On August 22, a statement was issued from the residence of National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah, who lives in Gupkar, the posh Srinagar locality that was once the political nerve centre of Jammu and Kashmir. It was signed by leaders of six pro-India political parties in Kashmir. It was a challenge to Delhi.
“We all reiterate our commitment to collectively fight to restore the Special Status of J&K as guaranteed under the Constitution and the commitments made from time to time,” said a press statement put out after the meeting and signed off by four regional and two national parties. “There is unanimity amongst us that collective institution is the effective way to fight for these rights.”
The statement has come to be known as Gupkar Declaration II. The first Gupkar Declaration was made on August 4, 2019, when political parties in Jammu and Kashmir had met and vowed to protect its autonomy and special status, guaranteed under Article 370.
The next day, the Centre revoked special status under Article 370 and split the former state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories. It also repealed Article 35A, which had guaranteed specific rights to permanent residents of the former state. It pushed through these sweeping changes after imposing a complete lockdown and communications blackout on Jammu and Kashmir. Political leaders, both pro-India and separatist, were rounded up and pitched into detention for months. Some still remain under house arrest.
“We want to assure the people that all our political activities will be subservient to the sacred goal of reverting to the status of J&K as it existed on 4th August 2019,” said Gupkar Declaration II.
In Kashmir, there has been little public response to the declaration.
More than words
This may be because, in the month since the declaration, the signatories have shown no roadmap for the “struggle” they promised.
As Parliament opened for the Monsoon Session, the three members of Parliament from the National Conference went to attend. Farooq Abdullah, also a member of Parliament asked for a “meaningful debate” on Kashmir, talks with Pakistan and the restoration of high-speed internet in the Valley. He stopped short of making an explicit demand for the restoration of special status.
In Kashmir, parties blame logistical problems for political inaction. They point to curbs on movement and the detention of political leaders – former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti is still under house arrest.
“We are still unable to function normally as a political party,” said Ali Mohammad Sagar, general secretary of the National Conference. “After the leaders were released, they [government] have withdrawn their security. They are unable to move in a free atmosphere. For example, an MLA from Anantnag in south Kashmir has been given only one policeman as security and he has to travel in his own car.”
While the lack of security left travelling party leaders open to militant attacks, the government had stopped several meetings. “We had tried to hold one all party meeting on August 5 after Dr Farooq Abdullah called for it but the authorities didn’t allow anyone to reach there,” said Sagar. “Recently, we held party meetings in various zones like North Central and South zones, where we witnessed support for the Gupkar declaration. How to take the Gupkar declaration forward, the subsequent strategy will have to be thoroughly debated and discussed.”
Meanwhile, the People’s Democratic Party’s first official meaning since August 5, 2019, was foiled as leaders were not allowed to leave their homes to reach the party headquarters. The party’s youth wing met on September 16. Senior leaders were finally allowed to meet on September 21. Like the youth wing meeting, it ended with a vaguely worded statement where the party vowed to fight for the “dignity and rights of the people that were illegally snatched from us”. It made no explicit mention of Article 370.
“They want to stick to the pre-Gupkar situation but they are not ready to take up the cudgels seriously,” said Sheikh Showkat Hussain, former professor of law at Central University of Kashmir and a political commentator.
Journalist Riyaz Wani echoed him. “Can’t they even have given a single shutdown call or called for a single peaceful protest like Shaheen Bagh?” he demanded.
Leaders point out that with the Gupkar Declarations, the old political faultlines in Kashmir appear to have collapsed. “We need to acknowledge that this is the first time Kashmir’s mainstream leaders are talking to each other and not against each other alike in the past,” said a People’s Democratic Party leader based in Srinagar.
The signatories include members of the Kashmir-based People’s Democratic Party, National Conference, People’s Conference and Awami National Conference as well as the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
The National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party were electoral rivals in the Valley. The Awami National Conference was formed by Farooq Abdullah’s brother-in-law, Ghulam Muhammad Shah, who had been used by Delhi to topple the National Conference government in 1984. The party, however, has never had much political influence in the Valley. The People’s Conference, formed by the former separatist leader Sajjad Lone, was once touted to be the third front in Kashmir. Both the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party have tied up with the Congress from time to time while Lone was once close to the BJP.
Aijaz Ashraf Wani, author of What Happened to Governance in Kashmir, felt the confluence of Kashmiri parties was important. “For the first time, you have major political parties who have always been hostile and antagonistic to each other coming together,” he said. “Secondly, we have seen political parties in Kashmir have worked within the red lines set by Delhi. Now, they are standing up to the same New Delhi. That’s also very significant.”
But the appearance of a united front may not be enough when at least some of the signatories to Gupkar Declaration II have been inconsistent in their stand on Article 370.
“Days after the [second] Gupkar declaration, Omar Abdullah gave a statement that we can’t ask Modi to go back on August 5, 2019 – what does that indicate?” asked Hussain. Hussain was referring to interviews of Omar Abdullah where the former chief minister said it would be “pointless” to ask the prime minister to reverse the steps that he had taken, and that making such a demand would be “tokenism” to appease voters.
Many point out that among the national parties, the Congress has spoken in different voices on the hollowing out of Article 370. In a resolution passed at the national level this June, it deplored the “undemocratic manner” in which special status had been revoked but said nothing about restoring it. “Congress is on record saying that they are not against abrogation of Article 370 but the way it was done,” said a political science student from Kashmir University. “In Ladakh, they are demanding protections under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. In Kashmir, they signed a declaration to bring back the pre-August 5 position of Jammu and Kashmir. Isn’t that a contradiction?”
He felt the participation of national parties in the Gupkar Declaration dilutes the assertion of regional identity, which was under threat because of the August 5 decisions. “If the Gupkar Declaration is about Jammu and Kashmir, then only regional parties should be part of it. That would have sent a stronger message to New Delhi,” he said.
Under fire from Delhi
The traditional mainstream, as pro-India parties in Kashmir are called, also negotiates from a position of weakness. Hussain describes them as “caught in the crossfire” – under pressure from Delhi and rejected by most of the Kashmiri public.
“Kashmir is the only place where an Indian soldier and a party worker has died for the same cause: upholding the constitution of India,” sighed a Peoples Democratic Party leader, who remains under house arrest in Srinagar. “And now, we have become enemies of Delhi in Kashmir.”
Aijaz Wani explains how every unpopular decision taken by Delhi in Kashmir was routed through the mainstream leadership, who provided the veneer of democratic politics. “Right from 1947, what kind of political system or structure will function here was broadly guided by Delhi,” said Wani. “And this space was allowed within the framework of national integration and national ‘security’. Kashmir’s mainstream politics was to be conducted within this framework.”
That changed on August 5, when almost the entire pro-India leadership was kept in the dark about the sweeping changes and locked up. “This time, the difference is that they completely bypassed them,” explained Wani. “The message was clear: we can do without you.”
Kashmiri parties, which held power at Delhi’s pleasure, would now find it hard to sustain a struggle against the Centre, Wani pointed out. Already, Delhi has shown indications that it wants to fashion a new political class, strengthening local government institutions and reaching out to disaffected second-rung leaders of the old mainstream. The last year saw at least two new parties being floated, including the Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party, headed by former People’s Democratic Party leader Altaf Bukhari.
“It can’t be said that there won’t be a party which is not ready to grab power while this struggle is on,” said Wani. “Apni Party is an example. Tomorrow, there will be two such parties. Can these [older] parties, who have always been in power and have to do so much for being in power, resist the temptation of power?”
Rejected in Kashmir
What makes it harder for the old pro-India leadership to negotiate with Delhi is the loss of their support base in Kashmir. Their endeavours to stay on the right side of the Centre had alienated them from the public, many feel.
“Mainstream leaders never said separatists don’t have a constituency here,” complained a party leader who did not want to be identified. “Whatever little support we had, we would always carry it forward as a sign of legitimacy before Delhi. The reason Kashmiri public at large seems indifferent to whatever has been done to us [leaders] comes from our failure to protect their identity and constitutional guarantees. But the primary responsibility for betrayal lies with New Delhi.”
While the pro-India leadership was locked up post August 5, many in Kashmir expressed grim satisfaction. It was recalled that over the past decades, such leaders had presided over sweeping detentions and killings by security forces, especially during the anti-government protests of the past decade.
Besides, political memory is long in Kashmir and the past failures of the mainstream are continually invoked. “History doesn’t give us optimism in this context,” said Aijaz Wani. “At every point, they betrayed what they stood for. We know what happened with the Plebiscite Front after 20 years.”
He was referring to the party founded in 1955 to demand for a “popular plebiscite” to decide whether Jammu and Kashmir should remain in India, join Pakistan or become an independent state.
The Plebiscite Front was founded by Mirza Mohammad Afzal Beg, a close aide to National Conference founder Sheikh Abdullah. Beg started the party after the Sheikh was usurped from power and imprisoned. It was dissolved in 1975, after the Indira-Sheikh Accord of 1975. Sheikh Abdullah gave up the demand for a plebiscite and proceeded to become chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir.
No more politics as usual
For decades, pro-India parties in Kashmir used the protection of Article 370 and demands for greater autonomy as a political plank to win votes. With special status gone, that plank has gone as well.
“Now, they will go to people with the agenda that they will bring back J&K special status,” predicted Riyaz Wani. “How else can they go back to people and do politics in post-Article 370 Jammu and Kashmir?”
But Aijaz Wani felt the old politics of winning favour with the Kashmiri public by seeking concessions from Delhi would not work anymore. The mainstream leadership would have to mould a new kind of politics.
“For example, a party like the National Conference has to go back to its roots and start anew as a movement rather than a political party,” he said. “It will need the same ideological commitment, consistency and honesty of purpose to undo the August 5, 2019 decision as shown by the BJP to achieve it.”
But many in Kashmir feel the current situation is beyond internal give and take, that it would take geo-political shifts to change the status quo. “What will happen even if they take a tough stand against Delhi?” asked Riyaz Wani. “In the 1990s, we had the world’s best-funded militancy in Kashmir, yet that couldn’t change anything vis-à-vis Kashmir. There’s a feeling in Kashmir now that it’s beyond us to get back what was taken on August 5, 2019. Kashmir has now entered the realm of geo-politics. People feel that public resistance can’t do anything and only a geo-political disruption can do some change. It’s like a great game now.”