and Kashmir’s political parties came together and sat over in the house of Farooq Abdullah, the president of Kashmir’s oldest political party – Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (JKNC), in Gupkar Road, Srinagar. The joint statement released after the meeting was called Gupkar Declaration.

The declaration was an attempt to put pressure on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in New Delhi, hours before the Centre would revoke the Article 370, article 35A, according the special status, and also divide the state into two Union Territories, J-K and Ladakh. The Gupkar Declaration had failed to achieve anything – and the Kashmir based political parties hit a block. By the end of the next day, most of the political leaders and workers of these parties were detained – including the three former chief ministers – Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah, and Mehbooba Mufti, sending shockwaves to their cadre.

On the morning of 5 August, glued to the satellite television set inside his home, cut off from the world amid the communication blackout, 48-year-old Abdul Ashiq was watching Union Home Minister Amit Shah announcing the abrogation of the special status. While Mr. Shah got honoured with loud rounds of applauds, Mr. Ashiq felt “disheartened and shocked” – and he stood up, switched off the television, and walked out of his home. “Kyahsa moqlowekh sorui yete wen? (Hey, they finished everything here?),” a neighbour of Mr. Ashiq, in the street, hurled the taunt at him.

It was the first time, when he realised what had just happened. For the neighbour, he was representing the mainstream politics as a worker – especially the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which he joined way back in 2004, and the taunt was directed towards that idea of politics.

From “Self-Rule” to “Agenda of Alliance”

Ten weeks later, taking a drag from a Four-Square cigarette, Mr. Ashiq, stares blank from his balcony on the ground floor of his newly built one-storey house in central Kashmir’s Budgam district. “What do you want to hear?” he wonders.

There is nothing left of politics in Kashmir to talk about, he believes, whatever was left has been completely wiped out. Mr. Ashiq, who is associated with the PDP for the past 15 years as the party’s foot soldier, has been on rough roads of Kashmir’s conflict. In 1990s, he had joined militant ranks with a Pakistan-based militant group, Hizbul Mujahideenthough, he was captured by the government forces in 1995.

He spent the following three years in Jammu’s Kot Balwal jail, before walking out in 1998 and joined the PDP with “a hope from the new party.” The PDP was founded a year after he was released, in 1999, by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who had earlier served as Home Minister of India. Being a Congress leader, Mr. Mufti’s dream was to carve space into the state politics, and with the help of his daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, he launched the PDP with a new idea for conflict resolution – “self-rule” and aim to snatch power from the Abdullahs. 

It was in favour of the Muftis that Farooq Abdullah led government from 1996 to 2002 had become synonymous for misrule, human rights violations, and corruption. After three years of rigorous campaign, building party structure and attracting workers like Mr. Ashiq into the party, the daughter-father duo went on to win 18 seats in the 2002 assembly elections. Mr. Sayeed became the chief minister in the coalition government with the Congress party.

“We were the victims, who witnessed harsh times in Kashmir,” Mr. Ashiq recalls the time of the late 1990s. “STF (Special Task Force) and Army were entering homes, beating people without reasons and sometimes used to call us inside garrisons for wage-less labour.”

Initially, with the PDP’s entry in the political scene of Kashmir, people like Mr. Ashiq – “who had no trust in the political process” – were drawn towards the idea of change. From focusing on roads, disbanding the STF to giving less power to the government forces, the PDP was slowly gaining momentum among its cadre. “There was big change in situation for some time,” recalls Mr. Ashiq. “Mufti Saeed opened Azad Kashmir road and snatched all powers from the STF – it was a big relief for us, mostly for people living in rural areas. But, unfortunately, it did not last long.”

With time, the political scenario in Kashmir changed too. It was the same PDP in 2014, after winning 28 assembly seats, which formed a coalition government with the BJP – framing an “Agenda of Alliance.” Termed as the joining of North pole and South pole by senior Mufti, the alliance didn’t last for long. With his death in January 2017, Ms. Mufti became the first woman chief minister but only until the BJP pulled the support on 19 June 2018.

Today, it has been ten weeks since Ms. Mufti was detained inside a hut in Srinagar’s Chasma Shahi area, and accused of ruining Kashmir, by the same BJP. Outside her worker, Mr. Ashiq, feels that the removal of the special status ended the ground for a political party, as well as for a worker. He explains that it was a chain, which is no more now. “When the head of the family is in jail with all other leaders, who would see any hope in the current situation,” he says. “People who were always against them [politicians] are right now happy but, those who believed them feel insulted.”

From Autonomy to so-called sacrifice

There is a common saying on the streets of Kashmir: “like PDP – like NC.” The population of Valley, since 1987 elections – which were allegedly rigged by the state to keep Muslim United Front (MUF) away from the power – has kept their distance from the polling booths. The MUF was an alliance of several anti-India parties, including Jamaat-i-Islami. After the 1987 elections, the workers of the MUF were arrested, who later turned to armed militancy, supported by Pakistan.

From 1987 to 1996, there was no political process in the region, until Farooq Abdullah was convinced to fight eighth assembly elections in 1996, which brought him to power as the chief minister. For the next few years, his government crushed the militancy and anti-India sentiment. 

When the NC government returned to power in 2009, its rule started with the bungled investigation of the Shopian double rape-murder, followed by the 2010 mass uprising, in which more than 120 civilians were shot dead during protests. It was the same year when the government forces began using pellet guns against the protestors – which injured thousands, including blinding hundreds of youth. The years ahead saw steep rise in the new-age local militancy, mainly in South Kashmir, where militancy became the centre flashpoint.

Despite all that in the backdrop, Mr. Abdullah’s party workers put their lives at stake to uphold the constitution and remain in the power, while anti-India protests continued as a strong opposition – boycotting the electoral process. 

For the JKNC, whose founder Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah had inked the 1975 accord with New Delhi to be released from jail and asked his supporters to vote to strengthen autonomy of the region – the idea of autonomy within the country’s constitution was the only plan left to sail.

“Now [after the abrogation of the special status] there is no faith left in the political system of India,” says a senior political worker of the JKNC, a resident of Srinagar’s downtown, whose identity has been withheld as per request.

The detention of father-son duo – president and vice-president of the JKNC – Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah, respectively, for the last ten weeks has left its foot soldiers “hopeless and threatened.”

“A worker is a building block of a party,” says the JKNC worker. However, it is a conditional scenario – depending that the leaders have power and a say. “Once that power is gone, a worker has no value.”

Senior leader of the JKNC, and current Member of Parliament from Anantnag, south Kashmir, Justice Hasnain Masoodi is one of the few leaders currently not under detention. But his party president Farooq Abdullah has been booked under the Public Safety Act (PSA). Ironically, PSA – the controversial law that allows the state to imprison an individual above the age of 16 years for two years without judicial trial – was originally introduced in Kashmir by Senior Abdullah’s father, Sheikh Abdullah, in 1978 to prevent the rising timber smuggling.

Sitting in the backdrop of an archival photo of Sheikh Abdullah alongside a victorious photo of the father-son duo, Senior and Junior Abdullah, Justice Masoodi believes that the PSA slapped on senior Abdullah has “increased the dignity of a local worker.”

It is the belief that Mr. Abdullah has “sacrificed.”

“Will the authorities allow a hundred people to gather?” questions Justice Masoodi. He believes that it is the way out to start political process in Kashmir.

On 20 September 2019, Ghulam Nabi Azad, the leader of opposition [Congress] in the upper house of the parliament after reaching out to the Supreme Court – was allowed to visit Kashmir, on one condition that he cannot hold a political rally. 

Mr. Azad was also a part of the 12-member opposition delegation, headed by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, which was sent back from Srinagar International Airport – preventing them from conducting any political activity in Kashmir Valley.

The means of curbing the supposed law and order situation, the government has also arrested multiple block and district political party’s presidents – “without any apparent reason,” Justice Masoodi asserts. “So, there is a fear among them too.”

However, Justice Masoodi still clings to hope and the prospect of preventing their workers from disassociating from the party – to whom his party isn’t able to contact for the past ten weeks due to communication gag.

While there is no word on the release of the political detainees, Justice Masoodi sees the way forward for Kashmiri politicians in Kashmir’s politics in walking back to 4 August’s Gupkar Declaration – which means to join hands together to cobble together an alliance.

Is there space for Kashmiri politicians?

Although, it is not only political giants of Kashmir – like JKNC and PDP – but the not-so-poll-favourites People’s Conference (PC) and not-so-old Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement (JKPM) also find themselves in the shallow waters.

The premiers of both the parties – Sajjad Lone and Shah Faesal – sulk under detention. The word around Mr. Faesal’s political career is believed to be bleak, however, Mr. Lone, who was the ally of the BJP, remains inside subsidiary jail, Centaur Hotel – detained. Back in 1987, it was Mr. Lone’s father, Abdul Gani Lone, who was the founding member of the MUF and had fought elections before too.

Former Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) and a senior leader of the PC, Abid Ansari, sees no light at the end of the political tunnel in Kashmir. For political actions, he believes, the movement is must – “when it is restricted, and the party leaders are detained, who would decide the future course?”

Mr. Ansari feels caught up between his responsibilities towards the party workers and his “powerlessness”; if his party worker would come out and demonstrate against the centre’s move – they would be booked, and he won’t be able to secure their release. Citing the political pressure on him, Mr. Ansari says that it has lowered the morale of the party workers.

Looking at the current political scenario of Kashmir Valley – “wherein there is nothing to offer to people in future” – Mr. Ansari sees politics to “largely remain confined to the basic needs and development of the union territory.”

For years, when the political ideas of the parties revolved around to safeguard the special status of J-K – and now that it is gone – Mr. Ansari wonders, “What is left to sell to people?”

Like Mr. Ansari, the former JKPM General Secretary, Shehla Rashid, in an interview told The Kashmir Walla that she dissociated herself from the mainstream politics in Kashmir “under the present conditions where everyone has been in jail and people are being asked to fight the elections on the issue of statehood.” 

“Today, I think as political player, it is my responsibility not to compromise with people’s rights, which are not mine to sell, nor or anyone’s else’s,” says Ms. Rashid.

For party workers too, it has become impossible to sell anything to people now. Mehraj-u-Din, a 43-year-old PDP’s political worker in south Kashmir’s Pulwama area, is left with “regrets” after serving the party for 16 years – citing the parties’ incompetency to walk up to their commitments.

Despite being attacked twice by unknown gunmen in the past few years, Mr. Mehraj, continued with politics. Now, he is opting to quit, as “when the leaders are detained, what a political worker like me can do?”

“I’m focusing on my fruit business now,” says Mr. Mehraj. “After a decade, I’ve realised that every political leader is selfish and their ultimate goal is to be in power.”

Siddiq Wahid, a historian with a Ph.D. from Harvard, firmly believes that the aim of the BJP government in regards to Kashmir has been to break the political process and it is not surprising if a political worker is discouraged. “People of Kashmir realised that the ultimate objective of breaking of this political process was to bring demographic changes in the region,” says Mr. Wahid.

The Kashmir Walla spoke to almost two dozen workers and politicians, who opined that they were uncertain about their political future but many also added that only their leaders, after being released from detention, will decide about the future strategy. 

Today, political workers are discouraged and lost. Mr. Ashiq, who has had it all, isn’t willing to put his life on the front “for no reason” anymore. He is calling it a quit. “All the local political parties have failed to address the suffering of a common Kashmiri,” he says. “That’s why, we are in this turmoil – and they [politicians] are crushed.”

This story originally appeared in the 21-27 October 2019 print edition of The Kashmir Walla.

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