From COVID-19 to political vacuum, much has changed in J&K during Mehbooba Mufti's absence

The test that lies ahead of the Abdullahs and Mehbooba is the restoration of normalcy by taking tough steps in the face of the possibility of a lone political battle, a defeated and fragmented regional front and a wary electorate

FP Staff October 14, 2020 20:49:49 IST
From COVID-19 to political vacuum, much has changed in J&K during Mehbooba Mufti's absence

File image of Mehbooba Mufti. Reuters

Much has changed since Mufti, the first woman chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, was put into preventive custody in August 2019, along with other leaders, hours ahead of the Centre bifurcating the state into two union territories and abrogating Article 370 in August 2019.
For one, the UT of Jammu and Kashmir has been ravaged by COVID with its caseload reaching 85,409 and toll at 1,352 on Sunday.
The Union Territory administration today began the electronic Vaccine Intelligence Network for the management of a vaccine for the novel coronavirus which digitises vaccine stocks and monitors the temperature of the cold chain through a smartphone application.
Meanwhile, influenza vaccination for healthcare professionals dealing with COVID-19 patients were rolled out from Monday.
Plans are also in place to ramp up testing as severe acute respiratory infections and influenza-like illnesses are expected to rise in the winter season, as per Greater Kashmir. 

But it is the political scene that has undergone a sea change in Mehbooba's absence.

BJP makes inroads

Questions lingered over the Assembly polls as the BJP, in the absence of a strong local leadership, grew in confidence. The 24 October, 2019, polls termed "a sham" by some saw most major Kashmiri leaders in detention, phone networks remained suspended and local party office remained shut, with many of their workers untraceable, BBC reported.

In the first major electoral exercise following the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and its bifurcation, the election results were a surprise as Independents won in 217 of the 307 blocks, while the saffron party was victorious in 81 blocks.

Harsh Dev Singh of Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party said, "These elections seem like a formality. This is to just to show that elections are being held in the Valley."

Citing the “murder of democracy”, activist-turned-politician Shehla Rashid quit the Jammu and Kashmir People's Movement. State BJP chief Ravinder Raina, however, said there was no “political vacuum in Kashmir”.

Local parties sidelined
Thousands of additional troops were deployed in Jammu and Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370, apart from a communication blackout that was lifted only a few months ago. Political leaders, activists and businessmen were placed in detention or arrest.
As Amit Shah blamed Articles 370 and 35A for the hindrance of democracy and increase in corruption in the state, Congress leader P Chidambaram said that history will prove the Centre to be wrong.
On 15 August, over 250 academicians, artists and activists signed a statement, condemning the “inhumane” restrictions in Kashmir, accusing the government of using its “majoritarian populism” to curb human rights and instil a wave of dystopia and fear across the country.
A group of 28 European parliamentarians, most belonging to right-wing ideologies, were taken on a "private visit" to Kashmir, which invited the Opposition's ire as it came shortly after Rahul Gandhi and other leaders were not allowed to exit the Srinagar airport.
However, the limited voices raised by local parties came to the fore when the Gupkar Declaration, which was signed on 4 August, 2019, at ex-chief minister Farooq Abdullah’s residence by all regional political parties, including the Congress, to jointly fight any attempts to abrogate the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, seemed to have been forgotten.

National Conference chief Farooq and his son Omar, who, like Mehbooba were detained since last year and released in February, caused an uproar by initially remaining silent on the abrogation of Article 370. That silence of the Abdullahs, who lead the oldest party of the region and are heads of a family that held power for almost seven decades, even caused their own fervent followers to fume.

 After facing flak, Omar penned a column in Indian Express vowing not to contest elections until full statehood is restored.
Hafeez-ud-Din, a longtime National Conference activist and staunch supporter of Omar Abdullah, speaking of party leadership told Firstpost, "In exchange for their release, our leaders have reiterated their commitment to strengthen the Hindutva mission in Kashmir. It is not the fault of those who repeatedly sell their faith, conscience and honour, but those of us that have become committed sinners by following them and their plans."

"We have to atone for our sins, and then devise a strategy to fight our own battle. We relied on India at the behest of our leadership. In return, they stabbed us in 1947 and they are doing so again and again."

 In August, the resignation of Shah Faesal as chief of the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement a short time after the outfit’s formation was seen as a major blow to the hopes and aspirations of regional parties.
Mehbooba, through her Twitter handle operated by her daughter Iltija, wondered, “What made a man deeply passionate about bringing effective change to people of J&K through politics change his mind so abruptly?”

In extending the house arrest of Mehbooba, who was termed a “soft separatist”  and also putting Sajad Lone in detention, the BJP turned its backs on those local leaders that could have served as their entry point into the region dominated for decades by local parties.

BJP workers come under attack

Turmoil ensued this year as at least five BJP workers were killed by militants in July-August. BJP leader Wasim Bari, his brother Umar Bashir and father Bashir Ahmed were shot outside their shop in Bandipora in July, followed by the deaths of BJP workers in Budgam and Qazigund districts the next month.

A wave of fear ran among the party's ground workers, triggering at least 17 resignations within a month, leading to around 25 members getting police security, according to Economic Times.

An attempt was also made on the life of BJP leader Ghulam Qadir at his residence in Ganderbal in the district's Nunar area, however, the leader was saved even as his personal security officer was killed in a shooutout with a militant.

There are also reports that elections to panchayat posts will be held soon.

Amid the crisis that the state BJP unit faces in Jammu and Kashmir came the Gupkar Declaration 2.0, calling the revocation of special status and bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir a “spitefully, short-sighted and unconstitutional move".

Fearing fresh detentions and reprisal from the government, the signatories moved swiftly to issue the declaration, a commitment from which withdrawal of any party has become near to impossible, according to The Print.

The signatories of the Declaration, including Mehbooba, are to meet on Thursday.

The strain brought on by the coronavirus pandemic is likely to make matters worse for the political environment in the state, which sees a lockdown that could be considered an extension of the one started in August.

“There are no tourists here, economy is down the drain, and there is no political activity. Just having shops open and cars moving does not mean anything is normal. Kashmiris are being humiliated again and again,” Imran Nabi Dar, a politician from National Conference, told Al Jazeera.

Future uncertain?

As uncertainty prevails in Jammu and Kashmir, the test that lies ahead of the Abdullahs and Mehbooba is the restoration of normalcy by taking tough steps in the face of the possibility of a lone political battle, a defeated and fragmented regional parties and an electorate wary of economic, security and systemic ills plaguing the Union Territory.
“For now, Omar Abdullah has made it very clear that the current battle at hand is against coronavirus. But once this is over, the political leadership may get united on a common minimum programme and they may enter into an agreement with Centre to restore statehood. Only then will the political process start because it will have public participation,” Nisar Ali, a member of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir finance commission, told LiveMint after the NC leaders’ release.

Ali said that the political narrative will have to go beyond Article 370. “People are tired of the status quo here and if they (the leaders) come together, there may emerge a consensus of common development, which will include boosting the tourism economy, investment in infrastructure and jobs," he said.

With inputs from agencies

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