The man who changed Kashmir’s politics

Mufti Sayeed was a fighter who did not give up

The man who changed Kashmir’s politics
Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s journey from Bijbehara in South Kashmir to Srinagar is the story of the highs and lows of Kashmir’s politics. He was the kind of fighter who did not relent on his stance – right or wrong. Newspaper stories emerging from the accounts of his childhood friends suggest that he had a spark of rebellion. His decisions have always been impromptu, especially when it came to resigning and changing parties. He had a lot of patience – he waited for nearly three decades to reach to the position of chief minister. But his daughter Mehbooba played a significant role in getting him back from a political oblivion.

Mufti Sayeed is the only politician in Kashmir who believed strongly in India and its ‘inclusiveness’. He would say that he was an Indian by conviction. He was perhaps the only politician of his class who never had a transition as far as his political ideology is concerned. He was not a mainstream-politician-turned-separatist or vice versa, and remained in the Indian political colour throughout his life.

For a long time, his politics were seen through a particular narrative, which was shaped in the late 1970s and the 1980s, when he fought alone against the tallest leader of Kashmir – Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. To a large extent, Mufti seemed to have a ‘personal animosity’ with the Abdullahs, that continued for three generations. Since the National Conference held the fort for a long time, the narrative about him being a ‘schemer’ and ‘conspirator’ was popular. He was hated by many, and had to go to RS Pura in Jammu to be a member of the assembly.

While Mufti was a staunch Indian and believed that India and Pakistan were two sovereign countries, he had a number of realizations in the last quarter of his political career about the relations between Srinagar and New Delhi. ‘Why did Sheikh Abdullah support the accession in the first place?’ he would ask.  ‘And if he did that with conviction, he should have stood by it.’ With that line of argument, he had reposed his faith in India as an inclusive democratic country and made Congress an organic party in Jammu and Kashmir as its long-time chief. Contrary to the NC’s allegation that his emergence as a regional avatar was the outcome of an ‘intelligence operation’, his transition from national to regional politics – when he founded the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) – was perhaps the outcome of his frustration that Delhi did not recognize Kashmir as a problem that needed a political solution.
When Modi eventually visited Lahore on December 25, Mufti was in ICU

When Mufti was elected as a parliament member as a Congress candidate from South Kashmir in 1998, he once stood up in Lok Sabha and made a speech that later formed the contours of PDP’s political agenda. It revolved around reconciliation with Pakistan, engagement with separatists, and a humane approach towards the sufferings of the people. To his shock, his colleague Balram Jakhar rebutted him on the same floor and spoke in complete contrast to what Mufti had said. Immediately after that, when journalists at a routine briefing questioned the then Congress spokesman Kapil Sibal about the divergent views of two MPs from his party, he endorsed Jakhar’s view using his own logic (which perhaps is the reality of Indian politics): “We cannot sacrifice 500 seats for three seats in Kashmir valley.”

By that time, Mufti was still seen as having “presided over the massacres in Kashmir in the early 1990s” as the home minister of India. To be acceptable in his home state was his biggest challenge. But his daughter had already set the tone for a change as a member of the local assembly, though on a Congress ticket. As they launched the PDP, the duo changed the course of mainstream politics in Kashmir.

Their rhetoric was not about bombing the Pakistan-administered Kashmir, but about talking to Pakistan and the separatists. Mufti harped heavily on Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s promise of fair elections in 2002, and worked hard to give legitimacy to the elections. When they sprung a surprise by grabbing 16 seats, Mufti worked on his agenda and became the most popular chief minister, from 2002 to 2005.  That is why the slogan “Yeli Yee Mufti Teli Tschli Sakhti” (Mufti’s coming will end the hardships) reverberated in PDP’s 2008 and 2014 campaigns. Many things worked in his favour, such as the Vajpayee-Musharraf bonhomie, and the people’s support for peace. He reigned in the Indian Army to see an end to frequent searches and frisking, and opened up doors to reconciliation. This certainly threw a challenge to the separatists, who found themselves in a tight spot.

But that was between 2002 and 2005. This time, he was going against the tide and joined hands with the BJP. Even his daughter was against the alliance. But as I said, Mufti was a fighter. He fought it out with her and other colleagues and went ahead. His logic was simple. He knew it would be difficult to work with the BJP, but if they chose otherwise, the unity of the state would be threatened. Mufti had lot of faith in Modi, although the latter did not understand that. If he did, he would not have publicly snubbed him in a November 7 rally by saying he did not need advice on Pakistan. When Modi eventually air-dashed to Lahore on December 25, Mufti was in ICU and must not have been aware of the visit that would fill in the blanks of his ambitious map of reconciliation. Last winter, when the process of negotiations with BJP was on, I asked him why he was adamant on this political suicide, because people were resenting the move. “Only those people are resenting it who do not take part in the elections and don’t recognize the elections as a tool of empowerment,” he said. “Those who voted for us don’t have a problem.” Only time will tell whether he was right or wrong, but he was firm.

Mufti was a strong advocate of reconciliation with Pakistan and for building strong linkages between the two parts of Kashmir across the Line of Control. He believed that no lasting solution of Kashmir was possible without recognizing Pakistan as a party. While he enjoyed support on this in the Vajpayee era, Narendra Modi did not pay heed to his slogan of reconciliation. It will be a challenge for Mehbooba Mufti to carry forward her father’s legacy, and try to accomplish what he aspired for. With BJP as her partner, she will have dilemmas of her own. After all, she is seen as having introduced ‘soft separatism’ in the Indian mainstream camp in Kashmir.

The author is a veteran journalist from Srinagar and the editor-in-chief of Rising Kashmir