Kashmir’s National Conference–Congress alliance government must rewrite history — or the coalition will end up repeating it.
“Hard political reality,” Farooq Abdullah had said of his decision to sign an accord with the Congress in 1986, against his own instinctive judgment.
On Tuesday, as his son stood shoulder-to-shoulder with former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad to announce the formation of a new National Conference-Congress alliance, it is certain that Dr. Abdullah would have recalled that moment.
December’s National Conference-Congress alliance could demonstrate that history repeats itself: the last alliance between the two parties ended in a rigged election which prepared the ground for jihadists who had for decades been working to legitimise their war against India.
But it could also offer unique opportunity to erase the bitter legacy of the past, not the least because Jammu and Kashmir — like India as a whole — has been transfigured since. Neither party today is a hegemonic entity — and both have learned, through bitter experience, that breeding communal pets in the backyard is a dangerous pastime.
Ever since the falling-apart of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah in 1953, relations between the Congress and the National Conference had been fraught. The National Conference represented the distinctness of Kashmiri identity; on occasion, it used communal ideas and themes to reach out to its audience. The Congress, in turn, saw itself as the sole credible defender of Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India and proved increasingly willing to use Hindu chauvinism to further that cause.
Both the Congress and National Conference fought the 1983 elections on communal lines. In alliance with Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq — father of the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference chairman, Umar Farooq — Dr. Abdullah gave his campaign an expressly Islamic colour. In one pamphlet, the National Conference equated the Congress with Maharaja Hari Singh, who had “enslaved the Kashmiris.” Prime Minister Indira Gandhi used identical tactics to push forward the Congress’ pursuit of power. She campaigned against the Resettlement Act, which would have allowed Muslim Partition refugees to return to Jammu and Kashmir and reclaim their properties. As the author and journalist Tavleen Singh has noted, Mrs. Gandhi sought to persuade Jammu voters that they “were really a part of Hindu India and had, therefore, been neglected by Muslim Kashmir.”
Inflammatory tactics paid off: the National Conference won 46 seats, all in Muslim-majority constituencies, while the Congress picked up 23. However, the Congress continued on with a campaign designed to annihilate Abdullah. His alliance with Mirwaiz Farooq — who was, ironically enough, to die at the hands of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen assassin —was characterised as anti-national. Sikh religious camps held in Jammu and Kashmir were described as state-sponsored training centres for Khalistan terrorists. Much of the propaganda was deceitful — the Congress itself, after all, had sought an alliance with the Mirwaiz — but it prepared the ground for the dismissal of the Abdullah government in July 1984, months after he sponsored a national opposition conclave in Srinagar.
“I am not worried about democratic norms”, Indira Gandhi was reported to have said to a confidante, “I am not going to kiss Kashmir away because of them”. She almost did. Dr. Abdullah’s brother in law, Gul Mohammad Shah, took power with the support of a dozen National Conference rebels. Still sardonically referred to as the Gul-e-Curfew, or ‘Curfew Flower’, Mr. Shah presided over a regime that remained paralysed by popular protests. New Delhi, though, refused to blink even after Indira Gandhi’s death. In October 1986, Dr. Abdullah buckled in, and agreed to an alliance with the Congress.
But Dr. Abdullah’s decision, as the scholar Navnita Chadha Behera has argued, vacated the opposition to the religious right. His actions allowed the birth of the Muslim United Front — a coalition spearheaded by the Jamaat-e-Islami, whose most visible face then, as now, was Kashmir’s Islamist patriarch Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Its partners included bodies like Qazi Mohammad Nisar’s Ummat-e-Islami, which had defied a ban on the sale of meat on the occasion of the Hindu festival of Janmashtami; the neoconservative Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadis; the Islamic Study Circle; the Muslim Education Trust; and Abdul Gani Lone’s People’s Conference.
In the 1987 elections, a panicked National Conference-Congress alliance unleashed large-scale rigging: rigging most experts concur served only to legitimise jihadists who characterised India’s democracy as a dead-end, since the MUF would at best have won some twenty seats. Ever since the mid-1970s, Islamists and their patrons in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate had been waiting for just such an opportunity.
Three major strategic challenges lie ahead for the new alliance government in Jammu and Kashmir if it wishes to avert a similar descent into chaos: challenges that will prove even more difficult than its immediate priority, providing transparent, development-oriented governance.
First, and perhaps most important, is the deteriorating regional strategic environment means the state government cannot take peace, the keystone of the political process which brought it to power, for granted.
Eight years ago, the Jaish-e-Mohammad attacked Parliament House in New Delhi. In an effort to avert a war with India, former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf promised to rein in jihadist groups operating in Jammu and Kashmir. While President Musharraf’s actions against jihadist groups were, at best, fitful, he did ensure a substantial reduction in cross-Line of Control infiltration, leading to year on year reductions in violence. In 2008, just 89 civilians were killed in terrorism-related violence — the lowest figure since the long jihad in the state began two decades ago.
But ever since January, there have been signs that Pakistan’s posture is changing. Pakistani troops and jihadist initiated a series of clashes along the LoC, undermining a ceasefire that went into place on New Year’s Eve in 2002. Pakistan’s defiant rejection of global calls to punish the jihadists responsible for November’s massacre in Mumbai could also suggest that the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate — and perhaps the Army establishment in general —have decided that hostilities with the enemy to the east could provide a tool with which to escape the dangerous war within. If so, real trouble could lie ahead.
Second, the new government will have to find means to rein in Jammu and Kashmir’s increasingly influential Islamists — as well as their Hindu chauvinist counterparts. In 2002, the People’s Democratic Party prepared the ground for its growth by positioning itself as the inheritor of MUF. Like the MUF, the PDP positioned itself as a party which spoke for ethnic-Kashmiri concerns, which were marketed as Islamic in character.
While the PDP’s affiliation with the Jamaat-e-Islami was a positive development for the long-term re-institutionalisation of democracy in Jammu and Kashmir, Islamists proved adroit in using the space opened up by the PDP to impose their agenda upon the state. In 2006, groups linked to hardliners like the Tehreek-i-Hurriyat chief Syed Ali Shah Geelani — with the tacit support of the PDP — succeeded in casting a prostitution scandal in Kashmir as a battle between Islam and an immoral modernist order imposed by India. Later, Islamists ran large-scale campaigns against the presence of economic migrants from the plains — who were alleged, among other things, to be vectors for HIV, perpetrators of rape and child sexual abuse, and pushers for drugs and alcohol.
PDP politicians chose not to confront the Islamists. Instead, the party lurched into a cycle of competitive chauvinism, in an effort to appropriate the Islamists’ causes and use state power to realise them. Hindu fundamentalists in Jammu, in turn, used this campaign to initiate their own communal programme, built around cow-protection and opposition to supposed ethnic-Kashmiri expansionism. In the summer, these tensions exploded in the form of protests for and against land-use rights to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board — with terrible consequences.
Rather than hoping to appropriate their opponents’ religiosity, the National Conference and Congress would be well advised to use economic instruments to build bridges to the urban petty bourgeoisie and rural elite who make up the bulwark of the religious right. Hinduism and Islam, for the classes which backed the PDP and the BJP, are instruments to legitimise the protest of a threatened social order against a modernity which threatened to obliterate it. In urban centres, this coalition has the growing support of a class of disenfranchised young people who are witnessing the death of the artisanal and trading occupations of their parents but have neither the skills nor resources to compete in the new world.
Finally, the National Conference-Congress alliance will have to push forward the pace of dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional future. Both parties must use the medium of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly to initiate a dialogue that acknowledges the multiple voices and concerns that exist within the state. Failing this, the debate over Jammu and Kashmir’s future would be waged solely by the PDP on the one hand, which in a recent document called for trans-border institutions to share sovereignty in the state and the BJP, which has been demanding the abrogation of Article 370.
In critical senses, then, the National Conference-Congress alliance stands at the crossroads of Jammu and Kashmir’s past and present. Both parties must work to rewrite history — or will, sooner rather than later, end up revisiting their tragic past.