Frozen Photos

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With only BJP contesting the Block Development Council (BDC) polls, the politics of Jammu and Kashmir is frozen in time. Though the government indicated that the gradual release of political beings will undo the nine-week thaw, there has not been anything other than an over-hyped photo-shoot, reports Masood Hussain

Dr Farooq Abdullah with the 15 member delegation of his party workers at his Gupkar residence declared sub-jail by the government. . KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Dr Farooq Abdullah with the 15 member delegation of his party workers at his Gupkar residence declared sub-jail by the government. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

For one of National Conference (NC)’s senior-most leaders from Jammu, the October 6, 2019 meetings with Dr Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah, were extra-ordinary. Ever since restrictions were imposed on the father-son duo, he said he was suggesting his colleagues in Jammu to press for a meeting, “even for enquiring their welfare”. Once the Jammu leaders were allowed to move out of home, they quickly met and sent an application to the Raj Bhawan. Within hours, the response came with the Deputy Commissioner Srinagar seeking details of the delegation and the timing.

At around 11 am on October 6, when the 15-member NC delegation led by business tycoon Devinder Singh Rana, who is NC’s Jammu president, finally reached the Hari Niwas Palace and was waiting for the meeting with Omar Abdullah, this politician transported himself into 2014, the last time he operated from the Palace. Then a cabinet minister, he remembers how he was summoned by his Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah, from Jammu in wake of September 2014 floods. From the airport, “me, my staff and even my personal security officer” were airlifted in a chopper from Srinagar airport and landed in the palace premises where from Omar was running his inundated government. For many weeks, he said, he was part of the two meetings that Omar would preside twice on daily basis till the situation improved and the civil secretariat was revived.

Five years later, the same palace was holding Omar in ‘solitary confinement’. When the delegation was waiting outside, Omar was busy in a meeting with NC’s two members of parliament – Mohammad Akbar Lone and Justice (retd) Husnain Masoodi. “As we saw the delegation coming, we requested the duty magistrate to permit them in as well but he refused,” Masoodi said. “These are two separate meetings. You finish first, they get in later.”

Shehla Rashid

The Jammu delegation spent almost half an hour with Omar. It was routine talk about his health, welfare, his situation in the jail and the situation outside the Palace that overlooks most of the aquatic part of the city. “Nothing much about politics,” one delegation members said. “It was not meant to be.” Later, Omar accompanied them to the lawns where the bearded Omar used his own camera to click a few shots, apparently for his jail memory. As a delegation member took a click, using his cell phone, an officer literally begged him not to release it to the media. The delegation kept the promise, so far.

Unlike Jammu delegation, Masoodi said, their purpose was completely different. “We had gone to seek directions from our leaders about the next course of action in case of their confinement,” Masoodi said. “We had been pressing the government for almost two weeks for this meeting but there was dilly-dallying. Finally, when the Jammu delegation was granted time, we were also asked to meet but were kept separate from the Jammu delegation at both the places.” The two MPs had met their two leaders on September 13, on basis of the High Court permission with riders that they will not reveal anything to the media. The October 6, the meeting was the first granted through administrative set-up.

Interestingly, the father and son have told the two MPs that they are not interested in challenging their confinement in the court of law. They had told them that the government must end the siege of the political class. Instead, they have asked them to work for getting all the political party workers out of jail, regardless of their affiliations.

At Dr Abdullah’s Gupkar residence, the same protocol was repeated. The MPs were inside in a meeting and the delegation was waiting. Unlike Hari Niwas, Dr Abdullah offered a cup of kehwa each to the delegation members with the Pampore Shirmal. Apart from talking about the routine basics – the life, the health and the environment of the home becoming the jail, they also talked about the ground situation, albeit briefly. He was informed that there has been a lot of criticism to his arrest by India’s political class, media and the major opinion makers across India. Delegation members said Dr Abdullah was hurt and in pain as the unexpected blow to the state-centre relations took the alienation to the next level.

Interestingly, in the run-up to the abrogation of special status and downgrading of Jammu and Kashmir on August 5, Dr Abdullah had an almost half an hour meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Though NC’s three MPs had sought an appointment, Omar Abdullah replaced Mohammad Akbar Lone at the last moment as the latter had flown to Srinagar. “We briefed the Prime Minister about the situation on the ground telling him how the Amarnath yatra was going on smoothly, incident-free and how the tourist footfalls are improving,” Masoodi remember, insisting that they gave him the details of the reports appearing in media about deployments and panic. “The Prime Minister assured us that nothing untoward was happening as the deployments were going on for a routine replacement. He said the government is working towards an assembly election by October.” This, he asserted, was the reason why Dr Abdullah expressed his satisfaction over the meeting that took place in the PM’s Parliament House office.

“On key political issues,” one of the delegation members to Dr Abdullah said, “the leader said that the Working Committee would be summoned after the political leaders are set free. Nothing beyond that took place.”

A long line of voters in Panchayat elections in 2018. (KL Image: Bilal Bahadur)

Though Dr Abdullah’s home is a declared sub-jail and he is himself detained under Public Safety Act, the delegation members said there was no intervention by the government in the meeting. It was at the fag-end of the meeting that an official came and requested them to wind it up for the paucity of time.

But the news had already been made. When the two MPs were leaving Dr Abdullah’s Gupkar residence and the Jammu delegation was getting in, Abdullah weaved towards the crowd of press photographs, assembled outside the premises. A beaming Dr Abdullah, wearing a grey suit and the signature headgear, flashed a victory sign as he stood with the delegation and his wife Molly. He smiled and looking cheerful in the photograph, a rarest one in a long time in which he was seen with his own wife. Molly, who in 2014 summer donated her kidney to help Dr Abdullah bounce back to normal life, is living in the UK. A few weeks after his arrest, Molly flew to Srinagar to take care of him and their son, Omar. Till then, it was Dr Abdullah’s sister and daughter who were holding the fort. Meanwhile, Omar’s two sons, Zahir and Zameer,  who are living with their mother for a long time made a surprise visit to their father in Hari Niwas sub-jail.

Devender Rana, who led the delegation, told reporters that NC could decide its poll strategy only after its leaders are freed. “We are happy that both (Farooq and Omar) are well and in high spirits,” Rana said. “Of course, they are pained and anguished about the developments, particularly the lockdown of the people, and we as a party appeal that for the political process to start and democracy to revive in Jammu and Kashmir, political detainees anywhere and everywhere, whether from the mainstream political parties or otherwise who have no criminal records, may be released and the hearts and minds of the people of Jammu and Kashmir are won.”

The October 6 photograph of Dr Abdullah was in complete contrast with the one that flashed the TV screens on August 5, when he was literally crying while talking to NDTV’s Nazir Masoodi and TVNews 18’s Mufti Islah. “So what changed between the 56 days?” a newspaper editor asked?

What was the net difference between the two photographs? “The assault was so massive and unexpected that the first photograph depicted that bitterness and pain,” explains Masoodi, who was baptized into politics early this summer. “The new photograph reflected firm resolve to fight it out regardless of how long or difficult the process is. It also sent down a message that we cannot be cowed down.”

A member of the delegation said that they had gone with two specific purposes – to enquire about the well-being of the leaders and to send out a message to Kashmir that they are not alone. “But the way, the images were used was bad. It was hyped to tell the world how the political process has started and how prisoners are being managed, which it was not,” the leader said. “Thank God, the media was far away when Omar saw us off.”

The outcome was quick and shocking. PDP that has more leaders in Jammu than voters also decided to send a 16-member delegation to meet Mehbooba Mufti, being held in solitary conferment in a hut at Cheshma Shahi. Her mother, the widow of India’s first and the last Muslim Home Minister takes home-cooked food to the hut that, the report suggests, faces acute power outages.

Authorities have changed rules for visiting the detained political class in sub-jail Centaur Lake View hotel Srinagar. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Authorities have changed rules for visiting the detained political class in sub-jail Centaur Lake View Hotel Srinagar. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

“We had booked 16 tickets for Monday and then we got a message to reconsider the decision,” one of party’s Jammu lawmakers said. “It was a message from none other than Mehbooba Mufti. So we again met late night and cancelled the meeting.”

But why?

“We realized that the government was using these meetings to do its own PR. They did it with Dr Farooq and they intended to do it with us as well,” the former lawmaker said. “It was being used to sell a normalization that does not exist on the ground and to convey a political process that is not around.” He asserted the message had come from their party leader itself. A statement attributed to Ms Mufti said she refused to meet the delegation because “the situation in Kashmir is bigger than any party matter at the moment and that she does not wish to become an international prop”.

The other reason, the lawmaker alleged, was the quantum of riders that verbally came with the permission: not to take cell phones along; not to brief media about the meetings; not to actually talk about Article 370 or the detentions. “We wanted something substantial to talk about and they (government) wanted an image and we decided not to get it to click for them,” he said. A day later, PDPs two factions were publicly squabbling.

But PDP cancelling the meet was not the only response. Two days later, the Congress announced its boycott to the upcoming BDC polls, slated on party basis for October 24. Congress had participated in the Panchayat and Urban Local Body (ULB) polls in 2018 fall even when NC and PDP had stayed away.

Ram Madhav

“We are compelled to boycott the BDC polls because of the indifferent attitude of the state administration and the continued detention of senior party leaders in Kashmir,” Congress state president G A Mir said. “The election authority should have consulted political parties before announcing these elections.” Held in house detention for around two months in Jammu, Mir said the election is being held to facilitate the victory of only one party, read BJP.

“What kind of farce it could be,” NC’s Ajay K Sadhotra said. “You do not have 60 per cent voters in Kashmir and still you want to have polls and call it democracy.” He said the BJP is applying “one nation, one party” in Jammu and Kashmir and is behaving like a “political skylark”.

On October 9, Home Minister and BJP president Amit Shah presided over a meeting of J&K’s BJP asking them to ensure the good presence of party candidates in all three regions in the BDC polls. The party is contesting 280 of 310 BDC berths. “Shah wanted the BJP to mobilize Sarpanchs and Panchs, who formed the Electoral College, in the party’s favour to capture maximum Councils,” Jammu newspaper Daily Excelsior reported.

In Kashmir, BJP is contesting 131 of 137 BDC berths and hopes sweeping 90 per cent of the seats. The Hindu quoted a BJP official saying that the party has 1267 panchs and sarpanchs in Kashmir alone.

Authorities are busy in the scrutiny of 1382 nominations for 310 berths. Of them, 751 came from Jammu, 515 from Kashmir and 116 from Ladakh. Kupwara topped the list with 131 nominations, Baramulla has 110 and Jammu has 105 candidates. Since all major political parties – NC, PDP, Congress, CPI(M), JKPM and Awami Itehad Party – are in formal and informal boycott, a news portal summed it up in one headline: “BDC Polls Are of the BJP, by the BJP and for the BJP”.

The next surprise came on October 9, when former student activist Shehla Rashid Shora, who had joined Dr Shah Faesal J&K Peoples Movement (JKPM) early 2019, decided to hang her boots.

“The Centre’s recent actions have shown that, when it comes to J&K, it doesn’t even respect its own laws, forget international law,” Shehla said in a statement. “I would, therefore, like to make clear my dissociation with the electoral mainstream politics in Kashmir. I stand in solidarity with my people who are being made to suffer for even the most basic amenities.”

The new political activist who was facing a lot of music for her social media interventions talked about the interesting dichotomy in Kashmir policy. “The government of India keeps inviting the youth to ‘join the mainstream’. However, the Centre’s actions have, for decades now, only served to push people out of the mainstream,” she said. “If being in the mainstream means compromising on the basic interests of your people, then one cannot be part of such a mainstream!” She said the “puppet leaders” are being installed in Jammu and Kashmir.

While efforts are underway to create new political workers, the established ones within the NC and PDP are facing the music. Murmurs in both the parties indicate of a sort of pressure on the MPs. “I got a message that my leader wants us to put in our papers,” Fayaz Ahmad Mir, one of PDPs two members of the Rajya Sabha, said. “I have been trying for a meeting with the party leader but since she is in jail, the meeting may take some time.”

NCs Masoodi said that he represents the party in the Lok Sabha. “Once the party decides something, it will take me no time to implement it,” he said. Personally, he sees the MP status gets him an audience to speak and interact with.

The entire political class is literally chocked. PDP has 15 of its 17 members of the Political Affairs Committee (PAC) in detention. Rana told media that nearly 60 per cent of the members of NCs parliamentary board are under detention.

Ghulam Ahmad Mir

But the government is unwilling to permit them to talk. Daily Excelsior reported that “Dr Jitendra Singh dared the opposition parties including Congress, National Conference (NC) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to publicly oppose the Modi Government’s decision.” The opposition parties, he said were saying that “State will be in flames, bombs will explode and there will be an earthquake in case the Centre dares to touch the Articles 35-A or 370”. He asked: “The leaders of these parties should now clear their stand whether they are with Modi Government’s decision on abrogation of 370 and 35-A or they still stick to their old stand.”

While the BJP led Central government is trying to accuse the Kashmir’s pro-India flock for a varied set of things, back home they continue to be targets of the insurgents. The latest to be hit by militants was Sajad Hussain Mantoo whom they shot at on October 6. A resident of Kokernag, a former PDP activist, survived bullet injuries in his abdomen and thigh.

It is not NC and PDP alone. Sajad Lone and Dr Shah Feasal, the two other smaller parties also have their leaders in jail. The latest on their detention is that the government had changed the rules for visitors to Centaur Lakeview Hotel, the sub-jail holding bulk of the political class. The new rules aimed at “maintaining the sanctity of the sub-jail”, set in motion on September 22, according to the Indian Express will permit only “parents, spouses and siblings” between 11 am and 2 pm.

“In the first 55 days, nearly 2,300 visitors met 44 detainees,” the newspaper reported. “As of Thursday, there are 33 detainees at the complex.”

Authorities say they will be gradually setting free the political activists. They have already released Yawar Mir, Shuiab Lone and Noor Mohammad – all former lawmakers – two from PDP and one from Congress. BJP leader Ram Madhav also said that the detained Kashmir leaders will get freedom soon. “We want a normal political activity to be restored in the state. But it has to be a normal political activity,” he was quoted saying.

What is “normal political activity”? Any ideas.

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