On Wednesday, two days after the Jammu and Kashmir government moved to the state’s summer capital of Srinagar, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti invited select members of the press for dinner at a guesthouse in the sylvan Zabarwan foothills. Since she took charge in early April she has not addressed the press even once, not even on the day of her swearing-in.
So the journalists obviously expected an informal interaction with the new chief minister, who has so far conceded little more than the fact that she had finally stepped into the shoes of her father, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who died in office in January.
Microphones were placed on a few tables arranged along two rows where the journalists were seated. Mehbooba Mufti walked into the tent half an hour later than expected. She took hold of a microphone and started a short, unstructured speech, which was mostly about the pain she was going through after losing her father.
“I have not seen daddy for four months,” she said. “Mufti sahib would scold me if I made a mistake or said something wrong… and also appreciated when I did something good.”
While she repeatedly thanked the media for being sensitive to her pain, she did not once speak of the pain of a Kashmiri schoolgirl – now well known on the internet as the “Handwara girl” – who was freed from illegal police custody on May 12, after a month-long struggle by her parents and legal counsel. Instead, she mourned the undoing of the “good work” of soldiers when they killed five civilians during protests that followed allegations that the schoolgirl was molested by one of them in the northern town of Handwara.
Asking for help
During her monologue at the dinner, she asked for the support of the media and Opposition in “fulfilling Mufti sahib’s mission” within the next five years, after which she would then stay home. If the expected support, including of those who do not agree with her (read the separatists), was not forthcoming, they would have to continue facing her for longer.
“When he was being treated in the hospital, Mufti sahib was impatient, asking the doctors when he would be able to leave, telling them, ‘I have a lot of work to do,’” the chief minister said. “I have jumped into the fire to accomplish Mufti sahib’s mission.”
However, not many people in Kashmir know what her or her father’s mission is. Her Peoples Democratic Party, which she played an important part in founding, has not spoken of its earlier lofty ideal of “self-rule” ever since it allied in March last year with the Bharatiya Janata Party (of which not a single member was present at the dinner).
Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP no more speaks of the “battle of ideas” it saw democracy to be, and the arena it would often invite the separatists to fight in. The new chief minister is meanwhile using the same tools that all her predecessors had deployed against political resistance. Her government continues to use the draconian Public Safety Act to put opponents away in jail without trial. Even press conferences and seminars within the four walls of a hall are banned, not to speak of the public mobilisation for political ideas opposed to hers. On the ground, the PDP’s “battle of ideas” has actually played out as a battle between state power and ideas of dignity and rights.
For its own voters, the PDP is yet to find a half-convincing argument to justify its alliance with the BJP. Its most committed workers in the party’s core constituency of south Kashmir are feeling left in the lurch, facing taunts and a resurgent militancy. Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP has fully adopted prime minister Narendra Modi’s mantra of economic development as panacea for all the issues Kashmir is faced with. The party has conveniently forgotten its earlier position that political aspects of the Kashmir dispute must be addressed by engaging with "separatist leadership and Pakistan".
An unexpected move
The party bitterly fought the last elections against the BJP, seeking a vote to keep the Hindutva party out of Kashmir. But Mehbooba Mufti’s father unnerved even his own party colleagues by eventually making an alliance with the BJP, something that took months to materialise. “Initially, we were all rattled when Mufti sahib took the decision,” the chief minister admitted at the press dinner. The argument put forth by Sayeed was that such an alliance of the ideologically opposite parties was the only way to respect the people’s mandate.
But the question Sayeed, and now his daughter, never want to be asked is why the alliance with the BJP is not a total flaunting of the vote they received for keeping the BJP out. After her father died in January, she herself took nearly two months to make peace with her father’s decision, before finally agreeing to continue the alliance with the BJP, and all for “upholding her father’s legacy”. What the people thought about it appears to have had little meaning for the PDP.
No journalist expected such questions to be asked during an informal interaction over dinner with the chief minister, but one hoped to get some sense of what she was thinking. Many in Kashmir describe as “second suicide” Mehbooba's decision to go the same way as her father, even after he had possibly grown to regret the alliance following a very public snub that Prime Minister Narendra Modi served out to him at a rally in Srinagar in November.
Colleagues at the dinner exchanged awkward glances as the chief minister delivered her emotional speech. I remembered an earlier occasion some years ago when Sayeed had called the press over to his residence, an erstwhile torture centre still etched in the memory of countless Kashmiris as PAPA II. A little unconvinced with the PDP patriarch’s postulations, I engaged his aide in an informal chat following the press meet, basically suggesting that the PDP appeared to be bartering away the people’s interest, again, just like the National Conference had done before them. “The destiny of Kashmir is to be raped,” the aide had told me. "All we can try do is to make the rape a little easy on the people."
Just as some of us at the press dinner began to hope that there was a chance now to use the microphones lying on the tables in front and attempt to gauge the new chief minister’s mind, she called out, “Is the soup ready?” Her monologue was over.
No food for thought
Everyone was then invited to the adjacent tent to eat on neatly laid tables. Mehbooba Mufti took to one in the middle, joined by her closest aide, a minister and his son, her political advisor and a couple of PDP functionaries. None of them dined with the invited journalists. While the journalists ate and wondered why they had nothing to chew on, Mehbooba Mufti and her aides chatted away among themselves, eventually waiting for the departing journalists to say khuda hafiz to her. She did not once go around the tables to chat with the journalists at the meeting.
I must admit that I deeply resented the deliberate aloofness of the first-time chief minister. Before leaving the tent I decided to walk to her table. “Madam Chief Minister, I am happy for this opportunity to see you,” I said. “But I would be much happier if you granted me an interview.”
I didn’t expect a definite yes from her right away, but her response perfectly matched the air of the whole dinner affaire. “Abhi kuch kaam karne dijiye, paanch chhe mahinay ke baad dekhtey hain,” she said airily. Let us first do some work, we’ll see after five or six months.
The event emphasised what has become a norm in the restive state of Jammu and Kashmir. Chief ministers have rarely spoken to local journalists, including those reporting Kashmir for the international media. When they do give interviews, it is almost always to TV journalists who fly in from Delhi, generally with a certain unquestioning receptiveness to their often self-serving explanations.
Mehbooba Mufti too appeared in no mood to change this attitude towards the press. She did not even address a customary press conference on the day she took office. Her father, Mufti Sayeed, addressed the press only once during the ten months of his second tenure as chief minister, and that was on the day of his swearing-in.
Before them, during Omar Abdullah’s six years as chief minister he mostly spoke out through social media and appearances in TV studios in Delhi, or spoke to journalists who were visiting from the capital. This has only strengthened the perception in Kashmir that the embattled state’s chief ministers only interact with journalists who they know would not ask the most urgent questions that contemporary Kashmir poses to their authority.
More than anything else, this speaks loudly about where the accountability of the pro-India Kashmiri politicians lies. Mehbooba Mufti too has shown no willingness to tread differently. She sounds like Omar Abdullah when he was the chief minister, just like Abdullah now sounds like Mehbooba when she was out of power. Both in power and out of it, they all have to fit themselves well in a template.