By Reeta Tremblay*
On April 4, 2016, after three months of Governor’s rule in the ever-volatile Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti was sworn in as its thirteenth Chief Minister. Her appointment to the said position also happens to make her the first woman Chief Minister ever seen by the state. She is heading the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition and carrying forward the Agenda of Alliance (AoA), which is a governance agreement between the two coalition partners. Her success as a leader of this conflictual state, where governance tasks are intertwined with identity issues, will at a minimum depend upon how she is able to get the Modi government to deliver on the items outlined in the Agenda of Alliance. Beyond that she needs to balance the demands of three regions (Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh) and reduce the public space presently being occupied by the Hindu fundamentalists in Jammu and the separatists in the Kashmir Valley.
The Agenda is the guiding framework for governance and an essential document given the ideological contradictory positions of the two parties who are running the show in Jammu and Kashmir. The PDP, a Valley-based party subscribes to pursuing ‘self rule’ as a framework for the resolution of Kashmir, economic and social integration of the region (the Indian state Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir) by setting up a Regional Free Trade Area and a common economic market, and establishing an on-going dialogue with the secessionist and nationalist groups in the Valley. On the other hand, the BJP’s traditional agenda remains the revocation of Article 370 which gives a special status to the State within the Indian constitution, full integration of the State within the Indian federation and the repealing of the Kashmiri citizenship rights which disallow non-Kashmiri citizens to own property and seek employment in the State.
The 2015 elections saw a clear split in the legislature between Hindu-majority Jammu and predominantly Muslim Kashmir, the PDP with 28 seats, almost all from the Kashmir Valley, and the BJP with 25 seats from the Jammu region. That necessitated the formation of a ‘partnership government’, solely on pragmatic grounds, to deliver the governance agenda. Modi, on the eve of the PDP-BJP alliance government, termed the Agenda of Alliance a “historic opportunity” to fulfil the aspirations, interests and priorities of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. The new PDP and BJP partnership was presented to the public as an agenda for good governance and peace. Moreover, for Mufti Sayeed, the architect of the AoA, this was an opportunity for India to win the hearts of the people of the state by overcoming “the distance” they feel from the country. Consequently, in the agreement, the BJP shelved its position on the abrogation of Article 370 and the PDP likewise stepped back from self-rule and related demands for autonomy. But Mufti ensured that the agenda would accommodate the PDP demands for soft borders (travel and trade across the Line of Control) and opening up dialogue with all internal stakeholders (separatists) – to build a broad-based consensus on the resolution of all outstanding issues of Jammu and Kashmir.
The Agenda of Alliance has remained largely undelivered. An excellent opportunity for the BJP as well as the PDP and the country to move forward the cause of peace and security has unfortunately been squandered. There has been a distinct failure of the coalition government to reconcile the identity-based and economic development demands of the different regions of the state with each other’s and with those of the nation. For the Kashmir Valley, it took Modi government more than ten months to commit to financial support to the state government for the rehabilitation of flood victims. For thousands of these victims, an unnecessary delay once again brought home a disappointment. When Modi during his November 2015 visit to Srinagar announced a INR 80,000 crore package to ensure fresh relief for those affected in last year’s flood, along with the development of key sectors like road communication, health, education, tourism, power and urban development, it was already a bit late for him to regain the trust of the Valley’s population. Srinagar remained under a security lockdown during Modi’s visit. Police sharpshooters were stationed on the rooftops of all buildings near the cricket stadium in Srinagar where he addressed a rally where the buildings themselves were occupied by security troops. Most of the people, who attended the rally, including the PDP members, were brought to the stadium in buses under tight security.
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), key obstacle to addressing the trust-deficit, remains intact. After the revocation of AFSPA in Tripura, huge expectation had been built up in the Valley. The army continues to oppose any move to revoke AFSPA and Disturbed Areas Act (DAA) in Jammu and Kashmir, arguing that the gains achieved by security forces in bringing down levels of insurgency and infiltration can reverse rapidly if these are removed.
Jammu region also feels that the AoA has been unable to deliver the promise of the inclusive and balanced development of all three regions of the State. The Government of India’s decision last year to establish an All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Kashmir Valley met with massive public protests from Jammu. Political and social organisations of all ideological leanings participated in the protests, including the National Conference, the Indian National Congress and the Panthers Party, on the one hand and the BJP, the VHP and Bajrang Dal on the other. A compromise solution by Union Health Minister, J P Nadda to have two separate AIIMS-like institutions for both Jammu and the Valley was not viewed favourably.
While the PDP-BJP government remained committed to fulfilling its promise of resettling Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley, the BJP’s proposal to ask the state to find land for separate townships for the Kashmiri Hindu families was met with wide criticism by all parties concerned in the Valley and gave rise to large-scale protests against composite townships. Chief Minister Mufti Sayeed publically denounced any plan for separate townships.
If all this was not enough to derail the AoA, the beef politics, reminiscent of the 2008 Amarnath land row, engulfed the state’s two regions, deepening communal and regional polarization, solidifying vertical divisions. It was the Hindu fundamentalists who were to put the beef ban on the State’s public agenda. The 1932 Ranbir Penal Code, which bans cow slaughter and the sale of beef, has been retained in the Kashmir constitution. However, social practices prevalent in the State have seen tolerance on this issue and this law has never been enforced after 1947. About a year ago, the state’s deputy advocate general, before occupying his position in the PDP-BJP coalition government, had filed a petition in the state’s high court for the enforcement of the beef ban. After becoming deputy advocate general, he has continued to pursue this action. As a result of two contradictory decisions from the state’s high court, the opposition National Conference introduced legislation to remove the law from the books and this, not surprisingly, produced massive reaction and counter reaction in the two regions. An independent MLA, Engineer Rahsheed, was physically beaten by the BJP MLA for hosting a beef party (in response to the high court decision) and an ink attack on him took place outside the Press Gallery. There was a petrol bomb attack on trucks on Jammu-Srinagar highway killing a young Muslim man. All this galvanized the Valley’s Muslim population, creating further distrust and alienation.
One of the serious consequences of the failure of the 10-month PDP-BJP governance agenda is that the separatists in the Valley, who had largely remained an insignificant force during the last few years have been given a new life, by both Jammu’s Hindu fundamentalist and the BJP’s hard core pronouncements on the ‘soft nationalist agenda’ of the PDP. The Kashmiri youth have, in increasing number, begun to join the ranks of the Hizbul-Mujahideen. There is a new wave of militancy. Most of these young militants are educated and are highly motivated.
In February, addressing her party workers, Mehbooba herself expressed very clearly her father’s disappointment with the PDP-BJP coalitions. “Non-fulfilment of promises made by us to the people in the last 10 months taxed Mufti sahib heavily …Till the time he was talking in the Intensive Care Unit of AIIMS, Mufti sahib asked me whether a relief package promised by the Centre had reached the state….I said yes. I lied to my father”.
The BJP’s short-sightedness, in failing to understand that Kashmiri ethno-nationalist aspirations remain alive and deeply entrenched among the Valley’s Muslim population, has been largely responsible for the precarious nature of the alliance. The BJP has equated the demands for dignity and freedom by the Muslim Valley as anti-Indian and anti-national. It has failed to understand the symbolic value of Article 370 which accommodates differences yet builds upon similarities with the Indian multicultural values.
It is no wonder that it took three month for Mehbooba to decide whether to continue with the PDP-BJP coalition and the Agenda of Alliance. The road that lies ahead is both difficult and challenging and she is starting her mandate under the most difficult conditions. The coalition government remains unpopular in the Valley; the separatist groups have once again been able to mobilize the Valley’s discontented population; the Hindu nationalists, within and outside the elected assembly, have become emboldened, threatening the carefully cultivated ‘kashmiriyat’ identity. Add to all this a national discourse of intolerance where Kashmir’s demands for the preservation of its distinct identity and status are interpreted as anti-nationalism and anti-India (one should note here the JNU event where Kashmiri Azadi and Afzal Guru figured prominently and the present NIT student conflict over a cricket match). So far, the previous ten month experience of PDP-BJP has been nothing but negative. Instead of reducing regional tensions and moving forward on the governance agenda, there is an increasing communal, regional polarization, a renewed assertion of separatist politics in the Valley and the promotion of a hard-core Hinduvtva agenda in Jammu. The net result has been an undermining of each party’s support base, which puts seriously into question the durability of the alliance.
Mehooba as the incoming Chief Minister and head of the PDP-BJP coalition has once again reconfirmed her commitment to the implementation of the AoA as promised to the people by her father, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. She asserts that her party is committed to take forward the “agenda of peace, development and reconciliation”. Moreover, according to her, the party remains committed as well to maintain “the communal harmony and brotherhood of the regions of the state, which has a diverse population of different religions”. If Mehooba is to succeed, the Modi government not only has to understand the complexities and ground realties of the Jammu and Kashmir state but will also need to rein in and control the emboldened Hindutva groups in Jammu region. The Modi government will have to learn that a large majority of Jammu’s Hindus voted for the BJP not because of its religious agenda but because of the BJP’s promise of an inclusive development agenda. This is not to deny that since 1952, a minority of Jammu’s Hindus has consistently remained committed to the Hindu nationalist symbols and to the BJP cause of complete accession of the state to India through the revocation of Article 370. The marginalization of this group, just like the marginalization of the extreme separatist groups in the Valley, will crucially depend upon the delivery of governance agenda as promised in the AoA.
*Prof. Reeta Tremblay is a Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. She can be reached at: [email protected]