Kashmir Needs Space For Mainstream Politics, Not Protest, Says PDP

At a public convention attended by thousands on November 13, the PDP questioned the Hurriyat’s protest methods and what it aimed to achieve.

Credit: Mudasir Ahmad

PDP workers attending party’s first public meeting in Srinagar. Credit: Mudasir Ahmad

Srinagar: After lying low during the summer uprising in Kashmir, the state’s ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) on Sunday held a day-long convention at the party headquarters in the heart of Srinagar. It was, in fact, the first major public function organised by any mainstream party in Srinagar, considered a separatist stronghold, after the killing of rebel commander Burhan Wani on July 8 this year.

According to the separatists’ calendar, which prescribes a weekly timetable of protests, shutdown and work hours, November 13 was to be a day of complete shutdown with “relaxation hours” starting from 4 pm onwards. But PDP supporters from three districts in central Kashmir started arriving early in the morning and by daybreak, their numbers had swelled into thousands. Defying the protest calendar, many of these people, including women, had travelled in their own vehicles or had carpooled to the venue, which remained under the gaze of the security forces.

“Please don’t link this event with the situation….situations are temporary but an ideology is permanent. Our workers and leaders believe in the political agenda of the PDP and that is why we have assembled here today. There is no other meaning to this event,” said senior PDP leader Naem Akhter, measuring his words cautiously.

Ever since the unrest began in July, the space for mainstream politics has shrunk in the Valley. Workers and lower-rung leaders of political parties have maintained a low profile to escape the people’s fury in the wake of civilian killings. A handful of political workers belonging to different parties – including panchayat members – had publicly announced their resignation from mainstream politics and pledged their support to the separatist camp.

But on Sunday, senior PDP leaders faced their supporters for the first time since the uprising began. One of such leader is Raja Begum from Wakura village of Ganderbal district, some 40 kms away from Lal Chowk. Asserting that she had been an active member of the party since 2003, Raja said she firmly believes that the chief minister should be given time to prove herself. “My son was a locally trained militant but he was killed by forces many years ago. I decided to join the PDP because it freed us from crackdowns and the task force,” she told The Wire. “Nobody is denying that Kashmir is an issue but we must give her [Mehbooba] a chance before we sit in judgment.”

Among the speakers at the event was chief minister Mehbooba Mufti’s maternal uncle and PDP general secretary Sartaj Madni. Madni said, “This event is of historic importance given the times we have come through. And every single person who is present here is equal to hundreds of supporters”.

Calls for hartal a ‘joke’ now

Also speaking at the event, senior PDP leader and MP Muzaffar Hussain Baig attacked separatists over their protest strategy during the unrest. In his 20-minute speech, Baig asked the Hurriyat leaders to rethink their strategy, saying the calls for hartal (shutdown) have become a “joke” now.

“What have they achieved from it [the four months of uprising]?,” asked Baig. “Have a look outside. What kind of hartal is there?” He was pointing towards the ‘Sunday market’ outside, where, despite the shutdown call, vendors selling clothes and household items had decorated their stalls. With each passing hour, the rush of customers kept growing amid frequent traffic jams. In fact, for the first time, the market, which normally stretches from Zero Bridge crossing to Lal Chowk, had been extended by more than half a kilometer.

As his speech progressed, Baig described the past four months of unrest as a “dark period” in Kashmir and questioned the separatists’ claim to azaadi.

“How long can they [separatists] continue selling dreams to this nation? Who is responsible for the bloodshed?” asked Baig.

He then referred to the speech of former Hurriyat conference chairman Abdul Gani Bhat during the release of the first volume of his autobiography, Beyond Me, at his Srinagar residence on Friday. In an apparent reference to Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Bhat had taken a dig at his strategies saying “Our leader is like a blind rider on a lame horse…and your strategy is like jumping into a river. But before doing so, you don’t even think if you can swim.” Bhat even criticised the meeting of Hurriyat leaders with civil society members last week to decide on the continuation of the protests. “We have now become a community of leaders. There are now leaders for every two people. We have no common men left among us,” he said.

Referring to Bhat’s critical speech, Baig, in a satirical tone, said that now their (Hurriyat) colleagues have started speaking against the protest strategy. “They [separatists] will have to think about what they want to give to this nation… They are inflicting atrocities on people and they will have to be accountable for it,” Baig said.

Kashmir has now seen 18 weeks of unrest, but the protests have abated over the past month. There are now fewer reports of civilian injuries, while clashes between protesting youth and security forces have also eased. Last week, representatives of transporters, who have been hit the most by the unrest, approached Geelani and other Hurriyat leaders seeking a relaxation of the protest calendar so that they could get back to their businesses.

“We have decided to step out to create a space for mainstream politics,” PDP’s youth president Waheed-ur-Rehman Parra told The Wire, even as he acknowledged that there was still anger on the ground.

As the participants came out of the meeting, a few of them were engrossed in a discussion over the prevailing situation and recalled the summer uprising of 2010, which had raged for months. “What have we achieved out of long months of protest and shutdowns except for self-inflicting wounds? The present situation will ebb away and then there will be another spell of unrest…the cycle will go on,” said an elderly person who identified himself as Habibullah Dar of Srinagar’s Qamarwari locality.