28 March 2020

Apni Party or Unki Party? What’s in a name? But the strange christening of new Jammu and Kashmir based political formation as ‘Apni Party’ meaning ‘Ours/ My Party’ evokes curiosity. Whose party is it, anyway? What does it stand for in the changed geographical and political context of Jammu and Kashmir and what is its relevance? Is it also just a case of amusing coincidence that the newly adopted flag of the party resembles the police flag in times when the region resembles a police state under excessive surveillance and curbs?

Born out of an odd conglomeration of political leaders and activists defected from existing political groups, particularly National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party, including mostly those who were recently released from their detentions or house-arrests after their incarceration in make-shift jails since August 5, 2019, this party carries the distinctive tinge of an artificial creation. Such engineering feats in politics are neither unknown to Kashmir, nor are they exceptional to this region. Political manipulations are known to be an intrinsic part of politics throughout the length and breadth of the country. But this new venture is a far more curious phenomenon.

At a time when restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir are easing and communication blockade has been further minimized but speaking out still remains forbidden, it would be overtly optimistic to presume that the troop of 40 lead by Altaf Bukhari is displaying exceptional valour simply inspired by the need for enthusing some political energy into the region, seven months after the state’s changed political and geographical status. That Altaf Bukhari enjoyed a luncheon meeting with BJP’s Ram Madhav and was a special invitee to the official lunch hosted for the European delegation of select right-wing lawmakers from Europe allude to the fact that Bukhari’s political venture has the blessings, even if it doesn’t have the pugmarks, of the Centre. (That may explain the diligence that has been done in reinforcing the narrative of ‘self’ with the assumed name of the party).

The history of Jammu and Kashmir in the last seven years reveals that, to a great extent, such an exercise is not new. Old wine in new bottles with New Delhi’s machinations are tried and tested formulas in the last seven decades. At a cursory look, there is an uncanny resemblance of Bukhari’s rise to Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed taking over the reins of both National Conference and the erstwhile state in 1953. On the whole, however, such comparisons are misplaced and encourage mis-reading of the possible future, a luxury that one can ill-afford.

At the superficial level, the significant difference is that unlike Bakshi who was a leader of some reckoning and was entrusted with the job of reviving National Conference out of the umbrella of Sheikh Abdullah as well as handed over the reins of the state as prime minister, Bukhari, who is still a political novice, appears to have one task at hand - forming the party and building public confidence in whatever it stands for. Will he get to experience the Bakshi moment of tasting and wielding power is a case of there being many a slip between the tongue and the lip.

The key to understanding the difference is in trying to understand what the future now entails.

What sets this moment apart, primarily, is the ideological gap between Nehru, who first started the trend of political manipulations and turned the political circus of the region into a puppet show by replacing Sheikh with Bakshi, and the present prime minister, Narendra Modi. While the former was an enigmatic person, liberal in his views but authoritarian in his actions, the latter is authoritarian both in ideas and actions. Modi’s path to the end goal may have been paved by Nehru’s blunders of destruction of democracy in Kashmir but essentially his goal appears to be different from Nehru. While the latter, despite his secular leanings, was inspired by lack of confidence in Kashmiris and his method was conditioned by the insecurities with respect to Jammu and Kashmir’s Muslim majority status, Modi is driven by the RSS worldview of Hindutva which pivots around exclusion of Muslims and views Kashmiri Muslim with extreme contempt. This clear distinction of ideological moorings reflects the possible difference in the end-result of this exercise which is not aimed at coronation of another Bakshi.

By any stretch of imagination, the assembly elections to the newly carved out union territory are not likely to be held till the delimitation exercise that gives the BJP led Centre the added ability of manipulating a Hindu majority in the legislature. The delimitation exercise is likely to make a departure from the past. The BJP is already trumping up the argument of delimitation on basis of area, and not population, to give Hindu majority Jammu region more share of seats. Also on cards is reserving seats for refugees from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. In no case is the next chief minister going to be either a Kashmiri or a Muslim, queering Altaf Bukhari’s dreams. Given the unease of the Jammu leaders including those from BJP on losing the special status of the state, losing domicile rights and downgrading of the state, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the next chief minister, whenever that coronation takes place, could well be an outsider.

It is unlikely for the BJP-RSS to loosen its grip on Jammu and Kashmir after the special status has been scrapped. So, the question arises why the BJP would invest in Bukhari’s party? It remains to be seen whether Farooq Abdullah’s sudden release has a political motive or whether there is calculated method in shifting some of the political leaders, like Sajad Lone and Waheed Parra, from sub-jails to their homes and putting them under house arrest. While the flurry of some political activity that may follow some of these steps will showcase the heavy-weights of Kashmir’s politics as completely impotent, BJP will strengthen itself by fattening its cadres in the Valley and other parts of the state - an exercise that has been going on in the last seven months of an otherwise gagged and silent region.

Some trends in history are likely to be repeated. Like the Congress did in the sixties, BJP could make inroads into the Valley. But unlike then, the other political beings can now become complete disposables, ready to be dumped and discarded whenever required. The die is cast. If the drama that unfolded in the last seven decades was one of political manipulations, its sequel will follow with a new cast and a new script. It will have its own twists and turns, its own share of climaxes and anti-climaxes. The drama will unfold gradually, mostly in accordance with the script prepared by New Delhi but the Part II will be very different.

Dated: 3/15/2020

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Kabeer Katlat

The Communist movement in India has a history of almost a century after the salvos of October Revolution in Russia brought Marxism-Leninism to the people of India who were engaged in the national liberation struggle against the British colonialists. It is a complex and chequered history.