Over a year after the entire pro-India leadership in Kashmir was locked up, its leaders have regrouped. On October 15, leaders of major pro-India parties in Kashmir announced the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration. Its aim: to “return to the people of the state the rights they held before August 5, 2019” .

On that day, the Centre revoked autonomy and special status for Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370, divided it into two Union Territories and repealed Article 35A. This law had empowered the government of the former state to define “permanent residents” of Jammu and Kashmir and reserve for them certain rights. That included the right to own land and hold government jobs in the former state.

“Our battle is a constitutional battle,” National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah told the press on Thursday. “We shall struggle for restoration of what was snatched from Jammu Kashmir and Ladakh.”

National Conference provincial spokesperson Imran Nabi Dar later clarified that the alliance meant to fight for the restoration of Articles 35A and 370. “Those are the rights taken on August 5,” he said. “The statement also includes the bifurcation of the state.”

Abdullah went a step further. “At the same time, we feel the political issue of the state has to be resolved as quickly as possible,” he said. “And that can be resolved only through dialogue with all the stakeholders who are involved in the problem of J&K.”

The new alliance takes its name from a series of meetings held at Gupkar, in Srinagar, once the political nerve centre of Jammu and Kashmir. On August 4, 2019, just before they were whisked away into months of detention, political leaders from most pro-India parties in Kashmir had met at Gupkar and vowed to protect Kashmir’s special status. On August 22 this year, representatives of four regional parties and two national parties met again in Gupkar to renew the pledge. The formal alliance was announced as Mehbooba Mufti, former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and People’s Democratic Party leader, was released after 14 months of detention.

The alliance was announced from Abdullah’s home in Gupkar. Also in attendance were Mufti, Peoples Conference chief Sajad Lone as well as leaders of the Awami National Conference and People’s Movement. The only national party to join the alliance so far is the Communist Party of India (Marxist), whose only recognisable face in Kashmir is Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami. The Congress, which had signed the declaration this August, stayed away even though it had received an invitation.

But how will the new alliance work? It brings together the two oldest political rivals in the Kashmir Valley: the Muftis and the Abdullahs. The contestations between the two parties they led have defined electoral politics in Kashmir for decades.

‘Work in progress’

According to Naeem Akhtar, veteran People’s Democratic Party leader, the People’s Alliance is a “landmark” in Jammu and Kashmir’s political history. “Perhaps for the first time since 1947, a democratic constitutional resistance is shaping up in Kashmir,” he said. “This is not separatism. This is stressing our rights within the Constitution. Ours is a constitutional battle and in that, it’s a resistance.”

He acknowledged that the alliance still had to win popular support in Jammu and Kashmir. “I think this is for the first time that the mainstream [the term used to describe political parties that have traditionally contested elections in Kashmir] is clearly siding with the people’s sentiment,” he said. “But it will depend on how we work and our conduct.”

Senior National Conference leader Nasir Aslam Wani felt the alliance was a natural response to the situation. “It’s not a personal and political agenda to fulfil but just a collective response to what we have lost on August 5, 2019,” he explained. “It’s not the first time it has happened and it will not be the last time. When people in Ladakh can do it, when people in other places can do it. Why can’t we get together? We have seen the worst of enemies get together for a common cause. I don’t know why some people are surprised with this.”

In Ladakh, a range of political parties and socio-religious organisations had united to form a “People’s Movement” to demand Sixth Schedule status. The Constitutional provision ensures special protections and a degree of autonomy for tribal areas. The loose political grouping even threatened to boycott local autonomous district council polls until the Centre said it was willing to discuss Sixth Schedule status.

Wani explained that the alliance did not mean that individual party agendas had been dissolved. “For all other practical purposes, our own party agendas manifestos will stay but then we can keep them on the side for a common cause, the restoration of Article 370,” he said.

But questions remain. For instance, who will lead the alliance? “At this point there’s no hierarchy as such but I think that’s a work in progress,” said Akhtar. Wani said the organisational structure of the alliance would be finalised at the next meeting.

The alliance has not taken a stand on contesting elections at the moment. “Right now, elections are not a priority because there’s no election at hand,” said Akhtar. “We’ll think about that when the time comes. But right now, we are focused only on the reversal of the August 5 decision. The strategy about how to get that is evolving. The first major thing is unity.”

Reaching out to Jammu and Leh

Jammu and Ladakh initially welcomed Union Territory status but the euphoria has slowly dissipated. All three regions now worry about the loss of land and job rights. Muslim-majority Kashmir and tribal Ladakh have specific anxieties about demographic change. In Hindu-majority Jammu, there is worry about local youth and businesses losing economic opportunities as the region is opened up to outside investors and buyers.

But not all regions of the former state want to put their weight behind the formation in Kashmir. Ladakh, which had long demanded Union Territory status, wants Sixth Schedule protections not the restoration of special status under Article 370. In Jammu, a Hindu rightwing outfit called the Dogra Front held protests against the all-party meeting in Gupkar. Activists raised slogans against Farooq and Omar Abdullah as well as Mufti, accusing them of fooling the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

But Akhtar is optimistic that Jammu and Ladakh will soon realise the disadvantages of losing special status. “Article 370 had a big advantage that even the smallest identities had been protected,” he said. “But after August 5, everybody is feeling trumped. That is a realisation which will perhaps get stronger and clearer as they roll out new laws for J&K and Ladakh.”

He acknowledged that the bifurcation of the state had given rise to “new complexities” that the alliance would have to contend with. “It’s a question of fighting for those rights,” he said. “There are dozens of ethnicities and cultural identities in Jammu and Kashmir. They need to be preserved.”

Wani only said the question of reaching out to Jammu and Leh would be discussed in the next meeting of the People’s Alliance.

Only an electoral plank?

But the alliance’s toughest battle for legitimacy may be in Kashmir. Autonomy under Article 370 had been whittled down over decades. The turning point was 1953, when National Conference leader Sheikh Abdullah, who was then prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir – a post that has long been abolished – was abruptly dismissed by Delhi and jailed for allegedly conspiring against the state. For years, the National Conference had promised to fight for the restoration of full autonomy and the People’s Democratic Party for “self-rule” – to no avail. At the moment, there is scepticism about the alliance in the Valley.

“The Alliance is calling for the restoration of Article 370, which should remind us all of the National Conference’s demands for a pre-1953 status,” said Basharat Ali, a resident of Baramulla who is also a scholar of international relations. “There is no rolling back the August 5 decision. No state will do that unless heavy costs are incurred by it. Even Chinese incursions have not moved India on Article 370.”

According to him, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Central government had realised that the political vacuum created by the decisions of August 5, 2019, and the mass incarceration of Kashmiri leaders would not eventually work in its favour. “[There was] complete absence of politics and political mobilisation,” observed Ali. “This arrangement, in any modern society, is tenuous. The BJP is keen on initiating some political activity in and on Kashmir.”

Many are convinced that the demand for restoration of special status would only become an electoral plank for the parties of the People’s Alliance. While the legislative assembly has been dissolved, elections are expected to be held once the process of delimitation is completed in Jammu and Kashmir. “Political parties in Kashmir want to time-travel to the past, which shows their lack of political imagination,” Ali felt. “The BJP will push for Assembly elections soon and this demand of restoring Article 370 will be the only electoral plank Kashmiri parties will be fighting on. It’s advantage BJP all over again.”