With three former Chief Ministers’ still incarcerated, businessman politician Syed AltafBukhari regrouped a section of the political class to defreeze the politics in Kashmir’s winter chill. Saima Bhat met the new characters to explore the possibility of a new politics dawning upon Kashmir, that ceased to be special as well as a state
As Iltija Mufti, was struggling to get out of her house to pay homage at Mufti Muhammad Sayeed’s grave in Bijbehara on January 7, at least eight of her grandfather’s erstwhile aides were checking their creases one last time before meeting GC Murmu, the founding Lieutenant Governor of the UT of Jammu and Kashmir.
It is too early to say that Mufti’s fourth death anniversary marked the informal foundation of a new political force on the wreckage of PDP. But the fact remains that Mufti’s erstwhile urban face, Syed Altaf Bukhari chose this day to lead a group of politicians, mostly from the PDP, for the first time to have a discussion with Murmu. They presented a memorandum seeking the return of statehood, protection to people’s land ownership and jobs. The meeting marked the first major political activity after the special status of Jammu and Kashmir was binned on August 5.
The eight former lawmakers Zaffar Iqbal Manhas, Javaid Hassan Beigh, Noor Mohammad Sheikh, Choudhary Qamar Hussain, Raja Manzoor Ahmad, Mohammad Dilawar Mir led by Bukhari (all from PDP) and Ghulam Hassan Mir (one of PDP founders who later quit the party to have his own) are being seen as the launch of a third front, which is willing to do business with Delhi without asking for the restoration of the special status.
The group presented a 15-point memorandum to Murmu, which, inter alia, demanded the release of all prisoners detained after the removal of Article 370 and splitting of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories. Apart from withdrawal of cases against the youth, restoring functional autonomy to the JK Bank, reviving various economic sectors, restoration of internet and some policy mechanism to address the unemployment, the group sought protection to peoples’ right to land and jobs.
Congress J&K President, Ghulam Ahmad Mir, dubbed the delegation a “creation of Home Ministry” insisting the people to know it. “This is the same group that was trying to form Government after the Mufti Muhammad Sayeed’s death,” Mir told a local news gatherer. “Their only aim is to grab power.”
The National Conference, the oldest regional party, termed the delegation members as “self-styled leaders” with no mandate from the people. Akbar Lone, the north Kashmir MP, made it clear that NC cadres are together and the party won’t indulge in breaching the trust which people have reposed in them. PDP, the group’s mother organization, took a poetic route to lament the loss in a tweet: “Sheher Basaa Nahi, Looteray Pehlay hi aagaye #Kashmir5months”.
The meeting was major news. So was the reaction.
The Bukhari group was again in news when they met the 15 foreign envoys on January 9, at lunch. This meeting had more faces: Shoaib Lone (slain PDP’s leaders’ son who joined Congress), Hilal Ahmad Shah (Congress) in addition to three PDP men Abdul Rahim Rather, Abdul Majeed Paddar and Rafi Mir.
The twin meetings are considered to be ‘planned revival’ of the political space, apparently the follow up to the phased release of select politicians in the past few weeks. Quoting unnamed sources The Economic Times reported that the new party will be named as People’s Front or People’s Progressive Front.
However, these former lawmakers assert their meeting with the LG as ‘just a meeting’ in their individual capacities. There is always a starting point, Syed Altaf Bukhari, insisted. “We know the lieutenant governor does not have all the powers to meet our demands,” Bukhari told Kashmir Life. “Most of these demands have to be sent to Parliament or Central government for approvals. But he can solve the smaller problems at the local administrative levels. He was quite positive vis-a-vis our demands.”
However, the first meeting lacked any reference to the abrogation of Article 370. The only bleak reference is in the memorandum that says “the residents are yet to reconcile with this decision”. The dominant view in the Team Bukhari is that the issue is sub judice as it is with the Supreme Court.
“Once any decision is taken only then we will be able to talk on that but presently we have local issues like jobs, land, our bank,” Bukhari, who said he walked out to freedom from his home detention in Srinagar on September 11. “We have to save them first. Otherwise if these things are lost then it will take a decade to bring them back.”
Once freed, Bukhari said he had first met his doctors and then flew to Delhi to join his family. Political insiders say that in Delhi he was more in politics than in business.
Team Bukhari members insist that they want to ease the sufferings of the commoners. His old time friend and relative, Dilawar Mir, who was released after four months of home detention, said lot of people, visited him, seeking help on one or the other front. “These people had their son, father, or brother in jail outside Jammu and Kashmir and they wanted to visit them but had no financial assistance,” Mir said. “I was helpless. But then I decided I can’t remain silent for so long.”
Mir, a five times legislator of the erstwhile State, sees the ground situation as very tough where every Kashmiri is helpless and feels dejected. Claiming it as the main precursor, he said he and his other party members decided to take an initiative to help common people.
On their meeting with diplomats, Zaffar Iqbal Manhas, whom Mufti got into formal politics and gave him a berth in the legislative council, believes nothing can stop anybody from joining politics.
“When our regional parties were with the boycott, did election not happen? These Panchs, Sarpanchs, BDC members and others are also called as politicians now. If we would not have met them, these people would have been asked to meet these members. This gap can be filled by anybody,” Manhas said. “If AltafBukhari won’t come then Altaf Thakur will come. You know who has come from our Shopian district in the BDC or other elections? Those elected representatives are stationed either in Srinagar or in Jammu but have never been to Shopian. Every time such people can’t be allowed to occupy these important spaces.”
Manhas believes it has become a matter of survival. “Otherwise everybody knows, even India knows what a common Kashmiri wants,” he said.
The second meeting proved costly. Hours after they returned from the Lalit lunch with the foreign envoys, the PDP expelled them from their party. As of now nine members of PDP stands expelled including Dilawar Mir, Zaffar Iqbal Manhas, Javaid Hassan Beigh, Noor Mohammad Sheikh, Choudhary Qamar Hussain, Raja Manzoor Ahmad, Abdul Rahim Rather, Abdul Majeed Padder, and Mohammad Rafi Mir. A show cause notice was also sent to two Congress members Hilal Shah and Shoaib Lone by their party.
Furious, they have their own take on the “expulsion” insisting the PDP is run by kids, an indirect reference to Iltija, Suhail Bukhari and many others manning the party PR. “When they claim our leadership is behind bars then who took the decision to expel these members?,” asked one expelled member who wishes not to be named. “Is there any ghost? When they have chose to remain silent over the issues faced by the people then how do they get active when it comes to the explanations? Why double standards? Are they hiding behind the curtain of arrest or are they deliberately hiding inside?”
This opportunity – a meeting with LG and the diplomats, came after five months, Rafi Mir, who was also expelled said. “I don’t know who this kid is issuing the statements because the party president is in jail and the committee is not there,” Mir said. “We met the delegation and demanded for the return of Article 370, and till the Court decides on the issue we should be given domicile laws, statehood and leaders should be released. So who the hell is issuing these statements I don’t know.”
He added: “For how long we have to sit home and weep for the things that we have lost.”
The two main parties – NC and PDP, have been maintaining that the political vacuum in Kashmir will continue as long as their leaders stay incarcerated – MP Lone in his presser said that NC won’t be part of any politics unless pre-August-5 status is restored to Kashmir.
“It is unfair that we do politics for the politicians when (ideally) it should be done for the people,” one member of the Team Bukhari said on the issue of political vacuum. “Did politics stop when Sheikh Abdullah was arrested? What if Mehboobaji or Omar remains in jail for more than a decade, does that mean we have to still wait for them?”
An insider knowing the mess within asked: “Did PDP exist as a party before August 5? This is all drama or the character assassination of our group that decided to come forward and talk for the issues of the people. Why should people wait for the release of kings when they have already suffered a lot during hartals and then by the early snowfall?”
Manhas added: “Believe me in last five months a common Kashmiri has become so poor, taking an impact worse than that of the 25 years of conflict.”
Since last week, the Team Bukhari has been able to create the cornerstones of their narrative, the justification of their actions and their relevance to the situation.
Bukhari, for instance, questions the functioning of the offices of PDP and NC in Jammu and in Kashmir. “What do you call a political activity? Isn’t every meeting happening in PDP and NC offices? Are not they issuing statements? Aren’t all MPs attending the Parliament? Why they didn’t resign from Parliament? Then why am I the only accused? I have become a whipping horse for everybody.”
Bukhari said the loss is a full basket as not just one thing has gone. “My demand for statehood does not deter them from asking Article 370. When this becomes a State only then they will be able to ask for special status,” explains Bukhari. “Otherwise a UT cannot claim to have this status. I am just trying to make out four walls, rest depends on them how they will design the interiors.”
Off late, it is Mehbooba Mufti who is being held responsible for pushing Kashmir into the ongoing crisis. “Did she not used to tell (before August 5) that if you touch the special status, the Kashmir will burn,” asked Muzaffar Hussain Beigh while talking to this reporter after his Jammu press conference. “Did not she repeatedly say that there will be nobody in Kashmir who will hold the tri colour? Is not she responsible for the mess we are in?”
They all give credit to the administration for managing the situation without any blood-spill. “I give credit to the people and the administration who behaved maturely and there were no killings,” said at least three of them, insisting they should not be quoted for this line. “If they (a reference towards Omar and Mehbooba) would have been at the helm of the affairs then there would have been blood bath (a reference to 2010 and 2016) as we have witnessed in past.”
They all firmly believe in the fact that arrest of political leaders does not necessarily mean that the politics must freeze. Taking cue from the BJP narrative on arrests of Kashmir’s three former Chief Ministers, Team Bukhari also says the politics remained active even after Sheikh was jailed for 22 years.
A year after 1952 agreement, NC founder and Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah was deposed and arrested, paving way for BakshiGhulam Mohammad to take over the party and the power. For many years later, NC existed as the Plebiscite Front.
Later, leftist group within NC gave birth to Democratic National Conference in 1957. Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq, DP Dhar and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed were considered DNCs key figures. DNC creation was seen a counter weight to a dominating Bakhshi rather than emerging as a political force.
Then in 1965, Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq merged his NC with the Congress. Eventually, he went in history as Kashmir’s last Prime Minister who happily became the first Chief Minister. The political dissidence sometimes took the Congress route or used the Janta Party platform to show its presence. It continued till PDP emerged in 1999 as an alternative political force to the NC and ruled Jammu and Kashmir with Congress in 2002 and later with BJP in 2014.
Is now the PDP getting disintegrated to give birth to a new political formation?
Bukhari junks all the reports attributed to him suggesting that he is in the process of creating his own political platform within two months, if not soon. “Trust me, presently we have not decided to float a new party,” Bukhari said. “A party is made for the election. When there is no election then why do we have to make a party?” Bukhari even says he is not part of any “Third Front”.
Indicators, however, suggest that political workers are regrouping with him. There were quite a few in the first meeting and many in the second. Reports suggest some workers from NC and Congress are shifting their loyalties to him. Kinship and relations which have historically remained vital to the dynasty politics is expected to play a role in re-alignment of political workers in near future. Following his father Yawar Mir has put in his papers, so has Dr Mir Sami-u-llah, Muntazir Mohi-ud-Din and Syed Showkat Gayoor. Political grapevine about the ambitions of Jammu and Kashmir State’s last finance minister who could not get an opportunity to present even a single budget is keeping the political class busy.
“I don’t hide anything. I had two meetings, and you saw them all,” Bukhari said. “And even if I have to be a Chief Minister, my people will vote me and not Delhi. The time has gone when they would make Chief Ministers of their choice.”
Muzaffar Beigh is also talking almost in the same language. “They (PDP) have expelled the members for meeting the envoys but I am not in touch with Mehboobaji, we are not allowed to meet her,” Beigh said. He said he is demanding the government of India for statehood and domicile rights on the patterns of other hill states. “The case is going on in Supreme Court and if they stand by the Government of India’s decision then we should be given these two rights.”
Beigh who is a senior lawyer himself says he was not able to file a petition against the abrogation of Article 370. “When I reached the SC, they had already issued a notice that no more petitions can be entertained as they had already received around 50 petitions.”
Beigh, who was once nominated as defender of the special status while praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and NSA Ajit Doval told a presser in Jammu that “there is nothing left in Article 370.”
Interestingly, while Bukhari was making news in Srinagar, it was Beigh in news making at Jammu. The tale, however, has a twist – even though Bukhari and Beigh talk almost a similar language, they swear that they are separate.
Irrespective of the linkages in the characters currently on the political chessboard, a formal process is on. If sources are to be believed then negotiations are taking place in Delhi, some overtly and a few covertly. “Covert negotiations can’t be revealed till they reach their final stage but yes after six months I see these arrested politicians begging that they would do the same work and that too at the same salary,” one insider, who says he is privy of the developments said. The process has just started.