Indira Gandhi was keen on investing in Farooq Abdullah. He came across to her as a happy-go-lucky man who was neither ambitious nor deeply rooted in Kashmir politics and ethos. His only qualification was that he was the son of a father whose political goodwill was spread out across Kashmir. Farooq had grown up in the comfortable shadow of his father – there hadn’t been an occasion where he needed to fight a political battle in the streets or hold his nerve during a tense closed-door conversation. He was a greenhorn who could be groomed and moulded. He was the perfect proxy.
The Sheikh, on the other hand, had been his own man. The trait had irked Indira Gandhi at several junctures. He also commanded a personal public following that was reinforced by the politicoreligious guardianship he had acquired of the holy Hazratbal shrine. He was, thus, both a Muslim leader and a nationalist; a Pakistan-baiter as well as an India-hater. He went from one to the other according to the political needs of a particular day. The Sheikh’s shape-changing tactics had upset her plans repeatedly.
She, nevertheless, persisted with him; more so because she had no other choice. Sheikh Abdullah was keen for Farooq to learn the political ropes quickly. He got him to the party, but son-in-law GM Shah ensured he didn’t forge a political identity. Shah’s politics reduced him to a rubber-stamp president. Farooq had no role in the State administration too because the Sheikh liked to run the government singlehandedly. He, therefore, devoted his time to forge personal equations with the ruling elite in New Delhi, and its appointees in Srinagar.
Governor BK Nehru was particularly impressed with Farooq’s manner and style. The young politician often dropped in at the Raj Bhawan for a drink and sought Nehru’s advice on different issues. Farooq, Nehru was convinced, displayed the right eagerness to learn in order to fit into the role expected of him. He, therefore, mentored him with keen interest. The Congress felt smug in its choice. The State Congress unit headed by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was not too happy with the party’s gamble.
Mufti had cut his political teeth in the rough and tumble of Kashmir politics dominated by the Sheikh. The seemingly genteel Mufti with a crop of salt and pepper hair plastered across his broad head, who looked diminutive in the presence of 6 feet 4 inches tall Sheikh Abdullah, was born in Bijbehara on January 12, 1936, in a family of religious clerics. He studied at Srinagar’s Sri Pratap College and later went to Aligarh Muslim University to earn a law degree and a post-graduate degree in Arabic. He returned to start a law practice in Anantnag. Syed Mir Qasim, a Democratic National Conference (DNC) leader, was active in the area. Mufti soon joined Qasim’s party, which was led by GM Sadiq. DNC, in fact, was formed after the Congress engineered a split in the NC and jailed Sheikh Abdullah in 1953. It was a Congress proxy, and a few years later when they merged, the Congress established its first real presence in Kashmir.
Sheikh countered it by organising a social boycott of anyone associated with the Congress. He called Congressmen “gutter worms”. Sadiq became Prime Minister of the Riyasat of Jammu and Kashmir in 1964. He was a believer in J&K’s integration with India, who abolished the post of “Prime Minister” and “Sadre-e-Riyasat” in the State via a Constitutional amendment and replaced the titles with Chief Minister and Governor, respectively. Mir Qasim and Mufti were a part of his Cabinet.
In the 1967 Assembly elections, Mufti won from Bijbehara unopposed on a Congress ticket and was appointed as the deputy minister in Sadiq’s government. He soon resigned to side with Mir Qasim when he led a revolt against Sadiq for being soft on “antinational elements (Sheikh Abdullah and his supporters.)“ In the new Congress government of 1972 led by Qasim, Mufti was made a Cabinet Minister. When Sheikh Abdullah returned to power following the Indira-Sheikh Accord, the Congress picked “aggressive” Mufti, committed to integration with India, as State Congress chief to counter the Sher-e-Kashmir. Though Mufti stood steadfast with the Congress, he couldn’t lead the party to win even a single election in Kashmir.
A popular slogan, coined at the time to rub salt into his wounds, was “Muftian kabar Kasheer-e-Nebar (Mufti’s grave will be outside Kashmir)”. The first turning point in Mufti’s career came in 1977 when the Congress withdrew support to Sheikh Abdullah. Mufti was just 41 and the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chief. He had a serious chance of becoming the CM. But Delhi politics spoilt it for him. The Assembly was dissolved on Sheikh Abdullah’s recommendation, much to the Mufti’s exasperation.
The run-up to the Sheikh’s succession was equally frustrating for Mufti. He strongly favoured that the Congress seize the initiative to create a situation in which the party was the only alternative for the people. His plans were contested by his one-time mentor Mir Qasim. He favoured accommodation with the NC. Post-Farooq Abdullah’s installation as Chief Minister, the Congress was buffeted with internal dissensions. A meeting of the Pradesh Congress Committee, held in December 1982, degenerated into a name-calling session. PCC secretary Shah Shaida accused Mufti of building his own faction in the party through a number of defectors to the Congress and “tightening” his grip on the organization by giving key posts to them.
Such defections included Mian Bashir, a Gujjar MLA who was a deputy minister in the Sheikh’s government; Malik Mohiuddin, MLA and former Speaker of the Assembly; GM Bawan of Janata Party; and Moulvi Iftikhar, a Shia leader also from the Janata Party. Rafiq Sadiq, son of the former Chief Minister GM Sadiq, was incensed over such inductions. He lashed out at Mufti for imposing “Aya Rams and Gaya Rams” (turncoats) on the party and resigned his party position in protest. Party stalwart Syed Mir Qasim did not attend the meeting. Mufti, he said, never talked and acted seriously. “I don’t bother to go to such functions,” he commented. Begum Zainab, a widely respected leader, complained that she had not been even informed about the meeting. The internal wrangling led to the emergence of four factions within the Congress – pro-Sadiq, pro-Qasim, pro-Mufti and pro-Ghulam Rasool Kar, the senior vice president. Mufti, however, was not too worried about the developments in PCC. He had other things on his mind.
Assembly elections were due in the first half of 1983, parleys had begun between the Congress High Command and Farooq Abdullah about a possible electoral alliance. The Congress, with just 11 seats in a 76-member House, looked for a face-saver in the forthcoming elections. Congress National General Secretary Rajiv Gandhi did not think Mufti could deliver as “the party had no grassroots in Kashmir”. Farooq Abdullah, on his part, indicated that he was not averse to a tie-up, but said that he was very averse to the presence of Mufti in the Congress state hierarchy.
Excerpted with permission from Farooq of Kashmir, Ashwini Bhatnagar and RC Ganjoo, Fingerprint Publishing.