A politican of his time
In the political landmine of Jammu and Kashmir, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed came out relatively unscathed. As tributes poured in for Mufti ‘Saab’, as he was affectionately known across political circles, it is imperative we remember his contributions to the turbulent political landscape of a strife-torn state. Political machinations aside, Sayeed was instrumental in bringing the Indian state closer to the aspirations of India’s most difficult region, through his time in the Congress, Janata Dal and finally the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Until Sayeed had formed the PDP, the state, and primarily the Kashmir Valley, was for the most part a personal fiefdom of the Abdullah family. The Indian government, under various Congress regimes, maintained a client-patron relationship with the National Conference, a political party defined by the Abdullah family. As long as the NC government played ball and maintained sufficient control of the state, the Indian government was more than happy to play patron. Suffice to say, it was a relationship that often worked at cross-purposes. However, without a viable alternative, New Delhi was often left dealing with an incompetent and unreliable partner. The first alternative that arrived onto the scene was the erstwhile Muslim United Front—a Kashmir-based political alliance, which had fought the 1987 assembly elections. Unfortunately, the elections were rigged, and the Kashmir Valley was denied a genuine chance at reaping the fruits of electoral democracy. With their faith in electoral democracy shattered, many in the Valley, including members of the MUF, soon supported and joined the Pakistan-sponsored militant rebellion that has ravaged the state for the better part of three decades.
In December 1989, when Kashmir was in the throes of militancy, Sayeed was made Union Home Minister by the VP Singh-led Janata Dal government at the Centre. It was an appointment steeped in symbolism, given New Delhi’s usual distrust of Kashmiri Muslims. However, no sooner did he get into office that his daughter Rubaiya was kidnapped by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front—a Pakistan-sponsored militant outfit. Critics often argue that Sayeed had ensured the release of his daughter by giving into the demand of her kidnappers. Sayeed, of course, presents a different view stating that the NC government under Farooq Abdullah facilitated the release, although it was initially against giving in to the kidnappers’ demand. Nonetheless, Sayeed’s critics maintain that the decision to release the prisoners is believed to have been a key factor in boosting militants’ morale. It is an unfair claim to make, considering that arms, ammunition and logistical support had already arrived for militants by then. If not Rubaiya’s release, then some other incident would have been that turning point. Despite these facts, many among the Hindu nationalists, especially those among the BJP’s vote base, still put the onus on Sayeed.
What many often forget is that it was during Sayeed’s tenure as Union Home Minister that the Government of India in 1990 implemented the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Although Prime Minister VP Singh was initially of the belief that the Kashmir crisis could not be solved militarily, it was Sayeed, among other leaders in his cabinet, who facilitated the move towards AFSPA and armed intervention to the crisis, besides the introduction of Governor’s rule in the state. The legacy left behind by AFSPA has been one of brutal state repression, which still lingers on. Suffice to say, AFSPA played a significant part in alienating vast swathes of the Kashmir Valley from mainland India.
However, defenders of the policy often argue that a political solution to the problem seemed unviable at the time, with militants wreaking havoc on Indian assets in the state. Moreover, Sayeed did not stand in the way of Jagmohan’s appointment as Governor by the VP Singh government. Known as a firm administrator who could rein in difficult situations, Jagmohan oversaw the Indian State’s response to the militant crisis. The first step in re-establishing the Indian state’s presence in the state, amid the horrors of militancy and the consequent brutal state repression was the 1996 state assembly elections held. Sayeed played a significant part in resurrecting the democratic process, or at least a semblance of it. With many politicians, including Farooq Abdullah, who had left the state after the dawn of militancy, it was Sayeed who cajoled and convinced many to come back and contest elections. However, critics often argue that like previous state elections in the past, the 1996 polls were completely manipulated.
Fast forward to 1999 and the end of the Kargil War, Sayeed announced the formation of the Peoples Democratic Party. After a lifetime of working with national parties, especially the Congress, he decided to embark on a new chapter. The new regional party, he argued, was formed to “persuade the government of India to initiate an unconditional dialogue with Kashmiris for resolution of the Kashmir problem.” The NC government, he said, had “failed to provide a healing touch to the Kashmiris who suffered immensely, under militancy and the subsequent state repression. On the latter, Sayeed had hit the nail on its head, although, like any other political decision, it was steeped in expediency.
With politics in the state divided between the National Conference and those that espoused separatism after the rigged elections of 1987, the PDP arrived as a welcome alternative. In the past anti-incumbency against the NC was often exploited by the Hurriyat—an umbrella outfit for separatist elements. With militancy on the decline, it became abundantly clear to in the Valley that secession from India was a pipe dream. The Valley populace soon saw greater participation in the electoral process as the only way to meet their day-to-day governance requirements. It was in this new political scenario that the PDP presented itself as an alternative. Under the able leadership of Sayeed and his daughter Mehbooba Mufti, the PDP was able to address separatist concerns within the political framework of the Indian Constitution. In 2002, Sayeed eventually became chief minister for the first time in alliance with the Congress, demitting office in November 2005 for Ghulam Nabi Azad of the Congress.
His final contribution to Indian politics was the formation of the PDP and the BJP coalition government in Jammu and Kashmir in 2015. In fact, Sayeed had gone on to the extent of describing the alliance as a meeting of the North Pole and the South Pole, since it brought together Srinagar and Jammu, Kashmir and India. Although it was an alliance born out of necessity due to the even split in numbers, Mufti saw it as an opportunity to bring opposite poles onto one table. It is another matter that the two sides are still to iron out their differences.