A leader committed deeply to democracy and liberalism, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed was also a patriot of steely resolve. He should be remembered as one of India’s foremost nationalist leaders of the past half-century.
He stood like a rock, holding aloft the tricolour in Kashmir even when that was a life-threatening thing to do in the Valley. Not only that, unlike the sycophants in the Congress establishment, Mufti Sayeed had the courage to stand firm against some of the political blunders that proved costly in the long run.
As chief minister from 2002 to 2005, he proved to be extraordinarily gifted at both administration and political management. He built new schools, colleges and universities across the state, new parks, wide roads and other public facilities. He brought corruption under check, and kept track of development at the grassroots, tapping his own people for real-time feedback on actual progress.
He was by no means a populist leader. Far from it. In fact, one of the first things he did when he became chief minister was to send out bulldozers to pull down illegal constructions. And those bulldozers began their demolitions from his native town, Bijbehara.
The demolitions were initially resented, but soon turned out to be a political master-stroke. For, people who had distanced themselves from the government were forced to go to officials and to politicians in power to get help against the bulldozers. Interactions increased, and the political process gathered steam at the grassroots.
Mufti Sayeed had an enviably warm relationship with both Prime Ministers with whom he worked as chief minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh – and also with other national leaders across the political spectrum, from the Left to the BJP. He had earned respect across the board when he joined VP Singh to launch the Jan Morcha in 1987, and then became Singh’s Home Minister in 1990.
It was Mufti Sayeed as Home Minister of India who took the stern steps that were required to control things when Kashmiri militancy peaked during 1990. And during his short stint as chief minister between 2002 and 2005, separatists (including such a hard-line anti-India activist as Syed Ali Shah Geelani) were marginalized to such an extent that their support base in the Valley seemed to be negligible.
People in the Valley are aware of all these facets of Mufti Sayeed’s career, but they remember him most warmly for having reined in security forces’ excesses. He wound up the autonomous operations of the counter-insurgency Special Operations Group. By bringing them under the control of normal police stations, he made them accountable. He managed to get the often cruel and sometimes culturally abrasive BSF to wind up their control over Srinagar city’s security.
Politically, the highlight of Mufti Sayeed’s career is that he stood firm against the Abdullah family’s exclusive dominance over Kashmir’s politics. He opposed the Rajiv-Farooq accord through which the Congress forced an NC-Congress alliance in 1986 – with disastrous consequences, including the ham-handed rigging of the 1987 elections. He could no doubt have obtained a senior ministerial position for himself in the state if he had fallen in line. But he took the much tougher decision to leave the party with which he had been associated since his youth.
In the second half of the 1990s, when he had returned to the Congress but been given short shrift, he chose to leave again rather than put up with marginalization. This time, he launched the People’s Democratic Party. The formation of the PDP turned out to be an elixir for democracy in Kashmir. The people finally had a real workable alternative to the NC, a role which the Congress had steadfastly refused to take. As in other states, power has regularly swung from the NC to the PDP and back since then.
In the past, the Centre had gone out of its way to ensure that only one dominant party should function in Kashmir. When the National Conference split in 1958, Nehru personally intervened to get the split faction to rejoin the parent party. Although he was only in his 20s, Mufti Sayeed had become the district head of the new Democratic National Conference for south Kashmir.
By the time Mufti Sayeed was active in politics again after his stint at Aligarh Muslim University, the entire party changed its name from National Conference to Congress. He was among those young leaders of the time who adopted the name change most eagerly. He was a minister in the early 1970s.
Mufti Sayeed’s career was an arduous one, but his legacy will live long after him. It falls to his daughter Mehbooba to carry it forward.