In an exclusive interview with StoriesAsia’s Riyaz Wani, Mufti said that a sustained struggle by Jammu and Kashmir’s people would force New Delhi to restore the erstwhile state’s special status.
SRINAGAR – Ever since former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti was released from fourteen-month-long detention following the revocation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution on Aug. 5, 2019, she has emerged as one of the strongest vocal critics of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the centre and its policies towards the erstwhile state. She was the last among the major Kashmiri leaders to be freed.
Soon after her release, Mufti, along with the leaders from six other mainstream political parties, formed the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) to carry out a joint struggle to restore Article 370 that granted Jammu and Kashmir autonomy under India’s constitution. She was chosen to be the vice president of the alliance, which has come under significant pressure from the central government to give up its demands.
Mufti’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has been at the receiving end of the administration’s ire. Senior leaders of her party like Naeem Akhtar, Waheed Parra, Sartaj Madni and Peer Mansoor Hussain have been re-arrested. According to Mufti, the government is also pursuing investigations against her family members. But through it all, Mufti has held her ground. She says she will not dilute her “principled stand” against the government’s decision to strip the state of its autonomy and statehood. And she is hopeful that a time will come when “a sustained struggle by people of J&K (Jammu and Kasmir)” will force New Delhi to undo the Aug. 5 move.
In an interview, Mufti told Riyaz Wani that the Indian constitution was mauled to fulfill BJP’s political agenda in Kashmir. She also spoke about the Gupkar alliance’s role and the “grave threat” to the Union Territory of Jammu and Kasmir’s demography following the erasure of its autonomy.
Q: How do you see the future of the PAGD without Sajad Lone – the leader of the Peoples’ Conference party – after his exit from the alliance recently?
A: PAGD has given hope and strength to the people of J&K at a time when there is an abnormal silence enforced by barrel of the gun. Undoubtedly, Sajad’s exit has been a loss, but this front was formed for a larger cause. We have to carry on with the struggle and our objectives.
Q: People from your party are in detention. Why is it so? Only two years ago, you were allied with the BJP in the state government?
A: GOI (Government of India) is desperately trying to project a normalcy narrative. It’s a parallel universe where Kashmiris are projected to be happy with the abrogation of Article 370. Anyone challenging this narrative is treated as an enemy and subjected to harassment on multiple levels. PDP being vocal is viewed as a threat to this false narrative.
Q: The PAGD has been formed to struggle for the restoration of Article 370? Do you really believe that Aug. 5, 2019, constitutional changes can be reversed? More so, when there is now a broad political consensus in India on what was done to Jammu and Kashmir?
A: History is witness that any decision not acceptable to people doesn’t stand the test of time. In this case, the Indian Constitution was mauled just to fulfill BJP’s short-sighted and political agenda. In J&K, there have been periods of false calm after every episode of treachery inflicted by Delhi, but then people rise and challenge the onslaught on their identity. The recent farmer laws are yet another example of how people can stand up and effectively challenge GOI’s autocratic decisions.
I am hopeful that the situation will change and the centre will, at some point in time, realise that the withdrawal of Article 370 is not in the interest of the country. But I know it will be a long struggle. And we have to brace ourselves for this. Ours is a just and peaceful struggle. It is a struggle within the ambit of the constitution. And we will pursue it democratically.
Q: Kashmiri leaders hope that the judiciary may overturn the Aug. 5 decision. But the Supreme Court hasn’t heard the case in a long time while the facts on the ground in Kashmir are being changed – the last hearing was on Mar. 20, 2020. If there’s more delay, will it be possible for the court to turn back the clock?
A: I believe that the struggle for J&K’s special status is going to be a political struggle wherein masses will have to unite and fight for our common cause. Even from the judicial perspective, it’s unfortunate and alarming that the judiciary has not shown any urgency on such a sensitive issue and has been dragging its feet.
Q: Even though the PAGD is for the restoration of Jammu and Kasmir’s autonomy, it has, so far, done little to mobilize people against the constitutional changes. Has it stopped short of even calling for a peaceful protest – or, for that matter, a hartal?
A: People in J&K have been stupefied into silence and submission. The extraordinary deployment of troops and the surveillance shows you the extent of suppression that has been imposed here. GOI has also deliberately taken decisions that have sent the local economy into a tailspin. In such circumstances, even a peaceful protest is seen as a threat to law and order. People at this time are in grave financial distress, so we have to factor that in as well. Having said that, as a party, until now, all our attempts to lodge peaceful protests were thwarted by the administration.
Q: There is fear in Kashmir that the domicile and the new land laws – which allow outsiders to buy land and settle in Kashmir – will alter the Union Territory’s demography and turn the region’s Muslim majority into a minority. How valid do you think this fear is?
A: The manner in which GOI is putting our resources, land and jobs on sale points to a very sinister agenda of changing the demography here. They believe that J&K is a religious problem, and this conflict will be resolved by changing the composition of the Muslim majority character of the state. Sweeping demographic changes will not take much time at this rate unless we, not just the mainstream but the masses of J&K, stand together as a unit to fight for our rights.
Q: Delimitation exercise seems geared to end the political centrality of the Kashmir region in the Union Territory and make Jammu electorally at par with the Valley in the next election. How do you look forward to a prospect of the Kashmiri leaders like you, who have been chief ministers, to playing second fiddle to leaders from Jammu?
A: I have made it clear that this problem is much bigger than my political career or my party. It is sad to see the media reducing it to the binaries of GOI vs. mainstream parties. Our joint identity and culture are under grave threat. Having failed miserably to deliver on other fronts, BJP is trying to implement its divisive model in J&K also by pitching Jammuites against Kashmiris.
(The interview has been edited for clarity)
(Featured Image By Vivek Singh)
Riyaz Wani is an independent journalist with StoriesAsia, a collective of freelance journalists in South and Southeast Asia.