Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was one among the only few politicians in Kashmir who never stopped to be a staunch Indian and fought New Delhi’s political battles in the valley till his death. This is why when he decided to join BJP in an alliance earlier in 2015 – a decision deemed as a dangerous gamble for his party that had emerged as a Kashmir-centric, soft separatist party ever since its inception in 1999 – his political journey in a way came a full circle.
Unlike any top Kashmiri politician in the pro-India camp, Mufti’s political trajectory was unique. He didn’t come via the separatist politics. He didn’t breach an ideological boundary to join electoral politics. He began with the unpopular integrationist politics of Congress at a time when support for such a discourse was nothing less than a slur in Kashmir. In fact, when he with the help of his daughter Mehbooba formed PDP in 1999, he had altered his integrationist discourse in his politics for the first time.
Mufti was born in Bijbehara on January 12, 1936 in an upper caste family of religious clerics. He went to Srinagar’s Sri Pratap College and subsequently earned a law degree and a post-graduate degree in Arabic from Aligarh Muslim University. On his return from Aligarh, he joined G M Sadiq’s Democratic National Conference – a party that had come up after Congress orchestrated a split in NC and jailed Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. The political structure that was put in place in Kashmir after the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah in 1953 was in fact Congress running the show through its proxies. Congress, however, was officially launched in Kashmir when Sadiq’s party merged and became Congress. An integrationist by heart, Sadiq abolished the post of Prime Minister and Sadre-e-Riyasat and changed it to Chief Minister and Governor. He was also responsible for substantial erosion of J&K’s constitutional autonomy when he introduced a number of central laws to the state. Muftialong with his first mentor Syed Mir Qasim, was part of Sadiq’s inner circle and his politics centered on Kashmir’s merger with the Indian Union. Mufti was elected to assembly from his native Bijbehara uncontested on Congress ticket during the sham assembly elections in 1967 and was subsequently appointed as a deputy minister in Sadiq’s government. When Mir Qasim led a revolt against Sadiq because they found the Chief Minister soft on “anti-national elements” (read Sheikh Abdullah and his supporters), Mufti was at the forefront. In fact, he resigned from Sadiq ministry. When Mir Qasim finally took over as Congress CM, Mufti was elevated as a cabinet minister. After Indira-Abdullah accord in 1974, the Congress party asked its sitting CM Mir Qasim along with his government to resign and pave way for Sheikh Abdullah’s take over. Sheikh had agreed to abandon his demand for plebiscite and virtually accepted all the constitutional and political measures that the Congress party had taken to erode J&K’s special status since his arrest in 1953. While Sheikh Abdullah reviving the NC, the outgoing Congress CM Mir Qasim wasn’t keen to fight Sheikh. So Indira Gandhi picked Mufti who had an “aggressive streak” and was politically a committed integrationist. This is how Mufti became the main opposition to Sheikh Abdullah in his stronghold. Mufti was made the head of Pradesh Congress.
In 1977, Congress withdrew support to Sheikh Abdullah and as Pradesh Congress chief Mufti had a serious chance to become the CM at 41. That didn’t happen because the assembly was dissolved on Sheikh Abdullah’s recommendation. This started a bitter rivalry that went way beyond politics.
After Sheikh’s death, Farooq Abdullah led NC to a comfortable win in 1983 elections. Though Mufti lost his election, he led Congress to emerge as a major force, sweeping across Jammu and winning 24 out of its 26 seats from the region. It was exactly the same way and a similar sentiment that helped BJP win Jammu this time. After a year, Mufti orchestrated a split not only in NC but also in Abdullah family, leading to the fall of Farooq Abdullah government. NC’s 13 legislators led by Sheikh’s son-in-law G M Shah rebelled against Farooq Abdullah and formed a government with Congress’s outside support.
Mufti’s plans to wrest power from NC and Abdullah family and bring Congress and himself to power were again cut short when Rajiv Gandhi formed an alliance with Farooq Abdullah. Mufti was removed as the JK Congress chief, sent to Rajya Sabha and subsequently made Union Tourism Minister. Mufti couldn’t stand NC’s romance with Congress – the two parties contested assembly polls in an alliance in 1987. Mufti quit as minister and left Congress. Instead, he joined VP Singh. In 1989, he won Lok Sabha polls from Muzaffarnagar in UP as Janta Dal candidate and became Union Home Minister in VP Singh government which was supported by BJP from outside. Mufti was Home minister when militancy broke out in Kashmir. In fact, his daughter Rubaiya was kidnapped by JKLF who managed to get several top members of the outfit released in exchange. Mufti’s era as Union Home minister witnessed large-scale civilian killings by security forces in Kashmir. Mufti was instrumental in sending Jagmohan as the governor of the state despite vehement opposition by the then Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah who resigned in protest. Jagmohan couldn’t continue for too long and the bloodshed during his reign was also attributed to Mufti in Kashmir. This taint was washed only after he shifted his gear and re-emerged in a new avtar and launched PDP nine years later. In fact, the atrocities committed during the NC’s rule after Farooq Abdullah won 1996 elections were so severe that people forgot about the massacres that took place after Mufti’s short tenure as Union Home minister. Mufti had returned to Congress before the 1996 elections and the party’s situation was so bad that he couldn’t find candidates to contest. He didn’t give up and fielded his wife Gulshan from Pahalgam, his two brother-in-laws from two other South Kashmir constituencies and persuaded his daughter Mehbooba to stand from his home constituency Bijbehara. Only Mehbooba could win. In 1998, he contested Lok Sabha elections from Anantnag on Congress ticket and won. By then, he had decided to leave the national party and start his own regional group to challenge NC in its own turf and game.
Mufti had fought bitter political battles all his life. When he finally dislodged his arch rivals, the Abdullah family from the seat of power, it was only because he came up with a competing political agenda that that took sheen out of NC’s political rhetoric of autonomy and Kashmiri pride to secure public support. In fact, he went a step further and even shrunk the space for moderate separatists. For last 16 years, it seemed Mufti had concluded that the shift he made in 1999 was final. But when Mufti decided to form a coalition with BJP, it was a surprise. But then it was also a sort of return to the politics that he had practiced most of his life. After all Congress was perceived in the same manner in Kashmir once as BJP is seen today.