“ There is nothing new in world except the history you do not know.” – Harry Truman

Junaid describes the fall-out from institutionalized family rule in Kashmir

(Mr. Junaid Azim Mattu, 25, was born in Srinagar. He partly completed his schooling at the Burn Hall School, Srinagar, and partly at the Bishop Cotton School, Shimla. He attended college in America and graduated with a degree in Business and Finance from the Eli Broad School of Business at Michigan State University. He is a consulting financial analyst and telecom-IT entrepreneur based in Srinagar. A seeded national varsity debater throughout his school and college career (his grandfather – Khwaja Ghulam Ahmed Ashai – was one of the founding fathers of the Muslim/National Conference), Mr. Mattu also played under-19 cricket at national level for J&K. He is a founder of the World Kashmiri Students Association (WKSA), a global youth association for Kashmiris based in Srinagar, Kashmir, working on social, economic and political issues through constructive and informed activism. WKSA, as of today has 1,700+ registered members in Kashmir. He is also a nominated alumnus of the Global Young Leaders Conference. In his leisure time, Junaid likes to engage in reading, gardening, watching movies and listening to music.)

New Delhi’s Gupkar Handicap

The harrowing traffic congestion in Srinagar quite often forces me to drive through Gupkar whenever I plan on visiting the Dal Lake side of the city. I remember, growing up in the turmoil, even looking towards the Gupkar conclave was tantamount to terrorism. Every now and then the barricades made way for white ambassador cars with blaring red lights and deafening sirens. This is around the same time when rumors were agog that drivers were driving around the empty cars with sirens, lights – the whole nine yards, to give an impression that the State actually had a government. As a young boy, Gupkar meant something else to me. Something more obnoxious and personally suffocating than a corrupt, nauseatingly nepotistic corridor of power and stifling bureaucracy. Gupkar to me was a symbol of absolute and unaccountable power more often than not used to create personal empires at the cost of ordinary Kashmiris – educated, uneducated, employed and unemployed alike. As a child, I hated Gupkar, the very sight of it.

I once had a dream I can still vividly recollect, about a sea of angry, ragged and beleaguered people running towards Gupkar – tattered zombies, past the barricade to discover that beyond all echelons and epitaphs of concentrated power lies a lush green, sun-facing hill – dotted with wild flowers, lilacs, brooks and sparrows. Then, I had relatives and family friends who lived in Gupkar – bureaucrats, an occasional minister or a family friend. I remember sitting on balconies with vistas of the Zabarwan range munching on spotless plump cherries and having glitzy dinners in the shadows of an absolutely wasteful and unproductive machinery of needlessness as cooks and waiters scampered around anxiously with spines bent at frighteningly unnatural angles. Bright halogen camp lights shone across the lawns as most of the city was plunged in the routine darkness of chronic power cuts. Gupkar seemed to be a different Kashmir, gestating, feeding and surviving in the withered and blood-sucked body of a bigger yet less visible Kashmir – a Kashmir where young sons and beloved husbands were untraced, where mothers tossed and turned on tear-soaked pillows and where orphans made way from hinterlands to city orphanages cramped in white cars, driving past the familiar sights of their childhood into an unknown realm of half-truths and smoldering emotions. That is the invisible face of Kashmir, masked behind a rhetorical ambiguity that puts in all possible efforts to prolong the status quo.

Kashmir admittedly is essentially a political dispute, between two States that refuse to give up their ostrich-neck stances. Militarization on the Indian side of the territory has resulted in horrendous and gross human rights abuses. Most Kashmiris have not reconciled with J&K’s controversial accession to the Indian union. India, however has unfortunately dubbed the sentiment of Kashmiri nationalism in the sole context of secession, which to even a Kashmiri of average intelligence is an impossible proposition. Yet, under all the froth of reactionary separatist politics and dictatorial arrogance of the mainstream, the more things have changed the more they remain the same. Governments have changed, political parties have sprung up right, left and center and both regional parties in the State have perennialized the presence of the Indian National Congress through successive coalitions. The element and perception of puppetry and helplessness has if anything, gained more weight. Red-tapism at the bureaucratic level is now competing for infamy with chicanery, regionalism and rampant corruption at the ministerial level. The slogan of change has been dampened. The spirit that a generational transition at the executive level initially inspired has been shredded into an irreconcilable confetti of dreams that were perhaps reconciliatory, at the greatest detriment to India.

The last two decades have seen the institutionalization of not democracy, but family caucuses in J&K; an either/or choice for the beleaguered people. Mufti’s PDP is as much a family caucus as the National Conference, the father-daughter duo the Supreme Authority in policy matters. This has also been the crowning institutionalization of Gupkar, literally and metaphorically – given that Mufti Sayeed moved into the vista-esque Fairview estate along the same stretch, image makeover included. The same Ex Home Minister of India who set Kashmir on fire, miscalculation after miscalculation – travesty after travesty, was in all probability deemed fit by some clueless retired IPS or IAS spy chief in Delhi to be the face of ‘reconciliation’. Such is the tragic lack of depth in Delhi’s understanding of Kashmir – what festers here summer after summer – a tinderbox waiting for a spark.

There is absolutely no difference between an outsourced business vertical and J&K when it comes to democracy, however impressive election turnouts might be. New Delhi operates a single-window line of communication and dictation with either of the two families, not with the Eighty-Six MLAs elected by the people. The demographic analysis of the present State Legislative Assembly exposes the hereditary syndrome in political transitions – in how numerous families have now rallied around either of the two main political families or how the youngest MLAs are children or grandchildren of past MLAs – or how politics of evolution and merit has been disincentivized – or how mandates are arbitrarily distributed at family dinners – of how democracy has become a more acceptable form of monarchy in J&K.

Hereditary or dynastic politics is a reality across India and not unique to J&K. The unique issue with family politics in J&K, however, is the fact that it’s used as an alternating tool to manage this political conflict. We can go back to either 1987 or the era of Jagmohan and a couple of elections that followed to realize how the strings of this show lie in Delhi. Congress has been in bed with both main political parties in the State – making it easier to justify a coalition with either in the future, depending on what’s politically expedient for Delhi.

The counter argument, sort of, is that Delhi doesn’t have any other alternative in J&K and for instance at this point in time, would rather have Omar Abdullah in the hot seat than Mehbooba Mufti. However understandable, it’s this precise approach of ‘options’ that breathes life into this conflict, keeps Kashmir smoldering. Twenty years of conflict, a hundred thousand dead, missing and maimed people and Kashmiris still have to choose between the same two alternatives, which have in their own ways, left deep dark scars on our political and social identity. As for Omar Abdullah – at a point of time, I did see significant hope of transcendence and reconciliation in him. I don’t doubt that his heart and mind is in the right place and he wants to see change and reconciliation in Kashmir, but the burden of his legacy is far too heavy and ominous to be invisible – a burden that will never allow a process to pave way for reconciliation as long as the family/party is in power – election turnouts regardless. A burden that has precipitated and eventually dictated the quality of his political team – of controversial, inept and fairly unpopular people he has had to surround himself with.

The Muftis have created a party around a father-daughter duo, surrounded by individual vote-banks, established leaders and politicians – a family caucus progressively dynastic and dictatorial – at times even more dictatorial than the other family caucus – and that is saying something! Their politics of victimhood is also in direct contradiction to their politics of opportunism and power, going to the extent of crying for power on the graves of young children. It was their forest minister who signed off the controversial Amarnath deal and lo and behold, they are the ones who played the victims – withdrawing from their coalition with the Congress. Pertinent is also the fact that Mufti Sayeed is the same Ex-Home Minister of India who has his hands drenched in blood till the elbows and beyond – Jagmohan, AFSPA, Gaw Kadal massacre etcetera etcetera.

To expect Kashmiris to change and reconcile with the same faces that have been integral parts of the ‘problem’, is contemptuous to the sufferings and sacrifices they have rendered in the past twenty years. It’s also stupid. Change has to be palatable. Change has to look different; it has to look like change, not just sound like change. As to the question of ‘alternatives’, India needs to rise above the pettiness of ‘controlling’ and ‘managing’ Kashmir – by allowing genuine democratic empowerment independent of any ‘alternatives’. From the few cordial private discussions I have had with some senior political leaders of both parties in the last fortnight – a genuine non-dynastic democratization of the sentiment has never been within closer reach. The onus now being on Delhi to rise to the occasion.

Delhi’s challenge now lies in finding not just resolution but acceptability in Kashmir; an acceptability that will continue to elude it till empowering democracy replaces nepotism, hereditary outsourcings and family politics. Kashmiris wont invest their confidence in a democracy that reeks of twenty years of bloodshed and gore, but will do so in a democracy that empowers them towards a resolution, a refreshing dignity and identity that they have hoped and yearned for till now. Outsourcing political management to one of the two family caucuses won’t bring Delhi any closer to resolution than it is now. If anything, it will push Kashmir yet deeper into an intractable hole of alienation, at the greatest detriment to New Delhi.