Mufti Mohammad Sayeed: From India’s man in Kashmir to a champion of soft-separatism

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Late J&K CM Mufti Mohammad Sayeed
Late J&K CM Mufti Mohammad Sayeed

The passing of J&K Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed has ended a political era in J&K that dated back to early years of the state’s contentious relationship with the Centre. Starting as a staunch integrationist leader in the sixties, working for J&K’s merger in India, Mufti died as a vocal champion of the need for an acceptable resolution of Kashmir between India and Pakistan.

Over the 53 years of his public life, Mufti was a witness and also a prime mover behind many a historical event in the state. In 1974 when Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah returned to mainstream following an accord between him and Indira Gandhi, Mufti was the State Congress chief. However, in 1977, Congress withdrew support to Sheikh. Mufti had a chance to become the chief minister at 41. But the Assembly was dissolved on Sheikh’s recommendation.

Similarly, in 1983 Assembly election, Mufti-led Congress won 24 of the 26 seats in Jammu. And NC under Farooq Abdullah almost swept the Valley, thereby forming a majority government on its own. But a year on, Mufti orchestrated a division not only in the NC but also in the Abdullah family, leading to the government’s fall. NC’s 13 lawmakers led by Farooq’s brother-in-law G M Shah rebelled and formed a government with the Congress supporting it from outside. Mufti still couldn’t become Chief Minister. He had to wait another 18 years.

But in between he became the union tourism minister, resigning from the post following anti-Muslim riots in Meerut and later in 1989 became India’s first Muslim home minister in V P Singh-led National front government. But within five days of the government’s taking over, his daughter Rubaiya Sayeed was kidnapped by JKLF. The JKLF demanded the release of five militants in exchange for Rubaiya’s release. The government accepted the demand and freed the jailed militants.

Mufti only returned to the state in the early nineties when he fought the boycotted Lok Sabha elections on Congress ticket from Anantnag and won. However, Mufti enjoyed little political support in Valley, nor did he enjoy the confidence of the Congress High Command which he had rejoined after Jan Morcha fell apart. This was when in 1999 he resigned from Congress and floated People’s Democratic Party with his daughter Mehbooba at its helm.

And in 2002, against all expectations, the fledgeling PDP came from behind to win 16 seats in the Assembly polls. This was the first time ever that a Valley-based regional party fared so well against the then dominant National Conference which secured 28 seats, a drastic reduction from its 57 in 1996 polls. But with just 16 seats in the 87-member Assembly, Mufti went on to become the J&K Chief Minister for three years as part of a rotational arrangement with the ally Congress, with 21 seats, Panthers Party with 4 and a few independents.

And thus began Mufti’s new political innings, one which not only rehabilitated him in Kashmir where he was always regarded as a politician who represented New Delhi’s interests in Kashmir but also gave him his new political identity as a mainstream advocate of Kashmir’s nationalist sentiment.

In the three years that he was CM, Mufti brought the administration immobilized by the reigning turmoil back on its feet. The coalition provided a governance redeemingly different from the preceding National Conference dispensation, rife with corruption and human rights abuse. The government also ushered in a relative sense of security among people crushed by the years of an unremitting security stranglehold. It reigned in the Special Operations Group of J&K Police which had let loose a reign of terror. The government also made its presence felt on the ground. It brought a degree of responsiveness in which the administration restored some damaged infrastructure and above all ensured a reasonable supply of electricity.

What is more, Mufti made the most of the then ongoing Indo-Pak peace process which held a fleeting promise of culminating into a Kashmir settlement, and led to the re-opening of cross-LoC routes for travel and trade. He also appropriated the separatist discourse, echoing the vocabulary of their favourite slogans if not their intent. By the time PDP-Congress coalition broke up in 2008 just two months shy of the completion of its term, Mufti had created a new politics that straddled the separatist-mainstream divide.

In fact, up to the 2008 Assembly polls, he even released party’s own formal formula for the resolution of Kashmir “both in its internal and external dimensions”. It was called self-rule document and it advocated a drastic redefining of Kashmir’s relations with New Delhi in a broader politico-economic framework involving Pakistan. The party sought a constitutional restructuring, dual currency, rollback of central laws applicable to the state, an elected governor, even the renaming of the titles of governor and chief minister as sadar-i-riyasat (president) and the prime minister respectively.

People rallied to Mufti. In 2008 polls, PDP enhanced its tally from 16 to 21 – albeit the party failed to keep the power. And in 2014 it emerged as the single largest party and thus in a position to pick and choose its coalition partner. But the BJP’s unprecedented electoral performance in Jammu province where it won 25 of the 37 seats left Mufti little option but to join it, the ideological antagonism notwithstanding. This severely circumscribed Mufti’s ambition to play a bigger political role as a facilitator of Kashmir resolution. His efforts to push for a reconciliatory stance towards Pakistan were rebuffed by BJP. And when he urged Modi to extend a hand of friendship to Pakistan during the latter’s November address in Srinagar, the PM in his speech rebuffed him saying he needed nobody’s advice on the state.

But just when Modi seemed to come around to his idea of an Indo-Pak understanding, Mufti is not there to witness its progress. On the day the PM went to Lahore to greet Nawaz Sharif on his birthday Mufti was being treated at Intensive Care Unit of the AIIMS for a ‘severe respiratory tract infection”. In a statement issued from the hospital bed, Mufti said he was delighted by Modi’s visit, which will further strengthen the bonds of friendship and usher in an era of peace and stability in the region.

“This is an evolutionary process and a step in the right direction”, he said.