Among the mainstream leaders in Valley, often locally referred as pro-India politicians to sometimes distinguish them from their separatist counterparts, Mehbooba Mufti had a widely acknowledged claim to some redeeming difference. But this is a distinction which now stands irreparably blurred by her response to the latest burst of mass anger over the death of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in an encounter on July 8.
Around 60 people have lost their lives in more than a month of ferocious ferment; over 5,000 are injured, some of them critically; around 100 stare at a complete or partial loss of eye-sight; another 50 look set to be maimed by bullet or pellet injuries.
The mass revulsion and the anger that simmers as a result has left Mehbooba’s painstakingly built political standing in tatters and unravelled her image as a soft-separatist pro-Kashmir leader who once mourned the deaths of militants at their homes.
Though like Omar Abdullah, her political opponent, Mehbooba also comes from a privileged political background — she is the daughter of Congress stalwart and the former J&K Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed — her path to power was not easy. She had to pave it cobblestone by cobblestone after beginning her political journey by contesting and winning 1996 Assembly election from Anantnag on a Congress ticket. She later floated PDP in 1999 with her father to take on the decades old political monopoly of National Conference — albeit then reeling from its rough-neck rule rife with corruption and human rights abuse.
It was a time when separatists exercised a comprehensive grip on the life in Valley. Then undivided Hurriyat shaped the Valley’s news cycle, set the political agenda and was the by-and- large exclusive go-to leadership for New Delhi and the diplomats from around the world to seek resolution to the Valley’s problems.
The Farooq Abdullah-led NC government had positioned itself somewhat disadvantageously on the other extreme of the political spectrum by outspokenly standing for India – albeit in June 2000, his government had passed a landslide resolution on autonomy for J&K in Assembly. Abdullah would often invoke his Indianness, call Kashmir an integral part of India and press for bombing of Pakistan to avenge its support to the militancy in the state. This put him and his party at variance with the dominant sentiment on the ground, leaving an entire political middle-ground vacant. And it is into this middle ground that Mehbooba and her father waded to mobilise support for their fledgling political party. While late Mufti strategised from home, Mehbooba hit the Valley’s dangerous streets.
PDP let its pro-India political credentials remain ‘understood’, but laid a pronounced accent on the resolution of Kashmir, with liberal nods to the separatist rhetoric and Pakistan’s stance on the dispute. In time, the party forged an elaborate Kashmir settlement proposal, pompously titled ‘Self Rule’. Unlike NC’s autonomy proposal, the Self Rule comprehends internal and external dimensions of Kashmir resolution and advocates the involvement of Pakistan. What is more, the proposal seeks a constitutional restructuring of J&K’s relations with New Delhi, dual currency, roll-back of central laws applicable to the state, an elected governor, even the rechristening of the titles of the Governor and Chief Minister as Sadar-i-Riyasat (President) and Wazir-e-Azam (Prime Minister) respectively.
Mehbooba changed the rules of the game. She refused to stay at an antiseptic distance from the people, a cardinal safety principle followed by the mainstream politicians since the outbreak of separatist insurgency in 1989. She got down and dirty on the ground, leading rallies and protests. She mourned the death of militants, for which sometimes she travelled deep into the treacherous interiors to visit the families. One such visit was to the family of the then Hizbul Mujahideen operational chief Amir Khan, whose teenaged son Abdul Hameed had allegedly been killed in custody by the security forces.
She would cry at such mourning gatherings, something that earned her the sobriquet of Rudali from her political opponents. She would lead impassioned protests and deliver hysterical speeches in which she lashed out at the state and the Centre for human rights abuse in Kashmir. The video snippets of one such speech over the hanging of Afzal Guru during a 2013 J&K Assembly session was recently uploaded on Facebook, apparently to draw a contrast with her current approach to the ongoing turmoil. The video was widely shared before mysteriously disappearing from the social site.
“Today, Gandhi’s India has brought Kashmiris down to their knees. What makes you so arrogant? Tell us what makes you so arrogant?” a flushed, choked Mehbooba asks the Centre when it refused to return Guru’s remains to his family. Pointing towards the then chief minister Omar Abdullah, she bellows: “And you are also responsible for bringing Kashmiris down to their knees.
You say, nothing is in your hands. You are helpless”.
What further set off Mehbooba’s fable was her party’s rule through 2002-05 as part of a rotational arrangement with Congress with her father as chief minister. With generous cooperation from the then Vajpayee-led NDA government, Mufti Sayeed not only ushered in a redeeming difference to the local governance which was in the pits earlier and relaxed the security stranglehold but also got on to the bandwagon of the then promising peace process between Vajpayee and Musharraf, and later between Manmohan Singh and Musharraf, which had briefly opened up the possibility of an “out-of-box” solution to Kashmir.
The brief window of Indo-Pak thaw allowed full play to PDP’s soft-separatist political stance, with Mehbooba spearheading the narrative. In April 2006, on the occasion of the celebration of the first anniversary of Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service, Mehbooba waved a green handkerchief at the audience, a gesture that soon turned into a political red rag, as the green colour is rife with an uneasy political symbolism and associated with Pakistan in Kashmir’s popular consciousness. For all her theatricality and rhetorical excesses, Mehbooba had somehow managed to look authentic.
Her political brand was based on a blend of emotion and an oblique appeal to the Valley’s endemic separatist sentiment. She could afford do so because until April she hadn’t ever been responsible for governance. And even when her party was governing, as its president she would maintain a tactical distance from her father the chief minister, criticising the government’s functioning when things went wrong and zealously guarding the party’s purported ideological moorings.
In fact, she lived up to this image after her father›s sudden demise in January, when she held out for three months before agreeing to renew the alliance with her ideologically antithetical ally, the BJP. But from the moment she resumed the alliance without BJP giving in to any of her demands for development concessions, the quick unravelling of Mehbooba‘s myth began, a process which seems to have culminated in her government’s response to the current crisis. It showed Mehbooba as being no different from her NC predecessor and in fact, in parts less effective than him. She was invisible for three days after Burhan›s killing when most killings and blindings happened, qualifying for worse than a full-scale massacre. Her spokesmen dished out the same cloying platitudes, like the protesters by their violence had left no choice to the security forces but to fire. And when Mehbooba did make a video statement some days later, the drift of her message remained unchanged.
“I appeal to the parents to rein in their children,” Mehbooba said while expressing her sadness over the killings.
She blamed the “elements who come from other areas” for inciting protesters to attack security installations. “Such elements are well aware that when they do such a thing, there will be such a reaction from the opposite side that can cause harm and suffering to people.’’
But to the people this was too tame and disingenuous a response from a leader who had earlier ridiculed the self-same explanations by her political rivals. In 2010, she had sought CM Omar Abdullah’s resignation for sticking to the chair despite killings. And she is doing the same now, that too with more killings and blindings to her credit in one week than Omar’s rule had seen in two months. In Kashmir, it is a case of yet another promising mainstream leader, until recently untested in power, turning out to be “cut from the same old frayed cloth”, as one local newspaper editorial put it.
“The unrest in Kashmir is the biggest test for a Kashmiri leader and Mehbooba may have bitterly failed it, much like Omar Abdullah who was similarly done in by the 2010 turmoil when he was reduced to little more than a spectator to 120 killings,” says Naseer Ahmad, a local columnist. “Mehbooba, unless she comes up with a more empathetic response to the crisis and genuinely accounts for the killings, will forever be hobbled by these killings and their public memory, much like Omar is”.
For Mehbooba, it is argued, the loss is greater. One such argument is that Omar, when he became chief minister in 2008, could boast of little more than being the son of Farooq Abdullah, his articulation and the freshness of approach — which soon evaporated with two successive unrests. But Mehbooba had worked her way up through the Valley’s streets, built her political stock brick by brick and incarnated a leader who was a relatively more credible mainstream political proponent of a shade of Kashmiri nationalism willing to settle for a decent political deal within the Indian Constitution.
But in power, Mehbooba may have burnt herself out far sooner than even Omar did. In the first three months, by gratuitously hewing herself ideologically and politically closer to the dispensation in New Delhi, something that has always been a strict political no-no in Kashmir. And now by presiding over one of the worst security responses to the mass protests in Kashmir and trying to brazen it out.
“This has confronted the people with the sad reality of one more leader and her party shading indistinguishably into the role of a long familiar apathetic and helpless establishment,” says Naseer.
In its past term in governance, PDP had resisted being routinised. Its politics had displayed a certain unpredictable, fierce and temperamental nature which for a while seemed to put it above the fatigued, timid, non-combative nature of the Valley›s mainstream politics; a characteristic which some in the Valley argue was mainly responsible for its ascendance into the Valley’s political centrestage. And as the toll of killings and injuries mounts in the Valley, leaving hundreds of families devastated and the Valley seething with anger, the only way PDP is expected to salvage its painstakingly built reputation is by stepping down. And among the people who are forcefully advocating such a course is Roohi Nazki, wife of the senior PDP leader and the J&K Finance Minister Haseeb Drabu.
“The powers that be need to either stop the wrongdoings or they need to step down. I guess they just need to step down… what matters most is to keep the faith for our future generations,” Nazki wrote on her Facebook post.
“They need to step down so that we can be convinced that every popularly elected government doesn’t necessarily turn into an unresponsive monolith as soon as it is sworn into power. That each successive regime in Kashmir does not have to become indistinguishable from the previous one. That our leaders do not all have to transform into horrific, faceless, and voiceless entities”.