Kashmir politicians weakened, many remain in detention

Congress politician Saifuddin Soz was talking to television reporters last week from behind the boundary wall of his house in Srinagar when he was dragged away by the security personnel who were guarding him.

This occurred just after the government of India had told the Supreme Court that Mr Soz, 82, was not under house arrest or detention.

The disquieting incident, with Mr Soz maintaining he was allowed out of the house only on rare occasions, trained the focus on Kashmir's politicians and the lack of a political process in Jammu and Kashmir since it lost special status a year ago.

Over 400 Kashmiri politicians and separatists were initially detained or arrested in what the government claimed was a precautionary measure to prevent any upheaval over the removal of Kashmir's special status or Article 370 on Aug 5 last year.

Special status includes the exclusive rights for residents to own land and get government jobs.

Only two dozen politicians now remain in detention but the political space in Kashmir remains fractured.

Among the most high-profile detainees is Ms Mehbooba Mufti, a former ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and former chief minister of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Ms Mufti, the leader of the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party, is detained under the J&K Public Safety Act.

"I feel like the Indian government wants to make an example out of her and the message to the people of Jammu and Kashmir is that if you express dissent on Article 370 or you speak against this move, then you have the example of a chief minister who has been behind bars for a year," Ms Iltija Mufti, the politician's 32-year-old daughter, told The Straits Times.

The younger Ms Mufti said the PDP (Peoples Democratic Party), along with the National Conference, the other Kashmiri mainstream party, were a "bridge between the people of Jammu and Kashmir with the rest of the country".

She said it was an important role for a state mired in conflict. "When you remove that bridge, you have obviously young impressionable men gravitating towards militancy and that is a recipe for disaster."

Kashmir has been at the centre of an armed separatist uprising which has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, security forces and militants over the last few decades.

Both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir, parts of which rest in each other's territories, in its entirety.

India accuses Pakistan, which denies the allegation, of feeding the separatist militancy that has fuelled instability and violence in Kashmir.

  • 400

    Number of Kashmiri politicians and separatists initially detained or arrested in what India claimed was a precautionary measure to prevent any upheaval over the removal of Kashmir's special status or Article 370 on Aug 5 last year.

The political process in Kashmir, even before the removal of its special status, was hemmed in by the spectre of violence and voter turnout has been low in elections.

In the 2019 general elections, voter turnout in Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir, for instance, was a mere 14.43 per cent

Political analysts said Kashmiri mainstream politicians now faced the double whammy of reassessing their political positioning and reaching out to a populace even more deeply alienated.

"The mainstream leadership has been weakened and marginalised. Their freedoms have been curtailed through different ways by detention or house arrest," said Dr Noor Ahmad Baba of the Department of Politics and Governance, Central University of Kashmir.

"They are defensive. They are also questioning the very foundation of their politics. If they don't talk of Article 370... they become irrelevant."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 06, 2020, with the headline 'Kashmir politicians weakened, many remain in detention'. Print Edition | Subscribe