By continuing to hold three former J&K Chief Ministers – Dr Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti – under detention even six months after withdrawal of J&K autonomy, Centre has effectively decapitated the two dominant Kashmir based parties, National Conference and the PDP. And with other major leaders of these parties also in jail, their political activities have come to a complete halt. Neither of the two parties has since held a rally or a press conference, something that has created a deep political vacuum in Kashmir Valley.
But the recent past has witnessed emergence of some tentative political activity led by a group of defectors from the PDP. And their leader is the former top PDP leader Altaf Bukhari. Also a prominent industrialist of the Valley, Bukhari was a finance minister in the PDP-BJP coalition that ruled J&K until June 2018 when the BJP withdrew its support. Ever since J&K has been ruled from centre, first through a Governor and after downgrading of the state into a union territory through a Lieutenant Governor.
Bukhari was expelled from the PDP in January 2019 for his “anti-party activities”. And now he is at the forefront of a politics that is designed to replace the one practiced by the likes of the NC and the PDP. And this new politics apparently enjoys the blessings of New Delhi.
The objective seems an ambitious one: to supplant the mainstream politics that nods to the long running political conflict in the Valley and seeks its resolution in its internal and external dimensions. Now centre wants a local politics that is unapologetically pro-India. And to this end, it is enlisting leaders who are ready to move on from Article 370.
It is here that Bukhari seems to have come in handy.
Going by his statements so far, Bukhari has made none that challenges centre on repeal of Article 370 – albeit, he has tried to perform a tough balancing act by playing to the grievances in Kashmir and at the same time not opposing New Delhi’s August 5 move.
In a memorandum to the Lietenant Governor Girish Chander Murmu last month, Bukhari addressed both the constituencies: New Delhi and people of Kashmir.
“The majority of its (J&K) residents are yet to reconcile with this decision, (revocation of Article 370)” the memorandum reads. “Fact of the matter is that a majority of people in Jammu and Kashmir feel hurt and there are vocal concerns wherein they feel their decades-long privileges were unceremoniously curtailed”.
However, the memorandum stays short of demanding restoration of Article 370, only seeking protection of domicile rights for the people of J&K. It says the main cause for discontent among people of the erstwhile state is the nullification of Article 35A , a feature of Article 370, which barred outsiders from buying land and become J&K citizens.
The memorandum seeks restoration of statehood to J&K, exclusive rights for locals over land and government jobs and economic packages for different sectors among other demands.
The memorandum thus crystallizes the contours of new politics around three issues: domicile rights, protection of local jobs and the demand for statehood.
By taking up these issues and steering clear of a demand for reversal of the withdrawal of Article 370, Bukhari has agreed to play the ball. And the others who have joined him are Mohammad Dilawar Mir, Ghulam Hassan Mir, Zaffar Iqbal, Javed Hassan Beig, Noor Mohammad Shiekh, Choudhary Qamar Hussain and Raja Manzoor Ahmad, all of them the PDP leaders and former legislators except Iqbal.
There’s one more leader: the PDP patron and its founding member Muzaffar Hussain Beigh. Though still a member of the PDP, Beigh in recent past has moved his political outlook closer to New Delhi. He has even gone against the president of his party, the former J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, criticising her for her old statement that nobody would raise Indian flag in Kashmir if Article 370 were to be withdrawn.
Now situation has come to a point where Bukhari led group of leaders is due to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah with a petition to restore statehood to J&K and domicile rights to its people. Bukhari is also expected to launch a new political party.
And as Bukhari and Beigh emerge key figures in the evolving post-Article 370 political landscape of J&K, the Valley’s established political players including three former chief ministers remain imprisoned. They have been slapped with Public Safety Act which will keep them detained for another three months. The centre has shown no indication of releasing them till they are seen no threat to the peace in J&K. Nor has it set free People’s Conference chairman Sajad Gani Lone who was shifted to his house from the MLA hostel on Wednesday.
This leaves the field open for Bukhari and Beigh. Will the duo be able to re-start political activity in the Valley and also forge a credible political identity for themselves? The answer remains moot. But one thing is sure. Their politics is unlikely to resonate with people who are still in no mood to let go of the Article 370. There’s still no space for a pro-India politics which doesn’t acknowledge or seeks to address the political conflict in Kashmir.
Does this mean Bukhari and Beigh’s efforts are doomed to fail? They may well come to nought. But as long as centre protects their politics from any opposition by keeping the established political leaders under detention, they are certain to remain relevant.