Mufti Sayeed wore many hats, flirted with different parties and played many games in his long political career. After turmoil decimated Kashmir gave him a foothold, Mufti started his Kashmir rediscovery, built a Kashmir-centric party that played a key role in the last two decades. R S Gull details Mufti’s serious efforts for triggering changes after adopting Kashmir afresh
After helping Narasimaha Rao government to win a crucial battle in the UN on Kashmir early 1994, Dr Farooq Abdullah returned to London, his ‘home’ since 1990. By the time Delhi started desperately looking for him in late 1995 for elections; Mufti Sayeed was already in Srinagar. Then Janta Dal was one of Srinagar’s major unionist outposts. Manned by Abdul Qayoom of Chrar-e-Sharief, who later joined NC and became its Education Minister in 1996, JD was perhaps the only unionist political voice in a militarized Kashmir.
Then, Mufti would fly to Srinagar, meet people at his Nawgam home and return. Around 1995 he felt encouraged to occasionally visit peripheries. Later, his daughter Mehbooba would accompany him. But most of their travels would end up in closed-door meetings with their acquaintances, mostly Congressmen.
In 1996 when Delhi finally decided to hold Lok Sabha polls, NC was not ready. An uninterested Mufti chose Kathiyar in Bihar than Islamabad in Kashmir. But three months later, when elections for the state assembly were held in September-October, Kashmir’s unionist block had changed. NC was contesting all seats and Mufti, after his ghar wapsi to Congress, was appointed the new PCC Chief. Congress won seven seats – two in Kashmir, including Mehbooba, who became the CLP leader.
This election, considered unfair for massive involuntary coerced participation, however, proved the real game-changer for Muftis’. They built on this small success and eventually changed J&K’s political landscape. It introduced credible opposition for the first time in history.
Mehbooba took her time to pick up the basics of her new role and soon started interventions as a lawmaker. Being the only women on opposition benches, the other was a minister, Sakina Ittoo, Dr Abdullah would ensure she gets enough time and be heard.
She took her new role very seriously and would often shuttle between the House and her constituency. This led Mufti to win South Kashmir Lok Sabha seat for Congress in 1998, his political career’s first major victory.
As Muftis’ got a strong and respectable foothold, it set them thinking. Then, the father and daughter were the most mobile political beings. While visiting the periphery, they confronted new challenges on the ground. Then, visits had only one purpose, to mourn the deaths and register the condolences. Human rights were the principal issue with destitution and destruction playing second fiddle. A nationalist Congress would accommodate only part of the concern that Muftis’ felt on the ground. People closer to Mufti believe that the situation on the ground forced him to reorient his politics.
Then, he surprised everybody. At a luncheon meeting at his Nawgam residence on July 25, 1999, Mufti announced his resignation from Congress’s basic membership. Mehbooba had already put in her papers as a lawmaker. The resignations came after Muftis’ felt lost in the din of national politics in their party’s Pachmerhi brainstorming in Madhya Pradesh in September 1998.
“National parties must read the writing on the wall and accept the ground reality that security forces can not bring peace,” Mufti said. “They must realize that only unconditional talks with people of Kashmir can restore peace.”
Mufti got emotional while talking about feeling choked within the parliament and the party. “In Parliament, I demanded an unconditional dialogue with separatists and my own party colleague Balram Jhakar opposed it,” Mufti said. “People outside (J&K) are not fully aware of the Kashmir situation and the national parties for their vested interests want to solve Kashmir issue on the barrel of the gun.”
Dubbing, NC as “anti-peace” and “anti dialogue”, Mufti talked about the inevitability of an alternative that can raise voice for talks and against bullet for bullet policy. He believed strong voices for peace will force Delhi to talk. “The masses are in deep trouble and badly need support,” Mufti said. “It is the responsibility of the political leadership to provide them with that.”
By July 28, it was another luncheon meet and PDP was born. Its flag was green and it revived pen-and-inkpot that originally belonged to the Muslim United Front, as its electoral symbol. Later that autumn, he contested Lok Sabha but lost his South Kashmir berth to NC’s Ali Mohammad Nayak. With a new party and a new slogan, he was playing a much bigger game. Ballots and not bullets, restoring basic human rights, the battle of ideas, peace with dignity and unconditional talks were the key elements in his completely refurbished political basket.
For the next three years, the new party with new faces unleashed a massive campaign. They would never leave an occasion to corner the ruling NC and usually, it was human rights that was the main mover on the ground.
Apart from travelling a lot and expressing sympathies with the bereaved – this had made NC to dub Ms Mufti as Kashmir’s Rudhali, PDP cashed in on two things: failures of the government for not protecting the people from the forces it controlled and a bullet was no answer to a bullet.
Gains were instant. When state went for by-polls in Bejbehara and Langate – where incumbent NC lawmaker died, PDP registered its two victories within less than the first year of its existence. As Abdul Rehman Veeri filled the berth left by Mehbooba, she opted to contest 1999 Lok Sabha from Srinagar where Omar won and she emerged the runner up. It was a grand plan to introduce the party in the run-up to the assembly polls in 2002.
The distinction was getting visible. NC was unwilling, if not unsupportive to an unconditional dialogue, unlike PDP. In wake of Pokhran test, NC wanted an attack on Pakistan and PDP started batting for talks with the neighbour. NC improved the legal basket to fight militancy and PDP opposed it. It gradually encouraged people to see the emergence of a political alternative to PDP, albeit at the cost of dividing the mandate as eventually happened.
Things started unfolding apparently as per the script. In elections of 2002 autumn, NC faced the music for being “anti-people”. PDP won 16 seats and finished runner-up at eight. In Kashmir, it polled 24.51 per cent of the total polled votes.
For a party that lacked any cadre base unlike NC, operated from Mufti’s Nowgam home as it had no office and had its poll manifesto Xeroxed and not printed, the success was phenomenal. It was still small if compared to NC but Omar’s maiden loss from Ganderbal prevented the party from staking claims over the government.
Congress eventually opened talks, flying Dr Manmohan Singh to Srinagar to negotiate the deal. Mufti was the team’s first half batsman. For the first time in 27 years, power had an address far away from Gupkar and that was history. When the then Police Chief A K Suri led his top guns to formally call on a Chief Minister sitting on a carpet, his colleagues termed the meeting Shakti Puja. As Mufti moved the Chief Minister’s official residence to the M A Road in 2003, it marked the beginning of a series of changes that defined the new Mufti.
On October 27, 2002, Mufti announced POTA rollback. Drafted especially by the BJP-led NDA, this law was promulgated in J&K almost instantly without waiting for its passage in the Lok Sabha. Without a bail, a person’s immovable property would get seized under this law. Promulgated on November 29, 2001, the then Home Minister Khalid Najib Suharwardy told the state legislature in March 2002 that already 307 POTA cases stand registered and 72 persons arrested.
Soon after, political prisoners started going home. Hurriyat hawk Syed Ali Geelani was flown from prison to a Delhi hospital.
In February came the formal announcement of disbanding of SOG. Territorial authorities of District SPs has restored that stopped SOG from being an exclusive organization, running parallel to its other half.
Gradually, Mufti sanitized the entire security grid about upholding the human rights and the message went deep down and the people, mostly in the periphery, started feeling a change. Ikhwani terror ceased. Though the government failed in investigating the grave atrocities reported in past, as it had committed itself to, it was always on tenterhooks to see the situation remains in control. Wherever the atrocities would get reported, it would rush to manage the fallout thus preventing opposition to take advantage of that.
In his maiden tenure as Chief Minister, Mufti did compromise on the domicile issue of state women marrying non-locals. Done under intense Congress pressure, this has gradually created a huge mess which, if tackled, might take years to clear.
In a way, Mufti was lucky. Post-1999, Delhi and Islamabad were desperate to pick up threads and rework the relationship as 26/11 had already put pressure on Pakistan. Mufti pushed himself into the frame and facilitated a series of initiatives that led to his image-makeover.
Firstly, he invited Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, ensured a good audience and suggested strongly for Delhi-Islamabad talks. Vajpayee agreed which led to the silence on the borders in November 2003, for the first time after 1990. This ceasefire was the bedrock of various subsequent developments including the creation of the fence on the LoC later.
When he raised signboards for the road to Muzaffarabad, people cracked jokes. Eventually, when India and Pakistan agreed to open two windows for the divided families in Uri and Poonch on April 7, 2005, it led streets to believe that Mufti was the real game-changer. Barter trade took the same route in 2008, almost in a panic because of unrest.
Even talks between Delhi and moderate Hurriyat started in 2003. Though NDA started, the UPA failed to follow up thus killing the cosmetic initiative.
Congress being PDPs mother-stock knew which spanner works and when. After Mufti completed his three years, he was initially promised that Congress does not believe in ‘changing the horse midway’ but was later told to hand over power to Ghulam Nabi Azad. This hurt him so deep that he never forgot it. In between, Mufti played crafty in preventing a Congress-forced division in the party.
A sulking Mufti, literally terrorized by Congress appointed Governor Lt Gen (retd) S K Sinha, did not freeze his agenda after handing over power to Azad, the man whom he had baptized into Congress. By February 2007, Mufti shocked his ally with three demands: troop cut in proportion to the improvement in the situation, demilitarize social infrastructure and horticulture orchards and repealing AFSPA. As Azad opposed the idea and suggested political parties to surrender their security, Mufti volunteered. Ms Mufti travelled deep down south without security. As the security grid asserted status quo, PDP boycotted Azad’s cabinet meetings and the tensions led to a series of interventions by Congress president Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. By early April, Delhi announced setting up of three committees. There was some follow-up but the idea got buried in the subsequent controversies in summer.
At the peak of unrest over the land row in 2008, PDP refused to accept Congress’s request for “half an hour” and withdrew its support. “There were two factors responsible for the decision,” a top PDP man who has been very close to Mufti said. “Firstly, we wanted to convey that PDP cannot be part of any situation that would lead to the killing of Kashmiris as ants. Secondly, Mufti wanted to convey to Kashmir that Delhi can not make and break governments in J&K as real power lies with the people so we created history’s first precedence in which a Kashmir party pulled down a Delhi government against Delhi’s will.” Whatever the reason, Mufti avenged Congress.
Congress Bites Back
The 2008 unrest started easing after N N Vohra replaced Sinha and preparation for elections started. It witnessed PDP unveiling its Self Rule document thus offering the party a DNA to compete with the grand old NC that historically sold greater autonomy.
PDP played its game well and improved its tally in the 76-member assembly to 21. Though the old guard in Congress was supportive of picking up the threads and re-embrace PDP, 10-Janpath took Rahul’s buddy route and roped in NC under Omar Abdullah.
This left Mufti with the option of pricking Omar, if and when required. The first salvo was fired when PDP tabled documents in the house accusing Omar of being part of the 2008-sleaze racket. He resigned only to resume duties after central government certified his non-involvement. Subsequently, the twin murders of Shopian in 2009 and the mass unrest in 2010 that led to the killing of 120 youth, kept Omar under constant pressure. September 2014 floods were the last major crisis that Omar faced.
Amid claims that he was learning from his mistakes, Omar somehow managed to keep the show going. This led Mufti to keep his ‘battle of ideas’ across the Pir Panchal to Rajouri and Poonch.
As elections were held in the backdrop of a strong anti-incumbency against NC, Mufti expected 35 berths but got only 28 in a hung house. Mufti took nearly two months in reading the outcome, refused to ally with Congress or NC and eventually inked a deal with BJP.
Competing Against His Own Image
PDP led a high octane campaign against BJP created sort of a scare that eventually improved poll participation. Post-results, Mufti decided to go against the wind, inked a power-sharing deal and justified it for the reasons of ethnocultural inclusiveness.
With age not on his side, he wanted to push part of his agenda quickly but was checkmated by his ally. Nothing much could he do on the administrative front, the main forte from his 2002 era. Eventually, he had only two priorities – a fiscal package and early re-engagement between Delhi and Islamabad. While Prime Minister Modi snubbed him for his “advice”, he announced a package, albeit skipping the key resources required for rebuilding flood devastated Kashmir. A month later and after his series of offshore visits, Modi started tackling Pakistan. That satisfaction, doctors at AIIMS said, was clear when Mufti talked during his last 10 days of hospitalization. He believed no government can deliver in J&K as long as Pakistan remains angry, a reason why he had thanked Islamabad soon after taking oath in March.