Srinagar: On Friday afternoon, former Indian Administrative Service officer Shah Faesal, who held his first-ever press conference after announcing his resignation, found himself in midst of a media blitzkrieg.
Two questions that were frequently asked of him where: which political party will he join, and what his stand will be on contentions issues in Kashmir, including the conflict itself .
Even though it is widely believed in Srinagar that the former IAS officer will join the National Conference, Faesal left the first question largely answered. He said he will visit the “ground” and ask young people to tell him what his next move in politics should be.
And if there was any speculation that Faesal would switch over to the separatists’ side, the IAS topper made it clear that his future will be in electoral politics. “Since the Hurriyat does not subscribe to electoral politics, there is little scope for me to put my administrative skill and experience into practice by joining the Hurriyat.”
Though Faesal’s comments make clear what brand of politics he will subscribe to, the most interesting part of his remarks were perhaps about how his “vocabulary will be different” from other politicians’.
He was referring to words considered taboo in mainstream politics, like Kashmir’s call to ‘azaadi (freedom)’, ‘RSD (short for right to self-determination’) and ‘plebiscite’.
Where Faesal fits into Kashmir’s political history
If Faesal’s vocabulary is indeed different from his predecessors, how will that effect Kashmiri politics?
To answer this question, it is pertinent to briefly delve into what mainstream parties in Kashmir stand for, and how they communicate their beliefs to the people.
The National Conference, for instance, has been at the helm of affairs even before Partition. The 86-year-old party has produced multiple prime ministers and chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir, and has advocated for the restoration of the state’s autonomy.
NC’s history is deeply entrenched with that of the plebiscite movement in Kashmir, and though over the last few decades it has given up the demand, the party and several of its leaders have often evoked words that Shah Faesal said are considered taboo.
On the other hand, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) was founded in 1999 and formed an alliance government just three years later with the Congress. Often tagged as a “soft separatist” party before its alliance with the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), PDP has maintained that it stands for “self-rule”, a term that has largely remained undefined.
Yet both these parties share largely similar stands on key matters such as a dialogue with Pakistan, involving the Hurriyat, removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and defending the special status of J&K.
Valley-based political expert Sheikh Showkat Hussain told The Wire that Faesal’s politics might not be as new as people would like to believe. “Mainstream politicians from the NC, PDP and other parties who participate in the election processes have used words like ‘azaadi’ and ‘plebiscite’ to either strike a chord with the public or to undermine separatist politics. There is nothing new about this brand of politics. The latest example is that of Engineer Rashid (leader of the Awami Ittehad Party) who often speaks of the right to self-determination in the state assembly.”
In fact, Rashid invited Faesal to join his party in his most recent press conference.“Since Shah Faesal has condemned atrocities on Kashmiris and has talked about the legitimate rights of his people, as such Shah Faesal knows better than anyone that people are seeking resolution to the Kashmir dispute in accordance with UN resolutions, end to nepotism, corruption, VIP culture, misgovernance and dynasty rule, hence he must not ignore the popular sentiment and sacrifices of masses,” Rashid said.
How the separatists will respond
Taking a cue from Kashmir’s troubled history and pressures a mainstream politician faces, Faesal has managed to make the first few days of his political life rather smooth. He is attempting to make inroads into previously uncharted territory, thus giving credence to the theory that Faesal might have something to offer other than a “different vocabulary”.
Perhaps an example is his Twitter exchange with separatist leader Mirwaiz Molvi Farooq, to whom he wrote, “I wish I had the strength of character and the fighting spirit that is needed to work in the space that you are working in.” Faesal was responding to Mirwaiz welcoming his decision to resign.
The separatist leadership, which has always condemned mainstream politicians for lending support to the Indian state, is yet to react to the news of Faesal joining a mainstream party. The remarks separatists have made so far have been about Faesal’s resignation. But in all likelihood, Faesal will face flak from the dominant pro-separatist section of the Valley for joining electoral politics.
Faesal recently co-authored an article for the Indian Express with a US-based Kashmiri political commentator, Mehboob Makhdoomi. The thrust of the article was to find a middle ground, but as soon as reports emerged that Faesal might be joining mainstream politics, Makhdoomi condemned the decision in a Facebook post.
Meanwhile, mainstream parties in the Valley are watching Faesal’s movements with great interest. While BJP leader and Union minister of state for PMO Jitendra Singh, who is also from J&K, alleged that Shah lacked conviction and had “failed to condemn terror”, Valley-based parties seem to have thrown their weight behind Faesal, at least for now.
Tanvir Sadiq, advisor to former J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah, called Faesal’s move to resign courageous, without delving into the brand of politics that the IAS topper will advocate.
“Only he (Faesal) can tell us what he envisions or what is in his mind for the state. But his move to take a stand is a courageous one and both me and my party welcome him to the political fold,” Sadiq told The Wire.
There was speculation that the PDP had been attempting to woo Faesal, but he denied this on Friday. Mehbooba Mufti’s media advisor Suhail Bukhari, though, also seemed to speak in Faesal’s favour.
“Shah Faesal has made it clear that he wants to function within the constitutional premises. He has talked about working for Kashmir and the whole country, so why should anyone have an issue with that? The problem is that anyone who speaks about Kashmir is considered an ‘anti-national’. Shah Faesal comes from an office as high as the administrative services, he must be heard out,” Bukhari said. He added that is was high time that “we become tolerant towards all voices, including that of the Hurriyat”.
An answer to Sajad Lone
There is of course a local angle to Faesal’s emergence. He is from north Kashmir – and so being seen as a force to counter People’s Conference leader Sajad Lone, whose stronghold also lies in the north.
When asked to comment, Imran Ansari, a senior People’s Conference leader, said ,”He (Faesal) is a wise man. He knows what decision he has taken, what can I say about it?”
Nevertheless, Faesal’s call for a politics of disruption and re-imagination has prompted people to draw parallels between the present and the times in Kashmir that saw the rise of the Muslim United Front (MUF).
In 1987, a grouping of political and social parties formed the MUF. The goal was not to mainstream separatist politics, but to use the mainstream to reach a resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Subsequently, MUF’s brand of politics inspired many changes, including the creation of the PDP and the rise of separatist-turned-mainstream-politician Sajad Lone.
Speaking to The Wire on Saturday, Faesal did reveal a little about his decision to join politics. “Elections here are seen as antagonistic to people’s aspirations. It is made out that people voting is basically them reaffirming their support to the state. That is not the case. People voting does not mean they have shunned their aspirations. I am here to carry these aspirations forward,” Faesal said.
Azaan Javaid in a Kashmir-based journalist who has previously reported from New Delhi for Hindustan Times, DNA, Deccan Herald, Statesman and Caravan magazine. He has covered Ministry of Home Affairs, Central Bureau of Investigation, National Investigation Agency, Enforcement Directorate and major crimes in North India.