Dying Abdullah’s dynasty in Kashmir

Doubtlessly, elections have critically changed the entire political landscape in the Indian held Jammu & Kashmir. Significantly, in the wake of the same elections, Abdullah dynasty has perished after ruling the J&K state for over 27 years. One of the prominent political casualties was the newly elected president of the National Conference (NC) Omer Abdullah. Besides 10 other sitting ministers failed to win their respective seats. Abdullah family had been the champion of Kashmiri identity and anti-autocratic rule in Kashmir since the early days of 1940s. This posture had provided the family with an opportunity to enjoy immense love and respect from the common people for over five decades. The ouster of the Abdullah dynasty from the political scene qualifies an in-depth analysis as to what factor led the party to such an unexpected humiliation. One also needs to study as to how the party would chalk out its future strategy.

The National Conference and the Abdullahs have been a strong bridge between India and the people of the J&K. Mostly analysts hold the NC and the Abdullah family responsible for snatching the state from Pakistan and handing it over to India. Initially, Sheikh Abdullah managed to seek a semi-independent status for the state from New Delhi. However, 5 years later, all dreams became nightmares for the family when Jawaharlal Nehru jailed his friend Abdullah. The Indian establishment dumped him in prison for 22 long years. After the hard times behind bars, the elder Sheikh emerged as proponent of right of self-determination. He even formed a political party, Plebiscite Front, which led to a two-decade long struggle. Dismemberment of Pakistan in 1971 brought the shrewd Kashmiri family back in the Indian fold. The Abdullah family bargained his political views with chief ministership of the state.

On the other hand, there is no denying of the fact that the Kashmiri people are pro-freedom and against Indian rule. Having known this hard reality the Abdullah family has successfully been exploiting popular sentiments of the people through politics of deception and duplicity. Interestedly, over the years the NC has been playing dual role to satisfy the starkly two opposing constituencies. The former state governor, Jagmohan, very aptly described this characteristic in his book ‘My Frozen Turbulence in Kashmir’. He writes, “Different postures could be adopted at different times and places by the same leader. Of Sheikh Abdullah, for instance, it was said that he could be a communalist in Kashmir, a communist in Jammu and a nationalist in New Delhi.”

These circumstances made NC the sole proprietor of Kashmiri aspirations, thus ensuring a freehand to play the opposition and the government both role at the same time.

The late 80s marked the beginning of armed struggle, which successfully crippled Indian political and intelligence machinery in the state. While the Kashmiri resistance effectively ousted New Delhi, only NC had the recipe for the rescue. Moreover, the National Conference largely reinstated the Indian setup in the state. Being more loyal than the king himself, Farooq formed two brutal forces i.e. J&K Special Task Forces and Special Operation Group. Both the forces unleashed a new era of repression and swiftly became murderous squad of Farooq Abdullah’s NC regime.

Contrary to the past experience, the brutality and poor governance badly exposed the NC and Abdullah family. He was being considered as a purely Indian pet all along his 6 year long tenure in power. Having made many political mistakes, Abdullahs had lost their Kashmiri identity and became a mouthpiece of Delhi instead of the people. Meanwhile, the NC joined the coalition government in Delhi with its command lying in the hands of ultra-rightist BJP. Despite rejection of the autonomy report and Gujrat carnage, Omer Abdullah did not part ways with the BJP-led central government. Omer is still holding the portfolio of deputy minister for external affairs in cabinet.

In this backdrop, Kashmiri people have two options, either to back the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) or accept the dictates of the Indian forces and poll votes. As Kashmiris are traditionally known for their wisdom and flexibility, from Srinagar to far-flung Doda district, they showed a mixed response in the recent polls. Interestingly, the data shows that they completely boycotted the election but voted against the National Conference in the countryside. Removal of the NC from political scene was really an uphill task, as the party has been a major foe of the Kashmiri resistance since long. The Hurriyat could have never been able to dislodge the NC from power, but the common people did it quite easily and peacefully.

From two-third majority of 57 seats house in 1996, the NC has settled for just 28 seats this time. Not only Omer Abdullah is a loser but also his uncle Mustaf Kamal from Gulmarg bagged a humiliating defeat by a massive margin of 21,000 votes. The ouster of two stalwarts marks the end of the Abdullah dynasty at a critical time in the history of the state.

The Apple of orchard of Kashmir, Sopur, brought unexpected victory for Congress’ candidate. The election results for the town, considered a hub of militants and liberated area up to 1994, gave birth to newer questions. Have the people reconciled with India? Has the militancy backfired? The factual position bring another interesting facet of public opinion as analysts believe the people voted for Congress to punish NC and it leadership for their anti-representative polices. Omer Abdullah himself confessed that his party’s closeness to Delhi resulted in the unexpected defeat.

The state capital, Srinagar, was presenting yet another facet of public sentiments. The beautiful Kashmiri town was wearing the look of ghost city until the news of Omer Abdullah and his party’s defeat became the public knowledge. The city woke up as they heard the turning of tides against the Abdullahs; the people of Srinagar joyously celebrated the moments. The next morning, influential Indian Express reported, “People hug each other with congratulatory words.”

The National Conference is not a dead horse now. They have a bigger role to play in the opposition than the one they played while being in power. Slowly but surely it will try again to emerge as champion of Kashmiri rights, their identity and even advocate of right of self-determination. The dummy opposition of Abdullah may return to power corridors, courtesy the Indian political system, which has the guts to create the dummy leadership to isolate a genuine one. Now, the NC may try to steal the slogans of APHC to lessen its strength. Analysts observe that such a strategy can somehow restore the NC’s lost reputation and mass support.

It is evident from the situation on ground that India failed to get the real message from the turmoil as well as the election results. May it be the Indian government, opposition parties or the national press; they all seem have a firm belief that the Kashmiris are fed-up with resistance struggle and want to settle down their issues within Indian framework. At the same time, the Indian approach has become more assertive and unrealistic after converting election into a credible democratic exercise and winning the American acclaim. Across the Line of Control, the Pakistani policymakers and press, who used to ignore the internal situation and political manipulations of J&K state, would have to keenly monitor the fast changing scenario of the disputed state.

The writer is a specialist on dynamics of Jammu and Kashmir conflict and India-Pakistan relations. He has recently visited Indian-Held Jammu and Kashmir.