Many Kashmir politicians remain in detention, one year after region is stripped of autonomy

Kashmir has been at the centre of an armed separatist uprising which has led to many deaths.
Kashmir has been at the centre of an armed separatist uprising which has led to many deaths.PHOTO: AFP

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

The episode played out just after the government had told the Supreme Court that Mr Soz, 82, was not under house arrest or any kind of detention.

The disquieting incident, with Mr Soz maintaining he was allowed out of the house only on rare occasions, brought 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 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 included providing exclusive rights to residents on owning land and getting government jobs.

Now only two dozen politicians 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 the 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 messaging 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... Because she is a strong person, so she has been coping fine. Obviously there is tremendous emotional pressure. Not just her but on everybody residing in Jammu and Kashmir," Ms Iltija Mufti, the politician's 32-year-old daughter, told The Straits Times.

The PDP along with the National Conference, the other Kashmiri mainstream party, she noted, were a "buffer" acting as a "bridge between the people of Jammu and Kashmir with the rest of the country".

 
 
 

She said in a state mired in conflict for decades, such a buffer was important. "When you remove that bridge, you have obviously young impressionable men gravitating towards militancy and that is a recipe for disaster," said Ms Mufti.

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.

It is also at the heart of a dispute between India and Pakistan, which both 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.

The political process in Kashmir, even before the removal of special status, was hemmed in by the spectre of violence. Due to threats from terrorists coupled with a sense of alienation - deepened by the presence of security and army personnel to keep the peace - voter turnout in successive elections has continued to be low.

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

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

"The mainstream parties had established themselves as a link between the union (federal government) and state. (But) 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, 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."

The union territory of Jammu and Kashmir is supposed to have a legislature but has remained under federal rule over the past year.

National Conference (NC) leader Omar Abdullah, who was recently released from detention, said he would not take part in any future electoral process.

"As for me, I am very clear that while J&K remains a Union Territory I will not be contesting any Assembly elections. Having been a member of the most empowered Assembly in the land and that, too, as the leader of that Assembly for six years, I simply cannot and will not be a member of a House that has been disempowered the way ours has," wrote Mr Abdullah in The Indian Express.