When pictures circulated online of Omar Abdullah sporting a beard while in detention, it was speculated whether that was a signal of a shift in his politics after the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s limited autonomy on August 5, 2020.
In the absence of any politicking — the separatists also maintaining an eerie silence — Abdullah’s beard dominated the conversation to the point that the former finance minister in the erstwhile state’s last government, Haseeb Drabu, wrote in a that “Omar’s beard, may in fact, be an attempt to redefine, even reinvent, his image”.
That was until Abdullah, the vice president of the erstwhile state’s oldest unionist party, the National Conference, chose to break the nearly year-long silence on July 29. In a column for the , he lamented, among other things, the disempowerment of "the most empowered Assembly" post-August and his unwillingness to be part of such a legislature.
Abdullah’s column was significant for two reasons: It was the first time he was expressing his views on the abrogation of the former state’s limited autonomy. Also, he chose to address an Indian audience first, declaring his intentions of opposing the Modi government’s unilateral move in the Supreme Court.
The former chief minister’s views, however, were taken to be merely a demand for the restoration of statehood and prompted a barrage of criticism from Kashmiris, including his party’s own spokesperson. Around the same time, his father, Dr Farooq Abdullah, a sitting parliamentarian and also former chief minister, made statements locally seeking to reverse the abrogation — seen as a coordinated attempt by the dynastic family to test the waters.
Having detained the entire unionist political leadership for nearly a year and continuing to incarcerate separatists leaders and activists, New Delhi’s reprimand in Kashmir has not discriminated between the shades of political opinion. A year after Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of its limited autonomy, the revival of Kashmir’s unionist politics seems to be a daunting task.
According to political analyst Noor Baba, the government of India created a political vacuum by its “undemocratic” and “authoritarian” brand of politics and is now unable to resuscitate unionists despite international pressure.
“I think it has gone against their calculation. They thought that they would, within a few months or a year, change the nature of politics in Kashmir,” he said. “There are going to be difficulties for them.”
Special status or nothing?
After the controversy erupted over Omar Abdullah’s statements, three-time legislator Ruhullah Mehdi resigned from his post as the National Conference’s chief spokesperson even though Abdullah has, in subsequent interviews, spoken of the restoration of the region’s limited autonomy.
“We should not stop and satisfy ourselves with the return of statehood only. We should be resilient and fight until we get the special status back,” Mehdi told Newslaundry. “We should not talk about Assembly elections, formation of government, until the special status is restored.”
Mehdi admitted that the unionist leadership had “failed” at restoring autonomy or protecting whatever little had remained of it, but blamed it on “betrayal” through New Delhi’s “illegal and unconstitutional” decisions last August. Today, he said, the people’s “trust has [eroded], not only in the mainstream but the [democratic] institutions as well.”
Autonomy has long been an important element of Kashmir’s politics, with each of the three regional parties vowing to fight for the restoration of autonomy as it was first granted or pitching variants of the idea. Last August, New Delhi abrogated the remaining semblance of autonomy, even as it simultaneously redrew the lines.
The National Conference with Farooq Abdullah as the face for the post of chief minister had won the 1996 election, the first after the eruption of the militancy. The party promised the restoration of autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir. A report prepared by the Farooq Abdullah government, demanding the restoration of autonomy, was passed by the state legislature but was eventually discarded by the Centre.
The first question to be asked, however, is if New Delhi is at all interested in restoring political activity in the erstwhile state, said Aijaz Ashraf Wani, political scientist and author. Issues of autonomy, cross border trade and dialogue with Pakistan were issues that Kashmiri unionists had taken up from time to time, much to New Delhi’s chagrin.
The term “soft separatism” came to describe an essential feature of unionist politics — particularly that of National Conference rival, the People’s Democratic Party. The Bharatiya Janata Party, however, “is not ready to listen to this”, said Wani. “These parties have always projected themselves as champions of J&K’s autonomous status and in a way want everyone to accept it as a solution to the Kashmir issue. Now nothing is left.”
He added: “I believe they want political parties to provide that assurance that red lines will not be crossed. They want post-abrogation politics. When and how they can prepare ground for that will decide the future of mainstream politics.”
Mainstream in disarray
Post August, among the parties that have continued to mark their presence is the BJP and the recently formed Apni Party, led by PDP dissenter Altaf Bukhari. While the BJP endorses the abrogation, the Apni Party — widely perceived as New Delhi’s propped up alternative to the established unionist parties — has explicitly stated that issues beyond those of governance were not in its domain.
In their defence, all unionist political parties, except the Apni Party, complain that their party leadership continue to remain detained in their homes, thereby preventing them from coming together to discuss the political situation. There is an eerie unanimity in the expression of unionist parties in Kashmir.
Imran Dar, provincial spokesperson of the National Conference, said that currently there is a “complete freeze of political activities” but when asked what the party has to offer to Kashmiris today, he said that “it is a decision that has to be taken by the central working committee of the party”, who were still detained in their homes.
The abrogation, Dar said, had alienated sections of Kashmir that the unionists were trying to rope in under the Indian system.
“They [the BJP] have amplified this alienation to a level where it is very difficult to get people and get them under the idea of the Union of India,” he said. “Now the situation has gone completely out of our hands.”
The Modi government had “virtually created a political vacuum which has not been seen in the recent past”, said Yusuf Tarigami, a four-time legislator from south Kashmir and a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). “It is the first time that I have seen the state discouraging political activity, rather preventing political groups from engaging in political activity, barring one outfit that is the BJP.”
Tarigami said that the denial of space was deliberate, aimed at “paralysing” politics in Kashmir. “Every thread of politics is aimed at being paralysed. Unfortunately some [unionist politicians] obliged them [the BJP] by remaining paralysed,” he said but abruptly asked not to be questioned further on this. “Silence is no option for our society. They [the BJP] want us to remain silent, keep us controlled. We should not accept that because it is a violation of basic human rights and provisions of the Constitution of India.”
The current situation had ushered in a new era of hopelessness among the people of Jammu and Kashmir, Tarigami said, and reiterated his position on the lack of public expression of anger against the Modi government’s unilateral move as being akin to witnessing a protest inside a jail.
“Fear has gripped the minds of citizens not only in Kashmir but Jammu as well. There is a huge level of harassment taking place,” he said. “Kashmiris have learned from their past experience. They will act in a very sensible, peaceful manner whenever they get an opportunity to say that we want justice from those who claim to be defenders of the Republic of India.”
Simultaneously, an increase in militant attacks on office bearers of the BJP coincides with their growing influence in the system after the abrogation of the erstwhile state’s limited autonomy. However, despite the promises of a better security scenario post-abrogation, grassroots workers continue to remain the most vulnerable.
Tahir Sayeed of the PDP said that the way the abrogation had been done, by using the entire state machinery to mislead the public, had also eroded faith in non-political institutions. “It took 70 years to restore some faith in democracy and the democratic institutions. They have destroyed that trust in one go,” he said. “How do you make people trust the [system] now?”
But the BJP is intent on harming Kashmir and has “criminalised” dissent and shrunk the space for politics, said Sayeed. “On August 5, they are laying down foundations for the Hindu Rashtra,” he said, referring to the stone laying ceremony at the Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya. “Kashmir being the sole Muslim majority region bothers them, they feel it shouldn’t be there. It’s a fight for our existence.”
After the dissolution of the erstwhile state’s last coalition government, between the PDP, the BJP, and the People’s Conference, politics picked up pace in Kashmir, with many unionist leaders daring New Delhi to abrogate the state’s limited autonomy and, at the same time, vouching to safeguard it. The silence of the unionists after the abrogation has been deafening.
Just a day before the abrogation, prominent unionist leaders met at the fortified Gupkar residence of Dr Farooq Abdullah to approve a hastily written resolution — touted as the Gupkar Declaration — stating that “representatives of the political parties resolved to remain together and stand united in their struggle for safeguarding identity autonomy and special status of the state.” It should be noted that on the one-year anniversary of the abrogation, authorities in J&K prevented a meeting between unionist leaders at the residence of Dr Farooq Abdullah.
Even as the unionists claimed ignorance of what was about to come after the chaos that prevailed at that time, the declaration pre-empted New Delhi’s every move: “That modification, abrogation of Articles 35a, 370, unconstitutional delimitaion (sic) or trifurcation of the state would be an aggression against the people of Jammu Kashmir and Ladakh.”
The National Conference’s Mehdi said that the unionists — who had given “huge sacrifices” and thousands of lives for the “establishment of democracy in Jammu and Kashmir — had lost their “credibility after the abrogation” of the limited autonomy. “Those sacrifices were nullified and trashed by the BJP government in a single stroke on August 5,” he said, adding that “not contesting elections is a democratic right, a way of protest”.
Fears of conceding power to the BJP in the erstwhile state, said Mehdi, was irrelevant considering the longer battle. “Whatever happened on August 5 is reflective of the fact that they [BJP] do not respect the institutions,” he said. “They can go to any extent to implement their agenda and to do what they want to do and in the process they demolish every principle and the very institutions of democracy.”
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