Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, credited with turning the state around after decades of bloody militancy and violence that gutted the local economy, died of cardio-respiratory failure at a Delhi hospital on Thursday. He was 79.
Sayeed was undergoing treatment for severe lung infection in the intensive care unit of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi for the past two weeks but was declared dead around 9.10am when his heart stopped beating.
He will be succeeded by Mehbooba Mufti -- his eldest daughter and president of the Peoples Democratic Party that he founded in 1999 -- who will become the state’s first female CM.
“There isn’t an iota of doubt that she is the next chief minister as far as the PDP is concerned. Her contributions in building the party have been tremendous. She was living under the shadow of her father who was a statesman but still she made her mark,” PDP spokesperson Mehboob Beigh said.
As news of Sayeed’s demise spread, tributes poured in from across the political spectrum and thousands of people gathered at the Chinar-ringed Dara Sikho Bagh in his native Bijbehara in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, where his body was laid to rest.
“What stood out about Mufti Sahab was his statesmanship. In his long political journey he won many admirers across the political spectrum… Mufti Sahab provided a healing touch to J&K through his leadership. He will be missed by all of us,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted.
President Pranab Mukherjee also conveyed his condolences and said, “The contribution of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed to J&K and India through long years of public service will be always remembered”.
Wrapped in both the Tricolour and the state flag, Sayeed’s body was bought to Srinagar from New Delhi’s Palam Airport, where Modi paid his respects. Mufti was accompanied by his family, including daughter Mehbooba Mufti, and home minister Rajnath Singh.
The two-term chief minister was given full state honours at Srinagar’s Sher-i-Kashmir stadium as thousands gathered to pay their last respects and slogans such as “Jab tak suraj chaand rahega, tab tak Mufti tera naam rahega” reverberated in the air.
The prayers were followed by a 21-gun salute and a police band playing the ceremonial Last Post. National Conference leader Omar Abdullah, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Sayeed’s son Mufti Tassaduq carried his coffin on their shoulders. “Just heard the terrible news of Mufti Sahib’s passing away. I’m shocked and deeply saddened. May he rest in peace,” tweeted Abdullah.
Leaders from his Peoples Democratic Party, which rules J&K in a coalition with the BJP, also paid their respects.
“Muftiji’s contribution as a humanist and to public life in various capacities will forever be remembered,” Congress president Sonia Gandhi said.
The state of the often-fractious alliance – that has been rocked in recent months over the beef consumption controversy and Article 370 – also seemed stable, with the BJP indicating it would give the PDP a free hand in deciding the next CM.
“It is for PDP to decide who will be their leader. Our alliance is with PDP,” BJP vice-president and its state in-charge Avinash Rai Khanna said.
According to the terms of the alliance, Sayeed was to remain CM for the full six-year term of the state assembly.
The state government has announced a holiday and seven-day mourning, with flags atop all official buildings flying at half-mast during the period.
Away from the state capital, emotion ran high in Bijbehara where family, party workers and people gathered from across the Valley, with tears in their eyes and beating their chests.
“The man with a vision is no more, Kashmir has become orphan,” cried 60-year-old Mohammad Ehsan, a PDP worker who knew Sayeed for the past 30 years.
Born on January 12, 1936, Sayeed’s tumultuous political career spanned over half a century and saw him take on the state’s legendary leader, Sheikh Abdullah, and break away from the Congress to become the country’s first Muslim home minister. Days after he took oath, his daughter Rubaiya Sayeed was kidnapped by militants, and was only released after some extremists were freed.
His first term as chief minister, in alliance with the Congress in 2002, saw a much-needed facelift for Srinagar and the first burst of economic activity in the state and a loosening of the separatists’ hold on the Valley.
He returned to power in 2014 after a coalition with the BJP that saw two ideologically-divergent parties that differed on several issues – including the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and Article 370 that gives special status to J&K – come together.
He was flown to Delhi on December 24 in a special aircraft after he complained of fever and breathlessness, and had to be put on respiratory support as his infection didn’t subside.
He had a tube inserted down his throat to provide oxygen directly to his lungs for which he needed to be kept sedated.
“He suffered the first episode of irregular heart beat (arrhythmia) at about 8am but we managed to resuscitate him then. However, he had another episode soon after and we kept trying resuscitation for about an hour before he had complete cardio respiratory failure, which is when we declared him dead,” said a senior doctor treating Sayeed.
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(with inputs from Abhishek Saha in Srinagar and Ashiq Hussian in Bijbehara)