The Kashmir Valley is awash with posters demanding justice for the young girl who was murdered after allegedly being raped in Kathua district, Jammu. They are pasted on shop windows and auto rickshaws, and pictures of the child confront pedestrians at sudden corners. Student protests have broken out at several places, only to be met with lathicharge, tear gas and detention by the security forces.
The case has put the People’s Democratic Party, which runs a coalition government with the Bharatiya Janata Party, on the defensive. “Is the government complacent anywhere?” asked Waheed Rehman Parra, the party’s spokesperson. “Is there anything the government should be blamed for?”
Parra pointed out that Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti had pushed for an investigation by the police and resisted pressure to transfer the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation, and that a chargesheet had been filed despite all odds. “This is the first time a chief minister has pushed things to the last stage,” he said. “Full investigation happened before the nationwide pressure. We won’t get credit for this…But if we had failed on this issue, it would have impacted us.” He pointed to the Shopian case. In 2009, security forces were accused of raping and murdering two young women in South Kashmir but an inquiry by the CBI dismissed the charge. The women’s death led to widespread protests and cost the National Conference, then leading the government, much public goodwill.
What the People’s Democratic Party finds harder to defend in the Valley is its continuing alliance with the BJP, whose ministers attended rallies, organised by a newly formed group called the Hindu Ekta Manch, protesting against the arrest of the Kathua accused and demanding a CBI investigation. Since 2015, when the alliance was forged, it has been cause for anger in the Valley, which has increasingly drifted away from the political mainstream, as parties that contest elections are referred to. “It was not easy for the Jammu and Kashmir government, when you have an alliance partner trying to shape this issue, when you have two ministers putting pressure, you have people trying to polarise the issue,” Parra said, speaking about the state’s response to the Kathua case.
Yet the alliance stays. Even though the new deputy chief minister, the BJP’s Kavinder Gupta, dismissed the Kathua case as a “small incident” that should “not be given too much importance”. Two BJP ministers who had attended the Hindu Ekta Manch’s programmes were forced to resign last month and, shortly afterwards, all BJP ministers quit to make way for “new faces” in the cabinet.
But the “new faces” included Gupta, who had earlier blamed the Rohingya refugees in Jammu for the militant attack on the Sunjuwan Army camp in February, and Rajiv Jasrotia, the Kathua legislator who also attended the Hindu Ekta Manch rallies. The new cabinet has 13 members from the People’s Democratic Party and nine from the BJP, roughly the same composition as before. Naeem Akhtar, a minister from the People’s Democratic Party and the government’s spokesperson, called Gupta’s remarks on Kathua a “careless comment”, which contradicted the BJP’s official position. The party’s senior leadership has since fallen silent.
Cracks in the ruling alliance were revealed last month when Tassaduq Mufti, the chief minister’s brother who serves in her cabinet, called the two parties “partners in crime” and hinted that they may have to part ways.
Since then, the People’s Democratic Party has been in cover-up mode, extending various explanations for Tassaduq Mufti’s outburst. He made the comments in the context of the Kathua outrage, Parra said. It was his personal opinion, not the party’s, said Yasir Rishi, a member of the Legislative Council, the Assembly’s upper chamber. The party did not run by diktat and everyone was free to express his opinion, argued Najmu Saqib, spokesperson for the party’s youth wing.
Most party leaders deny there is anger against its partnership with the BJP. “Basically Kashmir has a problem, not because of the alliance but because of core issues on the ground,” said Parra, referring to the Kashmir dispute.
Officially, the party’s functionaries are still defending the alliance. “This was the state mandate,” said Rishi. “Our leader took this decision out of all the the options. After the People’s Democratic Party emerged as the single largest party in the 2014 election, Rishi said, it had offers of alliance from the Congress as well as the National Conference, the other Valley-based party. “We made an alliance because BJP had Jammu’s mandate,” he argued.
Off the record, however, the party’s functionaries expressed unease. One admitted to strain in the alliance over “small matters”, such as whether new medical and technical institutions should be set up in Jammu or in Kashmir. “What Mufti saab thought, that Jammu and Kashmir will move together, that has not happened,” he rued, referring to the late chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who had signed up for the coalition with the BJP.
To justify the coalition, party functionaries still fall back on the Agenda of Alliance signed in 2015. The deal was meant to reconcile political extremes: Hindu nationalist BJP with its base in Jammu and the so-called soft-separatist People’s Democratic Party drawing votes from the Kashmir Valley.
Three years down the line, most promises of the Agenda of Alliance remain unfulfilled – engage separatist leaders of the Hurriyat as well as Pakistan in talks, consider the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, return control over power projects to the state government.
“Everything is in the Agenda of Alliance, it gives dignity to everyone,” began Parra. But then a note of rancour crept in: “It is up to them [the Centre] how they handle it.”
The party’s leaders now lay the blame for the agenda’s failure on others – the Army for not being on board with the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, Pakistan for sabotaging any chance of talks, the Hurriyat for shutting the door on dialogue. “Of late, initiatives that were to come from the Centre did not come,” said Mir.
The goals of the agenda, Parra admitted, lay beyond the authority of the state government. “We are trying to be a bridge between Delhi and Islamabad, Delhi and Srinagar,” he said.
Meanwhile, the party’s cadre in the Valley have grown increasingly restive. In the four districts of South Kashmir, where the rift with political parties is so deep that bye-election to the Anantnag parliamentary seat could not even be held last year, several People’s Democratic Party workers and legislators have come under attack. These districts were once the stronghold of the party, and the home turf of the Mufti family.
On May 2, a petrol bomb landed on the house of a People’s Democratic Party legislator in Shopian, even as a gunfight raged between militants and security forces elsewhere in the district. Several workers of the People’s Democratic Party as well as the BJP have been shot dead over the last year while many have deserted the mainstream parties.
Even Najmu admitted that a section of the party’s workers were not happy with the alliance. “Those who are concerned about politics feel there should have been more initiatives from Delhi,” he said.
A former party member from Bandipore district in North Kashmir who quit in 2014 says he “wasted his time” with the People’s Democratic party. He had joined in 1999, when the party was formed, drawn to it, like many others, by Sayeed’s promise of bringing peace to the Valley and jobs for the youth. But subsequent years saw the party build up a legacy of failed promises, he said.
The alliance with the BJP after the Assembly election of 2014, the former member said, was driven by the expectation of benefits from the Centre. Indeed, governments in Jammu and Kashmir have a long history of allying with the party in power at the Centre: in 2002, the People’s Democratic Party tied up with the Congress and the National Conference did the same in 2008.
But the current ruling alliance has not only failed in its larger goals, he alleged, even the promise of development has come to nothing. After the floods in 2014, for instance, the prime minister pledged a Rs 80,000 crore relief package for the state but only a fraction of that money has been released, he pointed out.
But the alliance would endure until the next election even though the party’s cadre grows angrier, the former member predicted. “In Jammu and Kashmir, the PDP is only interested in seeing itself in power and the National Conference out of it,” he said bitterly. While the BJP is also keen to hold on to power, he continued, the two Valley-based parties have their own rivalry.
“In Kashmir we have a phrase called ‘pitr hassad’,” he said. It describes ill will among close relatives – and rather perfectly, he concluded, the Valley’s politics as well.
Correction: This piece earlier said the People’s Democratic Party’s youth wing spokesperson was called Mir Saqib, instead of Najmu Saqib. The error is regretted.