Kashmiri Politics in the Shadow of Pulwama

Indian policemen pay homage to their colleague who was killed in a gun battle in Pulwama, Jammu & Kashmir, on Monday, February 18, 2019. Tensions escalated in the aftermath of a suicide attack on February 14, at Pulwama when a suicide bomber struck at a convoy, killing 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel. Photo: AP

Elections in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) have always been a messy affair, with different dynamics operating in the three provinces of Jammu, Ladakh, and the Kashmir Valley. When the ideologically opposed Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) teamed up to form an alliance government, there was some hope in New Delhi that together they would act as a moderating influence on the politics of J&K and help reverse the alienation and unrest in the Valley. With the collapse of the alliance, not only was that hope belied but the two parties returned to their hardline positions.
The Pulwama suicide attack, which has led to a wave of violent attacks on Kashmiris in Jammu and the rest of the country, appears prima facie to have strengthened the BJP’s hyper-nationalist plank. On the other hand, the PDP is on the backfoot while the NC is showing signs of resurgence and the Congress seems entirely out of the reckoning. Of course, much depends on whether or not elections are held on schedule in J&K. Basharat Ali, Research Scholar, Jamia Milia Islamia, writes on the consequences of the latest attack on the politics of Kashmir.

Twenty-nineteen is an important year in India. It is a year of elections. Besides the general elections to the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, six assembly elections are set to be conducted by the Election Commission of India this year. In anticipation of the coming elections, the political temperature was already on the rise when a suicide attack on February 14 in Pulwama in Kashmir knocked off all previous calculations. The suicide attack by a young local Kashmiri boy, in which as many as 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel lost their lives, has triggered a tide of nationalistic fervour in the rest of the country whose consequences are still unfolding. Goaded by the rising clamour for revenge, the Narendra Modi Government has upped the ante against Pakistan even while hardening its stand on Kashmir, Kashmiri separatists and even ordinary Kashmiris. The last week has seen Jammu and parts of North India erupt in violence against Kashmiri students across India. Against this background, there is in fact doubt over whether or not elections will be held on schedule in J&K.

The suicide attack and the break-up of the BJP-PDP alliance will likely be the two threads running through the preparations for the upcoming elections in J & K.

The suicide attack, estimated to be the worst on the security forces in Kashmir in decades, and the break-up of a “North Pole -South Pole” alliance between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in June last year will be two important threads running through the preparations for the upcoming elections in J & K in particular and in the country in general. The aftermath of the break-up has brought changes in various political parties in Kashmir. The PDP has witnessed a massive internal shakeup threatening the existence of the party. The BJP, which was preparing the ground to return to power in the April 2019 general election, has found a rousing election plank in the suicide attack.  Since then Kashmiris across India have been subjected to verbal and physical assaults, besides termination from places of study and employment.

This piece analyses the up-coming assembly elections in J & K keeping in mind the twin factors of the Pulwama attack and the termination of the alliance between the BJP and the PDP. How will Pulwama and its violent aftermath change the electoral dynamics within the State? What changes can be anticipated in the rhetoric of the different parties? Who has benefitted from the break-up of the BJP-PDP alliance and how?

The suicide attack in Pulwama

The suicide attack carried out by a Kashmiri militant, Adil Ahmad Dar, 22, of Jaish-e-Mohammad group has increased the emotional quotient in India against Pakistan, leading to frenzied calls for war and attacks on Kashmiris across India. Jaish is a Pakistan based insurgent group which was proscribed in the country by General Pervez Musharraf following the September 11 attacks on Pentagon. However, the ban has not stopped the group from recruiting more members and carrying out attacks in Kashmir. On February 18, Adil drove a SUV packed with explosives on the Srinagar-Jammu highway near Pulwama and rammed that into a CRPF convoy vehicle killing close to forty personnel.

Security men inspect the site of a blast in Lethpora area of south Kashmir's Pulwama district some 20 kilometers from Srinagar, on Thursday, February 14, 2019. Photo: Nissar Ahmad

The attack came both as a shock and surprise to the people of India, its security establishment, and international observers. Over the last four years, the government of India had made the Indian people and the outside world believe that it has broken the back of militancy in Kashmir not only through violent counter-insurgency but also through some major policy decisions like demonetisation. The fact of the matter is the Election Commission of India has failed to conduct elections for the vacant parliamentary seat in Anantanag for over three years. The security situation in the area has been so challenging that even after killing more than two hundred militants each year since the beginning of “operation all-out” in 2017, the EC couldn’t find the situation conducive to hold elections.

The attack has exposed the lapses and vulnerabilities of the Indian security eco-system in Kashmir and also highlights the strike-capacity of the militant organizations that were thought to be lacking in arms and ammunition to engage effectively militarily with the Indian security forces. It would not be imprudent here to argue that the attack itself was a result of frustration arising from the failure of militants to substantially damage the armed forces in the recent past. The militants have been flushed out by security forces with exchange of firing sometimes lasting less than an hour. These flushing out operations boosted the confidence of the security forces and the larger political leadership, apparently causing the latter to miscalculate   their own strength vis-a-vis possible responses from the militant groups.

The aftermath of the attacks

Anchors sitting in the TV studios in India have already outlined action plans for a war against Pakistan. They are asking war veterans to choose from a list of options which can inflict maximum damage on Pakistan. In a similar fashion, following the Uri attacks in September 2016, the government of India claimed that it had ordered successful surgical strikes on the terror launch pads across the Line of Control in Pakistan. The strikes were lauded, so much so Bollyood was inspired to produce a film, also titled Uri, on the valour of the Armed Forces and the apparent strategic brilliance of the Indian establishment in planning and executing the surgical strike. However, the army general who led the operation later said that the strikes were overhyped for political purposes.

The present situation is worse not only because the number of security personnel killed is higher but also because people in different parts of the country have targeted Kashmiris and in some cases forced them to go back home. 

The situation in J&K is worse than what it was after Uri not only because of the higher casualties but also because of violence against Kashmiris outside the State.

Jammu in particular has witnessed a dangerous sequence of events unfold following the attack. Scores of Kashmiri Muslim families have been attacked, their cars burnt, and they have been asked to leave the city. It is obvious enough that such communal polarisation in the city is not spontaneous but well organised. Indeed, just days before the suicide attack, students across Jammu had come out on the streets protesting against alleged pro-Pakistan sloganeering by Kashmiri passengers stranded in Jammu due to inclement weather in the valley. The passengers were physically assaulted but it could not be established whether they raised pro-Pakistan slogans. The State chief of the BJP, Ravinder Raina, offered full support to the agitating students and was quoted as saying that “The NC, the PDP and the Congress have sympathy for anti-national forces. They have a soft corner for killers. Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti are fed by India but their hearts throb for others”1. Clearly, the BJP was already trying to foment trouble when the suicide attack happened in Pulwama providing more fuel to the fire engulfing Kashmiris in Jammu. As of now, Jammu is under curfew and the Kashmiri government employees of the J & K secretariat, fearing for their lives, have asked the Governor to airlift them with their families back to Kashmir.

Indian police officers carry a coffin of their colleague during a wreath-laying ceremony in Srinagar on Monday, February 18, 2019. Photo: AP

The attacks on Kashmiri students in different parts of the country have once again allowed the PDP and the NC an opportunity to speak for the people. The PDP has protested against the humiliation Kashmiris have been made to suffer in the aftermath of the suicide attack. Like the BJP in Jammu, the PDP is trying hard to find some space in the Valley to improve its chances in the up-coming assembly elections. 

The legacy of the BJP-PDP coalition

Following the break-up of the BJP and PDP coalition government, the State came under Governor’s rule. The alliance between the two parties was based on compromises on both sides. The agenda of alliance, which was conceptualised by Ram Madhav of the BJP and Haseeb Drabu of the PDP, held together the two poles for quite some time. However, the coalition fell apart under the weight of its own contradictions and the PDP became a victim of the BJP’s political expediency. Today, the future of the PDP in the State of J&K looks bleak. Following its break-up with the BJP, the party expelled former cabinet ministers and key mobilisers like Basharat Bukhari and Altaf Bukhari, citing anti-party activities. Shia leaders like Imran Ansari and Abid Ansari resigned from the party saying it had lost on all fronts. The PDP sidelined Haseeb Drabu, the key interlocutor with the BJP and also the State’s former finance minister, and eventually he resigned too. The BJP is facing some trouble as well. The party’s Jammu bigwig Choudhry Lal Singh, and its MP from Ladakh, Thupstan Chhewang, resigned leaving the party bereft in the two regions. The BJP needs to do a lot of hard work to cover lost ground and make an impact in the upcoming elections. And yet, its task might have been made easier by the Pulwama attack which has brought in its wake a surge of nationalistic emotions.

It would be safe to assume and argue that self-rule and autonomy do not win seats for the PDP and the NC. The promises of restoring and safeguarding the constitutional provisions which give the state of Jammu and Kashmir a special status is the main electoral plank for both. Justice for the victims of human rights violations and abolition of laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and Public Safety Act (PSA) have also been promised ad nauseam by the two without any success. They have also encouraged India to talk to Pakistan if any settlement is to be arrived at on the dispute.

The BJP, however, is very clear on the existing constitutional arrangements between the state of Jammu and Kashmir and the Indian union. The party’s entire political campaign in the state and to a large extent in mainland India is premised on the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A. Its existing position on Kashmir is derived from a slogan of the 40s- Ek Nishan, Ek Vidhan aur Ek Pradhan (one constitution, one flag, and one sovereign head). The BJP also promote more forceful ways of dealing with the stone-pelters and militants in the valley. The BJP is of the opinion that Kashmir is an integral part of India and Pakistan has no business in matters concerning the state.

When the PDP and the BJP came together to form a government after the assembly elections of 2014, they said it was a “governance alliance” and an agreement to seek a national reconciliation on the state. In the ‘agenda of alliance’ the two parties sought to build a common minimum program. The agenda sought to normalise relations with Pakistan and after due evaluation of the security situation in the valley examine the need for de-notifying disturbed areas. They agreed on a status quo on all existing constitutional provisions including Article 370.

It was obvious from day one that the BJP had made huge compromises and people might have thought that the PDP has an upper hand. However, as the government started functioning in the state, the reality of the relationship between Delhi and Srinagar began to unfold. Speaking at an event in Srinagar after government formation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi snubbed the then Chief Minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, on his remarks on friendship with Pakistan and said, “I don’t need advice or analysis from anyone in this world on Kashmir”2. That the agenda of alliance was but a ruse to gain power in Kashmir became more than obvious.

Over the years, different members of the BJP and its affiliated groups under the RSS continued demanding changes in the constitutional arrangement. A petition was filed in the Supreme Court of India challenging the legality and constitutional validity of Article 35A. The petition was actively supported by members of the BJP. The BJP also succeeded in portraying the PDP as incompetent and corrupt and Mehbooba Mufti as a very weak Chief Minister.

When the BJP finally pulled out of the alliance on June 19, 2018 it was on the grounds that its party members had been facing a lot of difficulty in carrying out development works in Jammu and Ladakh. Ram Madhav, the general secretary of the party, also said that “terrorism, violence and radicalisation have risen and fundamental rights of the citizens are under danger in the Valley”3. This was in stark contrast to what the BJP had been celebrating in New Delhi. In the national Capital, its propaganda was that demonetisation had helped break the funding networks which sponsored the stone-pelters in Kashmir4. Surgical strikes, which were carried out by the Indian army on militant launch pads across the Line of Control (LoC), were said to have taught Pakistan a lesson, although the reality of these strikes continues to be shrouded in mystery.

The symbols which regional parties in Kashmir carry with them, in the form of party flags, dresses, religious markers etc. work only in a subtle way and no party would make a direct reference to any of them. The PDP’s green party flag and Mehbooba’s green abayas are a subtle way of identifying with Islam. The BJP has also made use of Islam in Kashmir to identify with the electorate even while its aversion to Islamic practices in India is well documented5.

The upcoming elections

When the BJP complained that development work in Jammu and Ladakh had been held up, it obviously did so with an eye to the upcoming election. The two provinces are critical to the BJP’s calculations for J&K.  In the assembly elections of 2014, the BJP won 25 seats from J & K, the highest it has ever won in the state. Significantly, all the seats came from the Jammu region and none from Kashmir and Ladakh. In the coming elections, the BJP is targeting more than 50 assembly seats and their confidence is boasted by its sweeping win in the Jammu municipal corporation elections and local body polls in Kashmir. The target of 50 appeared to be a stretch a week ago but the latest developments following the attack in Pulwama may have suddenly shifted the odds in favour of BJP. However, the actual election outcome will depend a lot on the response the government is planning as this piece is being written.

Given the obvious clamour elections in Kashmir generate, the level of excitement in the INC camp appears low. The party seems to be already out of the race for government formation. In places where INC ended as runners up in last election, the margin of their loss was more than ten thousand votes. But votes polled in a previous election may not count for much in view of subsequent developments. The BJP in Jammu has to reckon with the possibilty of losing a chunk of votes because of the exit of Lal Singh. The Lal Singh factor was the subtext in the recent address by PM Narendra Modi in Jammu6.

After accusations of the BJP’s role in shielding the accused in the Kathua Rape case, the BJP asked for Lal Singh’s resignation. He quit the party and devoted his time and energies to his newly founded Dogra Swabhiman Sangthan to remove the “scars of discrimination inflicted upon Jammu” over the years. His departure from BJP is a major blow to the party in the region where it won both the Lok Sabha seats and all twenty five assembly seats in 2014.

Pulwama and the Modi government’s response to it may determine the electoral outcome in the State, especially in Jammu.

Lal Singh has since his resignation from BJP targeted the party for failing the people of Jammu and hurting the Dogra pride. The  Dogras were the last of the princely rulers to have ruled over Kashmir and the hurt caused to ‘Dogra pride’ is an election plank used by members of all political parties which include Devendra Sing Rana of NC7 and Vikramaditya of Congress8. But it is Lal Singh’s communally charged rhetoric in a region which has witnessed large scale ethnic violence in the past that draws crowds to his rallies. The empty chairs at Narendra Modi’s function in Jammu recently are an indication of Lal Singh’s popularity in a region where BJP lacks a leader with mass appeal. His role in deciding the fate of the BJP is going to be more crucial than Sajad Lone’s possible pre-poll alliance with them. Since Lal Singh has made his plans for a creation of a separate political party public, the Congress may either try to rope him in or plan to maximize its benefits from Singh’s departure from BJP by other means. Lal Singh’s exit and his high-pitched political rhetoric can frustrate the BJP’s plans of reaping benefits from its break-up with PDP in the name of development in Jammu. But as mentioned earlier, just how Pulwama and the Modi Government’s response to it impact the elections, especially in Jammu which has reacted violently to the attack, remains to be seen.  Will Lal Singh be persuaded by the nationalist chant to change his mind?   

The Congress’s problems are also compounded by the absence of a strong leadership in the state. There is no single mass mobiliser active in the party right now. With Ghulam Nabi Azad busy with the affairs of party in Delhi, the party is looking for a leader with mass appeal in the region. If Lal Singh continues to be opposed to the BJP, his role in cutting a share of votes from BJP will go a long way in helping INC try a shot at government formation. They will, however, still require support from a local party. Given the political history of the state, NC will be more than willing to share power.

Even after the resignation of its member of parliament from Ladakh, the BJP is preparing the ground in the region for assembly as well as parliamentary elections. The former MP, Thupstan Chhewang, had blamed BJP last year for not fulfilling electoral promises like granting a Union Territory status and establishing a University in the region. On his recent visit to the state on February 3 Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the first ever University in Ladakh. On February 8, the administration of Governor Satya Pal Malik granted Ladakh a divisional status, a step which Mehbooba Mufti thinks has been taken to further BJP’s agenda. It appears that BJP is not focussing directly on the Valley as far as 2019 assembly elections are concerned which signals at a possible pre-poll alliance with Sajad Lone’s Peoples Conference.

Emergence of new players

In the valley of Kashmir, the  BJP came close to winning in the Habba Kedal seat in Srinagar where it lost by a narrow margin of 2359 votes. With the two regional parties, NC and PDP, boycotting the urban local body polls, the BJP won sixty seats and also got away with installing a Mayor of its liking in the city of Srinagar. Although the chances of their winning a seat on their own in Kashmir valley continue to appear bleak, the recent changes in various political parties, particularly the PDP and the PC, give them a reason to feel optimistic about making indirect inroads into the heart of state.

At this point the Sajad Lone-led PC wants to field candidates on all 87 constituencies of the state but given the proximity and support he enjoys with BJP leadership, he is in all likelihood going for a pre-poll alliance with them. The experience he had in November last year when he staked his claim to form a government with the BJP’s support should tell him that optimism in a developing relationship is a bad idea. Perhaps in a move to test the veracity of his claims, the NC, the PDP and the Congress at the time played villain in his story and started speaking of coming together and forming a grand alliance. Mehbooba Mufti also shot a letter to the Governor to this effect.  But before the fax machine could be fixed, the Governor decided to pull the plug and dissolved the assembly. Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah had fun for some time but their display of camaraderie was short lived. Soon after the assembly was dissolved and talks for fresh elections began, they were back to accusing each other for the flaws in administration of the rule of law under their respective governments.

The PDP is struggling to survive. Some of its prominent members and former cabinet ministers have moved over to the PC and the NC. These are people with a strong hold in their constituencies and who have always won no matter which party they are part of. The Shia leaders like Imran Ansari and Abid Ansari, who left the PDP and joined the PC, are more than likely to be re-elected from their respective constituencies. Basharat Bukhari of the Sangrama constituency, who was a minister in the former cabinet, has joined the NC and is also likely to repeat his win unless Shoaib Lone of the INC upstages him.

With Baramulla, Sangrama, and Rafiabad assembly constituencies already in their kitty, and Irshad Kar too joining the party, the PDP, in 2015, likely assumed that Baramulla district as a whole was under their control. The son of a former congressman, Ghulam Rasool Kar, Irshad has since resigned from the PDP and joined the NC and is likely to exploit his father’s legacy and NC’s cadre vote to make his way to the assembly. Given the failure of its alliance experiment and continuing defections the PDP is suffering, the party looks headed for its worst electoral performance so far. Indeed, it will surprise no one if in the 2019 electionstheir seat share reduces by half. Some of this will go to the NC and the rest to the PC and some others. Former Indian Administrative Service officer Shah Faesal’s foray into politics will only add to the excitement for political observers and increase the noise on the social media, even though his actual contribution to the change of guard will be insignificant. Individuals like him only serve to keep the rhetoric of change and hope in constant circulation. Moderate groups in New Delhi have long hoped for the emergence of a ‘youth icon’ who will help shift the narrative on Kashmir in India’s favour. Shah Faesal, wittingly or unwittingly, is part of the project which seeks to ‘mainstream’ the youth of valley. Since elections in Kashmir have always been held by some to represent a sort of referendum in India’s favour (as opposed to separatist politics calling for boycott of elections) the entry of players like Sajad Lone and Shah Faesal will help the interested parties in amplifying that rhetoric.

Conclusion

It is obvious that BJP is eyeing Jammu once again while the focus of the regional parties like NC and PDP is the Kashmir valley. The Pulwama attack may help the BJP gain lost ground in parts of Jammu but in order to maximise the benefits the party will need to neutralise the Lal Singh factor, and, given the present circumstances, that can only be done by creating a “national security” scare and targeting Kashmiris. The question of Dogra pride can easily take the backseat if people in Jammu are made to believe that Pakistan is waging a war against India and its people through Kashmiris. The PDP, on the other is hand, is recalibrating its rhetoric to appear more pro-Kashmir than was the case when it was in government with the BJP. Given the defections it has suffered, these desperate measures may not go far in consolidating the party’s position. The NC and the INC are both treading cautiously and not resorting to any chest-thumping at this point. Their coming together appears to be the most likely outcome in Kashmir following the next elections – if that is held on schedule which is itself in some doubt in the aftermath of Pulwama.

[Basharat Ali is a Research Scholar at the MMAJ Academy of International Studies in Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. His research focuses on issues of political violence in Kashmir. He is also a freelance writer. He can be contacted at [email protected]]

References:

[All URLs were last accessed on February 21, 2019]

1. PTI. 2019. "Students in Jammu boycott classes for third day against 'objectionable' slogans by Kashmiri passengers", The New Indian Express, February 14. [http://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2019/feb/14/students-in-jammu-boycott-classes-for-3rd-day-against-objectionable-slogans-by-kashmiri-passengers-1938846.html]. Return To text.

2. The Indian Express. 2015. "Top five quotes from Modi’s speech in Jammu and Kashmir", November 7. [https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/top-five-quotes-from-pm-modis-speech-in-jammu-and-kashmir/]. Return to Text.

3. Deccan Chronicle. 2018. "Terrorism, violence risen, fundamental rights of citizens under danger in J&K: BJP to PDP", June 19. [https://www.deccanchronicle.com/videos/terrorism-violence-risen-fundamental-rights-of-citizens-under-danger-in-jampk-bjp-to-pdp.html]. Return to Text.

4. News18.com. 2017. "Stone Pelting Has Reduced in Kashmir Because of Note Ban, Says Arun Jaitley", November 7. [https://www.news18.com/news/india/stone-pelting-has-reduced-in-kashmir-because-of-demonetisation-says-arun-jaitley-1569505.html]. Return to Text.

5. Ganai, N. 2018. "With Allah On The Loudspeaker", Outlook, January 4. [https://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/with-allah-on-the-loudspeaker/299681]. Return to Text.

6. Sharma, A. 2019. "Red alert in J&K BJP: After Ladakh MP, Jammu strongman, Lal Singh, quits party", National Herald, February 6. [https://www.nationalheraldindia.com/politics/red-alert-in-jandk-bjp-after-ladakh-mp-jammu-strongman-lal-singh-quits-party]. Return to Text.

7. Greater Kashmir. 2018. "Dogra pride our honour, don’t play politics on it: Rana tells BJP", July 30. [https://www.greaterkashmir.com/article/news.aspx?story_id=291945&catid=4&mid=53&AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1]. Return to Text.

8. Daily Excelsior. 2018. "Creating all inclusive society & restoring Dogra pride my priority: Vikramaditya", October, 14. [http://www.dailyexcelsior.com/creating-inclusive-society-restoring-dogra-pride-priority-vikramaditya/]. Return to Text.

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