I first met Mufti Mohammed Sayeed in 1986. He had just been purged from Jammu & Kashmir because of the Congress-National Conference accord and appointed Union Minister of Civil Aviation and Tourism. Puffing away at a cigarette in a style you no longer see, he wryly told me about his difficult years in a state where the National Conference had been the dominant party. “It has not been easy to be a Congressman in Kashmir,” he said, “You have to develop a thick skin for the abuse and difficulties heaped on you.”
Over the years, I met him several
times, though I cannot claim to be any kind of a friend or even an
acquaintance of his. Ours was a purely professional relationship of a
journalist and a politician. But besides Civil Aviation and Tourism,
Kashmir itself was suddenly rising in the national consciousness.
A fateful shift
Saheb did not stick long with the Congress, especially with the
neophytes around Rajiv Gandhi who were running it. He quit with VP Singh
and joined the Jan Morcha in 1987, a development which was to have
fateful consequences for the country.
Typical of his style, where
symbolism triumphed over substance, VP Singh decided to “solve” the
simmering Kashmir problem, which had just led to a near total boycott of
the 1989 General Election in the Valley, by appointing a Valley
Kashmiri as the Union home minister in his government. The unintended
result flowing from this was the detonator which triggered the Kashmir
explosion. In a bid to free their colleagues, some militants of the
Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front kidnapped his daughter Rubaiya.
Social pressure almost persuaded the JKLF to release Rubaiya but the
Cabinet Committee on Security jumped the gun and agreed to the
kidnapper’s earlier demands and ordered the release of the JKLF leaders
in exchange. Two senior ministers – Inder Kumar Gujral and Arif Mohammed
Khan flew down to Srinagar to compel a reluctant Chief Minister Farooq
Abdullah to implement the decision. The sight of New Delhi caving in
transformed the Kashmiri protest and triggered off the militancy.
Ups and downs
most Valley Kashmiris, Mufti, who was born in 1936 and educated in
Srinagar and the Aligarh Muslim University, began political life as a
member of the Democratic National Conference founded by G.M Sadiq in
1957 in opposition to the NC being run by J&K Prime Minister Ghulam
Mohammed Bakshi. But central pressure forced Sadiq to re-merge his DNC
with the National Conference in 1960. Mufti contested and won the
Bijbehara legislative assembly seat in 1962.
However, after Bakshi
lost support and was removed and later arrested in 1964, Sadiq became
the Chief Minister and in 1965 merged the NC with the Congress. Sayeed
who won the Bijbehara seat again, was appointed Deputy Chief Minister of
what was now the Congress party government. In 1972, as a member of the
Legslative Council, he became the Minister for Public Works in the
state government headed by Syed Mir Qasim who had succeeded Sadiq. In
1975 he became the leader of the Congress legislature party in J&K.
However, the carpet was swept under the feet of Congressmen when Indira
Gandhi signed an accord with Sheikh Abdullah in 1974, paving way for the
return of an NC government, confirmed by its victory in the state
assembly elections of 1977 in which Mufti lost in his Bijbehara
Given this experience, Mufti and his fellow
Congressmen never really liked the periodic flirtation of Indira and
Rajiv Gandhi with the National Conference. They were happiest when
ham-handed efforts by New Delhi to force Farooq to contest the 1983
State Assembly election in an alliance collapsed. But the National
Conference swept the election and so, the following year, Mufti and Arun
Nehru plotted to bring about the fall of the Farooq Abdullah government
in 1984 through the instrumentality of the latter’s brother-in-law Gul
Shah. But by 1986, Rajiv Gandhi reinstated the Congress-National
Conference alliance and Farooq Abdullah returned as chief minister.
To facilitate the alliance between the Congress and the National Conference, Mufti was exiled to New Delhi.
the Rubaiya fiasco, and through the high-tide of militancy in the
1990s, Mufti lay low. He rejoined the Congress, he did put forward his
daughter Mehbooba who won the 1996 state assembly election from
Bijbehara on a Congress ticket when the National Conference won the
election and Farooq Abdullah returned once again as chief minister.
Mufti himself won the Anantnag Lok Sabha seat in 1998.
1998, father and daughter walked out of the Congress, and founded the
Jammu & Kashmir People’s Democratic Party and in a high voltage
campaign contested and lost to Omar Abdullah for the Srinagar Lok Sabha
seat in 1999.
But her hard work and Mufti’s shrewd politics
resulted in the PDP forming the state government in coalition with the
Congress following the state assembly elections of 2002, considered the
fairest ever held in the state. Mufti’s big challenge was to create
space for two mainstream regional parties in Jammu and Kashmir and he
succeeded through a strategy dubbed “soft separatism” by his
adversaries. At the outset, he called for an unconditional dialogue
between the government of India and the Kashmiris to resolve the Kashmir
problem. He emphasised the need for a healing touch in the state,
called for action against custodial deaths and human rights abuses.
However, as per the coalition arrangements, Mufti served till 2005, when
the Congress nominee Ghulam Nabi Azad took over.
Mufti walked out
of the Congress alliance over the Amarnath land transfer decision in
July 2008 and the line up in the state assembly elections which were
due later in the year, saw PDP gains, but not enough to offset the
combined power of the National Conference and Congress.
The second innings
a stint in opposition, the PDP, now well-established in the Valley,
made a comeback winning 28, the largest number of seats in the 2014
state assembly elections. However, riding on the Modi wave, the
Bharatiya Janata Party surged to 25 seats. Observers wondered just how
the circle would be squared considering that the BJP famously stands for
gutting whatever is left of Kashmiri autonomy, rather than enhancing
it. Mufti decided to bite the bullet and go in for a coalition with the
The negotiations between the coalition partners were intense
and lasted more than two months. The BJP decided to go out of its way to
reassure the nervous Valley politicians and even gave up the idea of
rotating the chief ministership and accepted Mufti as the chief minister
for the full six-year term. Issues like Article 370 and the idea of
removing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act were kicked to a committee.
Mufti took office for the second time as chief minister on March 1,
As Mufti’s record shows, he changed his allegiance many
times and has been called an opportunist. But he also had qualities of
dogged determination as borne out by his leadership of the Congress
party when it was not easy to be a Congressman in the Valley – the
heyday of Sheikh Abdullah.
The PDP, founded by him and
established by his daughter, has introduced a stabilising element into
Kashmiri politics by ensuring that the National Conference does not see
itself as the default party of the Kashmiri Muslims. More important, it
is, like the National Conference, rooted in the belief that Jammu and
Kashmir is very much a part of India. There can be little doubt that
talented politicians like Mehbooba Mufti who will succeed him as chief
minister, are far more gifted than the collection of leaders who call
themselves the Hurriyat.
Scroll January 7, 2016