Is Kashmir’s premier pro-India party gaining ground?
On October 29, opposition National Conference took everyone by surprise when it organised an impressive delegate session that was attended by its middle and upper-rung cadres from Jammu, Chenab Valley, Pir Panjal region, Aryan valley in Kargil and Leh besides the Kashmir Valley.
This was the biggest gathering of any political party in Kashmir since the 2016 uprising triggered by the killing of hugely popular Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani. More than 90 civilians were killed, over 15,000 injured and about 7000 arrested during the seven-month long uprising and a wave of civilian protests swept across the restive region.
The data furnished by the state government recently to the State Human Rights Commission puts the number of people injured by pellet ammunition at more than 2400. In the world’s first mass blinding, about 1100 people, mostly youth, have suffered various degrees of vision loss due to pellets.
With such colossal humanitarian cost fresh in the minds of the people, closeness to a pro-India political party is viewed as disgraceful. In fact, the people would rather associate themselves with militants. This has been amply demonstrated by massive funerals of the militants killed in gunfights. Recently, when Kashmiri militants were killed in a gunfight in Hajin, once home to a notorious government-sponsored militia called Ikhwan, the local residents were heard shouting slogans “their (militants’) blood will wash off our sins.”
The situation in Kashmir had slipped out of New Delhi’s hands to an extent that former Home minister P Chidambaram said on record that he had a sinking feeling that “India nearly lost Kashmir” because the government of India had used brute force to quell dissent in the Valley.
So, what changed over the past year that enabled the state’s oldest political party to bring its cadres from every nook and cranny of the region and organise a session in the heart of capital Srinagar?
Talking to Kashmir Newsline, the three-time chief minister of the state Farooq Abdullah, who was once again elected as the NC president at the convention, said, “Things did not change overnight.”
He said that a lot of hard work went into revving the party up.
Those who wanted to see how the convention became possible, Farooq said, should come to his Gupkar residence to see for themselves the large number of people who come from various places to pledge their support to his party.
For decades now, the NC president has been Kashmir’s comeback man, a man who knows how to turn around situations to his advantage.
After his own brother-in-law, Ghulam Ahmad Shah, dethroned him on 2 July 1984, by organising a split in the party, Farooq had been written off, especially in the light of Shah’s acute administrative acumen.
Abdullah’s dramatic dismissal in 1984 as chief minister was almost a sequel of the unceremonious and unconstitutional removal of his father Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah as Jammu and Kashmir’s Prime Minister on 9 August 1953.
Yet, Farooq returned to power with the new NC-Congress coalition government that rode on the Rajiv (Gandhi)-Farooq (Abdullah) accord.
A fresh election was held in 1987 and the NC-Congress alliance won the polls amid allegations of large-scale rigging.
When this government was dismissed following the outbreak of militancy in 1989, Abdullah’s chapter seemed history once again as the writ of militants ran large, and NC workers and sympathisers, under attack from gunmen, went for cover.
However, Abdullah perhaps made the biggest comeback when he returned as chief minister on 9 October 1996, and ruled the state for the full six-year term. And during this time he broke the back of militancy.
The flamboyant Abdullah, after paving the way for his son Omar Abdullah to become the next chief minister of the state in 2009, is now back in the driver’s seat. He takes all important decisions for the party.
On October 29, when he was re-elected president of the party, he once again announced himself on Kashmir’s political landscape with a strong pitch for autonomy.
Farooq, who turned 80 on October 21, was greeted by the party supporters with Islamic slogans as he presented a resolution at the party’s delegate convention held after 15 long years.
Farooq was first appointed NC president in 1981 and has held the post since, except for a gap of seven years between 2002 and 2009.
Talking to Kashmir Newsline, senior NC leader Chaudhary Muhammad Ramzan said the party had managed a grand function because of the resentment against the government over killings and blinding of civilians and issues like attack on the residual political and financial autonomy of the state by rightwing forces.
Ramzan termed the delegate session as the “revival of the party” and also revival of the party’s political agenda: restoration of J&K political autonomy.
Ramzan credited the senior Abdullah with rejuvenating the party and said his (Farooq’s) recent statements were not an attempt to arouse the Kashmiri nationalistic passion. He said Abdullah’s statements were quite in tune with the government of India’s decision to appoint former Intelligence Bureau (IB) Director Dineshwar Sharma as an interlocutor for initiating a sustained dialogue in Kashmir.
“The interlocutor has to listen to every shade of opinion in Kashmir and what Farooq sahab is saying represents the party’s opinion,” he said, brushing aside the vitriolic backlash Abdullah received from the rightwing organisations in the mainland India.
But how easy is it for the NC to reverse the clock back to its glory days? Can the party keep its promise and get back the autonomy that the state enjoyed until 1953 when New Delhi’s control was restricted to defence, communications, currency and foreign affairs?
Or, will the NC’s autonomy slogan continue to remain an emotional one and a tool for garnering votes to return to power?
Key Kashmir watchers see Abdullah’s role critical to his party’s comeback. In their view, NC has shown signs of revival after being reduced to a mere 15 seats in the legislative assembly because Farooq is again in command of the party. Not only did the party register an all-time low in 2014 assembly elections as far as the seat tally is concerned, it also saw Omar Abdullah lose the prestigious Sonwar constituency to PDP’s first-timer Ashraf Mir.
Talking to Kashmir Newsline, noted journalist and political analyst Muhammad Sayeed Malik said, “Farooq any day can attract bigger crowds than Omar and make a lasting impression on them.”
Malik attributes the newfound support of the party to the failure of PDP-led coalition government in the state.
“The truth is NC’s graph has not gone up but PDP’s graph has definitely gone down,” he said, and added, “PDP has to show its record but NC has the advantage of being in the opposition and PDP’s loss is NC’s gain.”
The senior journalist said Farooq was head and shoulders above many mainstream leaders of the state.
“NC needs Farooq as long as he lives as he, not Omar, is the public image of the party,” he said.
While Farooq’s experiences as former chief minister and his stints as the parliamentarian and union minister help him understand the politics in New Delhi, with his recent statements, he is also taking care of the vote bank in the state by arousing Kashmiri nationalistic passions.
Noted poet Zareef Ahmad Zareef said the re-emergence of Abdullah on Kashmir’s political scene was “a ploy” to keep a replacement ready for Mehbooba Mufti, who had failed as the chief minister.
“New Delhi is aware of the fact that this man controlled militancy. He has been allowed to visit border areas like Karnah and Tangdhar. Something is brewing,” he said.
However, Gull Wani, who teaches political science at the University of Kashmir, said NC had been able to galvanise and mobilise its cadres in a better way than other political parties.
He said the credit for this, to a large extent, is due to senior Abdullah who has been travelling to border areas like Tangdhar and Karnah to generate public support.
“NC is the largest party in terms of its present resources and loyal cadre and as soon as the Valley witnessed some semblance of normalcy, and a near end to stone pelting, the party sensed an opportunity,” Wani said.
He said that although the mainstream had become irrelevant in Kashmir a few months ago, NC had started making a comeback as far as public debate and media is concerned.
“The party is making a lot of political noise on important issues,” he said.
The limelight on Abdullah and the rejuvenation of NC has left both the ruling and opposition parties worried and PDP is monitoring the situation closely.
State Congress chief Ghulam Ahmad Mir said Abdullah’s recent statements were a message to New Delhi that it has to listen to different shades of opinion.
Mir views the political positions taken by the former chief minister Omar Abdullah and the NC President Farooq Abdullah as “different assignments” for the two leaders.
Unlike Mir, ruling PDP senior leader Nizamuddin Bhat said that NC had made a beginning by organising such a massive function and that his party wished the rivals well.
“We see their activity as their strength as it is the people’s involvement that matters,” he said.
“Everyone should get a level playing field.”
However, Dr. Sheikh Showkat Hussain, who teaches law at the Central University of Kashmir, does not see this level playing field being extended to the Hurriyat.
“If Hurriyat gets the level playing field, we will come to know how strong NC and PDP are,” he said.
“The National Investigation Agency has been harassing pro-freedom groups on the one hand and on the other large political gatherings are being organised like those in totalitarian states.”