Towards An Upheaval In Jammu & Kashmir?
15 December 2005
New Delhi: Unnoticed, the pressures on the troubled State's political system are building. A seismic reordering of its structures seems inevitable in the not-too-distant future. BRIGHTLY-COLOURED symbols of peace have sprung up across Srinagar, a little like a premature blooming of spring flowers. Billboards celebrating the bus service to Muzaffarabad, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, dot most street corners, along with advertisements for cafes, hotels, and Internet parlours. A bar has been reborn, Phoenix-like, from the shuttered-down premises of the Broadway theatre, one of the first targets of Islamist terror groups' campaign against social vices. Its manager claims sales are so good a Bangalore-based liquor major is negotiating an exclusive bulk-supply deal. In the event that they meant what they said at a conference in India's capital last month, representatives of the three major political formations in Jammu and Kashmir will set out on a joint peace march this spring: yet another bloom. Should the march be held - and both local political competition and the venomous reaction the idea has provoked from jihadist groups make this unlikely - it will without doubt prove an exceptionally dramatic political symbol. Like all symbols, however, the march will have multiple meanings: it will also represent a coalescing of ethnic Kashmiri elites against changing times; changes that have brought about the first serious threat to the political influence of this class since Independence. Almost unnoticed, the pressures on Jammu and Kashmir's political system are building - and a seismic reordering of its structures seems inevitable in the not-too-distant future. A winter feud 'The biggest challenge before the Congress in Jammu and Kashmir,' says a senior party leader wryly, 'isn't consolidating the peace process. It is making sure our coalition partner doesn't fall apart.' An embarrassingly public feud within the People's Democratic Party has been at the core of political developments in Jammu and Kashmir this winter. The former Tourism Minister, Ghulam Hasan Mir, the leading party dissident, is not on talking terms with the former Chief Minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, as well as his daughter and PDP president, Mehbooba Mufti. Bitterness and suspicion between the two factions are so high that Mr. Mir's supporters have even been blaming elements in the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen sympathetic to the Muftis for a November 15 grenade attack that left six dead. Most observers attribute the dissension to political ambition, rather than principle. Among the PDP's most senior leaders, Mr. Mir was incensed at the party's decision to nominate Muzaffar Beig for the post of Deputy Chief Minister. Mr. Mir believed his long service and his independent political base entitled him to the top job on offer to the PDP; the Mufti and Mehbooba, presumably for those very reasons, preferred a relative lightweight. Yet, the PDP feud is not just about egos. It is, instead, a symptom of an emerging crisis in Jammu and Kashmir politics, one that is likely to transform its very character. Appropriately, the crisis in the PDP was precipitated by an ideological dispute over Jammu and Kashmir's future. At a November 16 meeting in New Delhi, Ms. Mehbooba Mufti threw her support behind the restoration of Jammu and Kashmir's pre-1953 constitutional position, which would gave the State near-complete autonomy other than in matters concerning defence, communications, and external affairs. Among other things, restoration of the pre-1953 arrangement would render inapplicable the sections of the Constitution of India on fundamental rights, and remove the supervisory authority of the Election Commission of India. Ms. Mehbooba Mufti's support for autonomy constituted a stunning ideological volte-face. The demand for the restoration of pre-1953 status has long been a centrepiece of the National Conference position, which claims an autonomy-eroding 1973 agreement entered into by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was obtained under duress. During its term in office from 1997 to 2002, the National Conference had set up an official committee that made detailed proposals for autonomy legislation. Successive Central Governments have, perhaps unsurprisingly, rejected National Conference demands for a dialogue on these proposals. To Mr. Mir's supporters, it appeared that Ms. Mehbooba Mufti's stand handed the National Conference a free pass - and they were quick to make their anger known. Mr. Mir condemned the PDP president for having spoken without party authorisation, and demanded that the remarks be withdrawn. Others in the PDP even claimed her authoritarian style of functioning could precipitate a full-blown party split. Ms. Mehbooba Mufti, however, was dismissive of her critics. 'I am party president and my statements are the real PDP policy,' she said flatly, adding that Mr. Mir would be well advised not to take political disputes to the media. Mr. Mir has since been silent in public, but his retreat is most likely tactical. Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad is yet to expand his Cabinet, but has let it be known he would like to swear in as small a Ministry as possible, in line with directives the Congress' central leadership has sent out to all States. As such, the PDP could be offered just four or five key Ministries, and may chose to exclude Mr. Mir from its list. Mr. Mir could then join a future Congress or National Conference effort to take power with the support of PDP dissidents, the large pool of independent MLAs, and small Jammu-based formations like the Panthers Party. Whatever its positional consequences, though, there are several larger questions raised by the disputation. Why did Ms. Mehbooba Mufti act as she did? Why did Mr. Mir react with so much ire? And what consequences will this have for other political forces? It is not coincidental that Ms. Mehbooba Mufti's sharp departure from the traditional PDP position - a rejection of the autonomy idea and support, instead, for a three-way dialogue among India, Pakistan, and representatives of Jammu and Kashmir - came in the course of a conference she addressed along with the National Conference president, Omar Abdullah, and the All Parties Hurriyat Conference chairman, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. Organised by a newspaper group in New Delhi, the meeting marked the first time the leaders of the three largest Kashmir-province political groups had shared a platform. Although all three formations are ideological competitors, Mr. Azad's accession to power confronted them with a common challenge: the rise of a new form of politics that has rendered traditional power equations redundant. If politicians had been slow to understand the results of the 2002 State elections, the Congress' decision to take power last month made clear that the historic hegemony of Kashmir valley-based elites over the State's political life is at an end. Power now lies as much in Jammu as in Srinagar - a fundamental transfiguration of the basis of politics in the State. Two responses exist to this emerging reality for factions of ethnic Kashmiri elites: to find allies in Jammu or to close ranks in the face of a threat from outside. Ms. Mehbooba Mufti's calls for autonomy - which she later described as a plea for apney log, apna raj (our people, our rule) - marks an experiment with the second. Ms. Mehbooba Mufti took the risk of conceding some propaganda advantage to the National Conference to position the PDP as an ethnic-Kashmiri regional entity that would be willing to make common cause even with adversaries to defend the dominance of regional elites. To both the Hurriyat and the National Conference, such a consolidation or rethinking of party character makes more than a little sense. It has become painfully clear to the Hurriyat that it commands only a limited electoral base, even within the Kashmir valley. If it is to survive the democratic test that must, inevitably, precede a resolution of the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir, it will need allies - and none, so far, are on offer in Jammu. For its part, the National Conference has also been unable to rebuild its character as a party with a Statewide presence, a fact that makes ethnic chauvinism increasingly attractive. Can such a regional closing of ranks - a polarisation of politics between Kashmir and Jammu - succeed? For politicians like Mr. Mir, or other powerful local leaders, the idea of building an alliance to resist Jammu's growing influence is less than attractive. With independent regional bases, their interests lie in building coalitions through which they can optimise their bargaining power. Giving some ground to the National Conference or the Hurriyat in a battle against Jammu might make sense for Ms. Mehbooba Mufti - but holds out no promise to figures like Mr. Mir, who must fight off challenges from both on a day-to-day basis. Even if an effort to bring about a long-term consolidation along ethnic-chauvinist lines is unlikely to succeed, most analysts agree that what might be politely described as interesting times lie ahead. Unsurprisingly, the Congress counter-attack against the PDP's call for self-rule has been ferocious. In a December 14 interview to The Hindu , Mr. Azad lashed out at proponents of the apna raj idea. 'We have not been elected by the people of Tamil Nadu or Kerala,' he noted acidly, 'but by our own people in Jammu and Kashmir.' Although the Chief Minister did not name Ms. Mehbooba Mufti, the target of his ire was unmistakable. Where do events head from here? Neither the PDP nor the Congress has a short-term interest in destabilising the coalition that now holds power in Jammu and Kashmir. Both sides, however, well understand that their alliance is a precarious one: a truce struck to help both catch their breath for a far larger battle ahead.