Bid to form a King's party in J&K

After six months under detention, two former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti have now been charged under the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA). This will allow them to be imprisoned for up to two years without trial. Both had been detained on August 5, 2019 under Section 107 of the Criminal Procedure Code which allows apprehension of an individual likely to disturb peace and public tranquillity, for upto six months. That ended on February 5. They have now been arrested under the PSA.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech in Parliament targetted both leaders. Omar Abdullah was attacked for a statement that turned out to be a quote made up by the satirical website, “Faking News”. Mehbooba was criticised for speaking out against removal of the provisions of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. However as their public position on article 370 was already well-known, their arrests under PSA can be hardly explained by issues raised in the PM’s speech. Their incarceration was far more likely necessitated by the government’s attempt to put together a King’s Party in J&K. A new party would have a greater chance of success if other political leaders were behind bars. About half a dozen leaders, including Farooq Abdullah, have been jailed under PSA.

This scenario recalls the removal of Sheikh Abdullah as Prime Minister (as the Chief Minister was then called) of J&K and the installation of Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad in his place on the night of 8 and 9 August, 1953. Sheikh Abdullah was accused by Delhi of working against the unity and integrity of India.

The then Governor, 22-year-old Karan Singh, claimed in his autobiography, Heir Apparent, that Sheikh Abdullah was arrested by the new government. However, the sequence of events is contradicted by Sheikh Abdullah in his autobiography, Flames of the Chinar, where he claims that he was served three documents together after being woken up from sleep: Karan Singh’s order dismissing him, a memorandum signed by Bakshi and other cabinet ministers expressing no confidence in him and a warrant for his arrest. Clearly, the conspirators in Delhi and Srinagar had to ensure that no popular challenger remained at large before Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad was sworn in at 4 AM.

Sheikh Abdullah stayed in jail for 11 years. Those arrested under PSA today are also unlikely to be released any time soon.

Mehbooba Mufti, Omar Abdullah

A King’s Party is always put together with the help of renegades, opportunists and those susceptible to pressure. Although Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s Peoples Democratic Party was rumoured to have been set up with help from Delhi, Pakistan provides excellent examples of how political Establishments put together a pliable party. The two most recent are the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam) and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

PML (Q) was formed with a core group of defectors from Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) goaded by the stick of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). The Pakistan army, the interior ministry and senior police officers actively canvassed for the formation of the new party. The birth of Imran Khan’s PTI, was also assisted by the Pakistan military establishment. This writer, then travelling in Pakistan, was told by a former minister to observe the paraphernalia for public meetings held by Imran Khan’s party, “You will notice that the party flags and their staffs are all of the same size. Their tents… are also of a standard size. This is a sure-shot way of confirming that this is a Pakistan army operation.”

Sharif was first sent to jail, later exiled, and his party disqualified from contesting the polls. In J&K too, political leaders who have had to give undertakings of “maintaining peace” before they are released will have no credibility with the electorate. Others who have refused to give an undertaking of political silence remain in jail. The field is clear of challengers to the King’s party.

The Home Ministry as the key actor in ‘restarting’ the political process in J&K has many persuasive instruments at its disposal to facilitate the formation of a pliable political party. Like Pakistan’s NAB, many believe that India’s National Investigating Agency (NIA) has been active in conditioning Kashmir’s politicians.

Among the flurry of Kashmiri politicians who have suddenly become active are Altaf Bukhari, whose brother has been questioned by the NIA over terror-funding. Bukhari organised a meeting of some former ministers and other politicians in Srinagar last week. They have reportedly decided to seek a meeting with the prime minister and Home Minister Amit Shah to discuss the restoration of the region’s statehood and to raise local concerns about government jobs and land ownership.

This agenda fits almost too well with reports that the government wants to give concessions like full statehood to the union territory and restrict government jobs and land purchase to those domiciled for 15-years. Both Bukhari and another former minister, Muzaffar Hussain Baig, have been making noises about going beyond Article 370 and moving ahead with a realist agenda. Bukhari is reported as saying, “I can only promise and fight for what is doable. Protecting the rights of my people is possible. I cannot make the same promise about the restoration of Article 370 and it would be wrong to take my people down that road.” Although Baig has recently been awarded the Padma Bhushan, Delhi’s tilt is towards Bukhari to start a new political process. He is already holding meetings with government functionaries in Srinagar.

But a King’s party is an exercise in hubris. It epitomises the arrogance of the Establishment to impose a leader of its choice on the electorate. In Kashmir it also represents a refusal to engage the people on their own terms.  

A King’s party seldom outlasts the reign of the King. The PML (Q) disintegrated with the resignation of General Pervez Musharraf. The PDP in J&K collapsed after it refused to do the bidding of its masters in Delhi. The new King’s party in J&K will also meet the same fate.

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