Article 35A is off limits, don’t play with it, says former Jammu and Kashmir CM Mehbooba Mufti
In an exclusive interview to HT, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti talks about boycotting local body elections, her party’s stand on Article 35A and the alliance with BJP.
Three months after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ended its power-sharing alliance with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in Jammu and Kashmir, former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, 59, is picking up the lost threads. Facing the twin challenge of reaching out to the people of the state while keeping her flock together, she seems to have regained some of her political intuitiveness by swiftly making common cause with arch-rival National Conference (NC) on boycotting local elections over Article 35A, which guarantees special rights to people of the state. She spoke to Hindustan Times on Monday, at her serene but heavily secured residence on the edge of Dal Lake in Srinagar, about the alliance, the special provisions for the state, the local body elections, and the way forward for the state. Edited excerpts:
Why is the PDP staying away from the local elections?
As a party, we are part and parcel of the democratic process. Holding these elections has been under consideration for a while. Early this year, I, as chief minister, held an all-party meeting in which the consensus was that the situation was not conducive for such an exercise. (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi ji had also desired these elections. Now, with the state under Central rule, I wish the governor had called an all-party meeting and built a consensus. Unfortunately, the elections got linked with Article 35A, which is under challenge in the Supreme Court. Both the solicitor general and the state’s legal representative sought the case’s deferment, citing local elections in two months. Already, there was fear and suspicion among people that there is something up the Centre’s sleeve on Article 35A. Linking it with the elections further vitiated the atmosphere. When people are disturbed and pre-occupied with the fate of a crucial constitutional provision, how can we go and ask them to vote?
But the government is going ahead with the elections.
I don’t think it will serve the purpose. Democracy is about electoral competition. When two main political players have opted out, what kind of competition is there going to be? We are the mainstream parties and do not belong to the other side (separatists).
We had valid reasons and good intentions behind flagging the groundswell against Article 35A. If not an all-party meeting, a consultative mechanism should have been followed to take everyone on board. That was not done. If the government is still going ahead, there is little we can do. It will not be a good election. It will not have the legitimacy that it should have. Only selective people are going to contest because of the fear psychosis. That may defeat the purpose.
But the governor says only an elected government will represent the state’s stand on Article 35A.
I wish the government had said the same before the court. Its deferment plea rang alarm bells.
What do you expect from the Centre on Article 35A?
Kashmir aligned with India under certain conditions. Article 35A is part and parcel of this relationship. Why should somebody challenge it in court? The Centre should pass a direction that this (Article 35A) is off limits. Why should this sword dangle over our heads all the time?
It appears as if they are trying to scare Kashmiris. This doesn’t help. It has backfired. Article 35A has brought everybody on the same platform. That includes people in Jammu, who realise that if this provision goes, outsiders will take away their jobs, ration and land.
Our state has deep emotional ties with Article 370, which gives residents special rights. You can’t fiddle with it. New Delhi says Kashmir is a settled issue; so is Article 370. If you open this, it will open many more things.
By not participating in the elections, don’t you run the risk of losing political space?
There are certain issues where you can’t compromise. Article 35A is one such issue. Our message to the Centre is loud and clear: Keep your hands off. This is off-limits; don’t play with this.
Aren’t you endorsing the separatists’ anti-election line?
Article 370 is not a separatist slogan. They don’t believe in the Indian Constitution. Only mainstream parties do. We swear by it and hold the Indian flag high. Bracketing us with separatists doesn’t scare us. We can’t keep our mouths shut.
What’s the way forward to revive the stalled politics in the state?
When my father Mufti (Mohammad Sayeed) saab forged an alliance with the BJP in 2014, his intention was to recreate the (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee era, when there was an internal dialogue with separatists and an external reconciliation with Pakistan.
After all, how many people are you going to put behind bars? How many can you kill? You kill two militants, four pick up the gun; kill four, eight take to arms. It (Kashmir’s secession) is an idea. It is in the minds.
You can’t kill or jail it. But you have to offer a better idea through political dialogue and reconciliation. That’s the only way forward.
In hindsight, was your alliance with the BJP worth it?
It was an unpopular decision. Kashmiris hated it. But Mufti saab had a larger vision. When Vajpayee was PM and my father at the helm of J&K in his first tenure (2002-08), there was chemistry between them. That’s when India engaged with Pakistan despite the Kargil war and the Parliament terror attack, and achieved a ceasefire on the border. Spadework on opening the Line of Control (LoC) happened during that period. So when the 2014 assembly results threw up a fractured mandate, Mufti saab instinctively took a huge risk of sharing power with the BJP despite my stiff opposition. In doing so, he put everything at stake.
He believed, and rightly so, that internal dialogue, reconciliation with Pakistan and governance have to go hand in hand.
If there is no political process, everything goes haywire in Kashmir. After his death, I couldn’t abandon his commitment halfway. That’s what forced me into it.
But didn’t you end up as a bigger loser in the doomed alliance?
Of course, I did. We had to bear the wrath of the people. The love and affection they showered on me when I was in the Opposition turned into anger and hatred after we partnered with the BJP. They had high expectations, which didn’t fructify. Modiji promised to follow Vajpayee’s approach on Kashmir. He did try, and even went to Lahore. Then came the Pathankot terror attack, and things began falling apart. The consistency of Vajpayee’s time was missing.
Do you feel that the BJP let you down?
Perhaps we overestimated things. We were so much in awe of the Vajpayee era and felt things will be the same under Modi. That didn’t happen because the BJP’s thought process was different.
Has the clock been set back on Kashmir in three years?
The clock began turning back in 2008 over the Amarnath land row. That led to the summer upheaval of 2010 followed by the hanging of Afzal Guru. Kashmir was festering when we took charge in 2014. When the disillusionment set in with our rule, July 8, 2016, (militant leader Burhan Wani’s killing) became another trigger. All hell broke loose as the aftermath was orchestrated by certain forces.
There is a perception that the BJP is using Kashmir to polarise votes elsewhere. Do you buy into that theory?
The BJP tried doing good things here, but I don’t know whether they actually believed in them, or were doing it only because I was driving them.
We had a Ramzan ceasefire, appointment of an interlocutor of chief secretary rank, and amnesty to stone-pelters. The Union home minister made an offer for dialogue with separatists three times. But unless you believe in what you are saying, you don’t get success. The BJP wasn’t ready to absorb certain setbacks and stay the course on Kashmir.
Do you believe the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is controlling the Kashmir policy?
I don’t know who is calling the shots but the Vajpayee vision was missing. Every time there’s an election in any state, the impact of Kashmir is counted. Vajpayeeji didn’t chart his Kashmir policy through a poll prism.
After a bitter break-up, are you still keeping channels open with the BJP?
I’m not bitter about this — not at all. I was expecting it any time. I was adamant on the PDP agenda, and the BJP on its own. I’m not as large hearted as my father.
Which side of the fence does the PDP stand in national politics ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections?
We are not on any side. I can’t even say who will be the best for Kashmir. We had high hopes from Modi because of his huge mandate and the BJP’s nationalist credentials. Even the Opposition confines itself to condemning killings of security personnel in Kashmir.
Nobody really talks about or understands the pain of Kashmiris.
Are there any attempts to break your party?
Every party has problems. If a couple of your MLAs are unhappy or angry, you can understand.
If somebody claims that he has more than half of the party with him, it can’t be done without Delhi’s help. A lot of hard work has gone into restoring Kashmiris’ faith in the democratic process.
They trust that their vote can make or break a government. So if you are trying to break a party and then form a government which will have no legitimacy, it will wreck people’s faith that already stands shaken due to Article 35A.
That kind of adventure will harm the country.
Democracy is something that binds Kashmir with the country. If that is broken, what will be left?
So you are in favour of fresh assembly elections?
We will have to face elections sooner or later. Creating a government of ‘chun chun ka murabba (a hodgepodge)’ will not lead anywhere.
Has the gap between mainstream politicians in Kashmir and New Delhi widened?
It has due to the Centre’s stand on Article 35A. We stick our necks out here in Kashmir. Taking the mainstream parties for granted is not good.
Do you sense that the country’s secular fabric is under strain?
I have full faith in the DNA of India.
I don’t think it will allow any party to succeed in its designs. You will see that in 2019. If any party fights the election on the basis of religion, it will not succeed.
You said you had forgotten to smile during two years as chief minister. Has that changed?
That’s true (smiles). Everybody tells me I look relaxed now. Those two years were the toughest in my political life. It was like walking on egg shells all the time.