By overriding their previously stated positions and ideological differences, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed displayed enormous far-sightedness and honoured the decisive verdict delivered by the people of the state by forging the PDP-BJP alliance government.
Unfortunately, the alliance had a troubled start. During his first interaction with the media after his swearing-in ceremony, Sayeed dwelled at length on how Pakistan deserved to be thanked for allowing a peaceful election in the state, resulting in a high voter turnout. The media at once latched on to this indiscretion and created a huge embarrassment for the BJP that its alliance partner seemed to have a cozy enough equation with Pakistan for the CM to be thanking the Pakistani establishment (read ISI) publicly. The army also took umbrage at the attribution of the success of the elections to Pakistan rather than to the security forces that had kept Pakistan-sponsored terrorists at bay.
This reinforced the latent prejudice cultivated in the media against the PDP and its image as having a hidden separatist agenda. This image has unfortunately persisted despite the fact that in his first term as CM, Sayeed had astutely marginalised the separatists and reinforced people’s faith in democracy. As if to add fuel to fire, soon after taking charge, PDP leaders announced the release of ultra-militant separatist leader Masarat Alam, who had masterminded the violent stone-throwing agitation in 2010, in which 114 young boys were killed. Even though PDP leaders later tried desperately to clarify that the release had been ordered by the Supreme Court and that the state government had no role in it, the damage could not be repaired because, in the first few days after the release, senior PDP leaders had gone out of their way to take credit for it, saying it was a continuation of the “healing touch” policy of the PDP’s first term in government.
The BJP’s core constituency was understandably outraged because, soon after his release, Alam organised anti-India rallies in which the Pakistani flag was audaciously waved to provoke security forces. This unleashed ultra-jingoist TV anchors, who went ballistic at the newly formed alliance. The media did not relent till the Centre ordered the CM to arrest Alam under fresh charges under the Public Safety Act, which allows him to be jailed without trial for two years. This was a big loss of face for the PDP because its critics alleged that it was a mere puppet in the hands of the Centre.
Ironically, while people outside Kashmir saw Alam’s release as Sayeed’s appeasement of separatist groups, the Syed Ali Shah Geelani group and other separatist leaders saw it as a devious attempt by the PDP to build up Alam into a larger-than-life figure in order to overshadow and marginalise them. By way of proof, people cited the mass rallies organised by Alam, at which Geelani appeared an insignificant figure while Alam was projected as the hero of the show by the media. As a result, even Geelani had to match the hysterical pitch built up by Alam and indulged in extravagant pro-Pakistan rhetoric. Suddenly, the atmosphere began to resemble the turbulent years of insurgency unleashed in 1989. For the PDP, the whole exercise turned out to be a case of “na khuda hi mila, na visaal-e-sanam”.
Worse was to follow: In June 2015, six murders took place in quick succession in Sopore. The targeted men were earlier involved with various militant groups, including Geelani’s Hurriyat. But over the years, they gave up terrorism and settled down in small businesses. The police attributed these killings to rival militant groups, while separatists allege them to be the handiwork of security agencies. When I visited Kashmir in June, separatists were in real panic, fearing that they may also be similarly bumped off. This fear united the otherwise divided, mutually suspicious separatist groups. They allege in unison that the PDP-BJP combine is out to eliminate them through surrendered militants.
In this charged atmosphere, the indiscreet statement of Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar that the government would “neutralise terrorists through terrorists only”, instead of risking the lives of army soldiers, has provided grist to the separatist mill. Pakistan- and ISI-backed separatists are now conveniently passing off all terrorist killings as the handiwork of the Indian state. They tried doing so before, but the allegation carried little credibility. Now, it has been put forth as state policy by no less than the defence minister of India.
Neither the BJP nor the PDP can afford to mess up the historic mandate given by the J&K voters. While the BJP needs to curb its loose cannons and train its novice ministers to deliver on promises, the PDP better realise that playing footsie with militant groups will inevitably backfire.
The writer is founder-editor, ‘Manushi’, and professor, CSDS, Delhi.