By Barkha Dutt
Jan 8 2016
It was February 18, 2015 - the state of Jammu and Kashmir still did not have a Chief Minister or a new government, though elections had concluded in the third week of December. Furious negotiations had been on for almost two months to reduce the ideological distance between the BJP and the People's Democratic Party (PDP). But amid the frenzied speculation over government formation in India's most troubled and sensitive state, there was one man who was perfectly relaxed.
I met Mufti Muhammad Sayeed that morning at a guest house in Mumbai. Lounging comfortably in blue checked pajamas and a white striped t-shirt, he chuckled at the unlikely purpose of his visit to the city at the height of fevered political activity. He had decided, he told me, to come and play a few hands of bridge with his old pals. His daughter Rubaiya was with him - the one who became a national headline well before her sister, Mehbooba.
In 1989, when Mufti Saheb was Union Home Minister - the first Muslim to hold the office - Rubaiya was kidnapped by militants of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) when she was just 23 years old. The eventual swap of five militants in exchange for the release of his daughter would remain among the most contentious moments of his political legacy. But ironically, even that abduction did not harden his politics; if anything over the years, Mufti came to be seen as borderline separatist by his right-wing critics because of his party's slogan of "self-rule". What these detractors did not understand was that his life was driven by the pursuit of peace for the Kashmir Valley. His promise of a "healing touch" during his first tenure as Chief Minister was rooted in his belief that there was no militaristic solution to the insurgency and alienation. He was above all, the great Reconciler, the consensus-builder who dreamt of changing the destiny of the state.
That day, as Rubaiya looked on indulgently - she gently chided her father for talking too much and not letting anyone else speak - Mufti was excitable about what he sensed might be a moment of hope. "I hope the Prime Minister understands that this is a historic opportunity and one that may not come again," he said to me, almost leaping out of his seat to make a point. He would speak in a stream of consciousness, then pause and give me a toothy grin - "My daughters say I must shut up sometimes. Am I babbling? Am I boring you?"
Mufti was an old-style politician, uncomfortable with the noise of television, the intrusion of the camera and the easy, lazy judgments of social media. Most of our conversations, like this one, were face-to-face - and informal.
That day in Mumbai, he wanted me to know that the state was about to see the coming together of the "North and South Poles" - he meant, of course, his party and the BJP - entities who had stood on the opposite sides of the trenches for two decades. In some ways, he was risking his entire political career by aligning with the BJP, but Mufti understood that to not do so, to not build this unlikely partnership, was to polarize the state into Jammu vs Kashmir, Hindu vs Muslim. The BJP had swept the Hindu-dominated Jammu region, the PDP had taken control of the Kashmir Valley. Any coalition that kept the BJP out of government would risk alienating the people of Jammu entirely, further rupturing a festering wound. In putting the interests of the state ahead and making a move that could electorally backfire for him personally, he displayed a great act of statesmanship.
Yet, he was clear that there was no contradiction between being a proud Kashmiri and a proud Indian. And that meant there could be no compromise on Article 370 which gave the state its special status within the Indian union. What if the BJP doesn't agree, I prodded him. "Then they can form the government with someone else. I am not desperate to be Chief Minister. As someone who has been former Home Minister, everyone knows I am Indian by conviction." He had his way on Article 370: in their Common Minimum Program, the two parties agreed that there would be status quo on the special status that the state has enjoyed historically since the treaty of accession with India.
By the first week of March, two weeks after our Mumbai meeting, he became Chief Minister for the second time in his life. This was the audacity of hope - and perhaps the biggest political gamble that any Kashmiri leader had ever taken.
Just a few days before he was flown to Delhi for medical treatment, I received a phone call from him. He wanted me come to Gulmarg for a Christmas week he was hosting. It was Mufti's dream to bring back tourists to the state and place it on the international map. He had even made a trip to Bollywood, guided by his relentless optimism - he wanted more movie makers to base their work out of the Valley. But just before he could play host in the Christmas season, he fell terribly ill. His colleagues tell me that it's because he spent an entire day touring the shrines and dargahs of Srinagar in subzero temperature to make an on-ground assessment on how to improve them. At 79, his enthusiasm was still child-like.
Mufti started his political life as Congressman - a cabinet minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government, a Home Minister under VP Singh till he formed his own party, the PDP, in 1999. Now, the only one of his four children to embrace politics - his daughter Mehbooba - is all set to be the first woman Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir.
In many ways, it is she who has built the PDP from scratch and created an entire cadre on the ground. I have spent a long time following her on many of her journeys. Almost fearless, Mehbooba has travelled door to door and village to village in some of the most remote and dangerous parts of the Valley, braving militant threats to make a connection with ordinary people, especially women. Her visits have in the past included stops at the families of militants who had been killed. "They are dead now," she would tell me, "Why should their children be punished?" In a conservative society, she - a divorced, single mother to two daughters - became the first woman to head a political party and through sheer energy and focus has built a mass base for the PDP. Now she is ready to make history again, albeit stepping into the very large shoes of her father, in the shadow of personal tragedy.
Mehbooba will take charge as Chief Minister at a very fragile time. There is a new wave of militancy that the Kashmir Valley is grappling with; younger, educated men are now picking up the gun again. Radicalization is a real challenge. And the needless beef controversy - a trucker from the Valley was murdered over beef rumors - followed by an inane dispute over whether two flags - the state's own and the national flag, should fly side by side - threaten to once again polarize the political environment.
I think back to the day in March, when Mufti Saheb was sworn in as Chief Minister in Jammu. Prime Minister Modi sat by his side. In front of them, on a small table, was both the J&K flag and the national flag, capturing the great hope of that moment - the possibility of a new future, the emergence of the Kashmir Valley from a violent and troubled past.
Quintessentially, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed believed that politics was the Art of the Possible. The best tribute to him - beyond the lip service, the wreaths and the platitudes - is to build on a peace process within the state. More than an outreach with Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's compassion is needed first at home, right here, in Kashmir.
That is what India owes Mufti.
Barkha Dutt is Consulting Editor with NDTV. She has launched her own multimedia content company - Barkha Dutt Live Media.