To be or not to be? Shakespeare’s Hamlet has been haunting all mainstream political parties ever since article 370 was abrogated and the state bifurcated into two union territories.
After endorsing and relentlessly paving the way for Jammu and Kashmir’s accession with India in 1947, National Conference(NC) founder Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah chose to withstand the communal fires those had engulfed the sub-continent.
He stood tall, both literally and figuratively, to uphold Gandhi’s dream of a secular, equalitarian India that would have space for all religions, regions, ethnicities, and cultures.
Sheikh’s romance with the ideals of India collapsed barely within five years of becoming the first Prime Minister of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir.
He started harboring the idea of an independent state that would have him as its head virtually replacing the autocratic rule of the erstwhile Dogra Maharaja Hari Singh with a ‘Sheikhdom’ of sorts within which his writ would have become unchallengeable.
Secret documents declassified in the 1970s by the US administration showed that the Sheikh had been hobnobbing with foreign powers to seek support for another division of the sub-continent.
He was overthrown and arrested on August 9, 1953, and tried for treason. He remained in prison till the then Prime Minister of the country, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru decided to mend fences with his old friend.
This resulted in New Delhi agreeing with the Sheikh called the Indira-Abdullah accord of 1975.
The Sheikh’s democratic credentials and political principles took the final beating when he became the Chief Minister of the state in 1975 with the Congress support in the assembly.
He became the leader of the same assembly he had called a sham in which he said the Congress had managed majority through the wholesale rejection of rival nomination papers by a returning officer that had left the Congress candidates unopposed.
Sheikh entered the state assembly after Congress made its MLA, Muhammad Maqbool Bhat resign from Ganderbal where the Sheikh fought and won a by-election.
To remain in power after his political wilderness of nearly 22 years, Sheikh Abdullah chose to invoke religion and soft separatism thereby laying the edifice of the so-called Pro-India mainstream politics that remained deeply embedded in religion, soft separatism and an unstated commitment to Independence.
His lieutenant, Mirza Afzal Beg would display a piece of green cloth, a piece of rock salt and speak of opening the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road during public meetings.
These were symbols of religion and affinity to Pakistan because rock salt came to Kashmir from the Pakistan side till 1947 and the opening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road represented the dream of an independent Kashmir.
Indira Gandhi had ordered the complete subservience of the Congress to the NC and this strengthened the communal, parochial and family politics in Kashmir.
The foundations of soft separatist politics laid by the NC that was Pro-India were so strong that no subsequent mainstream political party in Kashmir could challenge the NC unless it chose to fight it on its turf.
Never once during the NC rule followed by the Sheikh’s son and grandson did the party ever state that it opposed the idea of an independent state.
The bedrock of this dubious pro-India politics that kept them comfortably lodged in power was article 370 that gave the state its special status.
As the Sheikh’s grandson, Omar Abdullah, put it after became the Chief Minister – that “Jammu and Kashmir have acceded to India, but not merged with it”.
Another pro-Kashmiri mainstream political power, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) created in the 1990s by Mufti Muhammad Sayeed gave the NC the taste of its salt.
Sayeed worked out a secret understanding with Sheikh’s worst political rivals in the Jamaat-e-Islami while he retained his part of the support he had among the rank and file of the Congress, where he had been a leader over many years.
To remain in power without compromising on soft separatism and without giving up their romance with an independent state, the NC stood by its commitment to autonomy which the PDP rivaled with its document on self-rule.
Both the documents supported Articles 370 and 35A and wanted further strengthening of these articles through financial, administrative and commercial independence.
Interestingly, no other Kashmiri mainstream political party with its base in the Muslim majority Valley remained relevant unless it committed itself to the protection of the state’s autonomy.
All other Valley-centric political parties stood for protection and strengthening of state’s special status, be it the Awami Ittehad party of engineer Rashid, Peoples Conference (PC) of Sajad Lone, Peoples Democratic Front (PDF) of Hakim Muhammad Yaseen, Democratic Party nationalist of Ghulam Hassan Mir or the latest addition to regional mainstream political parties, J&K Peoples Movement led by the former IAS Officer, Shah Faesal.
All these regional pro-India parties of Kashmir had created their reason for existence as one of fighting India while remaining within it.
Call it regional, ethnic or any other aspiration, the fact remains that none of Kashmiri mainstream parties stand for the complete merger of Kashmir with the rest of the country.
The idea simply did not fit in with the idea of the existence of these parties in a predominantly Muslim majority state.
With the abrogation of Articles 370, 35A and the bifurcation of the state into two union territories, all Valley-based regional mainstream political parties have lost their slogan and reason for being.
The best these political parties can now do is to fight for the restoration of statehood since the resurrection of Article 370 is a remote possibility.
Would an electoral manifesto commitment to the restoration of statehood suffice the political needs of parties those have fed voters on a diet of autonomy, self-rule, and soft separatism for over 70 years is a big question.
In all likelihood, it won’t. Would they openly come out for the restoration of 370 as a pre-condition for joining the electoral process? That would result in another long political wilderness and would end as the Sheikh’s dream of independence did.
Would these parties join the separatists throwing away their cloak of soft separatism? They cannot since people won’t trust such a somersault from politicians who remained saddled in power with New Delhi’s support for nearly 70 years.
This dilemma will haunt all the regional, mainstream, Valley-centric political parties in Kashmir and like Hamlet, they might never be able to come to grips with the new reality.