Rise of the anti-lotus league in Kashmir

The anti-BJP narrative served PAGD just right; in fact, it is the only thing that makes the regional parties “relevant” in the current times.

The last time I visited the valley’s unsettled unionist camp was back in June 2019. My editor wanted me to report on the ‘alienated’ local outfits – the feeling of ‘betrayal’ had left New Delhi’s ‘old-loyalists’ in Kashmir, hurt and embarrassed.

One such unionist I had met was a close aide of Mehbooba Mufti, youth leader Waheed Parra of Peoples Democratic Party.

I had quoted Waheed in my report as having felt “cheated”, which he had opposed of not having said “on record” and that it was a casual conversation. Eventually, we reasoned that out and the report stayed, as published.

But there is one bit I remember specifically from that meeting. Waheed had said, restlessly: “You know… I can foresee something bigger being conspired…”

The youth leader having ‘big say’ on the state of affairs in Kashmir once, wasn’t wrong. In the theatre of suspense and rumours that derailed the calm of the valley in the summer of 2019, BJP-led government was indeed setting the stage for their fountainhead’s dream.

Waheed’s premonition of sorts became reality two months later, on August 5, 2019, when the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir was snatched away by the Narendra Modi government.

For “national interest”, all prominent flag-bearers of Indian democracy in Kashmir were condemned like the battered Hurriyat camp. They were put under detention, including former chief ministers, Mehbooba Mufti, and the father-son duo of Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah of the National Conference.

For the year that followed, politics in Kashmir suffered a serious death blow. It was only in November 2020 that the process of its so-called ‘revival’ began in the backdrop of recently concluded District Development Council polls, a first such electoral practice since the August 5-move.

‘Democracy’ is said to be making a return in the valley – and – so making a comeback, are its old-and-known stakeholders.

On November 20, Waheed Parra filed his DDC nomination from his native Pulwama, a militancy-raged region in southern Kashmir. The next day, he was summoned by the National Investigation Agency, NIA, in connection with a “terror case” involving J&K Police’s tainted officer, Davinder Singh who was caught with Hizbul Mujahideen militants in January 2020. Presently under a judicial remand in New Delhi, Waheed is accused of having “close links” with arrested militants.

Only a week before his arrest, we happened to cross paths at a residence of his colleague in Baghat, Srinagar. This was the first time since my visit in June, last year, we met, and the conversation that followed only resumed from where it was last left.
Disheartened, he spoke, off the record, of the August 5 “betrayal”, his experience as a political detainee, “the cost of India’s democracy in Kashmir”, and the year that was for politics in the valley. Every word of his bore testimony to the indignity of Kashmir’s unionist camp in the current times.

Attempting to sum up Waheed’s political “grief”, a friend of his, Mohit Bhan, also a party spokesman, said to me: “During 2014 general elections, this man campaigned in every nook and corner of south Kashmir.

“Today also there is a so-called election season… But you will not see Waheed even leaving his bed on time,” Mohit chuckled.

Acknowledging with a smirk, Waheed added: “You can’t call this election…”

“It’s a farce!”

But Waheed won the same “farce” when DDC ballots were put to count on December 22. In fact, this was his maiden participation in electoral politics. Of total 1,851 votes polled for the Pulwama 1 constituency, he secured 1,323.

Since he could not campaign, his friends and relatives had to canvas for him. On December 6, his lady leader Mehbooba Mufti had told the people of Pulwama: “You all are aware that Waheed has always raised his voice against cruelty and he is being punished for that today. I hope your vote will be an answer to Delhi’s tyranny.”

The message to New Delhi was indeed clear. Pulwama, as usual, recorded the lowest voter turnout in the valley, a mere 6.7% out of an overall 34%.

The people in Kashmir were expected to boycott the electoral exercise, and unsurprisingly, they did; likewise, were the expectations from unionist parties. Last time the local elections were held, back in 2018, these political outfits had stayed away as a mark of protest to “safeguard” the special status of J&K.

Two years later, the same elections were contested, this time, with the intention to “restore”, what is now a long hard battle.

This decision of contesting the DDC elections has had left divisive opinions; some saw it as unionist camp’s “desperate” attempt to regain the “lost dignity”.

For National Conference’s Aga Ruhullah, an influential Shia leader, these elections were nothing but a “deep trap” set by New Delhi that the regional parties “keep falling into”.

“…they are setting the rules and you are playing by that,” Ruhullah had said in a series of tweets that followed after regional parties announced its poll-participation. In July, he had resigned from the post of NC’s chief spokesman amid rumours of ‘dissent’ within the party.

When I had met him for an interview at his Budgam residence last month, Ruhullah clearly stated: “The sole purpose of this alliance should be the restoration of the special status, and not get involved in petty electoral gains.”

But like it is said, desperate times call for desperate measures. From being foes once, to becoming best of the friends today – the regional parties in Kashmir have been doing anything and everything it can to regain “relevance” in the current times. Being addressed by some as a “gang”, they prefer calling themselves an “alliance” – the People’s Alliance of Gupkar Declaration, PAGD.

I questioned PAGD’s Convenor, Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami, Kashmir’s seasoned card-carrying Marxist, if the alliance has come up with a ‘roadmap’ as yet: “You journalists ask us about our strategy… arre bhai, hame abtak mauka hi kaha mila hai? [When have we even had the opportunity to do plan things out?]

On August 4, 2019, somewhat alarmed unionists—one of them holding a fat law book—had met at the residence of Farooq Abdullah located at the high-security area of Srinagar’s Gupkar road. A joint resolution was passed, under the banner of ‘Gupkar Declaration’, vowing to collectively defend the “identity, autonomy and the special status of J&K against all attacks and onslaughts, whatsoever”.

But within 24 hours, a mockery was made out of it when New Delhi downgraded the semiautonomous state into a union territory.

It took a full year for the Gupkar group to say they stood by their previous year’s declaration. On August 22, 2020, leaders from six political parties met once again at Farooq Abdullah’s residence to pass a joint statement, maintaining the August 5 move as “unconstitutional”.

Three days after that meeting, I had spoken to Hasnain Masoodi of the National Conference on call.

As a former judge of the J&K High Court, Masoodi in 2015 had ruled Article 370 of the Indian Constitution as ‘permanent’; five years later, now as a politician, Masoodi cried foul – “The rules of the game were not respected… You know, Lord Shri Ram was a ‘maryada purhsottam’ [honourable and righteous], and he always lived by his promises, but his believers back in the Indian Parliament did not. They betrayed us.”

Then, on October 24, the ‘alliance’ met for the third time at the residence of Mehbooba Mufti where it took the name PAGD. It held two more meetings, one in Kargil and another in Jammu; the latter set the tone for the game.

Until its meeting in Jammu on November 7, the PAGD was in dilemma whether to contest the DDC polls or boycott it.

Soon after, a statement was realised where it announced its participation.

Alliance convenor Tarigami added: “Look, we live in a democracy and it makes no sense that we refrain from being a part of it. Hence, it was decided after the meeting in Jammu that it will be in everyone’s interest we contest this DDC elections.”

Meanwhile, cracks have already surfaced between, and even within these ‘unified’ regional outfits.

There has been a controversy over the differences in PAGD seat-sharing, with the grand-old party National Conference fielding its candidate in majority.

There is also confusion among the ground workers; until yesterday, the workers in PDP and NC were against each other, today, they have been campaigning for each other.

To understand how the ground leadership has been tackling this confusion, I accompanied Rouf Bhat of PDP to the party’s first-ever in-house meeting with the workers in Srinagar’s Rawalpora area ahead of the DDC elections. This was just a day after PDP’s co-founder Muzaffar Hussain Baig had quit the party over disagreement with seat-sharing in PAGD.

“PDP is a caravan – some join, some leave, but more importantly, it goes on…” – is how Rouf Bhat justified Baig’s decision to quit PDP.

Pertinently, Rouf himself is new to this ‘caravan’, having joined the party only in recent years. Formerly associated with the National Conference, Rouf has had a simple strategy in place to tackle the ground confusion: “Vote for a Kashmiri!”

Formerly a militant, Rouf was recently summoned by the J&K Police and was asked to report everyday at the local station from 8 am till 8 pm until the end of elections.

Standing at one corner of the room, Rouf addressed his workers: “You must be wondering why PDP allowed the National Conference to field its candidates in majority… I will tell you why. Today, I am here to put an end to all your questions and confusions…”

He continued: “I don’t call these ‘elections’, I would rather say that today we are here to prepare for a war… a Kashmiri war… and to be able to win this war, we will have to look beyond our personal liking-and-disliking, and stay united… We need to understand our responsibilities, the responsibility of securing the future of our coming generations…”

“Until yesterday, this war was restricted to mandir and masjid, but today, it has entered the offices of Patwari and Tehsildar. A certain ill-force in India wants to convert this Muslim-majority Kashmir valley into a minority. They want the settlements of Hindus in this valley. And mind you, it will be this Tehsildar who will decide whether our land should be given to a Hindu, or a Muslim.”

“.. DSP – an outsider, IG – an outsider, SP – an outsider, Governor, Chief Secretary – an outsider, even the DC is not a Kashmiri, and now, they also want the offices of Tehsildar and Patwari to be occupied by outsiders. I will tell you what their plan is… they want to bring us Kashmiris back to the position of 1931, when we were nothing but slaves to the Maharaja.”

“The time has come to save our Kashmir, its people, its culture, its heritage, and that will only happen when we vote for a Kashmiri – be it if he is from NC, or PDP, or of any other party that has united under the banner of PAGD, what’s more important is that he represents our Kashmir.”

When in 2018 the regional parties had boycotted the local elections, it had allowed the right-wing Hindu BJP to make easy inroads in the valley. This time around, too, BJP’s central leadership was expecting a trouble-free walkover, but were left fumed and frustrated with PAGD’s last-minute turnaround. The misery only piled up when the alliance indeed come out victorious.

As predicted, the PAGD did win nine out of ten DDCs in Kashmir, not because it has a ground base, or people support, but majorly because its opposition was the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Even the saffron party is aware it holds no ground in the valley, with Jammu being its forte. It managed to win only three seats in Kashmir out of 140.

The anti-BJP narrative served PAGD just right; in fact, it is the only thing that makes the regional parties “relevant” in the current times.

In the words of a senior leader of National Conference, Salman Sagar: “The only instance when the mainstream gets any relevance is when it shows the BJP how irrelevant are they in Kashmir.

“Else,” he adds, “to be honest with you, the future of mainstream is bleak.”


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