At the Nawai Subh office of Kashmir’s grand old party in Srinagar, its spokesperson Tanvir Sadiq had photo frames at his desk. He was carefully examining each photo frame and giving directions to his office staff where to place them. He took one frame in his hand, “look at this; it is a photo of the 1977 Legislative Council of Jammu and Kashmir,” he says.
Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah is a prominent figure in the frame, sitting in a chair capturing the attention as one looks at the photo. Late separatist leaders Syed Ali Geelani and Abdul Gani Lone are also in the photo.
In Sadiq’s room, there are picture frames having slogans from different manifestos. These frames are all in Urdu. One poster hanging on the wall reads, “Elaan-E-Jung (Declaration Of War)” with Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and Dr Farooq Abdullah’s pictures on the top of the poster. Beneath “the Declaration Of War” the message reads: Only Dr Farooq Abdullah’s leadership can take out Jammu and Kashmir State from negative thinking, religious fanaticism and ensure mutual harmony and religious tolerance. It asks people to vote for the National Conference candidate. This message is from the 1996 election manifesto of the National Conference when National Conference participated in the polls amid raging militancy.
Another photo frame has Omar Abdullah’s picture with a headline in Persian, "agar padar na tunand pisar tamam kunand" (If the father cannot, the son will complete it). It contains text from the 1996 Assembly election manifesto of the National Conference, which says under the Delhi agreement of 1952, Jammu and Kashmir’s special position was formulated and later the Parliament gave its consent to it.
It says the agreement was not respected and Article 370 of the Indian Constitution was diluted. It adds that the National Conference didn’t give up and continued its struggle under the leadership of Dr Farooq Abdullah. That is why then Prime Minister Deve Gowda along with other major political parties of the country promised internal autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir. Now it asks that it is up to people to realise the dream of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and they should strengthen the hands of Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah to ensure strong unbreachable internal autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir.
The 1996 elections gave a landslide victory to the National Conference amid boycott calls of the polls by separatists. Ahead of the polls, the then Prime Minister Deve Gowda visited Srinagar, which was the first visit to the Valley by a Prime Minister after nine years. In the September 1996 elections, the polling percentage remained at 53.92 per cent. Of the 87 seats, the NC contested 81 seats and won 57 seats. The party on June 26, 2000, adopted a resolution recommending greater autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir State in the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly. Though Dr Farooq Abdullah had expressed confidence that the resolution will be implemented in the long run, over the years the political situation in J&K took a reverse turn with the BJP government abrogating Article 370 and bifurcated Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories on August 5, 2019.
National Conference manifestos since 1977 are all about 1944 “Naya Kashmir” document of the party, importance of the Article 370, and restoration of the internal autonomy enjoyed by erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir State prior to 1953.
Hell on earth
Take the example of the 2002 manifesto. The party depicts the situation of the early 1990s. “It was a distressing situation all around when the party took over the reins of the government 1996. The system of governance had gone out of gear. There was no accountability. The administrative and developmental process had come to a grinding halt. During those six-seven years, people had totally forgotten the razzmatazz associated with democracy. "Heaven on Earth" had turned into Hell. The Valley presented a picture of the vast expanse of ruins…The work culture had been thrown to the wind. Curfews, hartals and security crackdowns had become an order of the day…Fear was everywhere - on roads, lanes, bylanes and even home.”
As scores of National Conference workers were killed by militants when insurgency erupted in the Valley in 1990, the 2002 manifesto argues why the party took the plunge into the elections.
“In that depressing atmosphere, all the guns were turned towards our loyal party workers. It was a common sight to witness hundreds of our committed soldiers being gunned down every day for the conviction they held so close to their hearts. Ignoring all the dangers that lay ahead, they accepted the challenge to jump into the fray (election). It revived the sentiments of devotion, camaraderie and a sense of great sacrifice once associated with Sher-i- Kashmir Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. People surged forward to ensure the success of the party nominees and the party emerged victorious under the dynamic leadership of Quadi Saani Dr. Farooq Abdullah,” it reads.
The 2002 manifesto talks at length about Article 370 and vows to fight against voices of the trifurcation of J&K state. “We shall always resist such forces the same way we did 50 years ago,” recalling August 9, 1953, when Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was arrested. The 2002 manifesto says the 1996 slogan of the party for greater autonomy for J&K was not a gimmick but an honest and sincere effort to connect with the hearts and minds of Kashmiris who were alienated.
The fight against the Dogras
While the 2002 manifesto goes back to the Delhi agreement, the National Conference's 1977 manifesto talks about the 1930s. It reverts to Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s fight from 1937 against Dogra rulers and his struggle to achieve “communal harmony, economic and political freedom". The 1977 manifesto talks about the special position that Article 370 has attained in the Constitution of India; it also touches on “how the party guided” people about J&K’s accession with India and played a role in it.
1987 Naya Kashmir
The party’s manifesto of 1987 talked about a development roadmap that insisted that if the party wins the polls, it will implement the vision of ‘Naya Kashmir’ (New Kashmir), as a call back to 1944 when the party had first issued the Naya Kashmir document.
The manifesto says that 1987 “shall be a turning point in our history” as it promises to complete agrarian reforms. It ends with the slogan of Naya Kashmir Zindabad (Long Live New Kashmir).
The party’s 2008 election manifesto rejoices over the break-up of the PDP and Congress coalition government. “The coalition gas bag finally busted without a whimper. It couldn’t withstand the peoples’ fury and anger and was uprooted.” However, the National Conference manifesto was sympathetic towards the then Congress-led coalition government’s Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad.
“In full view of the last Assembly session in July 2008, the Chief Minister exhausted all his rhetoric reassuring himself that he would complete his term and not quit even a minute before. But the effect of the poisonous dagger pierced in his back by his deceitful partners was already evident from the panic reaction of a vain effort to salvage the sinking ship.” It says, “having tasted the fruits of power for five and half years the PDP dumped their benefactor midstream and started abandoning the ship that had already hit the bottom.”
In 2008, the party in its manifesto projected Farooq Abdullah as the Chief Ministerial candidate. “The party patron Quaidi Sani Dr. Farooq Abdullah has conceded to the unanimous party request to be our Chief Ministerial candidate. Considering his stature internationally, nationally and at the local level, the State will surely benefit from his enlightening leadership and administrative experience."
“We beseech you to vote for the NC so that the party gets the magic number to deliver the state from an era of darkness and farce of healing touch and Khushali and usher in an era of peace and progress.” “We promise, if elected to power, we will translate this Manifesto in letter and spirit and re-establish the peoples' faith in the system, give a new dimension to the state's development and evolve policies that ensure peoples' progress and welfare.”
The focus of the 2008 manifesto is the Restoration of Autonomy. “The restoration of state's autonomy continues to be the bedrock of our policy and agenda. Under the provisions of the Instrument of Accession, the federal Constitution and the Nehru-Abdullah Accord, popularly known as the Delhi Agreement of 1952, we enjoyed a guaranteed quantum of autonomy till 1953. Sadly, some people suffering from impaired vision at the centre started a distortion with the connivance of some puppets within the state and sowed the mistrust that persists to this day."
“To resolve this impending issue between India, Pakistan and the State, if a better, lasting and acceptable solution emerges, the NC will not only facilitate it but will willingly accept it.”
“We strongly feel that for meaningful genuine concerns and the lasting solution to this imbroglio, all sections of society including the separatists and extremists shall have to be taken on board. Talks have to be broad-based and not selective. History has once again devised a role for us to carry forward the mission initiated by Sheri Kashmir in 1964 when he visited Pakistan in search of a possible solution We will pursue the goal with determination and vigour.”
“NC is against the continuation of any barrier between the two halves of the state. We cannot move mountains but barriers can be. We highly appreciate the recent initiatives on cross-LC passenger movement, trade, commerce and transport. We will strive for free trade and traffic from the present trickle, a hassle-free entry, and exit of the state subjects and better coordination between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad.”
After the 2008 polls, it was Omar Abdullah who became Chief Minister.
The last manifesto
The 2014 Assembly manifesto of the party is also like the earlier manifesto that lays emphasis on the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. Since 2014, no elections have been held in Jammu and Kashmir. Jammu and Kashmir is no longer a state with Article 370 having been abrogated and the erstwhile state downgraded into a Union Territory, with Ladakh being the other new Union Territory.
The 2014 manifesto of the party also indicates how the political landscape was in Jammu and Kashmir and what the political aspirations of the people were.
While it begins on the development agenda and reaches out to victims of the devastating floods of 2013, it soon touches on the political aspect of Kashmir.
“After undergoing much travail, especially after 1990 and now during floods the people of the state deserve an uninterrupted era of peace and stability. They have to continue to move towards the goal of Naya Kashmir to achieve its vision of an ideal society that will consist of magnificent human beings who are equal to the glory of this beautiful land.”
It says this can happen only if there are no disasters and no uncertainty. Laying emphasis on Article 370, the party manifesto says it flows from the Instrument of Accession signed on October 26, 1947, by Maharaja Hari Singh and the Delhi agreement of 1952 between the then Prime Minister of India and Sheri-Kashmir Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the then Prime Minister of J&K, which gave the state of J&K a special status within the constitutional framework of India.”
The party takes credit for the inclusion of Article 370 provision in the Indian Constitution and for its ratification by the State Constituent Assembly. “Thus this article is the foundation on which the relationship of the state with the rest of the country is based. This article cannot be tampered with. The National Conference will oppose any such attempt and will press for reversal of the erosion of the letter & spirit of this article over the years.”
The party manifesto says the National Conference has always maintained that restoration of autonomy is the only viable solution to the Kashmir problem. “The National Conference shall strive with renewed vigour to build a consensus in the country on this matter and remind the government of India about the resolution of the state assembly in this behalf which requires their urgent consideration.”
It describes the return of Kashmiri Pandits as a priority and at the same time says it has nothing to do with their migration from Kashmir. “National Conference considers Kashmiri Pandits as an essential part of the ethos of Kashmiriyat. The migration from Kashmir of this community in 1990 because of disturbed conditions was unfortunate. The National Conference was not in power at that time but immediately after it returned in 1996, the National Conference Govt. took steps to prevent the distress sale of properties by the Kashmiri Pandits by enacting a law, and improved the living conditions of the KP's spending their days in ghetto-like camps. Unemployed educated youth were recruited in the police department through a special recruitment drive. The National Conference Govt. expressed its resolve to create conditions to enable the Kashmiri Pandits to return to the valley with dignity and honour. Ever since, the National Conference has been addressing the concerns of this community and its government under the leadership of Omar Abdullah who has taken major steps to facilitate their return.”
The party then goes back to Naya Kashmir and appeals to the people of the state to give it a clear mandate so that it can create Naya Kashmir and lead the people of this state to live a life of happiness and prosperity in an era of peace and stability.
Naya Kashmir, Soviet Union and Marx
The Naya Kashmir document that the party repeatedly quotes has 52 Articles including all permanent residents of J&K and Ladakh will have equal status, complete freedom of faith, conscience and worship, free speech, free press, compulsory work for all residents of J&K who are fit to work, right to rest, right to education. The Naya Kashmir had a separate “peasant’s charter” that says every peasant has the right to land. It has a separate woman’s charter to help women in the attainment of their just, equal and rightful place in society. In the Naya Kashmir document of 1944, Sheikh Abdullah showed antipathy towards Pakistan, saying, “Ignorance is an evil weed, which Pakistan may cultivate among its dupes, but which Sheikh Abdullah cannot afford among his citizens.”
In the introduction of the document, “Towards New Kashmir” Sheikh Abdullah writes “it has always been the goal of the National Conference to fight the immemorial poverty of the peasant and the artisan, and the unmitigated helplessness of the worker.”
While explaining the transfer of the All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference into the National Conference, Sheikh says after being “born in 1932 as the Muslim conference, it immediately became the spearhead of the masses of Kashmir, more than three-quarters of whom are Muslims. It was during this period that the whole of India was shaken into a new awakening following the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1931, and it had its own psychological influence on us. The conference thought Muslim in name and spontaneously formed as an expression of the deep-rooted sufferings of the people, was in spirit national and was concerned with the welfare of all communities.”
Sheikh says, since his movement was dynamic, and, as the years went on, “rooted itself more and more deeply into the soil of the state, it was only the logic of things therefore that in 1938, we formally converted the organisation into the All Jammu and Kashmir National Conference.” Sheikh then talks about Soviet Russia. "In our times, Soviet Russia has demonstrated before our eyes, not merely theoretically but in her actual day-to-day development, that real freedom takes birth only from economic emancipation. The inspiring picture of the regeneration of all the different nationalities and peoples of the U.S.S.R., and their welding power into the united mighty Soviet state is throwing back its barbarous invaders with deathless heroism is an unanswerable argument for the building of democracy on the cornerstone of economic equality."
“In our New Kashmir, we shall build again the men and women of our state, who have been dwarfed by centuries of servitude, and create a people worthy of our glorious motherland," Sheikh concludes.
Sheikh Nazir Ahmad, brother of Sheikh Abdullah, who was also general secretary of the party, in an introduction to the Naya Kashmir document in 1996, argues that much before the NC assumed power after the independence of the country, it had prepared and presented its blueprint for welfare and an ideal society. He calls Naya Kashmir a historical manifesto of the party which was produced after the annual session of the party in 1944 in which Jawaharlal Nehru, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan and Moulana Abul Kalam Azad participated. When Nazir wrote the introduction, the Soviet Union was no longer on the map of the world. Deeply aware of it, he says, “the Bolshevik party of now vanished Soviet Union, had borrowed its ideological fuel from the dialectical materialism theory of Karl Marx.” “Whatever the fate the Soviet Union had to meet, doesn’t anyway, detract anything from humanism and egalitarian views of Marx, the philosopher.”
Nazir then starts praising Marx. “He lived in penury throughout his life, but he continued to burn the midnight oil to discover a way to ameliorate the teeming millions. He sometimes had to go to bed with a hungry stomach. He suffered the hardships of living in exile. When, he breathed his last in 1882 in London, far away from his home, only two people participated in his funeral: his ideological comrade, Fredrick Engels, and a lady known to his family.”
And when he returns to the Naya Kashmir document, he says in Jammu and Kashmir, landless farmers got their due and no cost was paid to exploiting landlords and he gives credit of it to the Naya Kashmir document. “These (reforms) have not even now been fully emulated in the rest of India, not to mention Pakistan, which still remains a quasi-feudal society.” "The reforms didn’t bestow the ownership of the land to tiller alone, but also ignited the greater initiative as a means of an increase in production.”
BJP’s Naya Kashmir
After the abrogation of Article 370, the BJP has been repeating that it has ushered a ‘Naya Kashmir’ in Jammu and Kashmir. The government has come up with new land laws, which are being considered as controversial by regional political parties The party rejects all previous “Naya Kashmirs” angering the parties like Peoples Democratic Party that says "Naya Kashmir and BJP's Kashmir policy are like the emperor's new clothes. The press, judiciary and civil society have no option but to praise them while Kashmiris can see all too well that the emperor is naked."
However, whenever the polls will be held, it will be interesting to see the manifestos of political parties. Throughout history, National Conference has relied on the Naya Kashmir document and subsequent massive land reforms in the 1950s and then the pre-eminence of Article 370 in its manifestoes.
Now that the situation has changed altogether, political parties will have greater challenges in J&K while framing their manifestos and the NC will have to face a bigger task given its radical manifestoes of the past 70 years as it has to resurrect the Naya Kashmir again to compete it with BJP’s Naya Kashmir.