Mufti Mohammad Sayeed: A Life Lived Well in Kashmir's Turbulent Politics

Mufti Mohammad Sayeed hugging Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Mufti Mohammad Sayeed hugging Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Srinagar: From an obscure lawyer in Kashmir to India’s Home Minister – incidentally the only Muslim to occupy that position so far – Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who died in New Delhi on Thursday morning, carved a niche for himself in national and Jammu and Kashmir politics with the craftiness and unwavering focus of an avid bridge player.

In a political career spanning nearly six decades, Sayeed emerged as a rival power centre to the mighty Abdullahs of the National Conference, always playing his cards close to the chest, while making friends with parties following conflicting ideologies in pursuit of his political agenda.

The high-points in the political journey of Sayeed, who would have turned 80 on January 12, was his being catapulted to the post of free India’s first Muslim home minister in 1989 and, years later, becoming the chief minister of the restive state. He became chief minister for a second time in 2015, heading a coalition with the BJP, which entered government in the state for the first time.

Sayeed’s stint in the Union home ministry, at a time when militancy had begun to rear its ugly head in his home state, would, however, be most remembered for the kidnapping of his third daughter Rubaiya by the JKLF. The militants demanded freeing five of their comrades in exchange for Rubaiya’s freedom and let her off only after their demand had been met.

The kidnapping and subsequent release of the militants, according to Sayeed’s rivals, projected India as a “soft state” for the first time.

Born in Baba Mohalla of Bijbehara in Anantnag district on January 12, 1936, Sayeed had his early education at a local school and graduated from S P College, Srinagar. He went on to obtain a law degree and Master’s degree in Arab History from Aligarh Muslim University.

Rise of a politician

Sayeed cut his political teeth early, having joined the Democratic National Conference of G M Sadiq in the late 1950s.

Sadiq, recognising the potential of the young lawyer, appointed him as the district convenor of the party.

In 1962, Sayeed was elected to the state assembly from Bijbehara, a seat which he retained five years later. He was appointed a deputy minister by Sadiq, who by then had become chief minister.

However, he fell out with the party a few years later and joined the Indian National Congress, a courageous but risky decision at that time given the unstinted support of most Kashmiris to Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, who was in jail.

Considered an astute organiser and administrator, Sayeed ensured that Congress not only got a foothold in the Valley but created pockets of staunch support for the party.

In 1972, he became a cabinet minster and also the Congress party’s leader in the legislative council. He was made the state Congress president a couple of years later.

As he rapidly grew in stature, Sayeed saw himself as the next chief minister of the state. However, all hopes he might have harboured of occupying the hot seat were dashed when the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi entered into an accord with Sheikh Abdullah and facilitated his return as chief minister after a hiatus of 11 years, much against the wishes of Congress workers in general and Sayeed in particular.

Not one to give up easily, Sayeed engineered a coup of sorts ahead of the 1977 elections as Congress withdrew support to Abdullah’s government. The aim was to have a Congress chief minister – which would have been Sayeed – in place for elections to control the official machinery but Governor L K Jha brought the state under governor’s rule.

It was the first time that Jammu and Kashmir was brought under governor s rule. Sayeed would later play a role in the imposition of governor’s rule on all subsequent occasions during his epic political career.

The results of the 1977 Assembly elections all but killed Sayeed’s dream of becoming chief minister as the National Conference came to power with a thumping majority.

Sayeed was a key player when governor’s rule was imposed for the second time in the state in 1986.

The National Conference and Abdullahs have privately held the wily man from south Kashmir responsible for the intra-party rebellion against, and subsequent dismissal of, Farooq Abdullah by Governor Jagmohan in 1984. The power tussle between Farooq and his brother-in-law G M Shah led to a permanent estrangement and also saw the latter becoming chief minister with Congress support.

However, Shah’s tenure also did not last long as the Congress headed by Sayeed withdrew support to his government, leading to imposition of governor’s rule for the second time in 1986.

National stage

When militancy broke out in Kashmir and Sayeed became Union home minister in the short-lived V.P. Singh government, he appointed appointed Jagmohan as governor despite protests by Farooq Abdullah, who resigned and the state came under governor’s rule again in 1990.

While the state was brought under governor’s rule in 2002 and 2014 due to Sayeed taking time to thrash out coalition agreements with the Congress and BJP respectively, it was his manoeuvrings that saw a democratically elected government give way to administration by the Raj Bhawan in 2008.

Sayeed’s PDP withdrew support to the coalition government headed by Congress’s Ghulam Nabi Azad in July 2008 following widespread protests over the Amarnath land allotment row that pitted the people of the Hindu-dominated Jammu region against the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley.

Sayeed’s stay in national politics was relatively short.

As Farooq Abdullah warmed up to Rajiv Gandhi in 1986 to ensure his return as chief minister ahead of the 1987 assembly elections, Sayeed was shifted to Delhi and appointed as the Union minister for tourism and civil aviation.

He quit as tourism minister in 1987 and later co-founded the Jan Morcha with V P Singh, who had quit the Congress over the Bofors scandal. In 1989, he won the Lok Sabha election from Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh as a Janata Dal candidate and became Union home minister in V P Singh’s cabinet.

Towards the end of P V Narasimha Rao’s tenure as Prime Minister, Sayeed returned to the Congress fold with daughter Mehbooba Mufti. Sayeed won the Anantnag Lok Sabha seat in the 1998 general elections, while Mehbooba became a Congress MLA in 1996.

With his dream of becoming chief minister of the state still unfulfilled, Sayeed parted ways with the Congress and floated a regional outfit, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in 1999. The manner in which the PDP emerged and grew are considered exemplary of Sayeed’s political genius.

The green flag and pen-inkpot election symbol of the PDP were lifted straight from the Muslim United Front (MUF) – the Jamaat-e-Islami-led conglomerate of the anti-National Conference, anti-Congress parties in the 1987 assembly elections.

Though the MUF received wide public support in the Valley, it won only four seats amidst credible allegations of vote rigging. Its symbols found ready acceptance in the Valley as PDP made significant gains and won 16 seats in the 2002 assembly elections. Although way short of a majority in the 87-member house, Sayeed managed to bargain with the Congress and secure a three-year stint as chief minister on a rotational basis.

Sayeed was sworn in as the ninth chief minister of the state on November 2, 2002, fulfilling a long-standing dream.

The wily politician, who enjoyed good relations across the political spectrum at national level, saw his PDP grow to 21 seats in the 2008 Assembly elections but surprisingly decided to sit in the opposition.

The youngest party in the state continued to gain in strength as it not only won all the three Lok Sabha seats in the Valley in the 2014 general elections but also emerged as the single largest party in the state elections later in the year.

Sayeed became the unanimous choice for chief minister when the PDP and BJP reached agreement to form a coalition government, and took his oath of office on March 1, 2015.