After debating the matter for a moment, Iltija Mufti decided to say it. “I don’t identify with this country anymore. I feel angry and let down by what the government is doing. And how are people celebrating our pain?”
The 33-year-old knows the risks of making such an admission. Since August 5, when the Centre revoked special status guaranteed to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 and split the state into two Union Territories, her mother, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, has been incarcerated in Srinagar. In February, the government invoked the Public Safety Act, a preventive detention law, against her and other politicians, all of whom had sworn their fealty to India in a region where separatism is the dominant sentiment.
Mehbooba Mufti was deemed a threat to public order because she spoke out against the government’s proposal to remove special status from Jammu and Kashmir and for being a “Daddy’s girl” when she entered politics. Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, her father, had been chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir until he died in 2016 and Union home minister before that.
Iltija rose to her mother’s defence. How was it a crime to be devoted to your parents, she demanded.
“If she’s her father’s daughter, I’m a Mummy’s girl,” she had declared to a roomful of journalists in Delhi on February 18. Later in the week, she spoke to Scroll.in about what was it like to grow up in one of Kashmir’s major political families – one with a contentious legacy.
‘Speaking for your own people’
As Mehbooba Mufti disappeared from public view, Iltija emerged. She quit her job in Dubai, where she had worked for a radio channel run by Gulf News. She shuttled between Kashmir and Delhi, meeting her mother in Srinagar and tweeting from her account when outside the Valley. For six months, the Valley had no internet.
The former chief minister had normally been taciturn on Twitter. But after Iltija took over the account, it features a daily bulletin of news on Kashmir and tweets calling out the government’s policies there.
Entering the public sphere meant dealing with pressure from all sides. The government watches every move, according to her. “I know they are keeping tabs on me,” she said. “My calls are monitored, I can’t speak to the press in Kashmir. When I tried, I was manhandled at the gate [to her house in Srinagar].”
When she started speaking to the international media, appearing on Amanpour, the famous CNN talk show hosted by Christiane Amanpour, Iltija says, there were veiled threats. “They told me indirectly that they would slap PSA on me,” she said, refusing to reveal the channel through which the message was sent.
But on social media, she faces the wrath of ordinary Kashmiris, disillusioned with the government and “mainstream” politicians, the term used to describe leaders who took part in electoral politics. Despite the privations suffered by residents of the Valley, there is grim satisfaction that leaders who had allied with Delhi and allowed state excesses under their watch now face the same repressive measures.
“People in Kashmir are so angry with the mainstream because we allied with the BJP,” Iltija admitted. After the Jammu and Kashmir assembly elections, the People’s Democratic Party, which was founded by her mother and grandfather, formed a coalition government with the Bharatiya Janata Party, seen as the architect of Kashmir’s present crisis.
For years, she pointed out, Kashmiri leaders had been made the scapegoat for Delhi’s failures. “When Kashmiris are seething with anger, it’s all directed at you,” said Iltija. But she had to speak because the “situation was such, no one was vocalising what people have had to endure”. Despite the brickbats, Ilija says, she took on the task of “speaking for your own people”.
In the shadow of guns
It is a new role for her. Iltija was born and raised in Delhi, although two years of high school were spent in Kashmir. After going to university in Delhi and England, she worked outside the country. In the early years, before Mehbooba Mufti joined politics, she was a regular single mother, says Iltija, who wants no mention of her estranged father in the interview.
“Before she became a politician, she could cook – now she can’t cook to save her life,” laughed Iltija. Mehbooba Mufti also had a job, working for the East West Airlines, which shut down in 1996.
But the conflict raging in Kashmir still shaped their lives. Iltija was born in 1986, the year before the fateful assembly elections in Kashmir, widely believed to have been rigged in favour of the National Conference-Congress combine. Members of the Muslim United Front, a political conglomeration that had formed before the elections, left mainstream politics and swelled the ranks of militancy that would erupt in 1989. The same year, Mufti Muhammad Saeed, then a member of the Janata Dal, became Union home minister.
It was too tense to live in Kashmir in those years, Iltija said. Days after Saeed’s appointment, his daughter and Iltija’s aunt, Rubaiya Saeed, was kidnapped by militants of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front in Srinagar. To secure her freedom, the government released five militants. Nearly 30 years later, the government has reopened the case. While Mehbooba Mufti, the victim’s sister, remains locked up in Srinagar, the government has also imprisoned Yasin Malik, chief of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, in Delhi’s Tihar Jail.
Back in the 1990s, life changed for the Muftis in Delhi – Iltija now had to go to school with a personal security officer. Militancy spread across the Valley and even entered Jammu, paving the way for governor’s rule and unprecedented state repression. It was not until 1996, after a counterinsurgency militia called the Ikhwan had been unleashed on the Valley, that elections were held in Kashmir again. In the late 1990s, Mufti Muhammad Saeed and Mehbooba Mufti moved back to Kashmir.
The People’s Democratic Party was floated in 1999. After the assembly elections of 2002, they formed a government in coalition with the Congress. By 2006, the family had moved from Nowgam on the outskirts of Srinagar to Gupkar Road, the heavily securitised political nerve centre of the Valley.
“When I was a kid, I had no interest in politics,” Iltija recalled. “But at age 10 or 11, I started understanding what was happening. My grandfather would live and breathe politics.”
For Iltija and her sister, politics was overheard. In Delhi, important guests flooded their house. “We had a lot of people coming in – Lalu Prasad, Sharad Yadav, [Ram Vilas] Paswan ji,” she said. “I have a distinct memory of Lalu Prasad coming with a spittoon for his paan.” She even had an autograph book to collect famous signatures.
At the bridge parties hosted by Saeed in the capital, the girls would play pranks on visiting luminaries: ”My sister was very naughty – she used to put cigarette butts in their shoes.”
When her mother and grandfather discussed politics, Iltija recalled, she would often sneak into the room to pick up gossip and funny stories. “Politics is not always serious business,” she said. “They thought I wouldn’t understand. But sometimes I wouldn’t be able to keep a poker face and would start laughing. Then they would send me out of the room. I would stand by the door and listen.”
But the sociability of those years also speaks of how much closer the Kashmiri political establishment was to the Indian mainstream. “My grandfather had this big personality, he had friends in every corner of the country,” Iltija said. Some of the connections built then still survive, Iltija says, but few politicians, even from the opposition, will make an open show of sympathy now.
“I blame the BJP,” said Iltija. “In the last few years, Kashmiris have been demonised so much that even non-BJP leaders will not speak for Kashmir.” In private, she says, many express concern about Kashmir’s political crisis, but in public they remain quiet. “They feel they will lose voters if they do,” Iltija diagnosed.
The ‘soft separatists’
Her mother and grandfather had very different political styles, Iltija observed. Saeed, the even-tempered politician, built networks in Delhi. Mufti was reserved and ill at ease in the capital’s social circles, according to Ilitja. “I tell my mother that she is too anti-social,” she said. But it was Mufti who came to her father’s rescue at a time when “they were writing his political obituary”, she asserted.
Back in the Valley in the late 1990s, Saeed, the former Union minister, had to reinvent himself as a politician speaking for Kashmir. That is when Mufti came into her own, launching a determined political outreach in Kashmir. In the Valley, she became known for visiting the families of dead militants and mourning with them – her detractors nicknamed her “rudaali”.
The family effort drew charges of dynastic politics, which the BJP has picked up with alacrity now. Trotting out the benefits of removing special status, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said it would rid Kashmir of dynastic rule: the National Conference of the Abdullahs and the People’s Democratic Party of the Muftis.
“My mother had to struggle,” Iltija protested. “The party was not handed to her as an heirloom. There were attempts to assassinate her. As a child, I grew used to the fact that I could lose my mother.” Mufti went from village to village, she said, and spoke to the army to get arrested youth released.
The People’s Democratic Party’s political agenda was held against Mufti in the Public Safety Act dossier: the green of the party flag spoke of dangerous “radical” tendencies, the pen and inkpot symbol was borrowed from the Muslim United Front, the party leaders fomented separatism.
For years, the People’s Democratic Party was labelled as a “soft-separatist party”, speaking of “self-rule: greater political and economic autonomy, open borders at the Line of Control. “Eventually, you will see, that’s the only solution,” said Ilitja. “That’s the reason why my mother and grandfather wanted self-rule. It’s very much like what the Bodos wanted, only nobody’s talking about it. Probably because they are not Muslim.”
She was referring to the recent peace accord signed by the government and Bodo militant groups in Assam. The government appears to have made concessions to Bodo groups, whose demands for ethnic self-determination fuelled a militancy that lasted decades, promising them greater local autonomy.
In the Indian mainland, many feted the People’s Democratic Party for bringing separatist aspirations within the rubric of electoral politics. In the Valley, there were other whispers – the People’s Democratic Party had been encouraged by Delhi to divide Kashmiri votes and ensure a Kashmir-based party never gained an absolute majority in the state assembly. Till the creation of the People’s Democratic Party, the National Conference had held dominated electoral politics in Kashmir.
Iltija dismisses these allegations. “Kashmir is a conflict zone, there is a lot of speculation,” she said. “I was there when it [the People’s Democratic Party] was formed and I know for a fact there was no facilitation from Delhi. They got no financial help. They didn’t even have money for proper printing paper for their manifestos.”
It is true that Saeed had met then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he was starting his party, she conceded, but that was to ask for free and fair elections. “Vajpayee saab was a visionary. For the first time, in 2002, you have free and fair elections – if asking for that makes you Delhi’s agent.”
All together now?
Under the National Conference, Iltija claimed, elections had always been rigged. For decades, the rivalry between the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party had defined electoral politics in Kashmir. But then on August 4, Kashmiri political parties, including the two implacable rivals, met at Gupkar and vowed to protect Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.
It became known as the “Gupkar Declaration”, the last political statement to come out from Kashmir before communications were snuffed out for months. Did the declaration suggest the old faultlines in Kashmiri politics had collapsed?
“I hope they have,” said Ilitja. “The only silver lining in this crisis should be that we all come together for the good of the people rather than fighting among ourselves.” Of course, she hastily added, those were her personal opinions.
But the landscape of Kashmiri electoral politics may have changed beyond recognition after August 5, with the old parties being hollowed out. Senior leaders of the People’s Democratic Party have deserted ranks and look set to form a new outfit. Even political leaders who were released from makeshift jails have held fire on special status. It was because they had been threatened into silence, Iltija claimed.
The government seems bent on rooting out the old Gupkar elite. Last year, the Jammu and Kashmir administration had sent notices to the Muftis and Abdullahs to leave their official bungalows. Iltija says she would welcome such a move. Their house in Gupkar had been turned into a “fortress”, where she could be detained anytime.
“I still have restrictions under the guise of security,” Iltija said. “I am treated like a convict. I have to inform them [her security detail] where I’m going to visit and they will give permission. Ever since the Jammu and Kashmir Police and the SSG [Special Security Group] came under the Ministry of Home Affairs, they are drunk on power.”
When this crisis is over, Iltija says, she looks forward to slipping out of public view. “Public memory is very short,” she said. “I’m part of a news cycle that will become redundant. I don’t want to be in the public eye, it is very toxic.”