Why Kashmir’s Leadership has Abdicated at a Critical Time

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Unionist parties held their last meeting on the eve of August 5, 2019 at senior Abdullah’s Gupkar residence.

ON May 25, senior National Conference (NC) leader Aga Ruhullah publicly expressed his resentment over his party’s continued silence over the revocation of Article 370 of India’s Constitution, which granted autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir.

Ruhullah was angry over an article his colleague, Tanvir Sadiq, wrote in a local daily, urging New Delhi to let the local  parties hold political activities. The article sought reconsideration of new domicile rules that for the first time have thrown open the citizenship of Jammu and Kashmir to outsiders, and restoration of high-speed mobile internet – the demands that represented a drastic climbdown from the party’s opposition to the revocation of the autonomy.

“Revisit domicile law? Lift curbs on Internet? ‘LET’ political process … run? Is that all what you are looking for in this reconciliation? If I am not reading (it) wrong, you are basically asking for 4G (internet) and THEIR ‘PERMISSION’ to let us start the political process? & then all is well?” Mehdi wrote on Twitter criticising Sadiq.

Establishment politics in Kashmir is no site for principles and ideology. It is no place for struggle and sacrifice. People don’t join it for conviction or a cause”

Though the NC vice president Omar Abdullah later termed Sadiq’s piece as his personal opinion, and reiterated his party’s stand on Article 370, he stayed well short of spelling out a political course of action to resist the move, something a majority of people in the region want.

Omar was released from nearly eight months of detention on March 24, and that of his father, Dr. Farooq Abdullah, on March 13, the duo has been confronted with a mounting public pressure – mostly expressed through social media – to speak their minds about the withdrawal of the region’s autonomy and lead a public resistance to it. But, in response, the father and son have been meaningfully silent.

They have so far fended off the pressure by citing the urgent need to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. This excuse did work, but only until the Centre slipped in the domicile law opening the door to citizenship for outsiders in Jammu and Kashmir. This is when people began expecting them to respond. Though Omar and his party did slam the move, the phrasing of the response was seen as  mild compared to the far-reaching implications of the domicile order.

Similarly, the rival Peoples Democratic Party, led by Mehbooba Mufti, and the other parties have come out with stock criticism of the move. To understand the muted response of the establishment parties to New Delhi’s withdrawal of the region’s autonomy, one  needs to be aware of the contours of socio-political space in which they operate. Ever since the outbreak of the armed separatist movement in the region in 1989, the pro-establishment politics has been precariously caught between nodding to an endemic anti-India public sentiment and the need to owe allegiance to New Delhi.

This has created its own dilemmas for the politicians in the region – comic, if their fallout was not so messy. The more a political party tries to play to the sentiment in Kashmir, the more it is read as an unwelcome drift towards separatism in New Delhi. And as a corollary, the more a party plays to New Delhi’s expectations, the more it is inferred as a political compromise in Kashmir. So, it should be no surprise if some Kashmiri mainstream politicians talk autonomy and self-rule in Kashmir, governance in Jammu and rail against Pakistan in New Delhi.

This state of affairs has inherently hobbled establishment politics in Kashmir, divesting it of any conviction or an ideological steadfastness. Its practitioners can’t be outrightly supportive of the popular sentiment in Kashmir and nor can they stand forcefully for Kashmir’s place within India. They have to constantly negotiate this divergence, winding up, as a result, neither here nor there.

In comparison, separatist politics is uncomplicated – albeit, it exposes its adherents to harsh retribution from the state. In its existing practice, the separatism involves little negotiation or compromise. It enjoys a whole-hearted support from a predominant majority of people. People are ready to throw everything on the line for an apparently hopeless pursuit of its goal.

Mainstream politics, on the contrary, has a little more than an ad-hoc, utilitarian value. The people are not ideologically invested in it but engage with it as they need a political system that looks to day to day problems. Often, its practitioners are seen as the betrayers of the local sentiment and the cause. As a result, they are exposed to grave personal risks. Several major politicians and numerous political workers have been killed by militants over the past three decades. And unlike separatist leaders or activists, whose suffering commands social respectability and their killing is uncritically elevated to martyrdom, when the adherents of establishment politics are attacked, that is viewed as a deserved comeuppance.

Establishment politics is thus no site for principles and ideology. It is no place for struggle and sacrifice. People don’t join it for conviction or a cause. Their reasons to join are generally self-serving in nature: to enjoy a good life and some petty power. Such political parties may model themselves as a movement for a larger good, but, in practice, they are not fully in control of even the delivery of basic governance, their primary job. A significant proportion of the people who man these political outfits are opportunists. Their words are posturing, their deeds are phony. As for the high-sounding agendas of the parties, they are more of an electoral necessity than a political ideology. The self-rule and the autonomy – formulae of the PDP and the NC respectively for the Kashmir settlement – are the slogans that are used to pander to the Valley’s predominantly separatist constituency when the two parties maintain an adversarial stance towards New Delhi.

This politics, as a result, doesn’t lend itself  to a fight for a larger cause. It offers  deep structural impediments for such a pursuit: For its survival, it has to run with its local constituency and hunt with New Delhi. This has created a breed of leaders who defer to New Delhi’s conditions and have, in turn, been shaped by these conditions. Facing a predicament like the one Kashmir is saddled with now, they would thus prefer silence over talk, and compromise over confrontation.

This is perhaps why, at a time when Kashmir more than ever needs a leadership, nobody is ready to step up to the plate.

Riyaz Wani is the Political Editor at Kashmir Observer. 

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Riyaz Wani

Riyaz Wani is the Political Editor at Kashmir Observer

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