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Would Mehbooba’s Release Revitalize Kashmiri Politics?

5th August 2019 is a day few Kashmiris in Indian-held Kashmir can forget. It is etched in their minds forever. Its importance is not because of forcible taking away of Kashmiris’ civil and political rights by the Union (federal) Government of India (GOI). The denial of civil and political rights is not something new for Kashmiris.

On 4th August 2019, Kashmiris were not being ruled by their representatives. They were living under the President’s rule that was imposed on 20th December 2018 and before that they were living under Governor’s rule that was imposed on 20th June 2018. The major change on 5th August was not even the removal of Articles 35-A and 370 from the Indian Constitution and the abolishment of state status as the Indian Constitution or laws had never protected Kashmiris. On paper, Kashmir had more rights and more protection from the GOI’s interference than most of the other Indian states, courtesy of the two constitutional articles mentioned above, but in reality, it was governed more or less like a union territory, particularly for the last three decades. What changed on 5th August and afterwards was the removal of the figment, the veneer, and the illusion of equality and respect. Kashmiris were not betrayed by the BJP which had mentioned in its manifesto for decades what it wanted to do with Kashmiri rights. The illusion was destroyed by the other pillars of the Indian state, including the President, the Parliament, the Supreme Court, the media, and the major opposition parties which either silently acquiesced or proudly collaborated and rejoiced over the dastardly act.

On 4th August 2019, thousands of Kashmiri leaders were arrested or “confined” in their homes or at other places to prevent any agitation against what was being planned by Modi ji and Mota bhai. Many of these leaders were gradually released over the last fourteen months, although some are still under house arrest or in prisons. Out of three former Chief Ministers of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), 82-years old Farooq Abdullah was released on March 13, after seven months in detention. Ten days later, his son Omar Abdullah, the leader of National Conference (NC), was released but Mehbooba Mufti, the leader of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the last Chief Minister of J&K state was kept under house arrest. Perhaps her party’s “crime” of entering into a coalition with the BJP in 2015 and making BJP a governing party in J&K for the first time in history was too big. She was released on 13th October after more than fourteen months in detention.

Kashmiri leaders are trying to organize against the actions taken on 5th August as they are gradually released and restrictions on fundamental rights of speech, assembly, association, and movement are reduced.  Initially, even after release, both Farooq and Omar Abdullah were not talking about Kashmir’s demotion and formal subjugation. Even Mehbooba Mufti whose Twitter account was operated by her daughter was not saying much. There were few statements and tweets when the GOI opened domicile, property, and jobs in J&K to non-Kashmiris in late March and when the NC refused to take part in the delimitation exercise in J&K in May but that was it. While both NC and PDP leadership argued that this silence was because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many analysts termed it as an abject surrender of “self-indulgent power-seekers” to the new post-370 reality. It was in June and July that the Abdullahs started talking about the illegality and unconstitutionality of 5th August actions and in August, when Abdullahs made effort to get six Kashmiri parties to revive their commitment to Gupkar declaration of 4th August 2019 that called for the sanctity of  J&K special status.

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Mehbooba Mufti’s release on October 13th has, however, given the movement for the restoration of special status a jolt. In her very first message after her release, she condemned the “black decision on a black day” and pledged to struggle against the “heist and dishonor” which the Kashmiris could never forget. Two days after her release, an alliance, named People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, was formed by major Kashmiri parties to restore Kashmir’s special status. Six Kashmiri parties – the NC, the PDP, the Peoples Conference, the People’s Movement, the Awami National Conference, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) were part of this alliance. The most serious omission was that of the Indian National Congress, which reiterated its support for the Gupkar declaration in August and was invited but did not attend.

Upping the ante, on 23rd October, Mufti, in her first press conference after release, declared that she would not contest elections or raise the Indian national flag until the J&K state flag is restored as Kashmiris’ relationship with the national flag was not independent of the state flag. Once J&K is raised, she pledged to raise the Indian tricolor too. This statement, unsurprisingly, incensed the BJP and allowed them to declare Mufti anti-national to further their narrative that all Kashmiri leaders are traitors. Even the Congress Party in Kashmir condemned it.  Mufti was undaunted and hit back at the ruling party, “Indian flag stands for diversity & peaceful coexistence amongst all. If anyone has insulted the tiranga it is BJP that persecutes minorities & sows division & hatred. The Flag of India was disrespected the day BJP leaders carried it to justify rapists of a 9-year-old. Spare me the lessons.”

What is the future of Kashmiri politics in the next few months? One thing is clear, Mufti has taken a more resolute and clear stand against the subjugation of Kashmiris than the Abdullahs. Seven months after their release, it appears they are still taking furtive steps. It took almost a month and severe social media backlash for them to reject the offer to become part of the delimitation exercise in the new J&K union territory. Some analysts have argued that their approach is similar to Sheikh Abdullah (family’s patriarch)’s surrender of J&K right of self-determination in 1972. However, Sheikh Abdullah threw in the towel after almost two decades of fighting the GOI, not even twenty months have passed since August 2019.

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The unity of Kashmiri parties is a good omen but unless opposition parties, especially the Congress, joins them there is no possibility of restoration of J&K special status in the near future and the Congress leadership is wary of supporting Kashmiris and losing the pro-August 5th Hindu vote that is much larger than the BJP vote bank. Like in the case of the Ram Mandir controversy, it appears that the Congress would like to silently accept the status quo and move on.

One thing that can append everything is the Indian Supreme Court. A case for the annulment of the unconstitutional August 5th actions has been before the court for more than a year. However, the fact that the Supreme Court has refused to hear it even once and the way the Supreme Court has dealt with the petitions regarding illegal arrests of Kashmiri leaders and informal suspension of fundamental rights in J&K does not inspire much confidence. According to many analysts and scholars, the Indian Supreme Court, during the last few years, has regularly refused to uphold individual and collective rights against the all-powerful executive. The “unabashed bonhomie” was in full display when the last Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi was made a member of Rajai Sabha soon after his superannuation.

A mass protest movement does not appear to be on cards due to the COVID-19 pandemic and because “moderate” Farooq Abdullah is the head of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration. A mass movement will bring more repression and non-Kashmiri Indians have more or less accepted the state’s repression in the J&K. The government will also use the recent tensions with China in Ladakh to clamp down on Kashmiris with everything available in its arsenal.

Hence, for all practical purposes, the status quo is going to continue until at least 2024 when the next national elections are due. The BJP is not going to change anything even if it, or its allies lose a string of major state elections in Bihar, West Bengal, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu in 2020-21.

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Naya Daur