Apni Party: With Centre's Helping Hand, 'Third Front' in Kashmir Slowly Takes Shape

Altaf Bukhari is evidently the medium through which the Modi government seeks to fill the current political vacuum.

Note: This story was first published on January 27, 2020 and is being republished on March 8, 2020 to mark the formal launch of Altaf Bukhari’s new political party

Srinagar: The winter of 2020 has been quite troublesome in Kashmir. Frost clings to the trees, street lamps and parked vehicles in the morning. Taps run dry as water freezes into ice inside the pipes. The shikara owners of Dal Lake beat their oars furiously at the frozen surface, fracturing the crust and dragging their boats through the icy flotsam.

But while no thaw is expected as far as the cold is concerned, the Central government is in the midst of trying to take the region’s lifeless politics out of the deep freeze to which it was sent when Jammu and Kashmir lost its special constitutional status and its status as a state, and its politicians lost their personal freedom.

The first indications of the Centre’s political plans became apparent two days before the controversial visit of foreign envoys on January 9, when nine former legislators sought an audience with Lt Governor G.C. Murmu in Jammu. The group was led by Altaf Bukhari – a former member of the Peoples’ Democratic Party who served as a minister in the BJP-PDP coalition government which collapsed in 2018 after the BJP pulled the plug on the alliance.

Bukhari’s delegation furnished a memorandum listing a number of demands that includes restoration of statehood and extension of domicile laws to J&K. Later, members of the delegation, Bukhari included, sat across the table with the visiting foreign envoys who were shepherded around Srinagar as part of the Narendra Modi government’s efforts to project ‘normalcy’ in the former state.

The two meetings prompted the PDP to expel the former legislators for being part of parleys with the government and “acting against the will of people.”

Certainly, all mainstream parties have reasons to be furious with the Central government. They have been relegated to margins and their leaders are now into their sixth month of captivity without charge.

Restoring substantive political autonomy – or varying definitions of it – was the political mainstay of parties like the National Conference and PDP in Kashmir. With Article 370 de-operationalised, the rug has been pulled beneath their feet, leaving all the marquee faces of J&K’s political arena – the Abdullahs, Muftis and Lones – groping for legitimacy. Most of these leaders, including three erstwhile chief ministers, are under detention.

Farooq Abdullah, whose pro-India credentials were once unimpeachable, is being held under the Public Safety Act, a law that is normally slapped against hardened militants and separatists. Some lower level leaders have been released over the past month or so, but many have had to sign bonds committing themselves to remaining silent about the “current situation” in Kashmir.

With the former state in the grip of such repression and prolonged political inactivity threatening to create a power vacuum, it was only a matter of time before the Central government moved to engineer a new political set-up – one that would not only help it assuage international concerns but would also, post the ending of Article 370, play second fiddle to it in the way that the NC or PDP would have not.

It’s here that Bukhari’s re-entry into politics, after being expelled from the PDP in 2018, fits in. He will be the nucleus around which a ‘third front’ is to be built, with the backing of the Centre and its instrumentalities.

Sajad Lone. Photo: PTI

In 2018, Sajad Lone seemed poised to lead a vanguard for such a change when he decided to recruit support from BJP so that a new government could be formed and the combined attempt by the Congress, PDP and NC to form a coalition could be stymied. But that was not to be. The BJP leadership in the Centre, which evidently had its own plans for the state, opted for Central rule.

And after the August 5, 2019 bombshell on Article 370, Lone met the same treatment as the rest of the erstwhile political mainstream.

Also read: Allegations that Lone, Faesal ‘Humiliated’ as Detained Kashmiri Politicians Moved to New Location

Another apparent contender for the Centre’s affections, the PDP leader Muzaffar Hussain Beigh, was given a Padma Bhushan in the Republic Day honours list and most political observers in the Valley see this as his consolation prize for his having lost out to Bukhari.

Bukhari’s meeting earlier in January with Governor Murmu also coincided with reports of the announcement of a new political party. With himself at the helm, the new set-up is likely to capitalise on desertions from the NC, PDP and Congress. Thus, from the ruins of the older order, a new one will be fashioned, compliant enough to operate within the strictly regulated framework whose terms Delhi will get to decide.

After the PDP expelled its members for contravening “party interests”, four of its former lawmakers resigned. They are likely to hitch their wagon with Bukhari’s. “Both PDP and NC have a baggage behind them,” Javaid Beigh, one of expelled PDP members and nephew of senior leader Muzaffar Hussain Beigh told The Wire.

“Both parties invested too much capital in the autonomy discourse. They couldn’t even defend Article 370. What happened has indeed caused anger. India mobilised on an unprecedented scale after that and seemed ready for war. If the danger of war didn’t deter it [from that course] how could we Kashmiris?”

Beigh is reconciled to the “hard reality” of Kashmir. “As bad as the decision was, the clock cannot be turned back. But we do have to thrash out ways –  what we can achieve from henceforth,” he said.

Altaf Bukhari, in an older photograph with PDP functionaries. Photo: Twitter

The memorandum that Bukhari submitted to the Lt Governor clearly delineates the contours within which the new formation will function. They have demanded domicile rights, extension of Article 371 of the constitution to J&K, protection of jobs for locals and a host of other issues.

“Our meeting has been misinterpreted,” said Zaffar Manhas, another PDP member who faced expulsion. “It has nothing to do with electoral politics. We are simply picking up the thread where it was left. Life hasn’t stopped for Kashmiris with the annulment of special status, has it? Our business is suffering, horticulture is in dire straits, and people are under detention. Somebody has to leave the comfort of warm rooms and take initiative.”

Whatever the progress, the initiative looks nebulous as the moment. Nobody in Kashmir can really predict how successful it will be in dislodging the older set-up. But given the history of the region, it looks as though things have come full circle. “There’s nothing new in it”, explains Aijaz Ashraf Wani, who teaches political science at the University of Kashmir. “The Central government has always engineered new political formations whenever it felt older ones were growing bigger than their shoes.”

Also read: Article 370 and The Paradox of Kashmir’s Accession

Right from J&K’s accession to India in 1947 until the present day, the political history of Kashmir is studded with such eventful occurrences when successive governments in New Delhi went out of their way to ruthlessly intervene in Kashmir’s politics, undermining democracy and installing collaborationist regimes conditioned to be at their beck and call.

Promoting Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, 1953-57

Sheikh Abdullah’s reforms had upset major Hindu land holders in the Jammu region. They cohered in the form of the Praja Parishad and launched an agitation after 13 of their members were arbitrarily disqualified from contesting elections in 1951.

Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad garlands Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru on his arrival at Srinagar Airport on September 24, 1949 to participate in the All Jammu & Kashmir National Conference. Sheikh Abdullah, N. V. Gadgil, N. Gopalaswami Ayyangar and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur are also seen in the picture. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Their demonstrations elicited the attention of Hindu nationalist leaders from the rest of India who jumped in the fray, piling the pressure on Prime Minister Nehru to act or risk a country-wide communal conflagration. In 1953, Abdullah convened a meeting of NC’s top members to hammer out constitutional options for J&K.

The members comprised five Kashmiri Muslims, one Pandit, a Sikh and a Dogra. Eventually, upon suggestions from Maulana Masoodi, one of the Muslim members, they agreed to an option so drastic that it must have taken Sheikh’s own supporters by surprise: secession from India.

Abdullah resolved to announce this publicly on August 21. However, weeks before the scheduled day, a rift appeared in the NC with the Pandit and Dogra members of its top leadership swinging against Abdullah. They were joined by the pro-communist faction of the NC led by G.M Sadiq, assembly speaker and D.P. Dhar, a Pandit deputy minister. Later, Abdullah was deposed from power on the grounds that he had lost the confidence of his party members.

“These events bore tell-tale signs of a putsch executed at the behest of New Delhi by a clique of NC leaders,” writes Sumantra Bose in Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Path to Peace.

Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad, who replaced Abdullah, was invested with the aura of a ‘state-builder’. He wielded the narrative of development as smokescreen to disguise the constant chipping away at the state’s autonomy laws. He turned more authoritarian and the corruption that his rule, guaranteed by electoral subterfuge, spawned was ignored in the larger interests of J&K’s continued “integration with India.”

When the veteran journalist Balraj Puri entreated Nehru to intervene and stem Bakshi’s ruinous influence, Nehru admonished him, saying that “India’s case [on Kashmir] revolved around him and so despite all its shortcomings, the Bakshi government had to be strengthened.”

Promoting Ghulam Muhammad Shah, 1983-84

The ‘Lion of Kashmir’ had reached his twilight by the 1980s and, as part of a disreputable South Asian tradition where political power also doubles up as family patrimony destined to filter down the generations, he passed the baton to his son Farooq Abdullah who took his first crack at electoral politics with the 1983 elections. Indira Gandhi wanted the NC to seal an alliance with the Congress, which Farooq seemed loath to accept.

He instead offered to field weak candidates in some constituencies where the Congress could have won – an unbounded insult to the ‘Iron Lady’ for which she did not forgive him. Eventually, the NC won 46 out of 75 seats. The Congress was reduced to two seats in the Valley but polled impressively in Jammu, winning 24 seats.

“Indira seemed determined not to let him rule in peace because the abusive election campaign and Farooq’s victory made her angrier with him than ever before,” writes Inder Malhotra, Indira Gandhi’s biographer. The Centre was also smarting under Farooq’s attempt to pass the J&K Grant of Permit for Resettlement Bill that could have cleared decks for all Kashmiris who had fled to Pakistan at the time of partition to return. In the Centre’s view, Farooq had erred by wandering into the domain of citizenship, whose monopoly rested entirely with it.

To cap this war of nerves, Farooq starting embedding himself into the anti-Congress front that was once again emerging on India’s national political scene. Indira Gandhi saw an opportunity in the internecine battle being fought from within the NC. Farooq, at the beginning of his career has tried to project an ‘incorruptible face’ and showed inclinations to weed the deadwood out from party ranks, accusing them of indulging in graft. As a result, the axe also fell on his brother-in-law, Ghulam Muhammad Shah, to whom the rebuff was doubly so since he had also nurtured ambitions of inheriting the mantle from Sheikh.

Also read: Farooq Abdullah’s Absence Grows Conspicuous in Parliament

In a disturbing sequence of events engineered by the Congress party, Shah enlisted 12 other malcontents from the NC and withdrew support from the newly-formed government, throwing their lot behind a sizeable Congress caucus in the assembly. But B.K. Nehru, the governor of J&K and cousin of Indira Gandhi first demanded that the lawmakers prove their majority. He was quickly replaced by Jagmohan, Gandhi’s trusted henchman.

“In an operation which Jagmohan claimed was unplanned, yet took place with clockwork precision, Farooq was ousted and later replaced by his brother-in-law,” writes Victoria Schofield in Kashmir in Conflict: India, Pakistan and The Unending War.

Shah was nicknamed ‘Gul-Curfew’ because 72 of the first 90 days of his administration were spent under a stringent lockdown. He was dismissed in 1986, accused of incompetence, as he failed to put down violence that broke out against Pandits in the South Kashmiri town of Bijbehera.

Promoting Farooq Abdullah, 1989 – 1996

The eruption of armed militancy in Kashmir led to a complete breakdown of administrative machinery in the state. The frequent bomb blasts, assassinations and kidnappings spooked the government. Signalling a tougher approach, Jagmohan was dispatched to reprise his role as the governor. Farooq Abdullah, the victor from the rigged 1987 elections that sparked the insurgency, resigned on the grounds that he could not liaise with a ‘Muslim-hater.’

Jagmohan, in his memoir My Frozen Turbulence in Kashmir, likened the administration to a “sprawling but lifeless octopus” which had abjectly given in to the “frenzied chaos and savage anarchy” that had gripped the Valley. Before he dismissed the assembly, he presided over a bunch of massacres.

By 1995, having dealt with the militancy for the most part, Delhi wanted a political set-up put in place to convey a sense of ‘normalcy’ and herald the resumption of ‘democracy.’ Former Intelligence Bureau chief A.S. Dulat in his memoir Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years gives the clearest account of the extent of latitude, he, as a cog-wheel in India’s spy apparatus, had to cultivate such a set-up.

National Conference President, Farooq Abdullah. Credits: PTI

National Conference president Farooq Abdullah. Photo: PTI

“I began to call Nelson Mandela of Kashmir,” he writes about approaching Shabir Shah, a separatist leader with an offer of making him chief minister. “We really massaged his ego, encouraging him to think that he had monopoly on Delhi and that we wanted to see him as chief minister.”

Farooq Abdullah was nimble enough to contemplate the cost that wooing a separatist would inflict on his political career and decided to jump into the fray as Shabir prevaricated. The elections of 1996 are mired in allegations about voters being dragged out of homes by the police and army and asked to cast ballots. That’s how Abdullah returned to political office.

Promoting Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, 2000-02

Having failed to push through its autonomy resolution, the NC was running out of political credit. The Indian parliament never even discussed the matter. The tables began to turn as new players were being propped up. “This is how the PDP arrived at the scene,” explains Wani.

“The Muftis were being invested with a new narrative of healing touch to wean away the people from NC’s autonomy discourse. Basically, from the late 1990s there was tremendous emphasis on the discourse of good governance and pressures for overall reform from the international community. India couldn’t have ignored all that since it was a donor-driven effort led by IMF, World Bank etc.”

The memory of the Ikhwans – surrendered militants who were then used by the security forces to hunt militants and generally target their popular support base – still angered people in Kashmir so the PDP centred its discourse on human rights. Among the founding members of PDP was Ghulam Hassan Mir, one of the putschists who caused Farooq’s disposal in 1984 – a clear hint that older stratagems were being redeployed.

File photo of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed with his daughter Mehbooba Mufti during a meeting in Srinagar in October 2002. Photo: PTI

Immediately after ascending political office, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the chief minister, dissolved the Ikhwan, subsumed the ruthless and hated Special Operations Group (SOG) under the J&K police and ramped up cross-LoC trade. “PDP was clearly fashioned as a counterpoise to NC,” Wani says.

And back to the future with Altaf Bukhari

Last week, Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad touched off a political storm, alleging that a “Centre-backed Third front” was threatening Congress members of implicating them in false cases if they did not join their venture. “We have also run government,” Azad said. “We know who sends them and who makes them.”

But Bukhari retorted the following day, insisting that he believed the BJP was as much responsible for the mess in Kashmir as other parties including Congress. “Their style of politics is over,” he added sternly.

The political grapevine in Kashmir is rife with speculation that a new party will be announced soon. To counter this development, the NC has already been mobilising its cadres, notwithstanding the incarceration of its top leadership. “We cannot take any political decision until the detained members of our working committee are released but NC workers are voluntarily holding meetings and organising seminars to promote the party’s stand,” said Imran Nabi Dar, NC spokesperson.

Beigh, meanwhile told The Wire that a breakthrough was expected soon. “A consultative process is underway and inshaallah we are expecting to hear something positive,” he said.

No one is willing to predict how successful the Centre’s new political initiative will turn out to be. “But we know it is not without precedence,” Wani says. “Essentially, when taken as a whole, these interventions have proven very cosmetic in nature. They appear more like management strategies, not attempts towards conflict resolution.  They also don’t take ground realities into account. That’s why historically they seem to have produced no long term dividends.”

Shakir Mir is a Srinagar based journalist.

Note: This story was first published on January 27, 2020 and is being republished on March 8, 2020 to mark the formal launch of Altaf Bukhari’s new political party