On Thursday (December 5), on the occasion of the 114th birth anniversary of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the former prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir, the authorities placed barricades and barbed coils around Abdullah’s mausoleum to restrict public movement. Senior Abdullah’s tombstone is situated on the banks of the picturesque Dal Lake, a few hundred metres from the famous Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar.
A senior police officer told The Federal that Section 144 — which bars a gathering of more than four persons at a time — was imposed in the area.
Though the Jammu and Kashmir Police did allow a few close relatives and admirers of Sheikh Abdullah to visit his burial chamber either individually or in tiny groups, his own son Farooq Abdullah and grandson Omar Abdullah were not allowed to visit the graveyard.
A few National Conference (NC) leaders were allowed to gather at the NC’s party headquarters, Nawai-e-Subah, in the summer capital Srinagar to celebrate their leader’s birthday. Some saw this as a baby step toward the beginning of a political process in Kashmir.
Hasnain Masoodi, a senior NC leader and Member of Parliament from South Kashmir after paying respects at the grave described the late Abdullah as Kashmir’s tallest leader. He denounced the restrictions put in place around the mausoleum on Abdullah’s birth anniversary.
“Normally, thousands of people would gather here to pay respects, celebrate Sheikh Sahib’s birthday and also offer condolence prayers at his grave. He was a leader of great stature and the one who fought against autocracy and against the tyrant Dogra regime,” Masoodi said after offering fateha (prayers) at the burial chamber.
He lamented that Kashmir of today was only witnessing restrictions and gags and there was the absence of any political engagement.
“The political process is nowhere in sight. Political leadership, party workers and activists are all in prison,” he said, adding that “the people of Kashmir have telegraphed their message of protest against the removal of Kashmir’s autonomy and statehood with acts of civil disobedience.”
Suraya Abdullah, daughter of the late Abdullah, also visited her father’s tombstone along with her husband. She also criticised authorities for placing unprecedented curbs on the movement of people and for disallowing them to celebrate their leader’s birthday.
“Where are our people? They were not allowed. This is the big difference today. Sheikh Sahib was Sheikh Sahib because of the people and vice versa. This is an undemocratic practice to put restrictions on the birth anniversary of my father and Kashmir’s great leader,” she told reporters at Hazratbal.
Ghulam Ahmad, a fruit seller, also paid a visit to the Sheikh’s grave along with his two little sons. He said that he has been visiting the grave on Abdullah’s birth and death anniversaries for the last 30 years. His father, Abdul Majeed, also a fruit seller, would do the same.
“I have come here to offer prayers and celebrate my leader. He is my leader. He is our leader,” Ahmad told The Federal.
Sheikh Abdullah’s disputed legacy
On Kashmir’s political landscape Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah is a political personality that native Kashmiris have very strong opinions about. Some are in awe of his political stature and call him the ‘tallest leader’ or ‘Sher-i-Kashmir’ (The Lion of Kashmir) while others dismiss him as a ‘collaborator-in-chief’ who offered Kashmir to New Delhi on a platter.
His revolutionary ‘land to tiller’ reforms and his political struggle, Quit Kashmir Movement, against the Dogra regime won him accolades while for his accord with Indira Gandhi in 1975 he has been widely criticised on Kashmir’s hotly contested political turf.
In Kashmir, it is often said that you can love the Sheikh or loathe him, but you can’t ignore him.
Meanwhile, on the 114th birthday of senior Abdullah, NC’s founder, his son Farooq Abdullah and grandson Omar Abdullah completed four months in detention after the taking away of the restive region’s autonomy and statehood on 5 August.
Former Chief Ministers Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah continue to remain in detention since early August. Farooq and Omar, are significant political figures of the Abdullah dynasty.
Their followers and cadres hold them in high esteem while proponents of the anti-New Delhi resistance describe the father-son duo as Delhi’s ‘nodding goats’, ‘puppets’, ‘agents’ and ‘daily wagers’.
Besides the Abdullahs, another former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir Mehbooba Mufti too is under detention since August. She is president of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), another significant regional political formation after the NC.
Anniversary of e-curfew
Moreover, on the Sheikh’s birth anniversary, the Kashmir valley in yet another first also completed its four-month long internet outage. The world’s longest-ever e-curfew has adversely impacted lives and livelihoods, journalism and tourism, and e-commerce and romance in Kashmir.
On its part, the Jammu and Kashmir administration is claiming an improvement in the overall security situation which is an admission of sorts that things have been anything but normal in Kashmir since August.
Newly appointed Lieutenant-Governor Girish Chandra Murmu on December 4 hinted that the Jammu and Kashmir government was mulling to restore mobile internet services in a phased manner and also conduct Legislative Assembly elections.
He said that the Jammu and Kashmir administration was reviewing the situation and would take up the restoration of internet services.
“(The) Situation is very good. As it becomes ‘more normal’, we will do it (restoration of internet) in a phased manner. We have already discussed it and are taking it up, he said on the sidelines of a passing out-cum-attestation parade of 15th Basic Recruitment Training Course (BRTC) held at Subsidiary Training School (STS) located in north Kashmir district Baramulla’s Sheeri area.
In the ongoing uncertain political atmosphere it is difficult to predict the possibility of any political process, if any. It is equally difficult to say whether New Delhi is interested in continuing with its iron-fist strategy or has any serious and meaningful political course of action in mind. Or, in simple words, the Hindu nationalist BJP’s Kashmir Policy and Plan-B after the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A remain unknown territories. ‘
Will the BJP be tactical or strategic?
Though, in a recent statement, the lieutenant governor has said that his government is pro-actively working to hold Legislative Assembly elections in the newly-created Union Territory (UT).
Yet there is no official word over the possibility of releasing Kashmir’s political leaders whose freedom from prison and presence on the ground are perceived as critical in the long suspended political activity in the Valley.
Veteran political analyst LG Murmu’s statement in relation to Assembly elections indicates the government’s intention to resume political activity in Jammu and Kashmir, but people in the Valley are sceptical of any such prospect.
In the eyes of another key Kashmir observer, Murmu’s statements on election and release of political prisoners are contradictory. He notes that on the one hand Murmu talks about the possibility of holding Assembly elections, but, on the other hand, he has nothing concrete to offer or say about the release of political detainees.
This is partly because the governments in Jammu and Kashmir and New Delhi have been making such statements over the past one-and-a-half year, but the elections have not been held since the BJP ended its ideologically antithetical alliance, described as unholy by critics, with the PDP-led coalition government last year in June.
“Politicians have left people in Kashmir perplexed. People aren’t sure what lies in store,” said Naseer Ahmad, a columnist, and commentator.
Another viewpoint is that the ‘representatives’ will now be elected or rather selected to a largely disempowered Assembly which will remain subservient to lieutenant governor’s administration and its whims.
The Assembly elections are an entirely different ball game. Elections are a disproportionately bigger exercise than BDC polls in which only elected panches and sarpanches (village heads) have a say. The problem is that the Assembly elections are being held in an altogether altered context. And it is both a troubled and politically contentious context.
(The author is a Kashmir-based journalist and political commentator.)