"The party needs a young and energetic person at the helm of affairs. It's time for me to rest. Omar will be the next National Conference president," longtime National Conference President Farooq Abdullah had announced at an April 2002 meeting of the party's working committee before the Jammu & Kashmir Assembly elections were held that year. It was only seven years later that the father's wish came true. On 5 January 2009, at 38 years of age, Omar Abdullah became the youngest chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir.
Despite their continued political prominence, the past decade has been a rocky ride for the Abdullahs. At the national level, in 2002 Farooq Abdullah's hopes of being nominated for a vice-presidential term by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) – which then included the National Conference – were dashed. Back in Kashmir, in the assembly elections the same year, Omar Abdullah even lost his seat from the family bastion of Ganderbal. In the meantime, the People's Democratic Party (PDP), created by the Abdullahs' longtime bête noire, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, won 16 seats and formed a coalition with the Congress party to rule J & K. The National Conference was thus forced to assume the role of opposition, for which it was particularly unprepared.
The next six years were a challenge. Omar sought to reshape the party's discourse, trying to reposition it by identifying it more clearly with the sentiments of the people of J & K. The 2004 winter session of the Assembly proved to be a turning point for the National Conference, as it effectively raised issues such as the increasingly endemic human-rights violations. Alongside, the party took care to be mindful of the sensitivities of New Delhi, and accordingly nuanced its political stance. A decisive moment came last year, with Omar's impassioned speech against the no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government (a vote that was subsequently defeated). At that point, he admitted to regretting having been a part of the communal NDA, a position that inevitably brought him closer to the Congress party.
During the 2008 assembly elections, the National Conference won a total of 28 seats, the same number it won in 2002. This time around, however, the political scenario was significantly different. No longer politically untouchable, the Congress party decided to form a coalition with the National Conference rather than with the PDP, a decision that seems to have been clinched by Omar Abdullah's no-nonsense image. This stood in sharp contrast to his father Farooq, whose political blunders are thought to have contributed substantially to the insurgency that began in 1989.
History has repeated itself, but after a long hiatus; the Congress party and the National Conference have not been in a coalition for 22 years. The last time the two parties worked together was during the mid-1980s. In 1984, after creating dissension within the National Conference, the Congress had installed a Congress-supported government led by Farooq Abdullah's brother-in-law G M Shah, who headed the Awami National Conference, a breakaway party from the National Conference. Due to the growing unpopularity of the Shah government, a turbulent period known in the Kashmir Valley as the 'curfew Raj' began, and the Congress at the Centre tried to patch up with the National Conference. Farooq's subsequent acceptance of the Congress party's offer to form a coalition government led to widespread disgruntlement. Indeed, a few years later Rajiv Gandhi described the accord as one of the biggest blunders of his political career, as it resulted in a handover of the opposition space to the separatist forces in the Valley. Indeed, the infamous and unpopular Rajiv-Farooq Accord of 1986 is believed to be the root cause of the militancy that has now wracked the state for two decades.
The new coalition between the Congress and the National Conference takes place in completely different circumstances. This time, the arrangement is the product of genuine democratic process coupled with the electoral verdict of the people of J & K. Importantly, there also seems to have been a realisation in New Delhi of the need to desist from interfering in the democratic process of J & K. The 2008 poll verdict reflects the present-day political reality, in that no particular party can claim to be the sole representative of the people. It is therefore important to fully comprehend the recent results based on micro-realities. As such, the real test of the National Conference-Congress coalition will be determined by how far the political elite in J & K is able to formulate a vision responsive to the aspirations of the diverse communities and regions within.
The election results reveal complexities that impact on the polity and, in many ways, offer a cogent explanation of the direction in which J & K is headed. For instance, the National Conference was able to hold onto its bastion in Srinagar District, indicating that the party's historical legacy remains intact in the Kashmiri-speaking heartland. It is in this belt that Sheikh Abdullah, Omar's grandfather, galvanised the people against the 'two-nation' theory in 1947, amidst the communal frenzy that gripped the Subcontinent at the time. In the recent assembly election, the PDP was routed in this area, as three members of the prominent Karra family were defeated. This took place despite the fact that, in the early 1950s, family patriarch Ghulam Mohiuddin Karra had been one of the first pro-Pakistan voices from the Kashmir Valley, and continued to command significant influence in Srinagar even during the time of Sheikh Abdullah and the decades that followed. The PDP's choice of the Karra family was obvious, symbolising as it did the anti-Abdullah sentiment in Srinagar.
Though recently defeated in Srinagar, the PDP was able to hold onto its electoral turf in south Kashmir. This was due to patron Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's longstanding contacts with the cadre-based Jamaat-e-Islami. Amidst the less understood caste factor in the Valley, Sayeed's background – upper-caste Muslim rural elite – makes him a favourite among the Jamaat's upper echelons, who belong to the same caste. In other areas as well, the ethnic polarisation among various Muslim communities dictated the verdict. For instance, in the peripheral parts of the Kashmir Valley and the hilly areas of the state, ethnic Gujjars voted for their ethnic candidate. This explains the defeat of National Conference stalwart Mohammad Shaffi Uri in the Uri constituency for the second consecutive time, where a consolidation of the Gujjar electorate occurred in favour of Gujjar candidate Taj Mohi-ud-din of the Congress party.
The PDP could likewise increase its strength in the Rajouri-Poonch belt of Jammu, as it was able to take advantage of polarisation between the Pahari and Gujjar communities. In Mendhar constituency, the party fielded an upper-caste Rajput Muslim, Sardar Rafiq Khan, who was able to drum up the support of the Pahari-speaking community and defeat the National Conference's Gujjar candidate. Just the reverse occurred in the Gujjar-dominated area of Dharhal assembly segment of the same belt, where the PDP was able to win after it fielded a Gujjar candidate. Incidentally, both candidates were once National Conference loyalists, and the results following their about-turn point to the growing importance of caste and ethnicity in the elections.
Another interesting development occurred in the areas of Doda-Kishtwar-Ramban, though here the trend goes against the polarisation along religious and caste lines that has been seen elsewhere. In this hilly belt of Jammu, national-level Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, who himself won from Bhaderwah, was able to rally both the Muslim and Hindu communities in favour of his party, which won five out of six seats here.
In Ladakh, the electorate preferred pragmatic politics to unachievable political goals. Voters rejected the Ladakh Union Territory Front, whose main demand was to separate Ladakh from the rest of J & K. Instead, the Congress candidate, Rigzin Jora, won from Leh. He never opposed the demand for separation, but stressed the primary importance of resolving the immediate problems of the region.
Meanwhile, the BJP's revival in Jammu is notable, and can be put down to a combination of several factors. The party's main slogan was "ending regional discrimination with Jammu". The real or perceived grievance, while political in nature, is articulated in terms of economic grievance, and the BJP's rise is directly related to the exploitation of this grievance. Less understood in the larger Kashmir discourse are the internal political contestations between the three regions of the state. Earlier regimes eventually resorted to the appointment of judicial commissions in order to tackle the problem of regional animosity, which ultimately proved to be a remedy worse than the disease. Instead, the problem needs to be tackled by a rational and enlightened political vision.
As the Abdullah dynasty was staging a political comeback in Jammu & Kashmir, events across the Line of Control were taking on a different tone. In Azad Kashmir, which has a population of about three million, Sardar Attique Ahmed Khan, the son of Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan, lost a no-confidence vote against his government in the Legislative Assembly. This led to the appointment of Sardar Muhammad Yakoob Khan as the new head of the executive, known in Azad Kashmir as the prime minister. Sardar Attique's removal from power was the result of a coup within the ruling Muslim Conference.
Sardar Attique has subsequently accused the Pakistan People's Party-led government in Islamabad of dislodging his government. "Democracy has been slaughtered, and I am a casualty of the federal government," he said, terming his ouster "naked aggression in the country's most sensitive region." Sardar Attique's father, Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan, for decades one of the most prominent pro-Pakistan voices in the region, had begun to support Pervez Musharraf's policy of reconciliation with India on Jammu & Kashmir. It was this support for Musharraf that is now seen to have led to his downfall.
The regime in power in Islamabad has always been an important determinant in deciding who governs Azad Kashmir. The region, for a long time, had a presidential system of governance, but without the participation of the people in the selection process. Since 1947-48, nominees of the Muslim Conference were picked by the federal government to serve as president of the region. Oddly, though, the Muslim Conference was the only political party in the region, and therefore was the sole ruling party. Only in 1969 did the People's Party of Pakistan set up its unit in Azad Kashmir, which was the start of multi-party politics in the region.
One election took place in Azad Kashmir during Ayub Khan's military tenure, in 1961. At that point, in the belief that Western-style democracy could not work in Pakistan, Ayub attempted to implement his idea of 'basic democracies', an indirect election to select president. In accordance with this idea in Azad Kashmir, a council of members was elected by the people and a chief advisor (an appointee of the Pakistan government) nominated one of the elected members of the council as the president. This brought into power Azad Kashmir President K H Khurshid, a valley Muslim. Khurshid, who had served as private secretary to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was forced to resign by the federal government and was later jailed. In 1974, during Bhutto's regime, the prime-ministerial system was introduced in Azad Kashmir, and for the first time the legislature was directly elected by the people.
Nevertheless, intervention by the federal government continued. During Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's government (1971-77), another Azad Kashmir president, Sardar Qayyum, was suddenly arrested by a mid-level official in Muzaffarabad, and was subsequently dismissed. Likewise, during General Zia ul-Haq's regime, from 1977 to 1988, Brigadier Hayat Khan was appointed administrator of the region, a post he held for seven years. When a civilian government was re-established in Pakistan in 1988, Benazir Bhutto's swearing-in as prime minister was followed by the installation of an elected government of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party in Azad Kashmir. It was no surprise that when Bhutto was sacked, in 1990, Azad Kashmir Prime Minister Mumtaz Rathore was 'escorted' to Islamabad in a helicopter, where he was made to sign a letter of resignation.
Even in 2001, the military regime had to broker a deal between the two factions of the Muslim Conference. Both of these factions had their own claimant for the prime minister's post. Under the tacit understanding mediated by General Musharraf, Sardar Sikandar Hayat Khan was appointed as prime minister, and it was decided that, in the 2006 elections, Sardar Attique Khan would be the party's nominee for the post of prime minister. This deal brought a truce between the two factions. Though Sardar Sikandar Hayat Khan completed his tenure in 2006 – coinciding with Gen Musharraf's rule – Sardar Attique was not so lucky with the new dispensation at the federal level.
Besides intervention in choosing the heads of Azad Kashmir, the Azad Jammu & Kashmir Council, based in the posh F-6 sector of Islamabad, has become the central oversight agency for the area, having acquired de-facto powers of resource allocation to Azad Kashmir for both federal and provincial funds. Out of 14 members, the Council has seven members from the Pakistan government, including the federal prime minister, who chairs the Council. Such types of institutional control of Azad Kashmir by Islamabad are one of the main reasons that the ruling elite of Azad Kashmir continually strives to keep the Centre in good humour. Sardar Attique's outspoken support for Musharraf is now regularly referred to as the main reason for the new federal government's ire towards him. Over the past year, Sardar Attique repeatedly tried to meet with President Asif Ali Zardari to mend fences, but to no avail. This, it is now said, was the main rationale for the coup that eventually took place within his party.
Omar Abdullah's rise symbolises the emergence of a new generation of decision-makers in Kashmir. And while the results of the assembly election reflect J & K's demographic diversity, they are also indicative of the multitude of problems currently confronting the polity. Looking ahead, the discourse on autonomy is set to pick up momentum, and the National Conference needs to understand that there can be no movement until consensus emerges on the matter in each of the three regions of the state – Jammu, the Kashmir Valley and Ladakh. As such, prior to initiating talks with New Delhi regarding autonomy and Centre-state relations, the National Conference-led government needs to begin an earnest process to decentralise political, social and economic powers from the state to region to district to block to Panchayat. This is the only way that J & K's diverse communities will ever be able to feel politically empowered.
There is a pressing need to understand that the centralised administration has proved inept in dealing with the diverse region. The hostility between Jammu, the Kashmir Valley and Ladakh is currently at an all-time high. The idea of a five-tier governance set-up would spare the political executive – based in the capital cities of Srinagar (summer) and Jammu (winter) – the need to justify every policy by the yardstick of parity in the three regions. This would also give the National Conference a qualitative edge by ensuring that all the heterogeneous communities in J & K would rally behind it when it eventually takes up negotiations with New Delhi on the issue of autonomy.
Local identities in J & K need to be institutionalised in order to help the regional secular parties, including the National Conference, to formulate a progressive agenda. Besides being Muslim majority, J & K is multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-regional. Localised identities are a strong secularising force, and constitute the best antidote to extreme religious or communal sentiments. Such an institutionalisation would also do much to strengthen the state's democratic institutions, while simultaneously preventing the communal polarisation that grips J & K from time to time, as with the Amarnath land dispute in mid-2008. All of which would also help in clearly charting out a smooth relationship between J & K and the Indian union.
There are other inter-linked problems, as well. For instance, there is a need to understand the ethnic and cultural diversity factor within the Muslim fold itself, which has an immediate and direct impact on developments within the state. This factor was underlined by the recent election results. Gujjars and Bakerwals, nomadic tribes who form about 12 percent of the state's population, remain on the margins of society, and are yet to be integrated into the mainstream. Despite the Scheduled Tribe status granted to both of these communities in 1991, they have been denied political reservation. Indeed, the political elite of J & K is causing harm to its own reputation by not integrating progressive legislation, such as reservation, into its general functioning. The reluctance of the National Conference on the matter is particularly galling, since it has always taken the lead in political reform. It was the J & K's Constituent Assembly, under the Sheikh Abdullah-led National Conference, that passed the revolutionary 1951 legislation on land reform, a feat achieved elsewhere only by left-led Kerala and West Bengal. Under the leadership of Omar Abdullah, the National Conference needs to carry forward the party's progressive agenda by stressing its contemporary relevance.
The new political leadership will also have to be responsive to the needs of divided families, who continue to suffer from the Line of Control. While there have been significant gains with the softening of the frontier with Azad Kashmir since 7 April 2005, the process of permits and travel needs to be further simplified, to allow for more people to take advantage of this facility. This is all the more important in the mistrustful environment following the Bombay attacks. Developing stakes in peace on both sides of the Line of Control would go beyond helping bonding in Kashmir, as it would also be a fillip to India-Pakistan relations.
The problem of displacement, meanwhile, remains where it was. Besides about 53,000 Kashmiri Pandit families that migrated from the Valley after 1987, there are other categories of refugees as well, such as non-camp Chamb refugees of the 1971-72 war and refugees from hilly areas of Jammu such as Doda and Rajouri. Repeated migration due to various factors has been central to J & K's conflict-ridden history during the past six decades, and many of these are still awaiting redress. Likewise, there is a critical need for the new government to look into the recent cases of human-right abuse by the security forces. Post-2002 events in J & K have clearly demonstrated that the people's participation in democratic functioning is directly related to respect for human rights. The new leadership needs to ensure that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's vision of 'zero tolerance' for human-rights violations is put into operation. This cannot happen in a vacuum, and there is an immediate need is to strengthen the J & K Human Rights Commission, by giving it real powers to look into cases of rights abuse.
The list of problems afflicting J & K can seem endless, due to the multitude of factors that have remained unaddressed for over six decades. It is now up to the new leadership, under Omar Abdullah, to decide whether he will oversee yet another executive arrangement, or whether this time around his government is able to formulate and implement a new vision for the people of J & K.
~ Luv Puri has reported from Jammu & Kashmir on both sides of the Line of Control. He is presently on a Fulbright media fellowship in New York.