Hand That Shakes

Congress’s association with Kashmir dates back to the 1930s. Using power as a lever after 1947, Congress’s association with Kashmir dates back to the 1930s. Using power as a lever after 1947, it marginalised regional parties to strengthen its roots in Kashmir and pulled the strings of local governments. The practice continues. Team KASHMIR LIFE reports.

it marginalised regional parties to strengthen its roots in Kashmir and pulled the strings of local g

Sher-e-Kashmir International Convention Complex (SKICC), the relay centre of government’s agenda and achievements, witnessed a messy presentation on October 13 when former chief minister Farooq Abdullah delivered his speech to officials, reporters and editors from the mainland with their host counterparts. From reporters in Srinagar to politicians in Delhi, he spared nobody. Aptly a Jammu newspaper next day reported: ‘Farooq Blames Everyone For J&K Turmoil’.

“The tragedy with Delhi,” Abdullah said, “is that they begin dialogue but they do not know what the hell the dialogue is about.” Referring to the five groups constituted after J&K Round Table Conference, he said. “There is the working group headed by Justice Sageer Ahmad on Centre-State relations. What happened to that? How long are we going to wait for it” he asked.

His son Omar Abdullah was sending him slips – apparently asking him to cut short, but Abdullah was unstoppable. He continued in his own style. The reports that other working groups had submitted, he said, are awaiting implementation. “If a decision has to be taken, it must be taken. If you cannot take a decision (for implementation), you have no right to take a decision,” he said.

Before Abdullah, Chief Minister Omar had delivered an impressive speech seeking simultaneous initiation of dialogue processes involving Pakistan as well as people in J&K for addressing Kashmir’s (problem’s) internal and external aspects. “The focus of government of India needs to be on political aspects of the Jammu and Kashmir as well because we cannot divorce the political aspect of the state while concentrating on social and infrastructural development,” he had said as matter of fact. So when Abdullah senior started his diatribe against Delhi, it was largely taken as if he was pulling the legs of his chief minister son. Party men said he actually supplemented Omar.

But keen Kashmir watchers say Abdullah was giving vent to the frustrations that the party has amassed in the months of leading the ruling coalition with levers lying with the Congress. Apart from the problems that the ‘generational shift’ has triggered in the party, National Conference (NC) is suffering the pain that its unconditional embrace with the Congress has brought.

“I heard Farooq Abdullah and I understand that his outbursts, at least, against the central government were based in his personal experience of handling Delhi,” a senior official sympathetic to Omar said. “These were words of caution for the chief minister especially in the backdrop of what has happened and what is in pipeline.”

Part of what is going to happen came out a day after when Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram announced that he would be flying in once in every two months and going to districts to see what is happening on ground. “Cabinet secretary led a team of officers to Srinagar recently to interact with officers here and in November all the central secretaries will fly to Jammu to spend a day with the respective ministries. This will be followed by the cabinet secretary’s visit later in January,” Chidambaram said.

Getting feel of the ground is fine, but observers say, flying central bureaucrats (two planeloads last month) to Srinagar for monitoring activities (or reviewing) poses a big question mark over the established system and norms. “One can understand the trust deficit between a Kashmiri officer in Srinagar and an IAS officer in North Block but the IAS officers in Delhi imposing upon their batch-mates in Srinagar is a new lesson in upmanship,” says an officer wishing anonymity.

And then frequent jaunts of the home minister for reviewing security and development in Jammu and Srinagar will leave the status of chief minister to a rubber-stamp head of state!

Critics in Srinagar say that not much is left with the state government regardless of the special dispensations the state is seeking. If funds are a resource, then more than 80 percent comes from Delhi. Since the revenue part is tied with the salaries, wages, pensions and debt servicing, the only flexibility, till recently, was the yearly development plan. Now it is also getting into the hands of central bureaucrats in finance and planning commission.

“In a Rs. 5500 crore plan for the current fiscal, Rs. 3369 crore are tied leaving only Rs. 2131 crore for the state,” a senior official in the finance ministry said. “With over Rs. 1000 crore going to fund district plans, not much is left with the state government.”

From taking up major projects to managing the flow of funds under various central sponsored schemes and, on political front, engaging the separatists in talks, it is New Delhi everywhere. “I was shocked to read the news about home minister saying that he will shift the security forces if the state police chief asks him to,” said Shakeel Ahmad, a keen Kashmir watcher. “Home minister could have used the state government of which state police chief is a part but, no, he gave more importance to the position ignoring the larger reality that he is part of a system in the state that works under state home minister (read chief minister).”

And if there was anything that state could have decided or done on its own, it is the Congress calling the shots as part of the coalition. The larger implication of Congress, as an inevitable partner of the governments since 2002 and possibly in future as well, is that it is blunting the role of the regional parties (NC and PDP in J&K) and gradually diluting their status.

But Congress has worked like this throughout its ‘chequered history’ in Kashmir. It is only improving upon its expertise. Extension of Congress in J&K’s politics dates back to early 1930’s when Kashmiris rose in a revolt against Dogra monarchy and Pandit Nehru supported the movement.

Congress, says political scientist Gull M Wani, has played two types of roles in J&K.  “Before 1947 it extended support to anti-Maharaja movement besides helping secularise the political movement under Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah that ultimately paved the way for NC to settle with Congress against All India Muslim League,” he says. It was under this influence that Sheikh Abdullah renamed Muslim Conference as NC on June 11, 1939.

Things changed after transfer of power in 1947. “After 1947, Congress played the role of a spoiler. It violated the political and ideological understanding it had reached with NC and its top leadership. While as NC leadership and Sheikh Abdullah were eager that Congress accept its earlier pledge which Nehru was reluctant to carry forward, Congress remained committed to a unitary setup or a centralised structure in India,” says Wani. Congress’s centralised thrust was key to Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s call for creating Pakistan, former BJP stalwart Jaswant Singh wrote is his book on Jinnah.

The Sheikh Abdullah – Pandit Nehru ‘friendship’ was the bedrock of the NC-Congress association. At the party level Nehru had long before made commitment to NC leadership that while as Indian National Congress (INC) will be a party at All India level, there was no need to have a branch of INC in J&K where NC will play that role. Pre-conditioning help to a beleaguered Hari Singh with transfer of power to Sheikh Abdullah in 1947 is a pointer towards the NC-Congress relationship.

Post accession, the two leaders signed the famous Delhi agreement in 1952 that is seen as NC’s first step to safeguard Kashmir’s special status within the union. A year later on August 8, 1953, Sheikh as the first prime minister of J&K was dethroned and jailed, a move that cracked the relationship.

“Bakshi stabbed Sheikh in the back. Sheikh Abdullah was so disgruntled with Congress that in one of his historic statements he advised people, particularly the NC supporters to avoid even the funerals of congress supporters, as they, according to him, were heretics,” says an octogenarian Abdul Rahman of Khanyar who claims to have witnessed all the political convulsions in the state from 1953. Families broke up and there were divorces in Kashmir as Sheikh launched a tirade against the Congress and its supporters calling them “drain vermin”.

Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad who replaced Sheikh as Delhi’s most trusted man and ruled Kashmir in the name of NC actually functioned as a Congressman. His era started the gradual erosion of the autonomy. But the actual process of diluting the ‘autonomy’ took off after Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq took over in February 1964 and formally changed the nomenclature of prime minister to chief minister and Sader-e-Reyasat to governor – the last fig-leaf of state’s autonomy.

He worked strictly as per the then home minister Gulzari Lal Nanda’s (1963-66) orders who got a place in Kashmir history with his statement that Article 370 was a “tunnel in the wall” and could be used to extend provisions beyond the negotiated terms to the state.

Though Bakhshi was the “first Congressman”, it was Syed Mir Qasim who actually founded Congress in J&K. But time healed the NC’s wounds. In 1975, Sheikh Abdullah after 22 years of, what he termed as political wilderness, became head of a Congress house and was sworn in as chief minister. It became possible only after his accord with Indira Gandhi. But his government was unstable and finally the Congress pulled down his government forcing a midterm polls in 1977 that Sheikh won as head of a revived and restored NC. He ruled J&K until he died on September 7, 1982.

Syed Mir Qasim who gave up the throne for Sheikh Abdullah has not been very supportive of Congress’s doings in Kashmir. In his autobiography “My life, My time”, Qasim extensively dwells on the role his party has played and how Congress played a dirty role than being a balancing factor in state politics. “He even wrote that Congress became the type of agency for getting all dirt and dust into the J&K politics,” says Abdul Rashid, a retired government employee.

After Sheikh, Congress continued meddling in the state politics. Indira Gandhi offered an alliance to NC for June 1983 polls but Farooq disagreed thinking it would jeopardise his party base in Kashmir. After he won with massive sympathy vote, he created closer relation with opposition national front and organised a conclave of 17 non-congress parties in Srinagar in 1983 to the discomfiture of Indira Gandhi.

Mrs Gandhi orchestrated an overnight coup against Dr Farooq and “installed” his brother-in-law Ghulam Mohammad Shah as chief minister on July 2, 1984 when he bifurcated the NC and took over power with Congress’s support. Shah was dismissed in early 1986 only after Farooq managed an alliance with slain Gandhi’s son Rajiv. The two parties jointly contested 1987 elections and rigged it to prevent emergence of Muslim United Front (MUF). Barely a year later militancy surfaced in Kashmir and by 1990 Farooq had tendered his resignation and fled Kashmir.

After a prolonged spell of gubernatorial regime, NC was ready to take over in 1996, an election held by security forces with intimidation. Pitted against renegades, criminals and Congress men, it got two-thirds majority. But the new state fell short of expectations.

By then, a new party had born to Congress – the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP). In the 1999 Congress Working Committee Mufti Sayeed and his daughter Ms Mehbooba (then Congress Legislative Party leader) had raked up Kashmir and suggested shift in the policy. They were rebuffed forcing them to float PDP in August 1999 on grounds that national parties view Kashmir from a different prism.

The experiment was a success. Coupled with right noises at the right time, it got 16 berths and became a possible alternative to NC. Eventually it entered into an alliance with Congress and ruled for three years under a power sharing agreement. As Congress started its term, PDP functioned in the typical Congress spirit and pulled it down midway. By then, however, Congress had used the party in preventing the passage of an amendment that would have made the state subject law much stringent. In revenge, PDP insisted on investigating the infamous sex abuse racket and accused the Congress of keeping it under wraps during its term. The then deputy chief minister Muzaffar Baig wrote a letter to chief minister seeking CBI investigation into the case and made the letter public. As the investigation started and devoured almost half of the established Congress, New Delhi was approached to apply brakes!

But PDP paid the price for being a fair-weather ally. Even though it performed better in 2008 polls, Congress opted for third generation Abdullah – Omar. In the given situation it had the best bargain. Congress gave up the hot seat of chief minister for six years and skipped any kind of formal agreement on governance. Right now, it is having the cake and eating it too. It is supportive of everything that centre thinks is in the good of the state. This has created a situation that J&K after losing the political autonomy is gradually losing the autonomy to administer itself. Congress threat that “PDP is still a friend” makes NC to take as much of ‘reforms’ load as is possible.

With two available alternatives – NC and PDP, Congress is likely to be the kingmaker for many elections in future. Prof Wani acknowledges that Congress would not like regional aspirations to take a shape where their pitch will compel New Delhi to yield. “After the 2008 elections, every option of the alliance was conceived but not that of NC and PDP. This is no less a tragedy for the people of Kashmir who send 60 per cent of members to the state assembly and still, their representatives remain, mute spectators when interests of Kashmiris trampled through legislations and laws,” he said.

Columnist PG Rasool does not see much of a difference between PDP and NC. What he clearly sees is that Congress is working to empower its base. “It is the alliance with Congress that ensures hordes of candidates from Jammu getting a huge and undue share in funds, employment and other resources. Recruiting agencies have become factories for churning out officers from Jammu. This kind of tacit role of congress if not arrested can spell doom for Kashmiris in the future,” he believes.

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