The death of a statesman

Taking everyone along was the hallmark of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s politics. His steady hand will be missed as the stage is set for peace-building to commence once again in Jammu and Kashmir.

>Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, died yesterday after a prolonged illness. Though not unexpected, his death was untimely. He will be sorely missed at a time the State is bracing for two challenges: recovery from the losses suffered in a series of natural disasters, and the search for a revival of the long-stalled peace process.

Radha Kumar
This was Mr. Sayeed’s second term as Chief Minister. His first term, from 2002-2005, was when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was in power at the Centre and his party was in coalition with the Congress in the State. The period can be seen as a turning point for Jammu and Kashmir, when the State began to move away from armed conflict and into peace-building. Mr. Vajpayee’s three-pronged initiative — talks with Pakistan and separately with the Hurriyat, cease-fire negotiations with militant groups, and a humanitarian political approach to the valley and its dispossessed Pandits — was not only crafted with Mr. Sayeed’s support, it was matched by initiatives within the State by Mr. Sayeed’s government.

Prime Minister Vajpayee’s talks with Pakistan soon foundered, and violence hit an all-time high between 2002 and 2004. But the peace process within the State and between New Delhi and Kashmiri dissidents continued under Mr. Vajpayee’s oft-quoted and still-remembered dictum, “insaniyat ke daire mein (within the bounds of humanity)”. Mr. Sayeed and his daughter, >Mehbooba, launched a “healing touch policy” that was a complement to the “insaniyat” doctrine; it comprised restoration of the rule of law in Jammu and Kashmir, including disbanding entities that were outside of it such as the paramilitary Special Operations Group, revitalising administration, especially services for widows and orphans, establishing new institutions of education and health care, supporting civil society, including an independent media, and encouraging erstwhile Kashmiri militants who had crossed over to Pakistan to return to the valley under his version of a disarmament, disbanding and reintegration programme.

Man with the healing touch

It was Mr. Sayeed who implemented the longstanding demand for devolution of power in Ladakh, establishing the Leh and Kargil Hill Councils for local instead of direct administration from Srinagar. The hill councils, especially in Leh, rapidly became a pivot for development and improved governance in Ladakh; their creation settled the bulk of Ladakh’s political grievances. Though the demand for Union Territory status remains, it no longer has the potential for unrest that it did earlier.

Similarly, it was under Mr. Sayeed that the >Central government’s policy to encourage Pandit returns was supported by the State government, albeit reluctantly. Mr. Sayeed saw to it that 2,000 flats were built to relocate returning Pandits, but did not succeed in getting many to return, largely due to the internecine politics within the State.

Mr. Vajpayee’s initiative with Pakistan was revived after the Parliament attack of December 2001 by Pakistan-based militants, which was followed by an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between the two countries’ militaries in 2002. Despite the grim situation, his renewed initiative did yield some results. In 2003 Pakistan declared a unilateral ceasefire along the International Border and the Line of Control, which India reciprocated. The NDA, however, lost the 2004 general election and Mr. Sayeed then worked with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance to continue peace talks. Together with Manmohan Singh, he supported efforts to open roads between the two parts of divided Kashmir; with the typical Kashmiri penchant for symbolism, he lined the roads of the valley with signs saying “Muzaffarabad - x kms”. The impact was electric and the pressure on Pakistan was difficult to resist. The Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road opened in 2005, and soon after cross-border trade began. Militancy began to wane and by 2008 casualties had dropped below 150, from a high of over 4,000 in 2004.

Second innings, twin challenges

Mr. Sayeed won his second term in end 2014, when the State was once more in a volatile situation. Youth unrest, high in 2009-2010, had declined in 2011-2012 but had again begun to rise. The State was devastated by floods in September 2014, and the new government that was elected soon after was expected to tackle these two menaces — the aftermath of the floods and the rise of a new militancy — urgently. But the election in November-December had been fought on a “ >rest vs. the BJP” plank and threw up a split verdict, with the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) the largest winner in the valley and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) the largest winner in Jammu. The two parties had to step back from their bitter contest to form a coalition, and it took four months of hectic negotiation to agree upon a common minimum programme for the coalition, during which the PDP lost considerable support, especially amongst the intelligentsia.

Another six months or so were spent in working out the amount of Central funds that would be disbursed to the State for additional flood relief, infrastructure development and economic stimulus. At last, a substantial sum of Rs.80,000 crore was announced in November 2015.

In all this time — 11 months since the Assembly elections, eight months since Mufti’s swearing-in — the healing touch was absent. Coalition spats, policy dissonance and bargaining with the Centre appeared to occupy the new government. Hard-line groups such as >Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s Hurriyat group appeared to grow in influence and youth began to flaunt Islamist violence, posting pictures of themselves carrying guns or waving Islamic State flags, with a permissive government appearing content to passively watch — or even to fan the flames, as happened when a hapless truck driver was beaten to death by a group of Hindu extremists because he was suspected of transporting beef.

Finally, with the announcement of the Rs.80,000-crore aid, combined with renewed efforts at India-Pakistan talks, it seems that the stage might be set for peace-building to commence once again in the State. But there will be no Mufti Mohammad Sayeed to steer the policy. How far will his passing impact the State and its government?

The post-Sayeed scenario

We have already seen how Mr. Sayeed’s illness impacted the State. Fringe radicals of all hues have been able to stir absurd grievances — the most recent one being over whether the State flag is acceptable. Administration has been sluggish, with each coalition partner struggling to retain its constituency rather than focussing on policy formulation and implementation. Jammu, the valley and Ladakh are further from each other than they already were, and communal sentiments flare more and more frequently — far too often in this State that was once hailed for its pluralism. Mr. Sayeed’s successor, >his daughter and PDP chairperson Mehbooba Mufti, will inherit this difficult situation, and also the new opportunities. Contrary to the speculation that her first challenge will be whether coalition partner BJP accepts her, her first task will be to hold her own flock together. Her biggest hurdle will be getting the State’s civil administration to implement her government’s policies. Ms. Mufti’s gender and her age will both go against her in our political society, based as it is upon respect for age and men. Had Jammu and Kashmir been in the south or east of the country, this latter hurdle would have been lower, but it is at the northern tip of our largely chauvinist and ageist north.

On the plus side, she has considerable political experience in the State and at the Centre, and a large group of well-wishers in both. A smooth transition is essential for the State, which has waited almost a year for its new government to take charge of the tasks of economic and political recovery. It is also essential for the country given the risks of renewed militancy in Kashmir and the Pir Panchal region. For the BJP, therefore, it would make sense not only to support Ms. Mufti’s chief ministership but to also work in such a way that the government is seen as administering the State.

What role the State’s political leadership can play in an India-Pakistan peace process is another question. After Sheikh Abdullah and to some extent Farooq Abdullah in the 1980s, Mr. Sayeed’s role was unique. My hunch is that the onus will now lie even more strongly on New Delhi — and of course Islamabad. That the militants in both the Pathankot and Mazar-e-Sharif attacks cited the hanging of Afzal Guru as their justification puts the finger squarely on Pakistan-based militants and makes a Jammu and Kashmir peace process that much more difficult. Ideally opposition to such misuse should come from the State itself, since this would also help build political will in Pakistan. Fifteen years ago, the Jammu and Kashmir peace process was launched by local demand for an end to cross-border violence, including by dissidents such as Abdul Ghani Lone and the Hurriyat (M). While the latter may now be too weak to reiterate the call, the people of the State continue to fear the revival of militancy. It is for New Delhi to work with the new Chief Minister to craft policies that will strengthen the local will to peace.

(Radha Kumar is Director-General of

the Delhi Policy Group. The opinions

expressed here are her own.)

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Printable version | Jun 5, 2020 8:20:26 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/The-death-of-a-statesman/article13986937.ece

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