When a flamboyant and seasoned leader seeks vote from a conservative organisation, the political desperation seems obvious—however strong the denial comes. As two parliamentary byelections in his native Jammu and Kashmir draw close, senior politician Farooq Abdullah is increasingly invoking Islamic sentiments in a bid to woo the Jamaat-e-Islami that his iconic father so famously detested all his life.
Six months short of turning 81, this could well be Dr Abdullah’s last poll battle, observers believe. The former union minister, who headed the troubled border state five times, is contesting as the candidate of his National Conference party in native Srinagar that goes to polls on April 9. Three days later is a byelection in Anantnag, also in the Valley.
Dr Abdullah’s electoral opponent is far less known: Nazir Ahmad Khan of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) ruling the state. That has not stopped the NC veteran, whose party is in alliance with the Congress, from wooing the Jamaat in a way, commentators say, is bringing back a political recluse to the mainstream of society. More so, when the contestant’s father, late chief minister Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah who founded the NC in 1932, had been a harsh critic of the Islamist outfit that has today lost much of its public clout.
The Abdullahs—Dr Farooq and his ex-CM son Omar—have been calling this bypoll as an “ideological struggle”, raising the campaign pitch. In an April 3 speech, Dr Abdullah asked people not to forget a crusade of justice Prophet Moses waged against Pharaoh and his armies. “Truth, justice and honesty will always tide over suppression, brute force and tyranny,” he said with reference to the prophet-messenger in the Quran. This plea for support of “our brothers in the Jamaat” was made before an audience in north Kashmir’s Kangan—an assembly seat that has remained with the NC for the past half a century.
The scene contrasts with the party’s pertinent stance just three years ago. In 2014, NC leader Mustafa Kamal, younger brother of Dr Abdullah, dubbed the Jamaat as “another face of the PDP”. The 1999-founded party, he alleged, had been enjoying electoral support from the socio-religious organisation that was always at war with the NC ideology.
If the National Conference wants Jamaat to alter its low profile, it is something the PDP also sought to do when it was in the Opposition.
The Jamaat is seen as having one percent vote-base in the Valley. If so, why side with the outfit that has not contested elections since armed insurgency erupted in the Valley in 1989? It is part of a renewed war against the Hindu right wing led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), claims Dr Abdullah. “We have to come together to fight the RSS, lest our identity and honour will be wiped out,” he cautions, calling out the Jamaat. “I am just one person, but I seek your support so that we can all collectively fight against the RSS with courage.” Abdullah brings the recent Uttar Pradesh assembly polls to buttress his argument that his electoral contest is a fight for Muslim identity to which the Jamaat ought to be a party.
The BJP, which is in J&K a coalition partner of the PDP led by CM Mehbooba Mufti, did not field a single Muslim candidate in UP that has four crore Muslims, Dr Abdullah reiterates. “The day is not far when god will teach a lesson to those who have sold their conscience to remain in power and for harassing as well as humiliating people for their own self-seeking ambitions,” he adds.
The Jamaat says Dr Abdullah’s statements are of no significance. “He, like other pro-India parties, has been responsible for suffering and miseries of Kashmir,” Zahid Ali, the organisation’s spokesman, tells Outlook.
The NC chief, by raising the spectre of the RSS in the upcoming bypolls, is trying to do what the PDP did during its 2014 J&K assembly poll campaign. That time the party, led by Mehbooba’s father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed (1936-2016), called itself as the only alternative to stop the BJP’s “onslaught”, only to form a post-poll alliance with the saffron party and rule the state. Today, Dr Abdullah, while looking out for the Jamaat’s support, hopes that his appeal would be seen as a larger battle for “our very survival with dignity and honour”—beyond being an electoral fight between two alliances in the state.
All of it when the Jamaat is headed by a moderate. Peacenik Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, who now heads the organisation for a fourth time, is credited with overturning the 1941-founded Jamaat’s hard-line policy on Kashmir. A native of Sopore in northwest Kashmir’s Baramulla district, he first occupied the post in 1985—and is known mainly for delinking the Jamaat’s association with the region’s militant outfits. The Jamaat, which used to call for solution of the Kashmir issue according to the UN resolutions and had favoured accession with Pakistan, currently focuses on socio-educational work rather than engaging in political issues.
If Dr Abdullah is now trying to motivate the Jamaat to change its low profile it has gone into since 1998, the NC leader’s language is—ironically—in sync with the PDP when it was in the Opposition. Yet, his open warmth for the Jamaat has surprised many, including the ruling party’s Naeem Akhtar, who is a government spokesman. “Dr Abdullah has been too long at the helm of J&K affairs and in the driving seat of the state’s mainstream politics to indulge in this kind of a discourse,” he tells Outlook. “He has aligned with every party in the country—from the BJP and Congress to I.K. Gujral to H.D. Deve Gowda. How can what is halal (permissible under Islam) for him in politics be taboo for others,” wonders Akhtar, in reaction to Dr Abdullah’s criticism of the PDP allying with the BJP.
The two Lok Sabha seats of Kashmir region fell vacant following the resignation of Mehbooba from Anantnag after she got elected to the state assembly in June last year and, later, on September 15, senior PDP leader Tariq Hamid Karra quit the Srinagar seat in protest against government forces killing civilians protesting the July 8 shooting down of young militant Burhan Wani. The PDP’s Anantnag candidate is Mufti Tassaduq, who is the CM’s 45-year-old brother. He faces the NC-Congress combine’s Ghulam Ahmad Mir, 58.
The NC’s open support to the Jamaat, which allegedly has a covert understanding with the PDP, has made the organisation a new power centre in Kashmir. The Jamaat “seriously suffered” in 1979 when Pakistan PM Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was hanged by the then military chief Zia-ul-Haq, according to political commentator Zahid Ghulam Mohammad. “Those days, we had an NC government in the state—and villages with Jamaat supporters, especially in south Kashmir, were burnt; their orchids destroyed. That forced the organisation to alter it political course.” Now if the NC and PDP are fighting for Jamaat support, it only shows how the two parties have shrunk and the Jamaat has grown, he adds.
Academician Siddiq Wahid finds any party’s bid to warm up to a faith-based entity as a sign of opportunism.
The Jamaat’s electoral entry was in 1972, when Sheikh Abdullah was in jail. It won five seats, but couldn’t repeat such a show in the 87-member assembly. In 1977, when the Jan Sangh was an ally of Islamist parties in J&K, the Jamaat secured just one of the 19 seats it contested with 3.6 per cent vote-share.
It was in 1998 that Bhat delinked Jamaat with armed insurgency that had gripped the state since 1989 under the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. The move was a fallout of pro-government Ikhwan-ul-Muslimun militia’s pan-Valley killing of a large number of workers of the Jamaat, which was perceived as a political force of the Hizb. Two years later, by the turn of the century, Bhat succeeded in leading the Jamaat for a second term by defeating Ashraf Sehrai, a close aide of hardline separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani. Soon, in August 2000, Bhat endorsed a brief unilateral ceasefire the Hizb had announced. Three years thence, Nazir Ahmad Kashani replaced Bhat after he completed his term. In 2004, Geelani parted ways with the Jamaat and formed the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat.
Then, in 2008, the Jamaat took a stand that contrasted with that of the separatists and Geelani. Sheikh Ghulam Hassan, who that time headed the organisation, stated that elections do not have any impact on the Kashmir issue. Hassan, thus, became the first leader in the Valley to delink polls and the vexed territorial conflict between India and Pakistan.
By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar