Who is Nationalist, who is a Separatist?

Today’s column starts with a story that I had planned to leave for a possible future memoir but since we live in a ‘here and now’ era, it is perhaps best to tell it while it remains relevant. In the year 2000, I was in Pakistan tracking down that country’s terror militias which were targeting the Kashmir valley. My travels took me to Rawalpindi and the headquarters of the self-styled United Jihad Council to meet with the Hizbul Mujahideen chief, Syed Salahuddin. The initial interaction didn’t go off well at all. The burly, bearded Salahuddin in his flowing Pathani suit was convinced that me and my cameraperson were Indian spies, snatched away our passports and cameras and locked us in a room.

An hour later, the door was opened and after having ranted at us in a menacing tone, Salahuddin suddenly changed his demeanor and became rather chatty. “Do you know that I contested the 1987 Kashmir elections and was sure to win but for the manner in which your Delhi government along with Farooq Abdullah rigged the election only to defeat people like me at the last minute?” he claimed irately. I nodded my head gently, careful not to anger him any further. The story of how Yusuf Shah, an Islamic preacher in a local Srinagar madrasa was suddenly transformed into a dreaded terrorist is part of Kashmir’s tangled, bloodied folklore. As is the fact that one of his election agents then was Yasin Malik, who would later become a commander of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. And yet, to hear the account of the 1987 election from a central figure offered an interesting insight into how political blunders can change the course of history. “If I had won that election, who knows I might be a PWD minister in government today!” laughed Salahuddin. It was perhaps the only moment during our encounter when I felt a bit relaxed, turning my gaze away from the fearsome-looking gunmen around us.

In April this year, I shared the Salahuddin story with the former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Dr Abdullah and asked him bluntly as to what prompted him, in tandem with Rajiv Gandhi’s government, to rig the 1987 elections in the valley. Dr Abdullah’s initial response was typically theatrical. “Do you really think I need to rig an election to win? Why didn’t any of these guys complain to the Election Commission or go to the Supreme Court?” he asked. A few hours later, after a delicious wazwaan meal, Dr Abdullah became reflective. “If the Muslim United Front (the party which Salahuddin was representing) had won that election, they would have declared an Islamic state, called for azaadi or joined Pakistan. As a proud Indian, I could never allow that to happen, could I?” he said pointedly.

Barely five months later, there has been another twist in the Kashmir saga. Dr Abdullah is under house arrest and detention for almost two months now under the Public Safety Act which allows the state to detain anyone for upto six months without trial under public order and for two years for being a threat to national security. By contrast, one of India’s most wanted, Syed Salahuddin can roam around freely in Pakistan and spread more venom and violence against the Indian state. In the aftermath of the effective de-operationalising of Article 370, has the Modi government chosen a political path where a ‘nationalist’ Farooq and a ‘terrorist-separatist’ Salahuddin are now both seen as ‘enemies’ of the state, one caged in his bungalow on Srinagar’s Gupkar Road, the other in his Pakistani safe-house?

It’s a question which is relevant in the context of a perplexing situation in the valley where the lines between nationalism and separatism have been blurred by heavy-handed state action that treats almost every Kashmiri politician as a potential trouble-maker and closet insurgent. We have a unique emerging template for ‘normalcy’ in the Kashmir valley where political activity is banned and where any protest or expression of dissent is viewed as ‘anti-national’, where a separatist Hurriyat leader like Mirwaiz Umar Farooq can be released by signing a bond not to engage in political demonstrations but three former chief ministers who have sworn allegiance to the Indian constitution are in detention. Of the three, Farooq Abdullah has worked with both BJP and Congress governments at the Centre, his son Omar was a minister in the Vajpayee government and Mehbooba Mufti was an alliance partner of the BJP till a year ago.

Suddenly, the troika are not just persona non grata but deemed to be threats to the state. It is one thing to accuse them of mis-governance, corruption and even ‘rigging’ the political system by ensuring a low voter turnout but should they now be seen as traitors too? That they perpetuated family rule in the valley is undeniable but surely that is a charge which can be laid across the political spectrum with the sole exception of the left. That they monopolized and mis-used the state machinery for personal benefit is also a reasonable allegation but is again one that can be made against a slew of other leaders. Acting against a Farooq, for example, on allegations of financial irregularities in the Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association case is perfectly justifiable but to now detain him under PSA suggests that the Indian state suddenly finds a 81 year old leader as a likely magnet for anti-India sentiments.

Can we forget that the same Farooq Abdullah was India’s brand ambassador at numerous global fora on Kashmir? Or that he was seen as an interlocutor between New Delhi and Srinagar whenever a fraught relationship needed a healing touch? Or that he has spoken out strongly and repeatedly against Pakistani involvement in inciting trouble in the valley? The Abdullahs and the Muftis must be defeated politically and not through patently unconstitutional detentions. Not only will this prolonged detention confer a halo of ill-deserved martyrdom on Kashmir’s leading politicians but it creates a dangerous political vacuum which leaves the valley alternating between uncertainty and despair. Sitting in Pakistan, a Syed Salahuddin may well see the state action in Kashmir as poetic justice for what happened in 1987: that rigged election was a trigger for militancy, what will this possible mis-step lead to?

Post-script: Since history lessons on ‘nationalism’ are being shared in the context of Kashmir, here is another fact: in 1999, during the Kandahar hijacking, Farooq as J and K chief minister had fiercely opposed the release of Masood Azhar and other terrorists. Ironically, those who negotiated with the hijackers and the Taliban are now in government. The times sure have changed!

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