The imprisonment of Mehbooba Mufti, leader of the People’s Democratic Party, former chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, and former member of Parliament, on August 5, 2019, the day the Centre ushered in sweeping constitutional changes to the state, has come to an end after 14 months. As with other political leaders who have been released, no explanation is forthcoming on the grounds of her arrest, the decision to charge her under PSA, and why those charges have been revoked now. There is no explanation for why some political workers are still languishing in prisons. In the post-Article 370 Jammu & Kashmir, Mufti’s release presents her with new challenges.
In her first public message, posted on Twitter within hours of her release, she made two points that signal her broad political intent: One, she described the changes to J&K’s special status as “unconstitutional, undemocratic and illegal”, and, without explicitly mentioning Article 370 or statehood, or domicile rules, talked about a people’s struggle to reverse the changes.
Two, she spoke of the larger Kashmir question for which “thousands have sacrificed their lives” — the question that existed before last year’s changes and that has not disappeared since. In this sense, she went beyond the two Gupkar declarations, which commit the six signatories — mainstream political parties in J&K — to the demand for restoration of the status quo that existed before August 5, 2019. A third Gupkar meeting, to be held on Thursday, may bring more clarity. But Mufti has indicated that while she will walk the talk with the rest on the Gupkar common cause, her own political plank remains the resolution of the Kashmir issue itself. This is where her politics will be located. But the road ahead for her and the PDP will need to be defined.
Faced with a shell of the PDP and the newly formed Jammu & Kashmir Apni Party, Mufti seems to have realised that she has no time to lose. It may be fair to deduce from her release that the government too has come to terms with the reality that there is no alternative but to go to the people, and deal with the outcomes this throws up. That is a good sign. It also possibly comes out of the realisation in the Home Ministry that Kashmir needs real politics, not a hothouse exotic like the Apni Party, nor another import in the Valley. Militancy in the Valley has shown no sign of disappearing, indications are that it remains an attractive option for youth.
Farooq Abdullah’s vehement denunciation of Delhi, and his grandstanding on how China might help Kashmir win back special status, has taken the government by surprise. Delhi may hope that Mufti might be able to rechannel the mainstream. Mufti herself has kept the door tantalisingly open to all possibilities. The first clues could come with the elections in J&K to 13,000 vacant panchayat seats, which are likely to be held before the end of this year.
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