Does the political tempest in National Conference hint at a split ahead?

An article by Omar Abdullah’s advisor Tanvir Sadiq on resuming politics in the valley without raising the abrogation of Article 370 has drawn stern criticism from party spokesperson Agha Ruhullah Mehdi, who has questioned the silence of the party leadership on the way forward

Agha Ruhullah Mehdi, the NC's chief spokesperson and Tanvir Sadiq, former chief minister Omar Abdullah’s private secretary

Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (JKNC), the region’s oldest political formation, is facing a crisis of sorts as two of its leaders – Tanvir Sadiq, former chief minister Omar Abdullah’s private secretary and Agha Ruhullah Mehdi, the party’s chief spokesperson – starkly differ from one another on the path ahead with respect to Kashmir’s political landscape after the erstwhile state lost its semi-autonomous status and statehood in August of last year.

Initially formed as Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference in 1931 during Maharaja Hari Singh’s Dogra rule in the region, the party rechristened itself to Jammu and Kashmir National Conference in 1939. The aim was to lend the party a secular outlook to accommodate minority viewpoints. Traversing through many ups and downs, the party has been active on the region’s political turf for eight decades now.

The party, however, at present is fighting a battle for a narrative as its future actions or lack thereof will determine whether it’d be at the precipice of irrelevance by hankering after power or stage a comeback of sorts with pro-Kashmir politics to safeguard the region’s unique identity.

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Keeping the second option in mind, Tanvir Sadiq, an advisor and close confidante of Omar Abdullah, in an article in an English daily called for “reconciliation” and “reaching out to the people of Jammu and Kashmir” without touching the hot subject of abrogation of Articles 370 and 35 (A).

Related news: No moon, feast or festivities for Kashmir’s political prisoners this Eid

Sadiq’s piece evoked sharp criticism from his own party’s chief spokesperson, Agha Ruhullah Mehdi.

In his piece that was published in Greater Kashmir, Sadiq argued that “As a starting point for this, let all political prisoners arrested post August 5 be released before Eid, revisit the domicile law (order) and lift all curbs on the internet and telecommunication and let the end of the pandemic and the beginning of the political process be run along parallel lines. Kashmir, its people and the country needs this.”

Interpretation of Sadiq’s article

One view is that the contents of his article were distorted and not seen in a proper context – that it was an individual’s view and not the party’s line. This view seeks to explain that all that Sadiq desired was to start a process where politics becomes possible. In Sadiq’s piece, the new domicile rules were criticised and it demanded lifting of curbs on communication and release all political detainees representing various shades. However, his skipping of Article 370 did not go down well with Agha Ruhullah Mehdi.

“My rebuttal to Mr Tanvir Sadiq’s article comes as the party’s chief spokesperson. I understand that it could be his personal view, but we as a party have neither forgotten what happened on August 5 last year nor given up our fight,” Mehdi told The Federal in an exclusive chat.

Mehdi said that no party member requires permission or mandate from the working committee to express dissent, but what disturbs him is the “silence of my party on Article 370 on the way forward.” “What happened on August 5 last year was illegitimate murder of democracy in Kashmir. We were betrayed on that day,” he said.

In the absence of a roadmap on the path ahead, Mehdi feels that his party can neither afford to surrender its principles nor compromise on the unique identity and culture of Jammu and Kashmir.

“This prolonged silence is proving counter-productive as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is implementing the RSS’s ideology in Kashmir and going ahead with its dangerous plan. The new domicile law is the proverbial last nail in the coffin,” he said.

What Mehdi is upset about is the fact that while the BJP was “enjoying a free run while implementing its divisive agenda” in Kashmir, his own party appears directionless at the same time. What has also angered him is Sadiq’s line of argument while skipping mention of Article 370.

Mehdi’s opposition

Mehdi, JKNC’s three-time legislator from central Kashmir’s Budgam district, took a dig at his colleague and asked him whether he was demanding restoration of high-speed 4G internet service and “their permission to let us start the political process and then all is well”? The NC leader said that he was ready to pay a price — even ready to go to prison — for his candid views on Kashmir politics.

“I am currently under house detention and I am honestly ready to be taken to a prison after what I say. But I would never ask them to ‘LET’ us. When you ask them to ‘let’ us, it will naturally be on their terms,” he said in a series of tweets.

He has been vocal against the unilateral changes made to the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir last year. “The axe forgets, but the tree remembers,” is his pinned tweet. Interestingly, he has edited his profile on Twitter and removed the part that earlier mentioned him as “chief spokesperson J&K NC” and it now describes him as “former cabinet minister of J&K state, three times legislator.”

When contacted Sadiq maintained that the article portrayed his views in individual capacity.

In a tweet Omar Abdullah also said that both Mehdi and Sadiq, his valued colleagues and friends are entitled to an opinion and may choose to disagree with each other.

“Neither’s views, expressed in a private capacity, change the stand NC has taken in the SC & outside regarding 5th Aug,” he tweeted.

What’s behind silence of the Abdullahs?

Both Sadiq and Mehdi represent the Shia community in the Kashmir Valley and come from political families. The former hails from Srinagar’s Zadibal constituency while the latter represents the Budgam region.

With Mehdi’s criticism of Sadiq, the cracks appear wide open in the party. The current development points towards a much deeper crisis in the party.

After former chief ministers Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah were released from preventive detentions under stringent Public Safety Act (PSA) the duo refused to talk about the revocation of Article 370. While the senior Abdullah said that his party would talk politics only when all the political detainees were released, junior Abdullah invoked the Coronavirus pandemic and said that it was important to fight the pandemic first.

Related news: Kashmir’s quarantine policy needs a revisit

Silence on Jammu and Kashmir’s key political issues from the Abdullahs has sent out a message that something was cooking behind the scenes. Speculations were rife that their release could have been the result of the party’s backroom talks with the BJP. The fact that two former chief ministers were released but the party’s general secretary Ali Mohammad Sagar continues to languish in detention under PSA cemented this perception that Sagar might not have agreed to show flexibility in his stance.

Three generations of the Abdullah family have been at the helm of affairs; one of them as both prime minister as well as chief minister (Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah) and the Sheikh’s son Farooq Abdullah and grandson Omar Abdullah as chief ministers.

Key political commentators wonder while the BJP did not wait for the COVID-19 pandemic to end and continued with its plans for Kashmir, what stops the JKNC from revealing its brand of politics.

Siddiq Wahid, noted academic, historian and former vice chancellor of the South Kashmir-based Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST), describes Omar Abdullah’s argument to talk about politics in post-COVID scenario as a “fall back argument”. “It is a slippery atmosphere,” Dr Wahid told The Federal.

On May 25, Omar Abdullah flew to New Delhi on what was described as “personal visit”. However, his Delhi visit during a pandemic also gave rise to all sorts of rumours and speculations. A write-up in a local daily by Omar Abdullah’s right-hand man and political secretary Tanvir Sadiq, which favoured reconciliation without mentioning Article 370, also gave enough ammunition to the rumour mill.

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