On July 31, after Sunday prayers in South Kashmir’s Anantnag town, Iftikhar Hussain Misger, the block president of the National Conference, wove through the crowd gathered at the old market area of Cheeni Chowk. He announced that he would support Kashmir’s struggle for azadi and give up “pro-Indian politics”. Then, flanked by a local leader of the separatist Hurriyat conference, he joined in the slogans.

Bharat ke aiwano mei aag lagaa do, aag lagaa do [Set fire, set fire to the legislatures of India]”, they chanted. “Jo Bharat ke yaar hai, gaddaar hai, gaddaar hai [Friends of India are traitors, are traitors].”

Only in June, Misger had contested by-elections to the legislative assembly of Jammu and Kashmir. He finished far behind the winner, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, for whom the Anantnag constituency is something of a family seat.

By the end of August, Misger was treading a careful middle ground as he took questions in the dimly lit lounge of his house in Cheeni Chowk. No, he had not resigned from the National Conference or left the mainstream. Certainly, he had given up his security cover, because what better security could he have than the people of Kashmir? Yes, his popularity had surged ever since the pledge at the market square and his party workers approved of the gesture. And yes, all parties in the Valley had lost legitimacy.

The waning

The waxing and waning of the mainstream in Kashmir – that is, political parties which participate in elections – is an old story. In the 1990s, when thousands of youth left home to become militants and people thronged the streets demanding “azadi”, it was almost wiped out. The militancy was spurred by the elections of 1987, which were believed to be rigged, and as separatist politics gained ground, the mainstream was discredited.

In February 1990, the state assembly was dissolved, giving way to six years of governor’s rule, and political workers came under attack. “I left the Valley in 1989 itself, I was attacked by militants that September,” said Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami, veteran of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and member of the legislative assembly from Kulgam. “Pandits from Jammu and Muslims too migrated, many from mainstream parties.” He recalled how local dailies like Alsafa and the Srinagar Times carried whole pages with the same sentence printed over and over again: “I am resigning”, “I am resigning”, “I am resigning”.

Yousuf Tarigami/Photo: Rayan Naqash

But Tarigami came back to win the elections from Kulgam in 1996 and has kept the assembly seat ever since. As the militancy ebbed, crushed by the armed forces and losing local support, mainstream politics started resuming its old rhythms once more. From the 2000s, voter turnouts for assembly elections rose steadily, which many took for a sign of stability in the Valley. It took a fresh wave of protests, starting from 2008 and intensifying in 2010, to disrupt the cycle again.

“It is difficult to talk about it [the mainstream] because there are phases,” said Bashir Manzar, editor of Daily Kashmir Images. “The mainstream is losing ground but also gaining ground at the same time. In 2002, analysts said let us write the epitaph of the National Conference because it was gone. But they came back in 2008. We thought in 2010 that the mainstream was gone but the same party [National Conference] still managed to win 15 seats [in the assembly elections of 2014]. Fifteen is a big number, given Kashmir’s political [scenario]. People say today that Mehbooba Mufti is finished but I do not think so. Let us wait and watch.”

Tarigami would agree. The fortunes of the mainstream depend on which part of the secessionist curve the Valley occupies. “It is the question of a certain situation,” he explained pragmatically. “Right now, the intensity of anger is directed at the Indian state. We [the mainstream parties] are seen to be siding with that state.” When this present moment’s fury dies down, he feels, the separatist leadership will recede and the mainstream will become relevant again.

But, as of now, the 1990s have come back to haunt. Resignations and apologies have started appearing in local papers once more, though not in hundreds and largely restricted to panchayats and party workers in rural areas. Cars and houses of legislators, especially those from the ruling People’s Democratic Party, have been targeted by angry crowds.

Of toffees and teekas

Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti is in the midst of her own Marie Antoinette moment, having declared that the protests were being driven by 5% of the Valley, “vested interests” which did not want to see peace in Kashmir. She also drew howls of outrage for observing that “those who got hit by bullets or pellets were not going to buy milk or toffee”.

The chief minister seems to have sided firmly with the Centre and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is also an ally in the state. Many argue that the crisis of legitimacy faced by the state government stems from this very alliance. The PDP, with its strongholds in South Kashmir, had fought the assembly elections on almost a single-point agenda: stop the BJP’s Mission 44 and keep the forces of Hindutva out of Kashmir. Then it tied up with the very same party that it had cast as the bête noire of the Valley.

“Historically what is important is identity,” said Manzar. “After the PDP joined the BJP, Kashmiris think their identity is once more under threat. A veteran stone pelter, now in his 50s, is leading the boys downtown. He was asked why he is doing it again after giving it up. He said, ‘If we don’t fight, we will all be given a teeka'." The reference to the tilak on the forehead alludes to being branded as BJP-sympathisers.

It is an argument that opposition parties are keen to put forward. Ghulam Ahmad Mir, state chief of the Congress, who contested the assembly elections from Dooru in South Kashmir, blames his loss on the fear mongering by the PDP in Kashmir and the BJP’s aggressive campaign in Jammu. The government’s loss of legitimacy, he feels, happened over the last two years. “If only the BJP had not used such language – biryani, chappani chhaati,” he said ruefully, alluding to the much talked about 56-inch chest of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “I think, right now, the whole of Kashmiri society is feeling the effects of such elements,” Mir added.

But the anger against the mainstream goes beyond a government or a party. As protests raged after the death of Burhan Wani, leaders from across the political spectrum went missing, unable to address the angry, grieving crowds that shouted for “azadi”.

Party flags of the PDP and the National Conference at Kheer Bhawani temple in Tulmul, Ganderbal/Photo: Rayan Naqash

Positions of sympathy

Politicians of the mainstream now find themselves in a bind. What do you do when the people you claim to represent seem to reject the institution where you represent them?

You do what leaders based in the Valley have traditionally done – assume positions of sympathy with the popular unrest, cast yourself as aggrieved by the Centre, of the mainstream but disillusioned with it. Leaders across the spectrum are anxious to make gestures of sympathy.

To begin with, the anger against the PDP has sent party leaders scurrying to find damage control measures. This week, former Deputy Chief Minister Muzaffar Hussain Baig remarked that Mehbooba Mufti should resign as chief minister if the agenda of alliance forged by the PDP and the BJP were not implemented in six months. The agenda, which provides for talks with all stakeholders to the Kashmir dispute, including the Hurriyat, secures Article 370, which ensures special status for the state, and mentions the possibility of removing the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act from Jammu and Kashmir, has been in cold storage for the last year and a half.

Baig readily admits to the retreat of the mainstream and the growing influence of religious bodies such as the Ahle-e-Hadith and the Jama’at-e-Islami. “The anger against the PDP is a fact,” he said. “As for legitimacy, 75% people vote in elections so it is not a question of electoral representation. But in 70 years, we have a history of broken promises by successive governments. There is a crisis of confidence, of distrust, among the mainstream.”

While the ruling party is split wide open, politicians like Tarigami are keen to position themselves against the Centre. “I am not happy with the way the government of India has handled the situation,” he said. “The neglect and alienation which forced Kashmiris to join the resistance, you have not answered that. The state assembly passed an autonomy resolution in 2000 but the Centre refused to even consider it. This is the answer to why the mainstream is getting is getting marginalised – the government of India is discrediting the state legislature. The other side is accusing us of betrayals for which we are not responsible.”

Tarigami says that his election campaigns tried to answer not just quotidian needs like “bijli, sadak, pani [electricity, roads, water]" but also Kashmiri political aspirations and the demand for greater autonomy. “I moved a private member’s bill to have the governor removed and put in place an elected president,” he said.

Further down the spectrum is the Awami Ittehad Party’s Engineer Rashid, MLA from Langate in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district. When he joined the mainstream in 2006, Rashid brought the politics of protest into the mainstream. In the last two months, he has been detained at least twice, once for marching towards the United Nations observer’s office in Srinagar, demanding a plebiscite, once for heading to the Badami Bagh cantonment to submit a memorandum on forced labour extracted by the army and then again for holding a rally which called for a plebiscite.

In addresses at the state assembly, Rashid has repeatedly spoken of plebiscite, asserting that Kashmir is not an “integral part” of India. “I want them to get so frustrated that they throw me out of the assembly,” he said trenchantly, sitting in a smoky room in his house in Jawahar Nagar. “Then people can see the sham that Indian democracy is. Our 86 legislators represent New Delhi in Kashmir. They should be representing Kashmir in New Delhi.”

Outside Srinagar

In the gracious lawns of Gupkar and the broad avenues of Jawahar Nagar, both political quarters in Srinagar, there is still room for manoeuvre. There is talk of talks, there are trips to Delhi and addresses on television. In the smaller towns and villages of South Kashmir, the political mainstream has come in much closer contact with the protests.

Here, the Hurriyat’s strike calendar is strictly enforced and local party leaders nervously shrug off security, seen as a symbol of the state, part of the same uniformed cadre that sprays pellets and tear gas on protestors. Separatists and the mainstream are intimately connected at the ground level, and local Hurriyat leaders will take you to meet sarpanches or party workers.

The Srinagar leaders tend to dismiss the panchayat resignations as acts of self-defence rather than an ideological choice. "If the worker feels unsafe, he will resign to save his life," said Ghulam Hassan Mir, a politician from the Democratic Party (Nationalist) and former state agriculture minister. "We have seen it in the 1990s when people resigned and, once the situation was better, came back again [to the mainstream]. It is not damaging to the mainstream."

Besides, the Srinagar leadership asks, the panchayat terms ended in June, what are they resigning from now?

In Anantnag district, however, sarpanches say that many of them quit before the unrest began, and now they have left the political parties altogether. The shrinking of the mainstream in Kashmir does not just mean the withering of popular support for parties. It has also brought to the surface a rupture between parties and their ground level workers.

Rights and wrongs

Local parties like the PDP and National Conference penetrated these areas by co-opting elements of the separatist agenda into their politics. The “soft-separatist” PDP promised self-rule and attempted to articulate demands for autonomy within the democratic mainstream. The National Conference, author of the “Quit Kashmir” movement, claimed to struggle for autonomy even after it settled into electoral politics. For many, mainstream politics seemed to be the route to self-determination. But over the decades that promise has led nowhere.

Bashir Ahmad Shah, lives in Anantnag district’s Salia village, and recently quit as a member of the National Conference and village accountant. “My wife was the deputy sarpanch and I used to run her work,” he said candidly. Shah joined the National Conference as a youth worker in the 1970s, when he was still in school.

“We thought we would get our hukook [rights],” Shah explained. “They said whatever they had promised in 1953, they would deliver.” Shah said he kept faith with electoral politics through the 1990s, during the peak of the militancy and even campaigned for the National Conference in 1996. Now, after 40 years with the party, he has given it up and warmed to the Hurriyat leadership. “I like that someone is talking about our fundamental rights,” he said.

The mistake

Part of the disaffection among the rural party cadre seems to stem from the failure of local governance. In 2011, when panchayat elections were held in Kashmir, it was seen as a deepening of democracy in the Valley and many participated in the hope of political empowerment.

Five years later, that promise has faded. While the state government failed to empower local bodies, sarpanches became soft targets for militants as they had decided to join the mainstream.

“I joined the PDP in 2008, thinking I could fight for people’s rights,” said Mohammad Rafiq, who lives in Brar village near Anantnag and recently quit the party as well as his post. “I was wrong. Devolution, transfer of financial powers - nothing is going to happen.”

The promise of panchayats, made soon after the summer of 2010, is now discredited. “It was a diversion for the youth after the protests of 2010,” explained Sajjad Ahmed, a young resident of Brar village. “They promised all kinds of things.”

Sarwar Begum, once a member of the National Conference and a panch in Brar village, is now livid. “The government said we will do this, we will do that, it never happened,” she said. “I joined politics in 2011. Yeh meri galat fehmi thi [that was my misunderstanding].”

In other villages, the break with the mainstream has been caused by violence – on August 17, for instance, security forces stormed into the village of Shar-i-Shali in Pulwama district and beat up residents, including sarpanches. But the anger that the beating left behind has hardened into ideology.

Take Abdul Gani Bulla, 85, who joined politics in 2011, winning a panchayat seat and then joining the PDP. The night they came visiting, the security forces did not spare him either and Bulla now limps around with his leg in a cast.

His encounter with the mainstream is decidedly over. “There is no party here anymore,” he said. “They have left everything, people hate them. Netas, parties - they are all wrong. If there is an election here now, there will be war.”