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Abrogation of Article 370 accepted as irrevocable in Kashmir politics

The Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have had strong constituencies in the Jammu province of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state that was converted into the Union Territories (UTs) of J&K and Ladakh through the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Bill on August 5, 2019. Neither of them, however, has been able to build a bastion in the Kashmir province. Since the year 2014, the BJP has elbowed out the Congress, winning 25 of the 37 segments in Jammu in the Assembly elections of 2014 and both the Lok Sabha seats in the Parliamentary elections of 2014 and 2019.

Notwithstanding remarkable challenges from Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the last 20 years, Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference (NC) has reclaimed much of its forfeited space in Kashmir after dismissal of the PDP-BJP government in 2018. In the Lok Sabha elections of 2019, the NC bagged all the three seats in Kashmir, while the BJP secured all the three in Jammu and Ladakh.

The abrogation of the special status, enjoyed under Article 370 of the Constitution of India for 69 years, left both the traditional mainstream majors—the NC and the PDP—bewildered. For a host of reasons, including apprehensions of triggering separatist demonstrations and attacks on the leaders, most of the prominent politicians were taken into custody and detained for several months. A year after the transformation, almost all the leaders are back home. The PDP president and the former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti is the only politician still detained under Public Safety Act (PSA). Even she has been shifted from a detention centre to her home.

Mufti does not issue any statements even as her daughter Iltija has been operating her Twitter handle. Almost all her tweets have been bitterly critical of the Centre and the BJP government, sometimes embarrassing for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Enjoying democracy, the Mufti junior has been appearing on TV with a diatribe of communal tinge against the BJP. She has not been disturbed and her elite security cover has been maintained.

On one occasion this year, the Lieutenant Governor’s administration amended the law that grants ex-CMs a right to retain their spacious official bungalows till death. However, none of the four ex-CMs was evicted. Of the former ministers, some have vacated their bungalows but some have retained.

Both, the NC and the PDP, have been competing on criticism to the Centre’s decisions, bordering on legitimizing the separatist narratives, but remarkably neither of them has resigned a seat in protest in Parliament. The NC’s Farooq Abdullah, Hasnain Masoodi and Mohammad Akbar Lone are continuing and taking salaries and other privileges as members of the Lok Sabha. The PDP’s Rajya Sabha members, Nazir Ahmad Laway and Mir Mohammad Fayaz, are also continuing despite expulsion notices from the party. This is mainly why nobody has taken Farooq Abdullah’s or Mehbooba Mufti’s rhetorical statements on abrogation of Article 370 seriously, inside or outside J&K.

Mehbooba has more reasons than Farooq to be indignant. She has been kicked out of power, unceremoniously, in the middle of her term as CM. Her party colleagues, including ex-ministers and ex-legislators, have been apparently encouraged by the Centre to quit and join other parties. Over 20 of the PDP’s prominent leaders have deserted Mufti and joined the Apni Party of Altaf Bukhari—one of the Muftis’ former confidantes and high-profile ministers and a leading politician-businessman, who launched his own party in early 2019.

Farooq has been a little better placed. He has successfully kept his flock together. Nevertheless, some of the insiders insist that the 83-year-old patriarch has been saying in private meetings that the Centre could push the corruption cases against the NC’s ex-ministers or engineer defections in his party if they appeared to be on the separatists’ side.

In an article in The Indian Express, Farooq’s son and ex-CM Omar Abdullah asserted that he would not contest any election as long as J&K continued as UT. For many, it implied that the NC top brass would reconcile to the new realities if statehood was restored to J&K. It was only after massive trolling by the separatist-leaning Kashmiris and outsiders in social media that the father-son duo began asserting that the NC would not compromise its stand on restoration of Article 370.

Interestingly, when the third ex-CM and senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad met with PM Modi last week, he too emphasized only on “restoration of statehood” and holding of early Assembly elections. Peoples Conference of the former BJP ally and ex-Minister Sajad Lone and Peoples Movement of the bureaucrat-turned-politician Shah Faesal, which were both signatories to the August 4, 2019, Gupkar Declaration—pledging resistance to the Centre’s move of abrogation of Article 370—have both remained tight-lipped. Altaf Bukhari’s Apni Party has already patented the demand for “restoration of statehood,” significantly without any reference to Article 370.

All this has been widely interpreted as erasure of the grey space where most of the mainstream parties would maintain a ‘neutral’ stand. Contesting elections and gaining power on one hand and appeasing Pakistan, the militants and the separatists with slogans of ‘greater autonomy’, ‘self-rule’ and criticism of security forces on the other hand were the key features of the Valley’s “amphibian politics” after 1999. That most of Kashmir’s parties, with glaring exception of the truncated PDP, have accepted revocation of the special status as fait accompli and would be participating in all elections in future is now an unambiguous writing on the wall.

“As of now, entire politics is in suspended animation,” said a senior NC leader, “as even in the peaceful Jammu there’s no activity. BJP itself is silent. Besides, there is the [Covid-19] pandemic. So, why should we be impatient to practice politics?”

According to him, parties like the NC had their stake only in the pro-Indian electoral politics. “Over 4,000 of our workers, including Ministers and ex-legislators, have been slain and labeled by the militants as traitors. Farooq Sahab has been speaking on behalf of the Kashmiris and confronting Modi and the Centre. Still, the other side denigrates him as daand (ox) and calls him and his father as traitors. We are being pushed to the wall, not by one side but by both. Our options are limited.”

The NC leader, an ex-Minister, believes that almost all the old and the new parties would participate in the elections as and when announced by the Centre. Nonetheless, he puts up a caveat: “This is not possible until the fear of the gun goes; until peace is restored and until social media—the ultimate vehicle of separatism—is controlled.”.