On the morning of August 5, 2019, ‘Fair View’, the Mufti residence on Srinagar’s Gupkar Road wore an uneasy calm. Mehbooba Mufti, leader of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, had been detained by the police hours before Union Home Minister Amit Shah announced in Parliament the scrapping of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.
It was a twin calamity for Mehbooba’s 32-year-old daughter Iltija. On the one hand was the trauma of her mother’s detention, and on the other, the implications of the revocation of the special status that J&K had been granted by the Indian constitution.
Five months on, Iltija’s troubles are far from over. Her mother is still under detention, and Kashmir continues to wait for the internet. Her days are now divided between visiting her mother in a guest house in Srinagar and making frequent trips to Delhi, from where she runs Mehbooba’s Twitter handle.
Iltija’s criticism of the Centre’s decision to repeal Article 370 has appeared in several news reports and interviews, winning her both friends and foes. She claims that her access to her mother has been restricted after she appeared on a CNN show with Christiane Amanpour and on BBC’s Hard Talk. She reappeared in the news last week when, on her way to visit the grave of her maternal grandfather Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in Anantnag district, she, too, was detained by the police for a while.
Before the developments of August 5, Iltija’s name was unfamiliar to the layperson in Kashmir. It was only whispered among media circles as the one who wrote pithy political posts for her mother on social media. Interestingly, Iltija, the elder of Mehbooba’s two daughters, didn’t dream of a life of politics.
“I wanted to be an astronaut,” she says. But she ended up pursuing international relations in Warwick University — not an unusual choice given that she comes from a family of politicians. Her estranged father Javed Iqbal Shah, a businessman and animal rights activist, was also for a brief period a member of National Conference, political arch-rivals of the Muftis.
Iltija claims that she has inherited the flair for words, as evident from her interactions with the press, from her maternal grandfather. “If today I speak well, it’s because of him. He encouraged me to read, write and also travel,” she says, adding that she has fond memories of accompanying him to Disneyland in Paris, at the age of 7.
Iltija’s relationship with her mother — of whom she is fiercely “protective” — is fuelled by healthy arguments and differences in opinion. “I will always guard her, stand by her, but we also argue a lot,” she says. At the end of the day, Iltija adds, the two are friends again. Iltija’s concern for her mother’s health led her to write a letter to the J&K Police in November, urging the deputy commissioner to move Mehbooba to an accommodation with heating facilities.
She sounded equally fearless in a letter to she sent to home minister Shah mid-August, asking him the reasons behind her “detention”. “With due respect, I fail to understand why I am being punished for speaking on behalf of Kashmiris whose voices have been smothered. Is it a crime to articulate the pain, torment and indignity we’ve been subjected to? Does it warrant a detention to describe our plight?” she wrote. Iltija also asked the minister why the “world’s largest democracy” won’t allow a citizen to “speak up in the face of unimaginable repression”.
Days after the letter reached the Capital’s North Block, home to some of the most important ministries under the Cabinet, Iltija was allowed to fly out of Srinagar. Her first interview to an Indian news channel followed soon after, allowing her to share her views as a Kashmiri who felt let down by a government that the Muftis had trusted. She is acutely aware of the fact that some Kashmiris “blame” PDP for collaborating with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to form a government in J&K in March 2016. Mehbooba became chief minister of the erstwhile state in April 2016, following the death of her father. The coalition between PDP and BJP ended in June 2018, after which the state was placed under governor’s rule.
Despite being portrayed as the “new voice” of “Naya Kashmir”, Iltija calls herself apolitical. “I don’t want to join politics,” she clarifies, “but I will continue to raise my voice for Kashmir — even if it makes just a tiny difference.” But she knows the dangers of being far too outspoken. “For the sake of my mother, I also have to be careful,” she says.
And what does she plan to do away from the politics of the Valley? “Maybe I will become a writer. I am also fascinated by human behaviour. Maybe I will become a psychologist,” Iltija signs off.