In early 2005, when Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was at the helm of affairs, I was returning to Srinagar from apple rich city of Sopore, sitting on the front seat of a TATA sumo vehicle. Somewhere past Sangarama crossing, driver quipped, ‘haalaat Kashmir mein bohot threek hogayee hein (Situation has improved in Kashmir very much). Asked the basis of his observation, he innocently pointed out that he can now easily overtake Army vehicles, while plying on the busy Srinagar-Muzaffarabad popularly called Rawalpindi road. He did so to my delight and at some places waved to soldiers who were either guarding the road or boarding vehicles with their packed baggage probably leaving for holidays to support his argument.
Just few years ago, it was unthinkable. No vehicle could overtake Army convoys. It was a small step, but had huge psychological effect. It limited journey from Sopore to Srinagar back to one-and-half hour as it used to be in peace times, rather following convoys and obeying their instructions. Mufti’s three-year tenure between 2002 and 2005 is adjudged the best in terms of governance, even by his worst detractors. As luck followed him, his tenure also coincided with the peace process with Pakistan, then, led by President Pervez Musharraf. The tenures of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh’s UPA-I also helped him to carve a constituency for peace. To add to his luck, his tenure also coincided with the appointment of Lt General V G Patankar, as 15th Corps Commander who also conceded him a political space, and agreed on changing timings of convoys to extend some relief to general public. It was during his tenure, the LoC was opened for bus service and later for trade. Brigadier (rtd) Gurmeet Kanwal, who had commanded forces in the Valley told this writer once, that they had definite instructions till 2006, almost even a year after Mufti had left, that not to go after militants, till they attack your camp, to avoid collateral damages. It changed later, when the new corps commander told us, he wanted results (meaning to show dead bodies).
Till his shifting to Srinagar permanently in 2000, Media corps in Delhi, every year in winters was to prepare their taste buds, to a sumptuous Kashmiri feast, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed used to host at his Tuglaq Lane residence. The event was marked in the media calendar to the extent, that on the onset of winters, fraternity would often enquire, from each other or with Mufti’s aide Mehta, about the luncheon. When Jagmohan was appointed urban and housing minister, he threw Mufti out of this bungalow. It was same Jagmoham, whom Mufti as union home minister had appointed governor of Jammu and Kashmir, receiving flak from left and right. But, he still continued tradition of hosting this lunch, at his two-bed room flat, in the outskirts of Delhi in a high-rise building. To the astonishment of many media persons, a person occupying cabinet portfolio in the union cabinet twice, longest serving state congress chief and perhaps the only genuine Indian voice in Kashmir for over decades has no mansion in Delhi.
I had first interaction with Mufti at an Iftaar party hosted by his former cabinet colleague Arif Mohammad Khan. He was in political wilderness. The Janata Dal had disintegrated. But as former home minister, he had much security fanfare around him. He patted me on back, reminding that I was amongst just few Kashmiri Muslims, who have ventured to explore career in journalism in Delhi. He told me to remain in touch with my two predecessor Sheikh Manzoor Ahmed, editor in UNI and Mohammad Sayeed Malik, then editor-in-chief of Sunday Observer. But I had deep suspension about him. I knew him, as Delhi’s collaborator, rocking democratic processes, and a conspirator. I realized his importance in 1997, when chief minister Dr Farooq Abdullah hosted a press conference cum lunch in Delhi, to celebrate completion of one year in office. Mufti had just returned to Congress. After the press conference, in the corners of J&K House at Prithiviraj, Farooq in whispers wanted to know, from almost everyone to get whiff of plans of Mufti. Who was backing him in Delhi and what he is up to? Farooq’s media advisor O N Kaul, advised me to keep close watch on Mufti, as from hereafter, he is news. Kaul, who had switched to government after a distinguished journalistic career, had premonition.
But due to his straight talk, Mufti could never carve a political space in Kashmir. He believed so plainly that Kashmir’s fate was linked to India, which had hardly any takers. The mainstream political camp in Kashmir is plagued with a peculiar predicament, managing public sentiments to seek votes and then keeping rulers and agencies in Delhi happy to continue in power.
The National Conference (NC) patron Dr Farooq Abdullah owes his successful political career to having mastered skills of combining deception and contradictions, to keep both sides in good humour. His arch rival Mufti had attempted to nurture a true Indian constituency in Kashmir, to the chagrin of towering leader Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, who had gone to extent of supervising social boycott of political activists, aligning with national parties. But in 1999, Mufti also realized that road to claim power in Srinagar goes through a regional Kashmiri nationalist party.
I asked him once, why Congress opted for governor’s rule after withdrawing support from Ghulam Mohammad Shah government in March 1986. He could have there and then become the Chief Minister. He replied that Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had called him to Delhi. In the meeting Congress Working President Arjun Singh was also present. Briefing Rajiv about the withdrawal of the support, Singh said that it has been a long time, precisely after 1975, that a nationalist government will come to power in Srinagar. “We must make the government,” Singh suggested Rajiv, according to Mufti. “(because) the nation is expecting us to fully merge Kashmir now with India and something needs to be done to Article 370 now because people are looking at us to take the plunge.” Mufti told me that he was shocked over Arjun Singh’s assertion that he had known as a very secular leader. Mufti said that was his first friction with new Congress leadership. Once back home, Mufti flew to Srinagar and created a situation that led to governor rule.
Two days after the end of Kargil War in July 1999, he and his daughter Mehbooba Mufti resigned from Congress and formed Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), to “persuade the government of India to initiate an unconditional dialogue for resolution of Kashmir problem, putting the first formidable challenge to the NC government, which used to thrive in absence of any local Kashmiri alternative. He told me once, “I cannot promise Pakistan or right to self-determination to people. But I can promise them access and open routes to Pakistan, by changing status-quo along the LoC.”
To his credit, he removed illegitimacy attached to elections in Kashmir, following the mass rigging of 1987 assembly polls. Mainstream politics in Kashmir was seen abode of renegade militants, criminals, corrupt and overused politicians. The PDP brought legitimacy to elections and lured people from the fence to participate in the democratic exercise. Even when in Congress, from 1996 onwards, under his directions, Mehbooba had begun to reach out to the families of people, killed by security forces.
In an unusual move for any mainstream party, where the NC leaders, never treaded, She occasionally attended the funeral ceremonies of militants, showed great empathy for bereaved women, often weeping along with them – obviously a clever strategy to claim an opposition space, from the separatists. Many observers believe 2002 was her elections. She managed to win 16 seats for the PDP, still in political infancy reducing the ages old NC to mere 28 from over 60 seats. But, it is believed that Congress put a rider to lending support, at the instance of hard state. The rider was to allow Mufti, who till then had almost retired from active politics to lead the government, rather to give reins to the greenhorn daughter. Thereafter, he never looked back.
Born on January 12, 1936 in south Kashmir township of Bijbehara, he took a great risk by aligning with the BJP to form the government in 2015. In the past also, he has received flak when he choose Jagmohan as governor of state in 1990 and suspended the J&K assembly. The massacres and human rights abuses that followed made him a kind of a hate figure in the valley. He was also instrumental in appointment of General S K Sinha as governor in 2003, who was later instrumental in creating Amarnath crises in 2008, consuming the PDP-Congress government. But in 2015, aligning with the BJP, he had a point. With the BJP ruling at the Centre, he told this writer, a week before taking oath, he would persuade Prime Minister Narendra Modi to revive peace process with Pakistan. Modi’s latest overtures to Pakistan are credited to Mufti’s hour-long meeting with him on October 15, where he took considerable time to impress upon the PM to open channels with Pakistan, for the sake of a success of alliance government in Kashmir. “A successful government in Kashmir was not possible with a hostile Pakistan on borders. I conveyed this to the PM,” he had told this writer.
Many may see him as sowing seeds of disenchantment in Kashmir, be by withdrawing support to Sheikh Abdullah government in 1978 or dismissal of Farooq government in 1984 at the behest of the hard state. His aides, say after 1998, he had switched loyalties. He, however, continued to be a single most threat to Abdullah family. It is not a coincidence that doctors attending to him at the AIIMS had diagnosed him, suffering from septicaemia and “opportunist infection”, a medical term, meaning infection that occurs because of the weakened immune system. Only history will judge him: whether he was an opportunist politician or with a heart at the right place, for Kashmiri people, who are still awaiting a genuine democracy to take roots in Kashmir to empower them. But a good heart has stopped beating.
Sir Muhammad Iqbal may have said for such people: “How hard life is, how easy is death! In the garden of existence, death is as cheap as the morning breeze. There is no room for complaint, nor power of speech..What is life? A noose that squeezes the throat.”
Aasman Teri Lahad Par Shabnam Afshani Karay…Aameen!
Iftikhar Gilani is national bureau chief of DNA based in New Delhi.