In September 2015, an innovative high-density apple orchard, set up by the Kashmir-born US-trained mathematician Khurram Mir, was inaugurated by then chief minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed (at Bambdoora in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district). The orchard — with a wide variety of fast growing trees — was predicted to yield several times more fruit, in a few years, than a traditional Kashmiri orchard. It was one of those rare occasions when the usually stern Mufti was overwhelmed and broke down at what he saw: A new landscape of possibility and hope.
For Mir’s orchard was more than just acres of apple trees. It held the promise of real transformation. More than most places in the world, Jammu and Kashmir has been — as is evident — drawn into regional and global political agendas. Could it now be possible for an ordinary Kashmiri to access knowledge, technology and other opportunities in a globalised world?
Less than a year later, in July 2016, the orchard was razed to the ground by angry mobs protesting against the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen’s Burhan Wani in a village close to the orchard. No tree was spared, either burnt or pulled out by its roots. Ironically, the hybrid apple saplings had been imported by Mir from north Italy’s South Tyrol province that has emerged, for decades, as a model of political and economic self-governance in a historically conflict-ridden zone.
Exactly a year has passed since the passing away of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. It has been, to state the obvious, a deeply troubling 12 months and not just because of the devastating blow to Khurram Mir’s plans. If anything, the period has demonstrated that the vacuum that Mufti sahib left behind cannot be filled in a hurry. It is now up to his chosen political successor, Mehbooba Mufti, to demonstrate that the legacy of this social visionary and political genius from Brijbehera is not just preserved, but translated into reality on the ground in the next four years.
Politics, in this sense, has to move beyond the sense of personal bereavement and public mourning to the reality that from henceforth, every day lost is a succumbing to a dystopian vision of Kashmir, which the Mufti would never approve of, even at his frailest.
At a time like this (on an intensely cold chil-i-kalan night in Srinagar) it is comforting, even if it is methodologically debatable, to cling on to the counter factual. What, we may ask, would Mufti have done for Jammu and Kashmir today, were he still at the helm of affairs?
The Mufti, as I know, had a comprehensive vision for the state that included a grand plan for dialogue and reconciliation (between communities, within regions and even across the LoC); a deep commitment to strengthening democracy, particularly at the grass roots; and to ensuring that governance is also is channelised into the celebration of the state’s enviable ethno-cultural-linguistic and geographic diversity.
But it was the young people of the state, particularly the young women, who were at the core of his vision. In many ways this story of youthful energy, talent and gender empowerment were inherently linked to the Mufti story.
The personal and political narrative of the Mufti is not a fairytale of success aided by silver cutlery or lost slippers, but of a dream built on steely foundations of resilience and determination. The journey from the humble precincts of his ancestral Baba Mohalla in Brijbehera to his chief ministerial residence at Fairview on the banks of the Dal Lake in Srinagar was an arduous journey.
As a young student, from a family of clerics, deeni taleem was part of the traditional education imparted to young boys in the family. But soon the Mufti found the teachings too doctrinaire and antediluvian for his temperament. It was in Srinagar, where the experience of living in the cramped quarters in downtown’s Shahar-i-Khas, first moulded his identity and made him aware of social and economic deprivation and the hardships faced by young women. But it was Aligarh that transformed him into a modern secular Muslim inspired by the ideas and ideals of Maulana Azad as well as the degree in law.
Mufti Sahib’s favourite desert was shahi tukda, seeped in the sweet nostalgia of AMU, but there were lessons beyond the final rich course of an otherwise bland “hostel” dinner. If Srinagar had taught him how class and economic marginalisation can pull you down, AMU demonstrated vistas for the future: The possibilities of breaking free through unfettered access to modern knowledge, critical thinking and of creating the climate of conscientisation for those living in a “culture of silence”.
While trained as a lawyer and with a profound knowledge of rights, law and their relationship with power, in a moment of epiphany, he realised that real social transformation was possible only through politics and public life. Education, thinking, skills, that would revive Kashmir’s traditional knowledge society was Mufti sahib’s passion. It was for him about a popular engagement with learning and knowledge that would involve critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication.
He recognised the complexities and fragilities of Kashmiri identity, bruised by repeated onslaughts. Indeed, his very own PDP was, in many ways, an attempt at striking a balance between a larger vision and a regional assertion, where Kashmiri identity would be protected and strengthened within the robust democratic diversity of a larger landscape.
He believed in education being the great equaliser: Schools, colleges, para medical and skills institutes and universities were his real passion. If you asked him what would transform J&K, he would say we needed to focus on just three factors: The youth, more youth and only the youth. They would find a way. This summer, with many innocent young people losing their lives, would have pained him exceedingly, but he would not have broken down or lost hope. “This is a battle of both ideas and nerves,” he would say and then would perhaps repeat in the style of an old Communist jingle: “We shall fight and we shall win!”