“Home minister is lying on the floor of parliament that I am free. I remain under house arrest. A big lock has been put on my gate,” former Jammu & Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah told the media from the balcony of his house on Aug. 7, two days into the central government’s revocation of Article 370 which granted the state special status within Indian Union. He said his son Omar Abdullah, another former chief minister, was also in jail.
And then his eyes welled up, his voice choked.
Abdullah alternated between impotent rage and utter helplessness: “This is not the India we know. We pray for the return of democracy and secularism in the country…I may die because of my health. But we will fight (for the restoration of our autonomy). We will fight in court.”
As the veteran cried on television, many Kashmiris watching him cried alongside. His breaking down had a powerful metaphorical resonance, giving Kashmir its “Jesus wept” moment.
No, Abdullah is not revered in the state. If anything, his name evokes a deep contempt from a significant section of the population which does not approve of his long-time pro-India stance. As a winning candidate in the last parliamentary election from Srinagar, he polled just under 5% of the votes. He still can’t walk the streets of the Valley without Z-plus security.
However, he has a certain stature that rests on factors other than being a three-time chief minister and the senior-most mainstream politician in the state.
For the past forty years, his mention has been intrinsic to any discourse on Kashmir, while his family had been instrumental in tying Kashmir’s lot with New Delhi.
Though it was the then Hindu king of the state, maharaja Hari Singh, who acceded to India in 1947 following a tribal incursion from Pakistan, it was Abdullah’s father, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, who brought Kashmiris around to Singh’s contentious decision, rejecting Muslim-majority Pakistan. The Two-Nation Theory, the basis of British India’s partition, envisaged a division into Hindu- and Muslim-majority nation-states.
Before Sheikh went along with India, though, he got New Delhi to grant Jammu & Kashmir a special status under India’s constitution. This gave it a degree of autonomy in governing itself, guaranteeing the preservation of its cultural and demographic character.
This history, hence, lends the detention of the Abdullahs—Sheikh’s son and grandson—its profound context and meaning.
No wonder that, as India moved to put Jammu & Kashmir under a clampdown, all local mainstream parties closed ranks behind Farooq Abdulla’s leadership.
However, New Delhi has, in one fell swoop, demolished the basis of the veteran leader’s political ideology and standing.
It has done the same to Mehbooba Mufti, another former chief minister, as also to Sajad Lone and Shah Faesal, two influential new entrants to the state’s political scene.
The shifting middle ground
These mainstream Kashmiri politicians largely operated in the region’s sub-nationalist space, some kind of a middle-ground between proponents of Kashmir’s merger with India, like the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies, and separatist groups like the All Party Hurriyat Conference and militant outfits who seek either independence or accession to Pakistan.
The revocation of Article 370 has wiped out this middle-ground. Now politics in Jammu & Kashmir can either be assimilationist or separatist.
“Politics, as it existed in Kashmir, is dead for now. Its terms of reference no longer operate,” said Naseer Ahmad, a columnist. “It is now a choice between surrender and resistance in Kashmir. A similar situation exists now in India’s relationship with Pakistan. And this is a frightening scenario to be in.”
Mainstream politicians can no longer credibly cast themselves in the role of the protectors of identity or seekers of constitutional concessions to resolve the Kashmir issue within the framework of India’s constitution. When it came to withdrawing Article 370, New Delhi didn’t deign it worth consulting these leaders, otherwise regarded as its own men in the state. Detaining them, like thousands of others across the state, further humiliated them.
Given this shift, what are the options before these pro-India politicians once the siege is lifted and the government decides to release them? Very few.
By reducing Kashmir to the status of a union territory, one of the many enclaves across the country that are governed directly from New Delhi, the Indian government has ensured that their future politics will have little sway over the course of events.
“Political parties will now have a fairly circumscribed role. It is New Delhi which will lord over the truncated state,” Ahmad said. In this new reality, the state may be entitled to an elected legislature, but the central government will remain in-charge ultimately. Hence, there is not much beyond basic governance that these leaders can promise people.
Yet, Kashmir being the complex issue that it is, with its national and international ramifications, things may not pan out as New Delhi intended.
“Faced with an existential choice, political parties are likely to unite and fight the arbitrary constitutional onslaught on the state,” said a political activist on conditions of anonymity considering the prevailing situation. “We will fight legally and politically. This is the only politics that will hold credibility. Politics for power will have few takers as it will only justify New Delhi’s constitutional grab.”
Should this happen, it could potentially hurtle mainstream politics to the foreground to vie with separatist groups for people’s attention.
Bureaucrat-turned-politician Shah Faesal has already made his choice known by declaring that he will not operate as a stooge, by which he meant an assimilationist, but as a “resolutionist” who seeks a solution to the Kashmir problem.
Similarly, separatist politicians, all of whom are either in jail or under house detention, will have to hone their politics to the new reality. The struggle for them has only gotten tougher. By divesting Jammu & Kashmir of its special status and downgrading it to a union territory, New Delhi has changed the game in Kashmir.
In the meantime, Abdullah and other leaders remain under detention, twenty-one days after the repeal of the state’s special status. A little distance away from them, at Hazratbal, the grave of Sheikh Abdullah is also being guarded. It has been like this since 1989 when the armed separatist movement began in Kashmir. The point of permanently guarding the grave is to protect it against vandalism by the same people who once adored him.
Sheikh Abdullah is blamed for persuading Kashmiris to join India as against Pakistan and thus held responsible for the conflict over the state ever since. Now, with New Delhi withdrawing the remaining constitutional protections, making the state vulnerable to a large-scale demographic change, there is a reason for people to be all the more angry with him.
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