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Indian, Kashmiri: the life and politics of Mufti Sayeed

Forty years after he was set to become Jammu and Kashmir’s youngest chief minister, Peoples Democratic Party patron Mufti Mohammad Sayeed on Sunday became the oldest person to occupy the top position. And with the elevation, the political journey of a man who describes himself as an “Indian by conviction” has come full circle.

ht-view Updated: Mar 01, 2015, 22:05 IST
Hilal Mir
Hilal Mir

Forty years after he was set to become Jammu and Kashmir’s youngest chief minister, Peoples Democratic Party patron Mufti Mohammad Sayeed on Sunday became the oldest person to occupy the top position. And with the elevation, the political journey of a man who describes himself as an “Indian by conviction” has come full circle.

The phrase “by conviction”, which 79-year-old Sayeed used repeatedly in recent interviews with journalists, will appear superfluous to most Indians. But when a Kashmiri leader proclaims he is an Indian by conviction, he probably wants to distinguish himself from fellow mainstream politicians for whom such a status might be a compulsion, or plain expediency.

While making this assertion, Sayeed could have in mind his rivals, the Abdullahs of the National Conference, who have vacillated between extremes, sometimes demanding the army bomb Pakistan and at other times, mostly when out of power, questioning New Delhi’s contention that Kashmir is an integral part of India.

Till 1999, when he left the Congress and founded the PDP, Sayeed was one of the most hated political figures in the state for his belief in India. And now that he has formed a government with the Bharatiya Janata Party, people are again questioning Sayeed’s credentials.

To understand how Sayeed has become chief minister twice in the past 12 years after having failed to win an election in the Kashmir Valley for three decades, it will be helpful to look at how politics played out over the past 50 years, when he went from being a fledgling activist of the Democratic National Conference to forming the PDP.

The period between 1953 and 1990 is often seen as one of rigged elections, a gradual hollowing out of the state’s autonomy and special status, and emergence of the separatist sentiment.

Sayeed, as a Congress leader, was often seen as one those who had a hand in the Centre’s manipulations. The mere presence of the Congress was seen as an affront to Kashmiri nationalism, or what remained of it after Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah signed an accord with Indira Gandhi in 1975.

Sayeed too represented a pocket of resistance against Shiekh. But he practiced mainstream politics in its purest form without ever having second thoughts about it.

Doing so was never easy. The Congress’ influence was restricted to a few places in the Kashmir Valley, especially in south Kashmir, and the NC seemed unassailable. Sayeed contested elections from his native Bijbehera and Homshalibugh and was invariably defeated in both places despite having New Delhi at his back.

“But he had an uncanny ability to foster friendships and make people work for him. During those times, his situation was much like Mamata Banerjee at the peak of the Left’s popularity in West Bengal,” said a doctor who lives in Bijbehara.

With the help of some local supporters, Sayeed would manage a rare strike in Bijbehara when Shiekh visited or on other occasions. He would also stay in touch with NC detractors.

“He took care of friends and even those who were not friends. He might be a cunning politician but nobody can say he is corrupt in the material sense of the word,” the doctor said.

Mufti and his life
Born in Bijbehara town of Anantnag district on January 12, 1936, to a family of religious clerics, Sayeed has a law degree and a postgraduate degree in Arabic from Aligarh Muslim University. He became an MLA for the first time in 1967 and went on to serve in the cabinet of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

After the NC led by Farooq Abdullah won elections in 1983, riding a sympathy wave after the death of Shiekh a year before, Sayeed engineered a split in the party in 1984. Farooq’s brother-in-law G M Shah defected with 13 NC legislators and formed a government with Congress support.

Before he won the Lok Sabha polls from Muzaffarnagar in 1989 as a Janata Dal candidate and became Union home minister, Sayeed seemed to have reconciled himself to a non-Congress existence. People recall how he brought Janata Dal leader V P Singh to Anantnag town and told a gathering, “Listen to him, he is going to be the next prime minister of India.”

As home minister, Sayeed sent the hugely unpopular Jagmohan as governor of the state. During Jagmohan’s brief stint in the early 1990s, more than 150 people died during demonstrations.

The massive insurgency effectively effaced National Conference from the state’s political scene. Farooq Abdullah quit against Jagmohan’s appointment and spent most of six years in London. Jammu and Kashmir was directly ruled by the Centre during this period.

After former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao promised Kashmiris that the “sky was the limit”, the NC plunged into electoral politics again and won the 1996 elections with a two-thirds majority (or 57 of the 87 seats in the assembly). By this time, Sayeed had returned to the Congress and he fought the 1996 elections in a situation when the party could not find candidates. He fielded his daughter, Mehboooba, his wife and a few relatives.

Mehbooba became the face of the opposition in the assembly, vociferously criticising the NC for condoning rights abuses. She would also visit the families of those killed by the security forces and offer condolences. Much of the ground for the PDP becoming an acceptable alternative to the Congress and NC was prepared by Mehbooba.

This was possibly Sayeed’s cleverest political move – letting the NC crumble and waiting to float the PDP in 1999. Despite being the third largest party in the 2002 elections, the PDP led a coalition with Congress and Sayeed became chief minister for the first time.

Sayeed probably realised the futility of selling integrationist politics to the people. So while he remained wedded to the idea of India, he also attempted to take people on a path to integration in a manner that would not make it seem a betrayal. Thus, while Farooq Abdullah would spare no occasion to accuse Pakistan of fomenting trouble in Kashmir, Mufti talked of reconciliation.

At the same time, Sayeed did nothing that could invite New Delhi’s wrath. He regularised a counterinsurgency force within the police called the Special Operations Group and called for strengthening the police so that it could replace the army in fighting insurgency. He also blunted the moderate Hurriyat’s influence to some extent.

Kashmir has witnessed unending contests between mainstream politics and popular separatist sentiment. Separatists have tried electoral politics and mainstream politicians have romanced with separatism. Till date, most of them have faltered on providing a way out.

By aligning his PDP with BJP, though the two parties have had adversarial agendas, Sayeed is attempting to break the jinx once again. As an “Indian by conviction”, he might have the state’s backing, but is being New Delhi’s best bet enough to address the people’s political aspirations that will hardly be satisfied by maintaining status quo on Article 370.

(Hilal Mir is a Srinagar-based journalist. The views expressed are personal.)

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