As the Valley implodes, people wonder where are the leaders they voted for


EID HELD up a harsh spotlight to the political landscape of the Valley last week, highlighting three months of protests, strikes and curfew in Kashmir. Even as lakhs, led by Hurriyat stalwart Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, prayed at the Eidgah grounds, a few thousands went to Hazratbal shrine where Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin addressed them over telephone from Pakistan. They then clashed with police and CRPF forces and set on fire the police barracks inside the shrine. As stark as the sea of protesters was what these two locations — which hold great significance for mainstream Kashmiri polity — did not or could not accommodate.

Until 1989, National Conference (NC) leader Farooq Abdullah would pray at Eidgah behind the Mirwaiz’s father. In many senses, this was their joint domain. And Hazratbal was the NC bastion from where party founder Sheikh Abdullah would address big gatherings. But, this Eid, Abdullah’s grandson and Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was not be able to visit Eidgah or even pray at Hazratbal because of security concerns.

After prayers that morning, people marched to Lal Chowk, the business nerve centre of Srinagar. By noon, thousands had reached the clock tower, heart of Lal Chowk, after travelling in buses, cars, trucks, on bikes and on foot, shouting pro-freedom and anti-India slogans. It was under this very clock tower that Sheikh Abdullah of Kashmir recited to Nehru of India a Persian couplet declaring that the two nations had become one. It was here that Nehru promised, in turn, that there would be no “forced marriage” with Kashmir and reiterated its right to choose its future through a referendum.

For decades since that convivial time, the clock tower has remained a political symbol. During protests and rallies that swirled around this symbolic fulcrum, Kashmiris would unfurl resistance flags from atop the tower. In an utterly mechanical effort to stop this, the state reconstructed the tower’s exterior in such a manner that no one could climb it. This Eid, in an example of a determination too strong for brick, mortar and cement latticework, protesters broke in, climbed up and unfurled a cascade of flags on four sides: the JKLF flag, separatist Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s Tehreek-e-Hurriyat party flag, the Hurriyat flag and a Pakistani flag. Finally, two boys broke the wooden ceiling to climb onto the roof to hoist a hitherto unseen flag: a green one with maroon, yellow, black and white stripes; the ‘stone-pelters’ flag. Of the dozens of flags that sprouted that day from the tower or the hundreds that surrounded it, not one belonged to a mainstream party.

IN KREERI village, 40 km north of Srinagar, Haleema lies on an air mattress, biting her parched lip in pain. A police bullet, one of six that hit her, sits at her spinal cord. A 35-year-old divorcee with a 12-year-old daughter, Haleema will never walk again. She was shot when police opened fire on a gathering that was protesting the killing of a college student from Kreeri. Kreeri falls in Sangrama constituency, where more than 47 percent people voted in the 2008 Assembly poll for People’s Democratic Party (PDP) leader Basharat Bukhari. Kreeri is Bukhari’s village and Haleema’s family has known the Bukharis for decades; they all voted for Bukhari. After Haleema was shot on 31 July, they expected Bukhari to visit them, to reach out — with condolences, if nothing else. He never showed up. “I will push him out of our house if he comes. We will not repeat our mistake of voting for him,” says Haleema’s sister-inlaw, Rafeeqa, tears of rage in her eyes. “He was in the same school as my husband. He promised us development but today we don’t care about development.We don’t want it,” Rafeeqa says.

As TEHELKA tracked similar stories of death and misery in the city, we found no traces of mainstream politicians. Not only are their symbols absent from flashpoints like the clock tower, the politicians have vanished from the lives of their constituents as well. In a bitter mix of resentment and rage, people complained that their representatives had worried more about roads, schools and water but had not come to visit them to share their grief. Some of the victims vowed that they would lynch the leaders if they dare to come.

This threat to lynch MLAs is echoed in Bandipore, 55 km north of Srinagar. “We don’t want jobs if we have to accept slavery,” say locals. And had PDP MLA Nizamudin Bhat come there? “We would have lynched him,” they cry. Bhat, who says he was there during the first 10 days of protests, trying to reach out to the people, admits that he did stop coming – but only so as to not spark further protests and killings that often follow them.

PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti blames the rulers for this inability of her party to reach out to the people, saying that the government’s actions have shrunk the space for mainstream leadership. “It is impossible to go out and talk to the people,” she says. “What can we approach them with? What can we tell them? People are angry at the continued killings; we have no answer to give them.” Mehbooba says the crisis exists because India wilfully fooled itself into believing the 2008 election was a referendum in its favour. “Here, the dominant discourse is freedom; we have to address this aspiration to the maximum,” she says.

Though it has 28 MLAs in the 87-member Assembly, the NC has shown a similar, conspicuous absence. From Khrew, where several people were killed in the protests, to Kupwara, where protests defied the presence of the Indian army, people said that their MLAs did not show up even to offer condolences, let alone act to bring any relief.

Kupwara, Handwara and Rajwar in North Kashmir are garrison towns where the army is perched atop house, shop and pavement. “Go India, Go Back,” screams graffiti scrawled on asphalt. TEHELKA spoke to two brothers who run a cell phone shop in Kupwara. “The army closes the gate which leads to our village at 6 pm; we can’t do anything about this. The protests were never as intense as they are now and they will continue. We will not accept this as our life,” they say. They both bled in the recent protests; they had both voted in 2008. “I would not have said this to you earlier but now I think we don’t want to live with India. Indians think of us as subjects. It’s humiliating,” they say. People in Handwara say that the army rules their life; they expected their MLA, Mir Saifullah, to give them some respite but it didn’t happen.

“Even India does not treat Kashmiris as Indians,” echoes Ali Mohammad Sagar, the NC MLA of Khanyar, in downtown Srinagar, while admitting he has had little contact with his constituency. “Khanyar is ‘Little Pakistan’; if you go there, you will think it has already seceded. However, I have visited it four or five times, even though it is very difficult.”

UNLIKE THE traditional understanding of the Kashmir problem, the recent unrest has shaken two popular myths. Though the number of unemployed youth has risen to six lakh, the protesters are not drawn exclusively from them. Authorities believe that some protesters are educated and empowered youth. A 2008 survey conducted by the police after pro-azadi protests found that a political understanding of the conflict, a youth spent growing up in conflict, peer pressure and the social legitimacy of separatist sentiment were the main reasons people came out to protest. The other myth that lies in ruins is that any unrest in Kashmir is sponsored from across the border. The reason for the mass alienation among Kashmir is more political than economic or administrative. Though the PDP and the NC have come up with autonomy and selfrule proposals, they have failed to capture the imagination of the youth. For them, talks must include discussions on azadi; the “framework of the Indian constitution” is the scaffolding of slavery.

The party most closely aligned with the Constitution, the Congress, has emerged as an important force in state politics. With the PDP and NC at opposite ends, they are coalition kingmakers. The Congress MLA from Kokernaag, Peerzada Mohammad Sayed, calls the protesters miscreants and says that the past three months have seen a takeover by mobs. “I meet my people in Kokernaag and no one protests there. It is miscreants from other places who do,” he claims. Like most Kashmiris these days, holed up as they are in their homes the entire day, Sayed is dressed in his morning clothes at 5 pm, even as he talks to visitors at his heavilyguarded residence. Four days later, 300 protesters defied curfew to attack his house while he was inside.

MLA Abdul Rashid was once forced every day to jump up and down outside an army camp before dawn to prove he was carrying no bombs. He would be frisked, not by hand, but by having long poles poked into his body. Like thousands of people from Kupwara and Handwara, Rashid was made to work as a labourer for the army. “The army forced me to work as a porter. I was also forced to walk ahead of patrol parties scanning roads for IEDs,” says Rashid.

He remembers the many instances when the army used him and others as human shields. He emerged into prominence when he held protests against forced labour camps across the Mawar belt, eventually compelling the army to abandon the practice. Locals remembered this; when he stood as an independent candidate for the 2008 poll, Rashid won 61.5 percent of the votes. Ever since the protests started, he has been in his constituency and in July, as a mark of protest, he even refused the security detail allotted to him. He is perhaps the only legislator who trusts his people.

“This is a people’s movement. Thus, development will have to be accompanied by movement on people’s aspirations,” says Rashid. People say he is with them when they need him and by giving up his security, he has become even closer to them. “He has come to us and helped us with problems we had with the army and we have thousands of problems. He was with us as an engineer, he remains with us as an MLA,” says Noori, who had voted for Rashid. The MLA agrees that his relevance is because he is pro-people. “If the mainstream leaders behave like Indian agents, they will not be relevant but if they act as people’s representatives, they will be as relevant as Geelani is,” he says.

However, Rashid and leaders like Mehbooba, who are facing the brunt of public ire, are faced with the same conundrum. She remarks wryly that the green of the PDP flag is seen as treacherous in India and, at the same time, is seen in Kashmir as the ‘treacherous’ green of the Indian tricolour. Rashid, too, sums up his life in a couplet:

EVERY TIME separatists spearhead an azadi agitation, Kashmir’s mainstream politics and leadership suddenly disappear, waiting for the calm to return. In the past three months of protests, where 70 have died in police and CRPF firing, mainstream politicians responded with complete inaction. Uniformed men have been the only contact between the government and the people. It took Omar more than a month and severe media criticism to pay a customary visit to the injured in a Srinagar hospital. Hardly any mainstream leader has even attempted to meet the families of the deceased. The response from the PDP has also been similar. PDP leaders Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and Mehbooba have restricted themselves to press releases and condemnations. Apart from Rashid, not one elected representative has stayed in their constituencies.

From a distance, this approach by the elected leaders seems like political suicide. How can a leader who needs votebanks for survival afford to stay away from his people, especially at a time of crisis? Why would an elected government want the police and the CRPF to be its only public face? Why are mainstream politicians — who don’t spare a single opportunity to brag about the 60 percent voter turnout in the 2008 election — hesitating to face the political challenge thrown at them by the separatists? If an unelected and fugitive separatist like Masrat Aalam can roam around the city by night and address people in mosques, where are the nine elected NC representatives from Srinagar, many of whom hold senior positions in the government? If Bandipore and Sonwar started the trend of mass peoples’ participation in the election, why are the elected representatives from those very constituencies now shying from standing among those very people?

Kashmir may have changed but the sentiment that drives the people out on streets has not. A look at the political landscape since 1947 explains the absence of mainstream leaders and politics whenever separatist sentiment takes centrestage. In a nutshell, the Kashmiri mainstream suffers from perpetual guilt even as it engages in politics.

This guilt stems from a history of flirtation with Pakistan and the idea of an independent state. Though publicly in favour of secular India, Sheikh Abdullah would preface his public speeches with Quranic verses. His deputy, Afzal Beigh, would often put a lump of rock salt into a green handkerchief held aloft, to silently indicate allegiance to the Pakistani flag. Practices such as these sowed the seeds of this trend of keeping mainstream politics vague and open to multiple interpretations. No democrat himself, the Sheikh threw out every politician who disagreed with him over accession to India, even forcing some of them into exile. However, the Sheikh, then Prime Minister of J&K was unceremoniously arrested and his government felled on 9 August 1953 after New Delhi became convinced he was conniving with the United States to declare an independent state.

This undemocratic move was pivotal in creating a political culture in Kashmir where it became imperative for politicians to keep their electoral rhetoric and agenda a small step below the separatist line while retaining the blessings of New Delhi, so crucial to retaining the seat of power in Srinagar. From 1953 to 1974, while the Sheikh remained incarcerated in Indian jails, the NC, which had monopolised Kashmiri politics became separatist in nature under the banner of the Mahaz-e-Raishumari (Plebiscite Front) banner and was officially banned from any political activity.

Separatist sentiments among the NC were so strong that the Sheikh’s oldest son Farooq, then studying medicine in London, flew to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and took an oath as a member of the JKLF, an event he was to deny later. The Sheikh was released in 1975 and even after the Kashmir accord (Indira-Abdullah accord of 1975) helped him to return to power, his political posturing didn’t change much. Aware of the sentiment on ground, he positioned himself and his party not only as Kashmir-centric but as one dead set against any moves to integrate Kashmir into the Indian Union. In his new avatar, he put forth autonomy as his slogan, with the restoration of the honour and dignity of Kashmiris and a promise to open borders with Pakistan forming his main political agenda.

The Sheikh may have kept the rhetoric intact but it was clear that he had accepted that the only source of power in Kashmir was New Delhi. Signalling the shift, he called Plebiscite Front politics awaragardi (vagrancy). Thus, even after his return to Kashmiri politics’ centrestage, the Sheikh never pressed his party’s agenda, keeping busy in setting up his still-extant political dynasty.

he New Delhi-managed split between the NC and the Abdullah family after the Sheikh’s death and the subsequent dismissal of an elected government led by Farooq had a serious impact on the politics of the scion of Abdullah family. Farooq has never believed in the power of his people and his nocturnal dismissal in 1984 convinced him that real power continued to flow from the Centre. His belief was reinforced when the Centre helped him to return to power through the massively rigged 1987 election, where he had joined hands with Rajiv Gandhi to set up a NC-Congress alliance.

From 1990 to 1996, after armed militancy erupted in the Valley, mainstream parties vanished from Kashmir. During those tumultuous years, the first voices challenging separatists didn’t come from the NC but from the Congress’ Ghulam Rasool Kar, who would make pro-India speeches via a loudspeaker from inside a bullet-proof Maruti Gypsy, surrounded by hundreds of armed guards.

After the 1996 election brought the NC back to power with a two-thirds majority and though the situation began to settle down, mainstream parties remained limited to a few zones, holding up a threat to their lives from militant outfits as an excuse. Despite having substantial numbers in the Assembly, Farooq delayed action on his promise of greater autonomy until Sayeed left the Congress to create the PDP, to challenge the domination of the NC.

SAYEED, WHO was the Union Home Minister in 1990, had realised that Congress politics wouldn’t fetch him much in Kashmir. He regularly lost elections and was even despised by people for being an integrationist. For all his four decades of political life, he had been against the Sheikh’s brand of politics and had struck hard at armed militancy when he became the Union minister. He brought in Jagmohan as governor of J&K and presided over the Centre’s ‘iron-fist’ approach in tackling Kashmir’s azadi movement. But once Sayeed left the Congress to set up the PDP, he took, as his election symbol, the pen and inkpot of the Muslim United Front (MUF), the party his (then) Congress defeated in the rigged 1987 election. Ironically, the MUF was to become the Hurriyat Conference. The party came up with a new political language that sounded sympathetic to both the militants and the azadi movement.

In fact, the NC and the PDP have both measured the distance between Delhi and Srinagar and have placed themselves at the farthest possible distance from the Centre. The NC’s politics and particularly, its rhetoric, revolves around autonomy, a State-Centre relationship which would connect J&K to the Indian Union only through the threads of defence, external affairs, communication and currency. The PDP has gone a step ahead; putting forth a selfrule agenda that proposes suzerainty along with the creation of cross- LOC institutions to bring the two parts of Kashmir together.

Neither party has challenged separatists directly; both have advocated that Delhi must hold a dialogue with separatists; both insist that the 2008 election was only on “bijli, sadak, pani’’ (electricity, roads, water) and would have no implications on the larger conflict. This positioning has a reason: the parties don’t want to directly challenge the separatists because they too seek votes on manifestos that promise a renegotiated relationship with the Indian Union. Thus, whenever people rise up against India and streets fill with protesters seekingazadi, whenever separatists take centrestage, the mainstream withdraws to the secure confines of their homes and offices, waiting for the storm to pass.

Like lemmings urged on by some fatal, silent rhythm, this is what we have seen repeat itself in the past three months. Mainstream politicians know the yawning chasm that separates their populist public positions from the actual ones. And they know that the people know it too. Crippled by guilt and an awareness of their flawed practices, when rage walks the streets, defying bullets, when shouts of azadi rend the air, mainstream politics does not — cannot — reach out to its people. It sinks, instead, into the chasm.


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