Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s PDP-BJP coalition government in Jammu and Kashmir was sworn in on February 28. Its formation was a milestone in not only J&K’s but also in India’s history.
In 1953, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of the BJP’s precursor Jana Sangh, died in prison in Srinagar, after being arrested for entering Kashmir without a permit, a requirement then, under Article 370 of the Constitution, for anyone crossing the state border between J&K and the rest of India.
Since then the belief that he had been murdered has been an article of faith for the BJP, and the bedrock of its determination to abolish it and fully integrate J&K with India.
That is the party that, after 10 weeks of patient negotiation, formed a government with a Kashmiri nationalist party, under the explicit condition that it would shelve its demand to repeal Article 370.
It did so because it was finally prepared to concede that in death, Mookerjee had achieved what he had not been able to in life. The permit requirement was lifted in the very next year.
The BJP also did so because, hampered though he has been by the rhetoric of a handful of bigots in the Sangh parivar, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has resumed the search for peace in Kashmir, and realised that meeting the principal demands of the PDP — which are also the demands of most Kashmiris — is the first step on this arduous road.
Yet barely a week after its formation the government is in mortal danger.
The danger has arisen not from second thoughts in the BJP on the value of the coalition, but from the television channels of the Indian mainland.
These have begun an attack on the new government with a savagery that has few parallels in recent television journalism. The attack began within minutes of the swearing-in when Sayeed, whose command of English is less than perfect, said that Pakistan had “allowed” India to hold the elections in Kashmir.
The attack ballooned in the next seven days into a denunciation of what one channel, alluding to baseball, described as ‘Mufti’s four strikes’. The other three were his demand that Afzal Guru’s remains be returned to his family; his release of hardline Hurriyat (G) leader Masarat Alam, and PDP president Mehbooba Mufti’s subsequent justification of the act as simply part of a routine release of political prisoners that ‘happens all the time’, and therefore needs no prior decision in Cabinet.
Those who followed Sayeed’s preceding statements in Urdu know that what he had actually said was that Pakistan had the capacity to disrupt the electoral process and had done so repeatedly in the past, but had not done so this time.
This was a simple statement of fact.
Two hundred and fifty-three civilians and political activists were killed in pre-poll violence in Kashmir in 2002, against less than a dozen in 2014.
Returning Guru’s remains to his family is not in Sayeed’s but India’s interest. No act of any government has so shamed the nation as the hanging of Guru without even allowing his family to meet him one last time. Refusing to return his remains to his family for a proper funeral has added further pain.
The anger in Kashmir deepened when on January 28 the Supreme Court granted clemency to the Nithari serial rapist and killer Surinder Koli on the grounds of inordinate delay in carrying out the sentence. Koli had been on death row for three years and three months — Guru for seven years. Kashmiris concluded that in India’s eyes serial rapist-killers ranked higher than Kashmiri patriots.
Mufti’s act was designed to assuage a small part of this anger, and start the healing process he has set his heart upon. His most controversial act, however, has been the release of Alam from jail.
But here too it is important to understand the dilemma that the Sayeed government faced. Alam is undoubtedly the most committed opponent of Indian rule in Kashmir today. He also has a large and growing following not only among Kashmir’s radicalised youth but also in the growing ranks of the Ahl-e Hadis.
But he has been arrested 13 times, charged 27 times, spent 15 of his 25 adult years in prison without having been found guilty on even one count by a court of law.
This does not mean he is innocent. It means that guilt is difficult to prove in insurrectionary situations because witnesses and policemen are loath to testify and judges to pass judgement because of the threat to their families.
When the PDP-BJP government came to power, Alam was in prison under the Public Safety Act but the imprisonment was illegal because Omar Abdullah’s home minister had not ratified his arrest by the police within the 12 days stipulated by the Act.
So Sayeed was faced with a nightmare choice on his very first day in office: He could respect the law and release Alam, or he could arrest him on some trumped-up charge as he left the courtroom after the high court had set him free.
The first risked bringing his government down, but the second would have shown him to be another Omar Abdullah, ruling Kashmir with little or no respect for the law, as a stooge of Delhi.
This would have destroyed the trust he needs his people to have in him, to implement his agenda for bringing peace to the state.
What both the Muftis are guilty of is ineptitude. Alam’s court date was known. His release could have been anticipated. Sayeed had the time to warn his deputy CM, if not the entire Cabinet, and explain his compulsions to them and to Delhi before ordering the police not to re-arrest Alam. Neither would have been happy, but neither would they have felt betrayed.
Modi has, therefore, justifiably rapped him on the knuckles. He, and our media, should let things rest there. The battle against Alam is a battle of the mind. It cannot be fought by abusing the law to silence his voice. That will make us no better than the British and make a mockery of our own fight for freedom.
Prem Shankar Jha is a political commentator and senior journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal