07/01/2016 1:32 PM IST | Updated 23/01/2017 11:04 PM IST

Why Indians Must Be Grateful To Mufti Mohammed Sayeed


If both sides of a bitter divide detest you, and you still manage to thrive, you must be doing something right – for yourself if not for others too. That was Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. On the streets of downtown Srinagar, the heart of the Kashmiri separatist movement, people have worse things to say about Sayeed’s People’s Democratic Party than the Abdullah family’s National Conference. In mainland India, Sayeed was seen by many as being one of them, the separatists, who wasn’t committed to India.

The passing away of the Jammu & Kashmir chief minister in the midst of his second term is unlikely to be a turning point for Kashmir because he is leaving behind the legacy of a party, and a charismatic daughter who has led it ably, that changed the political discourse of India’s most difficult region.

Kashmir was for most part a fiefdom of the Abdullah family. The Congress party, and the government of India, had a client-patron relationship with the National Conference. As long as the NC kept together Kashmir for India, it had New Delhi’s blessings. This wasn’t an easy relationship partly because there was no alternative to the National Conference in Kashmir. One alternative that was about to come up was the Muslim United Front in the 1987 assembly election. That rigged election was a turning point. Kashmiris, assured that New Delhi wouldn’t allow them the democracy it promises, gave popular support to a Pakistan-sponsored militant rebellion.

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Sayeed’s critics in India remember him for just one thing: making sure that he secured the release of his kidnapped daughter Rubaiya by giving in to the demands of her kidnappers, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, and releasing their militants. This incident in 1989, days into Sayeed’s taking over as Union Home Minister in the VP Singh government, has been credited with giving militants and their supporters confidence to take on New Delhi and scale up militancy. This is a slight over-estimation, given that the guns had already arrived. If not this then some other incident would have been that bellwether between 1989 and 1990.

What Indians forget is the importance of Sayeed becoming Union Home Minister in the first place, a very big symbolic act from the then prime minister VP Singh, given New Delhi’s usual distrust of Kashmiri Muslims. It was also significant that Sayeed, unsure of winning an election from Kashmir, won the Muzaffarnagar seat in western Uttar Pradesh for the VP Singh-led Jan Morcha. It is not every day that a Kashmiri leader contests and wins a Lok Sabha seat from mainland India.

The creation of Sayeed’s People’s Democratic Party in 1999 filled the vacuum of an opposition party in the Kashmir Valley. Since the other pole of politics in the Valley had been pushed into separatism and militancy by the rigged election of 1987, the National Conference was the only “mainstream” political force. Since there was nobody to exploit anti-incumbency from within “mainstream” or “pro-India” parties, it was the separatists, the Hurriyat Conference, who benefited from the anti-incumbency against the Abdullahs.

As militancy declined and it became clear to Kashmiri Muslims in a post-9/11 world that 'azadi' wasn’t round the corner, they were forced to participate in state assembly elections in greater numbers for reasons of bijli-sadak-pani, day to day governance. In this new political scenario, the PDP evolved as party with something new to offer. Simply, it tried to hijack as much as possible the agenda of the azadi-pasand, trying to co-opt separatist grievances within the political framework of elections under the Indian Constitution. That is how Sayeed became chief minister in 2002, with support from the Bharatiya Janata Party and prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

This was seen by the 'azadi-pasand' in Kashmir as being “dangerous” as it could potentially make New Delhi look less bad before Kashmiris. It is very common in Srinagar to hear people say that the PDP was actually a creation of Indian intelligence, even as the more extreme elements in India accuse it of doing Pakistan’s bidding.

The PDP put a lot of the blame for the suffering of Kashmiris at the door of the National Conference, and showed itself up as the one that would give a “healing touch”. In advocating a “healing touch” to a populace badly bruised by a bloody conflict that lasted over a decade, Sayeed was only helping India’s case in Kashmir, except that many Indians couldn’t see that. As for Kashmiris, some of this was a welcome change. There is a political option now, people vote in the NC and the PDP alternatively.

In its ideas to resolve the Kashmir conflict, it comes up with ideas that Indians find too radical, such as allowing Pakistani currency in Indian-administered Kashmir, but Indians who dismiss the PDP as a Pakistani stooge are unable to appreciate the political context of the Kashmir Valley, where Sayeed achieved something nearly impossible.

When leaders die, it is clichéd to say that they will be missed. Truth is, Sayeed won’t really be missed in Indian politics, because he leaves behind his political legacy with his elder daughter Mehbooba Mufti. The father was the political strategist, but Mehbooba, who will hold a government position for the first time when she is sworn-in as next chief minister, was a greater public face of the party, charming voters and mobilising cadres.

It is no wonder that the BJP did a political alliance with the PDP for the second time, as the alliance brings together the two extreme poles of Srinagar and Jammu, Kashmir and India. It is an alliance born out of necessity, even if the BJP’s core voter base can’t see that point.

Prime minister Narendra Modi had disparaged the dynastic politics of “baap-beti”. As father gives way to daughter, Modi must feel relieved that the transition is coming without fresh political uncertainties in a troubled region.

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