Last month the political parties of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) sent the Modi government and its intelligence agencies in a tizzy. On 22 August, six major political parties released Gupkar Declaration 2.0 calling the revocation of special status and bifurcation of J&K a “spitefully, short-sighted and unconstitutional move.” The joint statement signed by political parties, barring the BJP and its proxy, Apni Party, committed to forming a united front against the decisions taken by the government of India on 5 August with the dictum on behalf of the people of J&K: “nothing about us without us.”
The suddenness with which the statement was issued took everyone by surprise. The communication between leaders of parties that signed the declaration was so secretive that no one in the government got a whiff of what was coming. Fearing fresh detentions and reprisal from the government, the signatories moved swiftly to issue the declaration, a commitment from which withdrawal of any party has become near to impossible.
The biggest favour done by security planners to the political leaders of Kashmir was detaining most of them under a single roof. During the detention, the leaders cutting across political lines developed personal bonds which eventually lead to their unity. More so, the antagonistic behaviour of certain bureaucrats and police officers towards the detained leaders led to a greater bonhomie.
The immediate trigger for the second Gupkar Declaration was the statement of Chief Secretary of Jammu and Kashmir in which he said that not a “single soul had cried” over the detention of political leaders. It served a signal to the political parties that the end of detention did not mean an end to the campaign of a witch hunt against them.
Given the zeal with which the signatories of the declaration have closed ranks, an umbrella political organisation appears to be in the making. By virtue of being the senior-most leader of J&K, Farooq Abdullah has acquired the leadership role of the united front and will rely on Mehbooba Mufti and Sajad Lone as its frontline campaigners.
Perhaps it is for the first time in the history of Jammu and Kashmir that various political stakeholders have put aside their ideological and political differences for a “common cause.” Many have confused the declaration as an electoral alliance, but it is much more than that. The declaration is a refusal to normalise the events of 5 August thereby sending a signal that whatever happened was unacceptable and a demand to restore the special provisions. This has put the six-party conglomerate on a collision path with the central government and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Some of the constituents of the Gupkar Declaration particularly the National Conference had to face a severe backlash within the party and outside for a relatively softer stand of its leaders towards BJP and New Delhi. Over the last few months, the top leaders of National Conference have joined Mehbooba Mufti and Sajad Lone in sharp anti-Delhi and anti-BJP positioning. Aggressive opposition to BJP, particularly its decision of 5 August 2019 is the only acceptable discourse in Kashmir region and much of the Chenab valley. More so, the unity of political parties has rekindled some degree of hope and support for the mainstream in Kashmir.
Having said that, the revival of mainstream remains a long and arduous struggle as both the secessionists in Kashmir and right-wing BJP have perpetuated the campaigns to discredit the parties and their leaders. Not surprisingly, the only criticism against the Gupkar Declaration has come from the BJP, its proxies, and the likes of Ghulam Nabi Fai who run the separatist ecosystem from Srinagar to Washington DC.
BJP has so far failed to come up with a cogent counter-argument to the Declaration Leaders of the national party have resorted to labeling and straw man arguments. Writing in Greater Kashmir, BJP’s General Secretary Ram Madhav responded to Gupkar Declaration as an attempt “to inject a dangerous Islamist discourse into the state politics today.” Another BJP leader termed it “anti-national, pro-secessionist, misleading and deceptive.”
A casual reading of the joint statement issued by the six parties reveals that the words “Islam”, “Muslim” are nowhere to be found in the declaration. If anything, the declaration is rooted in deep constitutionalism and does in no way cross any redlines. It doesn’t even harp on the identity politics of any hue. The very essence of the Gupkar Declaration is inclusive as any difference in the name of religion, ethnicity or language would be its death knell.
BJP’s frustration is visible more in its actions than words. Days after the statement was issued, Ram Madhav flew to Srinagar to tackle the political development. He sought a meeting with prominent Gujjar leader Mian Altaf. Altaf publicly snubbed Madhav and also laid to rest any attempt of creating an ethnic divide within the united front. On the other hand, the strong positioning against New Delhi of Shia leader Agha Ruhullah has made it difficult for other Shia leaders to show any softness towards the BJP. Likewise, the positioning of Sajjad Lone and Mehbooba Mufti will make it difficult for NC and others to come out of the declaration.
The Apni Party, which was launched with much fanfare early this year, appears to be lost in the chaos and political vacuum of Kashmir. Its leaders failed to read the sentiment of people which is overwhelmingly against the BJP and the central government. It failed to give expression to the anxieties and insecurities of the people, and instead went along with the script read out in Delhi. The very presence of this party makes the desire for unity among other parties much stronger and ensures some credibility to them.
If the Gupkar Declaration fails, it will be a collective failure of the mainstream in Jammu and Kashmir, and render any electoral exercise futile. The political vacuum in J&K that resulted from the August 2019 constitutional changes and administrative actions has gone on for too long. The current situation is not just unsustainable, but also comes with a grave security risk given the emerging geopolitical dynamics. In the proverbial two and a half front war scenario, a hostile population without a political system is a recipe for disaster.
The Gupkar Declaration is a blessing in disguise for the government of India to set things right in Kashmir. It offers an opportunity to deal not just with the half front but also the western front because if the half front is closed, the western front’s nuisance potential will be severely curtailed. The top political leadership of the country will have to decide whether the electoral interests of its party in a region which sends just a handful of representatives to the parliament is more important than addressing a national security conundrum. History has a lesson for the Modi government when not long ago, top officials of the government were running around desperately to find someone to talk to the Home Minister of India on his visit to Kashmir in the wake of the unrest of 2016.
Efforts to break the Gupkar Declaration and browbeat Kashmir’s mainstream into silence will tantamount to scoring a self-goal. It is thus imperative to engage in a dialogue with the conglomerate and start a much-needed conversation with the people of Jammu & Kashmir. And if such engagement happens, it should be conducted with all seriousness, courage and political will to deliver. Faking an engagement would be counter-productive.
Khalid Shah @khalidbshah is an Associate Fellow at ORF. His research focuses on Kashmir conflict, Pakistan and terrorism. Views are personal.
The article was first published on the Observer Research Foundation website.