Why Is Mehbooba’s Political Stature Growing Relative to Abdullahs?

Mehbooba Mufti-File photo

Riyaz Wani 

On April 4, J&K administration shifted the detained former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti to her official residence on Gupkar road, Srinagar’s VVIP enclave. However, unlike Abdullahs, the administration stayed short of releasing her, converting instead her residence into a subsidiary jail.. And the apparent reason for it, according the daughter  Iltija Mufti was the Centre’s fear that “she’ll articulate her views on illegal abrogation of  Article 370”.

But Iltija made it clear that her mother would not shy away from opposing the revocation of Article 370 as and when she was  freed. She also tweeted that Mehbooba after her release would “approach all stakeholders for a joint strategy to move forward”.

But as of now, it is unclear if the Centre will at all release Mehbooba in the near future. More so, when she remains committed to take on New Delhi on Article 370, as the tweets of her daughter imply. So far, the leaders who have been released are understood to have signed a bond of silence with the government. Though no one has officially confirmed the existence of such a bond, the behaviour of the freed leaders has lent credence to such reports. None of them has publicly spoken against the withdrawal of J&K autonomy including even Abdullahs, who have cited continuing detention of other senior leaders as also the Covid-19 outbreak for choosing to defer airing their opinion.

But in Kashmir the rationale for Abdullahs’ silence has increasingly lost its resonance. More so, after the Centre issued a new domicile law for the union territory that has virtually thrown the region open for settlement by non-Kashmiris. The reaction from Omar is seen as mild compared to the enormity of the onslaught.

It is here that people have started looking towards Mehbooba as someone who can stand up to centre. And Iltija’s tweets on her behalf that reflect the resolve to confront New Delhi  have raised Mehbooba’s political stock, even when she continues to be under detention. And this is such a redeeming turnaround for her considering that for several years before  nullification of Article 370  on August 5, she had become arguably the most hated politician in Kashmir. The reason for this is the 2016 unrest that led to killing of around 100 youth and blinding of several hundred, most of them in South Kashmir, a stronghold of Mehbooba’s party, the PDP. Subsequently, her unpopular government with the BJP further eroded her support base. So much so, when the BJP withdrew its support to her government in June 2018 forcing her to resign, Kashmir was ecstatic with joy. Across the social media, Mehbooba losing power turned out to be a venting session for the accumulated mass contempt for her. Scores of memes, that started doing the rounds captured the catharsis in the Valley.

One such meme went like this: “Mehbooba detergent: pehle Istimal karein, phir vishwas naa karein (first use and then don’t even trust,” a variation on a famous jingle about a detergent.

This was one of the lowest points in her career. More so, when until her alliance with the BJP, Mehbooba had incarnated a leader who could command a degree of credibility hardly enjoyed by any other establishment leader in Kashmir, including Abdullahs.

Despite being the daughter of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, a former J&K Chief Minister and India’s Home Minister, Mehbooba didn’t receive power on a platter. She had to work her way from the ground up. And she did this  by refusing to stay at an antiseptic distance from the people, a cardinal safety principle followed by the mainstream politicians since the outbreak of separatist insurgency in 1989. She got down and dirty on the ground, leading rallies and protests. She mourned the death of militants, for which sometimes she travelled deep into the treacherous interiors to visit the families. She would lead impassioned protests against human rights abuse, deliver hysterical speeches in which she lashed out at the state and the centre for the human rights abuse in Kashmir.  And then it all unravelled in 2016 unrest. 

But eight months of imprisonment seem to have helped Mehbooba  get back into  public favour. But, as of now, public rethink about her remains incipient and tentative. It is largely driven by an imagined expectation that once freed she will not only articulate the grievances in Kashmir but also take on Centre over  the August 5 decision. Reinforcing  this expectation is that Mehbooba has done this in the past. In the run up to revocation of Article 370, she had often warned the Centre against the move. One of her tweets during that time went like this: “We want to tell the central government that tinkering with Article 35-A will be akin to setting a powder keg on fire. If any hand tries to touch Article 35-A, not only that hand, but that whole body will burn to ashes.”

This tweet was cited as one of the grounds of Mehbooba’s detention under Public Safety Act in the six page dossier prepared by Home Ministry.  The PSA was slapped against her along with Omar but in latter’s case, it has now been withdrawn. For now, Mehbooba’s detention has shored up her political standing. But if she does make scrapping of Article 370 an issue following her release, and offers people a plan to resist it, it will once again give her a distinct edge over Abdullahs.

Doing so, however, won’t be without its risks. She could end up going back to jail considering the Centre  over the past eight months has shown itself averse to expression of even a peaceful democratic dissent in Kashmir. There is thus a severely restricted space for any political activity in the union territory, as Abdullahs’ silence has underlined.  Will Mehbooba, as and when she is released, unseal her lips? Well, the future of her politics will depend on what choice she makes.

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Riyaz Wani

Riyaz Wani is the Political Editor at Kashmir Observer

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