Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah should welcome a third force in Kashmir, writes Barkha Dutt
His father was assassinated by Pakistan-based militants; his wife is a Pakistani citizen; his father-in-law was a founding member of the 29-year-old violent Kashmir secessionist insurgency, his brother is with the Hurriyat Conference and until he openly blamed Pakistan’s Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) for the murder of his father, Sajad Lone, 51, was also a separatist who demanded freedom for Kashmir.
Today, he has emerged as the leading face of what’s being called the ‘Third Front’ in the Kashmir Valley. He is also one of the most outspoken and unequivocal critics of militancy, making him a high-security target and perennially vulnerable.
The one thing Sajad Lone is not scared of is risk. In the two decades I have known him as a reporter, Sajad has always rolled the dice on the board game of chance, changing the rules of play, with altering circumstances. In 2002, he was the first separatist to flirt with electoral politics by fielding a proxy candidates in a poll widely considered a watershed moment for its absolute fairness. His vision document on “achievable nationhood” may have graduated into an altered and more pragmatic version of itself. But you have to credit Sajad Lone for constantly reinventing and readapting to the shifting sands of a volatile ground situation. Once dismissed as a floating and fickle individual vote, his attempts to build a third force today — one that his supporters say will take Kashmir politics beyond the “Mufti and Abdullah dynasts” — has obviously caused enough anxiety for both Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah to be worried, angry and a tad nervous.
Confronted with outspoken rebels who have questioned her style of leadership, the former chief minister — who was summarily dumped by the BJP — is now warning of more ‘Salahuddins’ if “New Delhi” tries to break her party. Her analogy is absolutely misplaced. Her outburst refers to the 1987 election in which Syed Salahuddin, the militant chief of the Hizbul Mujahideen, was a candidate and Yasin Malik, today a secessionist with the JKLF, was his polling agent. The elections were marred by allegations of widespread rigging which delivered the win to the National Conference candidate. It’s widely believed that the fate of Kashmir may have been different had the elections been transparent and honest.
But how does Mehbooba’s example apply today? There are no manipulated campaigns or captured booths. There are no candidates who have slipped in through the back door. The political impasse in the state today is because of the fractured mandate of the 2014 assembly election results and because of the short shelf life of a coalition she led. Both she and the BJP must carry the cross for that collapse.
Yes, there may be nothing especially charming about parties splitting, politicians flipping sides and coming together to cobble together new entities. But it is absolutely legitimate politics. It happens in every other state of India. Why should Jammu and Kashmir not be allowed its share of plain vanilla number-crunching? In fact mundane politics should be the ultimate measure of a certain kind of limited normalcy. Why such hysteria?
It is irresponsible to suggest, as Mufti has, that the mere galvanisation of a third party would push militancy higher. In fact, in Kashmir, it is mainstream party workers, whether from her party or that of the National Conference or from smaller groups like Sajad Lone’s People’s Conference, who face the biggest threats from terrorism. Why would the routine unveiling of politics spur on militants any further? Her angry comments betray a visible anxiety and simultaneously convey an obvious warning to intelligence agencies whom she clearly blames for these developments. This tendency to blame Delhi’s invisible hand and its covert agencies for political churning is exactly how the Abdullahs-led National Conference explained their own cataclysmic defeat after 16 years at the hands of Mehbooba Mufti and her father in 2002. She should reflect on that irony today.
Naturally, Omar Abdullah, her main opponent, has pounced on Mufti’s comments and slammed them. But a few days ago he too seemed exercised at a possible split in Mehbooba’s party going on the record to call it a threat to democracy. This was intriguing. Why would Mufti’s main challenger and the leader of the National Conference be concerned about the PDP? Perhaps, because a third party challenges the hegemony of the two-party status quo. Of course, were his party actually to grow, Sajad Lone too will face tough questions on he will avoid running it like a family firm.
But for now Delhi should sit out this one and let it conclude naturally. The BJP attack on Mehbooba Mufti’s soft separatism is as disingenuous as her criticism of their policies — they were eyes-wide-open partners till a few weeks ago.
If a new political force is born from the chaos and contradictions of Kashmir politics today, Delhi should welcome it. And the other two Valley-based parties should stop complaining. If Delhi is to blame for the lack of forward movement in Kashmir today, so are they.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author
The views expressed are personal