Kashmir Politics: Combinations and Permutations

Published in Kashmir Herald, January 2, 2006, by K. N. PANDITA

OPINION – Kashmir politics has usually been a strange mix of various facets of her social, historical and political life. Like other parts of the country, the urban segment of her society performed the frontline role in the freedom movement. Naturally, urban elements in political arena became the leading light. In the process, social constituencies emerge to provide direction to a political, intellectual or ideological movement.

The tallest among the Kashmir leaders, Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, came from the urban segment of Kashmir society. His unquestioned popularity and deep impact on contemporary Kashmir history served the prime catalyst to the growth and evolution of concentration of political and economic power with the urban (Srinagar) elite.

Given the peculiar situation of Kashmir, like the geography, demography and ideological sweep, it became unavoidable for the Congress leadership in the period immediately following India’s independence to lean more and more on the Sheikh, and, by implication, on the Srinagar elite. Although the Sheikh hailed from Srinagar, yet he shrewdly made himself the supreme spokesman of the interests of J&K peasantry. The adoption of the plough as the insignia of NC flag was highly meaningful and communicative. The slogan of “land to the tillers”, as enshrined in Naya Kashmir Manifesto, and later on practically implemented by the Sheikh soon after he became the Prime Minister of the State, by and large sealed the chances of emergence of rural political leadership replacing him as long as he was there on the scne.

The Indian leadership, conscious of many fragile links in the accession phenomenon, found escape in contributing to the impregnability of the urban elite of Srinagar. For half a century, the urban elite went on increasing and adding to its political and economic power. It grew bigger than its size.

The urban elite stealthily crawled into the State bureaucracy and administrative apparatus. Vested interests surfaced and matrimonial alliances further cemented intra–elite relationship. A change in the regime hardly bore any impact on this social structuring. At the root of complaints of regional disparity and discrimination voiced by people in Jammu, Ladakh and even in parts of rural Kashmir, lay the hand of state bureaucracy too domineering for the political leadership to challenge or dismantle. Thus occasional anti-India antics, which have been the wont of some vocal MLAs or ministers in power, is actually the pure reflex of the thinking and approach of the powerful bureaucracy to preserve its realm.

As long as the rural segment remained comparatively backward in education, politics and economy, not much opposition appeared to the elitist power centre. However, with the passage of time, Kashmir rural population threw up perceptive minds that could analyze a situation that subjected them to disempowerment. The first Kashmir rural leader to challenge the elite power centre was late Abdul Ghani Lone of Kupwar district. The reason for him to float a separate political party has to be traced in that phenomenon.

This situation appears to be very clear to the present Congress-led government in the State. No doubt, the traditional Congress party, too, has its links with the urban elite as usual, but what makes the big difference is that the present Chief Minister hails not from urban Srinagar but from a backward area of Jammu region.

The question is: does he intend to change the societal history of last six decades? If yes, then what are his challenges? Certainly, challenges are many. The steel-framed bureaucracy, the hero-worshipping psyche of Kashmir peasantry, the use of pro-Pak card by dissident political lot, lack of a solid base/constituency in the valley and ambivalence or inconsistency of some of coalition partners are some of his challenges.

As indicated above, the NC is the main architect of urban elite power centre in the capital city. In addition, it has held the peasant psyche in it stranglehold for last six decades. Furthermore, NC is adept in using a double ledged weapon. Lately, its young leader Omar Abdullah emphatically said that he would be offering the proposal of greater autonomy to Kashmir as his party’s solution to the problem when he meets General Musharraf in Islamabad. One should also note that there has been full endorsement of this view by the chief of PDP, Mahbooba Mufti. Thus it appears somewhat difficult for the Congress in Kashmir to establish a solid footing in Srinagar district.

Anantnag district has seen lots of political activity and involvement in contemporary times under all parties but lately under PDP. This party has been able to gain maximum seats from Anantnag and Pulwama districts. With a wide network of militants in these two districts, covert liaison between the militants and the political personalities cannot be ruled out. As such these two districts also promise little for Azad to carve a valley-based constituency for himself.

But Baramulla district is a different story. In the first place, the district has not been able to throw up a strong and influential political leader with a clout in the higher echelons of country’s political structure. Secondly, the demographic complexion of this and Kupwara district is more diverse in comparison to other districts of the valley The Gujjar and Pahari population has always given the Congress party its rightful place at the polls. In the aftermath of recent earthquake, Azad encamped in Tangdhar and Uri and personally supervised the relief work. It is not without significance that he has been able to persuade Sonia Gandhi to pay two visits to the remote areas in the district. The recent announcement of developmental work in Baramulla district to the tune of over 650 crores of rupees is the first occasion when the district has been so manifestly brought on the developmental map of the valley.

Another factor that lends weight to Baramulla district as the future centre of major political permutations and combinations in Kashmir is that the Deputy Chief Minister, Muzaffar Baig also belongs to it. He has established himself as a political leader above board, honest and fair and dedicated to the good of the people. The two in combination can cover a lot of ground in an otherwise barren constituency. Moreover Baramulla as the entrepot along the traditional JV Road, which will be opened for regular trade ultimately, can have a great say in the process of peace and reconciliation with Pakistan.

Obviously PDP has come to realize that its position is vulnerable. One of its senior leaders, Mr. Mir is already unhappy with the stance of the party leadership. The fissure is bound to become wider and deeper. An opportunity has been thrown up for the backward district of Baramulla to forge ahead on the political landscape of contemporary Kashmir and also be the epicenter of a new and emergent political re-alignment with far reaching consequences.

The author is the former Director of Centre of Central Asian Steadies, Kashmir University, India.

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