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‘Delhi has always connected to families here… not with the people’ – Mehbooba Mufti

Posted on: December 5, 2011

“This doesn’t seem to be my life anymore,” says Mehbooba Mufti, with a wry smile on her face. The president of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) — forever in the news for taking on Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah — believes a lot has changed since her induction into politics in 1996.

Indeed, 1996 was a crucial year, for both Mehbooba and for Kashmir. Beset by a protracted spell of militant activities, state elections were held that year after a gap of nine years. Her father, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, had returned to the Congress after a spell outside. The former home minister in the V.P. Singh government was trying to find someone who could contest from Bijbehara in south Kashmir.

“Those days, everyone was scared to contest the elections,” says Mehbooba, 52. Mufti’s ideal choice was his son Tassaduq Hussain, but he couldn’t qualify because he was underage. “So I stood by my father,” she adds. She was 37 when she won the seat on a Congress ticket.

Since then, her life has revolved around rallies, meetings and extensive travelling within Kashmir to garner support for the PDP, the party that her father subsequently found in 1999. “In all this, my daughters — Irtiqa and Iltija — have lost their natural childhood. I feel that I haven’t given them what they deserved,” confesses Mehbooba, drinking lukewarm water in her living room to ease a sore throat.

The house where she lives used to be the infamous torture centre, the Border Security Force-operated Papa-II, which was shut in 1996. The white building, with its colonial structure, is located on the banks of the serene Dal Lake in Srinagar.

Her living room is artistically done up with carved wooden chairs and cream-coloured sofas on a red and blue carpet. Outside, marigold flowers and pigeon wings bloom in the garden.

At home, she is quiet and pensive, dressed in a dark blue kameez with black velvety pyjamas and a black sweater, and occasionally running her clipped and polished nails over her face. But once she is outside, Mehbooba is like a mini storm.

She kicked up a controversy recently when she praised Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi at a National Integration Council meeting in Delhi. But she points out that her comments were taken out of context. “My comment was in reference to an observation that a Muslim businessman got his work done quickly in Gujarat. I had said that if things can move fast for Muslims in riot-hit Gujarat, why can’t this happen in other places,” she says.

But the one leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party that Mehbooba has no qualms praising is former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. “Vajpayee focused on peace and dialogue,” she says.

She also gives credit to UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi for supporting a common minimum programme formulated during the PDP’s coalition with the Congress in the state in 2002, giving priority to an agenda for peace. But, she rues, no mainstream political party has ever connected with Kashmiris.

“New Delhi has always connected to families here — either the Muftis or the Abdullahs — but they never connected with the people of Kashmir,” she says.

Her party is now up in arms against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act — a law that gives power to the army to shoot on suspicion. She has led several agitations, forcing the Abdullah government to initiate talks with the Indian Army. Omar Abdullah, on the other hand, has accused the PDP of imposing the act on the Valley; it was done so during Sayeed’s stint as home minister.

“The situation was out of control when the act was imposed,” Mehbooba now argues. “But now it is stifling to see army camps when there is no militancy.”

The slugfest between Mehbooba and Omar is nothing new. Recently, he said he would serve a defamation notice on her for levelling allegations of murder at him relating to the death in custody of a National Conference leader. “When the chief minister has no real work to do, he goes on issuing notices to people,” she says.

In Kashmir, they call her “daddy’s girl”. But curiously, it was another of Mufti’s daughters, the youngest, who — for no fault of her own — became the symbol of political failure in Kashmir. In 1989, Rubaiya became a household name across the country when she was kidnapped by militants while travelling in a local mini bus in Srinagar.

Mufti had taken over as the home minister just five days before the incident. The kidnappers demanded that five militants be released in exchange for Rubaiya. The government accepted the demand, and Rubaiya was released. The incident dented Mufti’s image, and had a far-reaching impact on Kashmir politics.

“How was it possible for any father to sit quietly while his daughter got abducted,” she says defensively. What is “unfortunate”, she adds, is that no one mentioned the austere lifestyle of the then home minister, whose daughter travelled by bus.

Rubaiya is now married and practising in Chennai. Their other sister Mehmooda is a doctor in Philadelphia. Mehbooba, the eldest, is divorced.

Mehbooba, who studied literature at the Government College for Women in Jammu, recalls that as teenagers she and her sisters had the most “wonderful” time together. She often led the gang and came up with wild ideas.

Once, she recalls, they dressed up as men with false moustaches and wigs. “Then we went to meet a friend’s boyfriend in a boys’ hostel. We stopped another boy and asked for the friend’s whereabouts. He later told him ‘a gang of goondas’ had come asking for him,” she laughs.

Mehbooba shifted to Delhi with her daughters in the late Eighties. She believes singlehood gave her the required space and time to concentrate on politics. “If I were married, I would not have been here,” she says smilingly.

Iltija, 23, works at the Indian High Commission in London while Irtiqa, 25, is studying screenwriting in New York. “She has been greatly influenced by my brother,” Mehbooba says. A well-known name in Bollywood now, Tassaduq is a cinematographer, who has worked for Vishal Bharadwaj’s Omkara and Kaminey.

We return to politics, and Mehbooba explains why they set up the PDP, which believes in self-rule. “By establishing a party of our own, we attempted to bring a change in the mainstream politics of Kashmir as political parties here were always seen as an extension of the Congress,” she says.

“I would have enjoyed power in the Congress but I could not have done much for our people. As a national party, the Congress always cringed away from the real issues of Kashmir,” she says.

Her political career centred on Assembly and parliamentary polls. She won her maiden Assembly election in 1996 but resigned in 1999 and went on to contest the parliamentary elections from Srinagar, where she lost to Omar Abdullah.

She went on to win the Pahalgam seat in the 2002 state election but fought and lost a Lok Sabha election in 2004. She again contested Assembly elections in 2008 and won from Wachi in south Kashmir’s Shopian district.

In 2002, her father became the state chief minister by forming a coalition government with the Congress. He introduced the “healing touch” policy, for which the father-daughter duo visited slain militants’ homes and championed the cause of dialogue between the Centre and separatists.

It was also during Sayeed’s rule that the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service started in 2005. But he was accused of being “pro-militant” by the National Conference for releasing separatist leaders from jails. “It was a pro-people policy and not a pro-militant one,” she says.

Mehbooba’s party was caught in the eye of a storm during the 2008 Amarnath land row over 99 acres of forest land being transferred to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board. Days of violent protests brought the Valley to a standstill.

The agitation also caused cracks to appear in the Congress-PDP government. PDP’s Qazi Afzal, who was then forest minister, had allegedly examined the papers for the land transfer. But Mehbooba puts the blame on then Congress chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. “It was done in consultation with Azad but he never accepted his responsibility while in Kashmir. In Jammu, however, he said it was the PDP which was not allowing the land transfer to happen.”

Since the Valley has been relatively calm this year with no major protests or strikes, Mehbooba feels the time has come to “open up roads connecting to the outside world” for trade with central and south Asia and China. “Plus, we can have a joint mechanism where representatives of both sides (India and Pakistan administered Kashmir) can meet and be an advisory council for joint tourism and trade,” she suggests.

Can that happen? “Our party’s aim is to start the process,” she says. Her party will have the chance to pursue its policy only if it comes to power in the 2013 Assembly elections.

But even if that happens, she doesn’t see herself in the chief minister’s chair. “We need a more experienced person. Moreover, I have no hunger for power and fame,” she declares.

That’s probably why she likes to hum the old Jagjit Singh favourite — Yeh daulat bhi le lo, yeh shauhrat bhi le lo (Take away this wealth, and take away this fame). Mehbooba is happy where she is.

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