On the evening of December 30, Mohammad Shaban Bhat was on his way to the district police lines in Pulwama, in South Kashmir, to get his two sons out of police custody. That morning, Bhat had gone to Srinagar to visit Mehbooba Mufti, leader of the Peoples Democratic Party, seeking the release of his sons who had been picked up in December by the police in Jammu, where the Bhat family ­– whose home is in Patipora village in Pulwama district – spends the winter.

The day before that, Sabzar Ahmad, 30, and Ishfaq Ahmad, 28, had been brought from Jammu to the Pulwama jail on the intervention of a close aide of Mehbooba Mufti’,s but they had not been freed yet.

Before Bhat could reach the police lines, however, he had to turn back. “I received a call from Mehbooba Mufti’s office that she was about to reach my residence,” he said. “It came as a shock. For a moment I did not know what to do. I rushed back home but she was already there.”

Pulwama is one of the four South Kashmir districts that have become the centre of local militancy. In these localities, a visit from a mainstream politician will raise eyebrows, but there was little that Bhat could do to prevent the former chief minister from visiting that day. In retrospect, he said, it was worth the risk. “I do not know about politics but it is her intervention that helped my sons to get out of custody,” said Bhat. “I do not have anything to do with electoral politics but I will remember her help.”

On the evening of December 24, the Bhat family said, policemen entered their house in Jammu’s Trikuta Nagar and started asking questions, claiming they were gathering information for the Census. “But soon, they started searching our house till midnight,” said Bhat, a businessman. “When they did not find anything, they took my three sons in custody. My daughter-in-law’s brother is a militant and the cops were searching for a mobile phone. Only one of my sons was released on the same night.”

Bhat added: “My other two sons were illegally detained and ruthlessly beaten for six days. My daughter-in-law was asked to report to police station during the day for questioning. She was also beaten and stripped.”

Reports of this alleged harassment brought Mufti to the Bhat family home in Patipora village. “What is the fault of the sister of a militant?” Mufti told reporters gathered outside the house. “She has been stripped and beaten by the SHO [Station House Officer] of Trikuta Nagar and of Bhatindi. If harassment of families of militants is not stopped, it will have consequences leading to further alienation in the Valley.”

The ‘soft separatists’

The four districts of South Kashmir that are the centre of local militancy today were once the bastion of the Peoples Democratic Party. Formed in 1999 by the late Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, the party emerged as the main regional alternative to the National Conference. It spoke of a “healing touch” for a Valley ravaged by years of militancy and security crackdowns. It pitched the idea of “self-rule”, which was to address the state’s aspirations for autonomy but within the ambit of the Indian Constitution.

Sayeed spoke of “unconditional dialogue” between India and Pakistan, demilitarisation, the softening of borders and trade between the two sides of Kashmir divided by the Line of Control. Sayeed’s daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, gained a reputation for visiting the families of slain militants, victims of torture and those illegally detained by security forces.

The Peoples Democratic Party’s politics, christened “soft-separatism”, soon began to yield success. In 2002, the party came to power in the state for the first time with the help of the Congress and the Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party. It had won 16 seats, 10 of which were from South Kashmir.

It was ousted by the National Conference-led government in 2008 but came back in 2014. With every election, the Peoples Democratic Party steadily built on its tally – 21 seats in 2008, 28 in 2014, which saw it forming the government with the help of the BJP in 2015. In both elections, South Kashmir proved to be a steady support base.

That changed with the mass protests of 2016, which broke out after Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed by security forces. Wani belonged to Tral in Pulwama district. Over the last two-and-a-half years, South Kashmir has remained almost out of bounds for politicians who participated in electoral politics. Instead, it saw almost daily gunfights, hundreds of local militants killed, and large civilian crowds rushing to the rescue of militants trapped in security operations. Most legislators have fled to Srinagar, increasingly worried about security. Many have not made public visits to their constituencies since 2016.

“There is no politics in South Kashmir, it is only war,” said a senior Peoples Democratic Party worker from Pulwama district. “The space for mainstream politics has shrunk to zero or is almost negligible. It is a harsh reality but that is what the situation is. If somebody asks what is the biggest achievement of militancy till date, it is this erosion of mainstream political space.”

After the BJP walked out of the coalition with the Peoples Democratic Party in June, the state was without an elected government. The Assembly was dissolved in November.

As Lok Sabha elections approach, there is speculation that Assembly polls may be held alongside, and Mufti has resumed the visits she was once famous for. Days after her trip to the Bhat household, she went to see the family of a slain militant in South Kashmir’s Shopian district.

Detractors have called it a return to the old “politics of mourning”. The National Conference, its traditional rival in the Valley, also lashed out at the Peoples Democratic Party. “The architect of ‘Operation All-out’ & the overseer of the operations that killed hundreds of militants since 2015 is now going from one militant home to the next trying to rehabilitate a badly damaged reputation,” said former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah in a tweet on January 3.

Part of the Peoples Democratic Party’s unpopularity in South Kashmir is its alliance with the BJP. The party had come to power promising to keep saffron forces out of the Valley and then tied up with the BJP. “The alliance with the BJP in 2014 ate us up,” said Naeem Akhtar, former cabinet minister in the PDP-BJP coalition government. “Otherwise, we did not commit any mistake. One thing is certain, we’ll never go again with BJP.”

After the BJP pulled out of the coalition last year, the party has been deserted by several members, including six former MLAs and two former MLCs.

Source: Mehbooba Mufti/Twitter

‘PDP versus militants’

But in the districts of South Kashmir, where all other parties seem to have melted away, the Peoples Democratic Party does not have to worry about political rivals or unpopular alliance partners. “In six seats of Shopian and Pulwama, PDP [Peoples Democratic Party] is directly in contest with militants,” said Akhtar. “In the rest of the Valley, the situation is different. There is an Opposition and each constituency has entirely different issues.”

On January 6, Hizbul Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo called Mufti’s visits “election drama” in an audio message. Addressing her as the “late” Mehbooba Mufti, apparently because of “her dead conscience”, Naikoo said “Mehbooba is going to homes of militants and expressing sympathy with them, claiming that police are getting directions from somewhere to harass their families. Family members of militants were harassed during her government as well. Who was giving directions to police then?”

Naikoo also had a message for the families of militants. “Whenever she visits you, she should be humiliated and thrown out,” he said. “She has sympathies with India and not with us. It is just drama…It is a matter of shame for the families of militants that they allow her to enter their house. Those families who allow these traitors inside their homes, we want to ask them, what do they count themselves as – heirs of martyrs or heirs of traitors?”

A day after Naikoo’s message, Mufti apologised for remarks she had made during the 2016 protests, when she was chief minister. Back then, she had caustically remarked that teenagers who had been killed or injured in the protests did not venture near security camps to “buy milk and toffee”. At a gathering of party workers in her hometown, Bijbehara, in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, she was conciliatory. “Didn’t I have the right to tell these children, a little harshly, that when you were part of my rallies, why did you lead the protests in which you were injured?” she said. “But if somebody is hurt by the anger of a mother, I apologise for that. What else can I do?”

The apology may not cut much ice in South Kashmir, where several workers of the Peoples Democratic Party have been killed over the last couple of years. “It is a challenge to instil confidence in a party worker on ground,” said Aijaz Ahmad Mir, a former member of the legislative Assembly from Shopian district. “Most of the workers of the mainstream parties have either gone inactive or have shun[ed] politics. For the PDP [Peoples Democratic Party], the biggest challenge is the lack of conducive atmosphere to start the process of electoral politics rolling.”

Yet Mir is confident that, come elections, it is the Peoples Democratic Party that stands the strongest chance of winning in these strife-torn districts. “No Opposition party in Kashmir started to reach out to people when the situation was tense,” he said. “They know PDP [Peoples Democratic Party] has more to lose since it is our core constituency. At the same time, it is only PDP which has a full-fledged cadre-based structure in this region. So even if there is a boycott [of elections], which is most likely, we still have an edge.”

The Jamaat factor

But there may be another factor that has worked against the Peoples Democratic Party. According to popular perception in Kashmir, the party’s rise in South Kashmir was propelled by the Jamaat-e-Islami, a socio-religious organisation that started life calling for political Islam, but has bowed out of electoral politics for decades now and is said to be the ideological parent of the Hizbul Mujahideen. In public, the group never acknowledged supporting the Peoples Democratic Party. But many of it members once admitted that the party was a “lesser evil” than the National Conference. This time, however, members of the Jamaat pointedly distance themselves from the Peoples Democratic Party.

A senior Jamaat leader from South Kashmir claimed the perception that his organisation supported Mufti’s party was not accurate. “It is important to understand the structure of Jamaat before linking electoral politics with it,” he said. “Jamaat has four-five representatives in a village but in popular perception the entire village is considered Jamaat supporters. If any local from such a village casts a vote, he is doing it on his own behalf. The Jamaat-e-Islami can strictly seek accountability from only its four-five representatives as they are part of the organisation. This precisely what has fuelled the perception that Jamaat supported PDP [Peoples Democratic Party] in elections.”

After the 2016 protests, the group’s antipathy to electoral politics has hardened. “The Jamaat is in defensive mode,” said the Jamaat leader. “We are the prime targets of the Army and police. Our mosques are on the radar always and our cadre are harassed constantly. It is a fact that the repression of the Jamaat lessened to a great extent when the PDP [Peoples Democratic Party] came to power first in 2002. But after 2016, it was clear to everyone that PDP and NC [National Conference] are two sides of the same coin. A true believer will never get bitten by the same snake twice.”

The Peoples Democratic Party is also wary of acknowledging the influence of the Jamaat on its electoral prospects. “Jamaat will never openly endorse elections, particularly in the current context,” said a senior party leader who did not wish to be identified. “In 2002, they did not vote for us but they also did not stop others from voting. That was crucial. But this time, even militant groups will have an eye on them. We do not see much of Jamaat as a factor in the coming elections.”

Apology politics

The party leadership admits that apologising to the electorate will be at the core of its electoral strategy. “We have lost the confidence of our core constituency that is why we are apologetic,” said Waheed Para, the party’s youth president. “When Mehbooba Mufti visits an affected family, it means we acknowledge the loss. It is not correct to say that we orchestrate the meetings with the families of militants. It is the families themselves which approach us to stop their harassment.”

Political observers in the Valley are not convinced. “Whether in its ‘bastion’ or elsewhere, the people of Kashmir and the Valley in particular, know that they have been taken for a ride by the PDP [Peoples Democratic Party] in 2014,” argued Siddiq Wahid, former vice-chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology that is located in Awantipora, Pulwama. “The PDP overestimates its own appeal and underestimates the intelligence of the Kashmiri public. That is a wide gap to bridge so soon after the PDP’s brutal betrayal of its primary constituency.”

But members of the party say they are still “hopeful”. “Kashmiris have forgiven much bigger mistakes than ours,” said a senior leader of the Peoples Democratic Party.