Open Essay

Mufti Mohammad Sayeed: A Life In Full

Sumantra Bose is professor of international and comparative politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His most recent book is Secular States, Religious Politics: India, Turkey, and the Future of Secularism (Cambridge University Press, 2018)
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The late bloomer Mufti Mohammad Sayeed (1936–2016) leaves behind a legacy of reconciliation. Make use of it

Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the ‘Lion of Kashmir’, died in September 1982. He was three months short of seventy-seven. He had been ailing, especially since a heart attack in 1977. Sheikh Abdullah’s funeral procession was gigantic. It may have been the single largest ever seen in the Subcontinent. The mass outpouring of grief was a measure of the stature he commanded among his people even in the twilight of his life. He had, after all, been the dominant figure of Jammu & Kashmir’s politics for a full half-century.

A decade later, Abdullah’s grave—near Srinagar’s Hazratbal shrine, on numerous occasions his base and pulpit over that turbulent half-century—was under guard by Indian paramilitary forces to prevent its desecration by armed militants and angry mobs.

The apparent reversal in the Sheikh’s standing among his people was not as astounding as it might seem. The accord he made with Indira Gandhi’s Government in 1975 in return for his personal liberty and political restoration—after 22 years mostly spent in prison—was widely viewed among his popular base and in his own organisation as an abject surrender to and for power. The Abdullah of 1975-1982 was a lion in winter, a far cry from the leader who had long defied and dared New Delhi. In his last years, he even fell out with a lifelong loyalist like Mirza Afzal Beg, the only one of his four cabinet colleagues who had stood with him against the Delhi-sponsored palace putsch of 1953 that deposed him from power (Beg also signed the 1975 capitulation on his behalf). The grand farewell he got from his people on his death was in recognition of his decades of suffering in the cause of ‘self-determination’. The same sentiment, coupled with his party’s grassroots machine, propelled his resounding election victory in 1977 and his son’s equally emphatic win in 1983.

Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who has died a few days short of eighty, is not comparable to Sheikh Abdullah. For all his faults and flaws, the Sheikh is in a league of his own in Kashmir’s political history—the leader who brought mass political mobilisation to the Valley in the 1940s, emancipated the peasant masses from generations of serfdom through land reforms in the early 1950s, and challenged New Delhi’s machinations and stooges in Kashmir for more than two decades after his removal from power. Abdullah’s political capital was his mass base. The Mufti, for most (over two-thirds) of his nearly six decades in politics, was distinguished by the reputation he gained as a Machiavellian schemer and operator; he had almost no standing among his people and was disliked, distrusted, and perhaps even detested by most of his fellow-Kashmiris.

While I have not seen a single proper obituary of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in the Indian (or specifically the Kashmiri) media, it has emerged in piecemeal life- sketches that he began his political life in the late 1950s in something called the ‘Democratic National Conference’. This was a dissident faction of a cabal that was installed in office in Srinagar after the 1953 coup, which was formally executed by the barely-adult Karan Singh in his Sadr-e- Riyasat capacity and was followed by the suppression through police and military action of massive protests against it, with dozens killed in firing and thousands arrested.

The cabal, which comprised many though not all of Abdullah’s former comrades (there were important exceptions like Afzal Beg and Maulana Masoodi), falsely appropriated the National Conference name. The real NC was reconstituted as the Jammu & Kashmir Plebiscite Front in 1955 with Beg as its first president and the incarcerated Abdullah as its ‘patron’, and existed under that name until 1975. But the cabal in power developed a schism in 1957 when Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, Abdullah’s successor as J&K’s Prime Minister, failed to appoint any members of the faction clustered around GM Sadiq to cabinet positions after the first elections to the J&K Legislative Assembly. The ruling pseudo-NC had ‘won’ 69 of the assembly’s 75 seats in these elections; of the Valley’s 43 seats, 35 had been won without any contest (‘elected unopposed’). After the rift, 15 of the 69 legislators joined the rebel group led by Sadiq. The rift was papered over in late 1960 through New Delhi’s intervention and the pseudo- NC entered the 1962 Assembly elections formally re-united.

The young, ambitious Mufti Sayeed entered the Assembly in 1962 from his hometown, Bijbehara. It was not difficult— the official NC ‘won’ 68 of the 74 seats, and 32 of the Valley’s 43 constituencies were won without any contest. It was after these elections that Prime Minister Nehru, worried by adverse international media coverage, famously wrote to Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad mildly rebuking him for not having ‘lost a few seats to bonafide opponents’.

Mufti retained his seat in 1967. It was again a cakewalk. By this time Bakshi was in the doghouse and the ruling party—led since 1964 by Sadiq (who made Mufti a deputy minister in his government)—had metamorphosed in 1965 into the Jammu & Kashmir Pradesh Congress. The Congress won a four-fifths majority— 60 of the 75 seats—in the J&K Assembly in 1967. Of the Valley’s 42 constituencies, 22 saw no contest, and 118 candidates who filed nominations were rejected, 55 because they had not taken the compulsory oath of allegiance to India and the rest with no reason given.

Only a very few undesirables got through this gauntlet. A young Plebiscite Front leader, Ali Mohammed Naik, took the oath of allegiance, managed to get his papers approved, and was elected to the Assembly as an independent from Tral, a southern Valley town fairly close to Bijbehara. Another successful opposition candidate was none other than Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, disgraced and sulking since his fall from power in late 1963. In 1967, J&K elected Lok Sabha members for the first time. The Congress won five of the six Lok Sabha seats, including two of the Valley’s three. The exception was Srinagar, where Bakshi stood on a platform of Kashmiri pride and won despite attempts by intelligence operatives sent from Delhi to ensure his defeat. When he turned chameleon and ran from Srinagar as a Congress candidate in the 1971 Lok Sabha elections, he lost badly to Shamim Ahmed Shamim, a journalist and Plebiscite Front supporter who contested as an independent.

The people’s interest and allegiance lay elsewhere, outside this ‘democratic process’. On 18 April 1964, Sheikh Abdullah arrived in Srinagar after being released from prison. The Central and J&K governments had decided to free him in a desperate bid to calm down the Valley, which had been in a state of uprising since end-1963, turmoil triggered by the temporary disappearance of Prophet Muhammad’s hair from the Hazratbal shrine but rooted in pent-up rage at the police-state repression and fraudulent governments since 1953. It was reported that Abdullah ‘entered Srinagar and was greeted by a delirious crowd of 250,000 people. Srinagar was a blaze of colour and everyone seemed out on the streets to give him a hero’s welcome… Addressing a gathering of 150,000 people on 20 April, Abdullah said that in 1947 he had challenged Pakistan’s authority to annex Kashmir on grounds of religion, and now he was challenging the Indian contention that the [Kashmir] question had been settled’. Abdullah remained at liberty until May 1965, when he was re-arrested under the Defence of India Rules, a colonial-era regulation used by the British against Indian freedom fighters.

In March 1968, during another, shorter spell out of prison, ‘almost the entire population of Srinagar turned out to greet him’ as he arrived in the city, The Times of India reported. It added that the hundreds of thousands were chanting: “Sher- e-Kashmir zindabad, Our demand plebiscite!” Days later, Abdullah told a 100,000-strong gathering in Anantnag that “repression will never suppress the Kashmiri people’s urge to be free”. In 1968, Abdullah also said: “The fact remains that Indian democracy stops short at Pathankot. Between Pathankot and the Banihal [Pass] you may have some measure of democracy, but beyond Banihal there is none. What we have in Kashmir bears some of the worst characteristics of colonial rule.”

Consistent with the normal pattern of progression of politicians, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed became a cabinet-rank minister in the J&K government after the 1972 state Assembly polls. The Congress had won a three-fourths majority, 57 of the 75 seats, under the leadership of Syed Mir Qasim, who became Chief Minister after Sadiq’s death in 1971. The 1972 election had a back-story. In 1969 the Plebiscite Front had run as independents in panchayat elections and swept the Valley. Then, in December 1970, the Front announced that it would contest both the Lok Sabha polls in March 1971 and the state polls in 1972. Qasim later wrote in his autobiography, My Life and Times (1992), that since its formation in the mid-1950s the Plebiscite Front had ‘reduced [the ruling group] to a non-entity in Kashmir’s politics’ and ‘if the elections were free and fair, the Front’s victory was a foregone conclusion’.

Speaking in Jammu city on 23 December 1970, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made it clear that she would not tolerate this scenario. Asked by journalists how it could be prevented, she replied cryptically: “Ways will be found.”

On 8 January 1971, ‘externment orders’ were served on senior Front leaders Afzal Beg and GM Shah (the Sheikh’s son-in- law), which required them to leave J&K. During the night of 8-9 January, 350 leading Front activists were arrested across the state under the J&K Preventive Detention Act. On 12 January, the Centre declared the Front illegal under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The only reason the Congress did not cross the four-fifths majority mark in 1972 was that five Valley seats were given to the Jama’at-i-Islami in an underhand deal. The fundamentalist pro-Pakistan fringe entered J&K’s legislature through the backdoor.

During the subsequent phase of Indira Gandhi’s wary accommodation of the Abdullahs—on her own terms—Mufti Sayeed emerged as her chief in-state henchman as J&K’s top Congress leader. The Congress-NC rapprochement famously broke down in 1983 and it is more than plausible that Mufti was a key player in the Delhi-sponsored conspiracy that brought down Farooq Abdullah’s democratically elected government in mid-1984. When Farooq’s brother-in-law GM Shah, the Congress-backed replacement, had outlived his usefulness and needed to be disposed of two years later, an episode of rioting targeting Pandits in villages around Bijbehara in March 1986 provided the pretext for his government’s dismissal under Article 356 and Governor Jagmohan took over. Mufti bitterly quit the Congress and joined VP Singh’s bandwagon after Rajiv Gandhi cut his own deal, with its well-known disastrous consequences, with Farooq Abdullah in end-1986.

During the political and human tragedy that engulfed Kashmir through the 1990s, the small town of Bijbehara became one of numerous sites of massacres of civilians. In October 1993, BSF troops fired on a march in the town taken out in solidarity with Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) militants besieged by the Army in Srinagar’s Hazratbal shrine. Some three dozen people were killed and double that number seriously injured.

The Mufti’s re-emergence at the end of that bloody decade in a brutalised Kashmir in a completely new political avatar alongside his campaigning daughter was nothing short of extraordinary. The platform and rhetoric—dignity, self-respect, rights, and ‘self-rule’—were reminiscent of the Sheikh Abdullah of yore, albeit expressed in a less confrontational, more measured tone. By standing—at last—with his distressed, traumatised people instead of serving the masters in New Delhi, Mufti was able to build a genuine popular following.

The metamorphosis can and does have different explanations, from the romantic to the cynical. Yet one thing is certain. The septuagenarian Sheikh Abdullah was a spent, defeated politician. The septuagenarian Mufti was not. He performed competently as Chief Minister from late 2002 to late 2005, as J&K struggled to move beyond the violence of insurgency and counter-insurgency, until he was compelled to prematurely step down. A decade later, he was able to negotiate, in a spirit of equality, an ‘agenda of alliance’ document with the BJP, which embodies a concrete vision of resolving the Kashmir conflict in its multi-dimensional totality. Because of his past, he retained credibility among Jammu Hindus and Ladakhi Buddhists even while seeking to give voice to the grievances and aspirations of the Valley’s Muslims.

The later political life of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed— 1999- 2015 —has left a genuinely valuable legacy. Jammu & Kashmir, and India, cannot afford to—and must not—lose this legacy.