Squeezing the Kashmiri mainstream, writes Rajdeep Sardesai
In 2000, I was in Pakistan tracking down that country’s terror militias that were targeting the Kashmir Valley. My travels took me to Rawalpindi and the headquarters of the self-styled United Jihad Council to meet with the Hizbul Mujahideen chief, Syed Salahuddin. The initial interaction didn’t go well. The burly, bearded Salahuddin, in his flowing Pathani suit, was convinced that my cameraperson and I were Indian spies, snatched away our passports and cameras, and locked us in a room.
An hour later, the door opened, and, after having ranted at us in a menacing tone, Salahuddin suddenly changed his demeanour and became rather chatty. “Do you know that I contested the 1987 Kashmir elections and was sure to win but for the manner in which your Delhi government along with Farooq Abdullah rigged the election only to defeat people like me at the last minute?” he claimed irately. The story of how Yusuf Shah, an Islamic preacher in a local Srinagar madrasa, was suddenly transformed into a dreaded terrorist is part of Kashmir’s tangled, bloodied folklore. As is the fact that one of his election agents then was Yasin Malik, who would later become a commander of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. “If I had won that election, who knows I might be a PWD minister in government today!” laughed Salahuddin. It was perhaps the only moment during our encounter when I felt a bit relaxed, turning my gaze away from the fearsome-looking gunmen around us.
In April, I shared the Salahuddin story with the former Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) chief minister Farooq Abdullah, and asked him bluntly as to what prompted him, in tandem with Rajiv Gandhi’s government, to rig the 1987 elections in the Valley. Abdullah first staunchly denied the rigging charge, but then became reflective: “If the Muslim United Front [the party which Salahuddin was representing] had won that election, they would have declared an Islamic State, called for azaadi, or joined Pakistan. As a proud Indian, I could never allow that to happen, could I?”
Barely five months later, there has been another twist in the Kashmir saga. Abdullah is in detention under the Public Safety Act (PSA), which allows the State to detain anyone for up to two years for being a threat to national security. By contrast, one of India’s most wanted, Salahuddin, can roam around freely in Pakistan and spread more venom and violence against the Indian State. In the aftermath of the abrogation of Article 370, has the Narendra Modi government chosen a political path where a “nationalist” Farooq and a “terrorist-separatist” Salahuddin are now both seen as “enemies” of the State, one caged in his bungalow on Srinagar’s Gupkar Road, the other in his Pakistani safe house?
It’s a question which is relevant in the context of a perplexing situation in the Valley where the lines between nationalism and separatism have been blurred by heavy-handed State action that treats almost every Kashmiri politician as a potential troublemaker and closet insurgent.
We have a unique template for “normalcy” in the Kashmir Valley, where political activity is banned; where any protest or expression of dissent is viewed as “anti-national”; and where a separatist Hurriyat leader like Mirwaiz Umar Farooq can be released by signing a bond not to engage in political demonstrations, but three former chief ministers who have sworn allegiance to the Indian Constitution are in detention. Of the three, Farooq Abdullah has aligned with both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress governments at the Centre, his son Omar was a minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, and Mehbooba Mufti was the BJP’s alliance partner till a year ago.
Suddenly, the troika are not just persona non grata, but deemed to be threats to the State. It is one thing to accuse them of dynastic rule, misgovernance and corruption — all charges which could be made against politicians outside the Valley too — but should they now be seen as traitors also? Acting against Farooq, for example, on allegations of financial irregularities in the Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association case is perfectly justifiable; to detain him under PSA suggests that the Indian State suddenly finds an 81-year-old leader, who has often spoken out strongly and repeatedly against Pakistan-sponsored cross-border terror, as a likely magnet for anti-India sentiments.
The truth is, the Abdullahs and the Muftis must be defeated politically, and not through patently unconstitutional detentions. Not only will this prolonged detention confer a halo of ill-deserved martyrdom on Kashmir’s leading politicians but it will also create a dangerous political vacuum which leaves the Valley alternating between uncertainty and despair. Sitting in Pakistan, a Salahuddin may well see the State action in Kashmir as poetic justice for what happened in 1987. That rigged election was a trigger for militancy, what will this possible misstep lead to?
Post-script: Since history lessons on “nationalism” are being shared in the context of Kashmir, here is another fact. In 1999, during the Kandahar hijacking, Farooq Abdullah as J&K chief minister had fiercely opposed the release of Masood Azhar and other terrorists. Ironically, those who negotiated with the hijackers and the Taliban are now in government. The times sure have changed.