Formation of the Apni Party in Jammu & Kashmir: Has the thaw begun?
Ever since the nullification of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution by the Indian government and the bifurcation of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) into two union territories on August 5, 2019, a deep lull had engulfed the region in all spheres of activity, but most prominently in its politics. Almost all Kashmiri political leaders of any standing, including the three tallest names in the state’s contemporary politics, former Chief Ministers Farooq Abdullah, his son Omar Abdullah, and Mehbooba Mufti, were placed under detention. This had paralysed political activity in Kashmir to the extent that people had begun questioning whether, how, and when it would resume again.
In a befogged state of mind and grappling to come to terms with the new realities that were suddenly confronting them, the common man in J&K could be excused for overlooking the fact that the stalemate was inevitably destined to end, and that the political vacuum could not possibly have remained unfilled for all times to come. Over the last couple of months the changes that were taking place on the ground in J&K, even if at a slower pace than the residents of Kashmir may have wanted, were not only welcome but were also indicators that bigger changes were on the way. Restrictions on communications were incrementally eased, from landlines being opened a few months ago to internet services being restored, albeit only at 2G speed, and the ban on social media being removed a fortnight ago. These have had a calming effect on residents of the Kashmir valley, but they quite obviously wish for a complete reversal of restrictions. That cannot be too far away.
Meanwhile, most mainstream political leaders, barring the aforementioned big three and a few others, have also been released. This has paved the way for the incipient resumption of political activity, and the formation of the Jammu & Kashmir Apni Party, a new party, was announced on 8 March. The faces in this new party are mostly old ones from existing parties, including those that were released from detention in the past weeks.
The Apni Party was launched by former Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leader Altaf Bukhari, who had served as Finance Minister in the government headed by PDP supremo Mehbooba Mufti, but had been expelled from the party last year. At the launch, Bukhari described the goals of his party as being to work towards restoring J&K's statehood, and ensuring domicile rights in jobs and education. He said, “the developments which took place on August 5, 2019 brought some new questions and realities to the fore”, and that in “an unknown and unimagined situation in the 70-year-long history of free India, a full-fledged state, enjoying an enviable position among its sister states, was demoted to a Union Territory. Talk to anyone in Kashmir, they are calling for the restoration of the statehood”. Adding that the demotion of the state to a Union Territory had adversely affected developmental activities in J&K, he said, “This has not only resulted in the complete breakdown of political institutions, but also stalled the result-oriented and purposeful developmental activities. Hence, a sense of aggressive discontentment prevails and which cannot be left unattended”. On whether restoration of Article 370 would figure among the demands of his party, Bukhari said that “With regard to the Article 370, it is currently sub-judice and we should wait for the decision of the Supreme Court”.
Bukhari issued the new party’s ‘8 March 2020 Declaration’ that outlined its aims and aspirations. Elaborating on the declaration, Bukhari asserted that “My party is of the people, by the people, and for the people. There is no king and prince among us. We are commoners. Anyone can come and join us. Anyone who has the interest of the state in mind, wants peace, prosperity and happiness can join us”. Bukhari further said, “Let me tell you, this is going to be a different party; a party not floated by a family. There would be total restrictions, and anybody who becomes the President of the party cannot be elected more than two times”. He added that “We will not sell anything which is not based on the facts and whatever will be said will be the truth”. He further said that his would be “A party that can respond to the rational aspirations of people without promising them the moon or the stars. We are not here to sell dreams or fantasies to our people, instead shall always be pragmatic, honest and fair in our approach. A holistic and equitable development of all the regions and sub-regions of J&K forms a core agenda of the party”.
Bukhari took pains to emphasise that for his new party, the needs of the people of J&K would come first. He said, “The decision to come up with a party has got nothing to do with individuals, as individuals do not matter. We are here to seek the redressal of the issues being confronted by the people of J&K”. A pragmatic approach to J&K’s relationship with the central government in New Delhi was also promised, with Bukhari saying that “We have to do business with Delhi no matter who is in power. We don’t see Delhi from the point of view of who is actually ruling Delhi, we look at it from the point of view of Government of India, so we have to deal with them and we don’t have any hesitation in doing that. There is an atmosphere of mistrust around. Delhi has misgivings with the people of J&K and J&K has got misgivings with Delhi, we will be trying to put an end to such things. We are aiming at eradicating this mistrust between J&K and New Delhi. Earlier, there used to be a rift between Jammu and Kashmir, but today, both the regions are demanding the same. Every single person living in J&K is a stakeholder. Our agenda is development, the politics of trust with utmost honesty. We are a regional party with national outlook”.
Bukhari was critical of the detention of political leaders and demanded their release. He said, “In a vibrant democracy, the political leaders must not be put under detention and those under detention, should be released”. He added, however, that “We were waiting for the last seven months hoping that the leaders will come out and raise the issues being faced by the people. But, as most of the leaders who were under detention other than the Presidents of the parties have been released, but they preferred to keep mum instead of raising the issues. Therefore, we decided to come up with an alternative to speak for the people”.
The stated vision of Bukhari’s party has several laudable and progressive elements. Bukhari averred that the “People here are feeling the absence of credible voices who can take up their issues and get them sorted”. He added that the people had the right to envision a developed and civilized democratic society in which they can live in harmony and peace, free from discrimination, exploitation and prejudices of all kinds. He further said, “Our people have had huge sacrifices to their credit for nurturing the democratic spirit and an ever evolving political process in the region. Unfortunately, we never witnessed the desired results of our toil and efforts and instead, we were failed time and again by a particular vested interest class. The result is that we are in a situation where we should have not been”. Bukhari sought to dispel any notion that he was hungry for power by pointing out that “I do not see elections happening anytime soon. It may take at least a year or so. Let us work for the people till then”.
Bukhari unequivocally stated that “The party stands for the dignified return of Kashmiri Pandits”. He also indicated his party’s stand on separatists in J&K by asserting that the party considers the separatists as stakeholders, just like any other resident of the state. Further, in the same breath that he promised to work towards sustained and regionally balanced economic growth, Bukhari also spoke of empowerment of the youth and women of J&K. Interestingly, the Apni Party consciously chose the International Women’s Day for its launch. Just a couple of days prior to that, a young Kashmiri woman activist, Syed Tehmeena, had on the sidelines of the 43rd session of United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva articulated a forceful denouncement of separatism and terrorism in J&K. Focussing on the impact of terrorism on women, Tehmeena underlined that it “snatched their rights” and deprived them of education, excluded them from participating in politics, rendered them highly vulnerable to violence, and caused a declining sex ratio. She added that social mores, especially in the rural parts of Kashmir, had also contributed to the plight of women. When seen in this light, the Apni Party’s stated promise on the rights of women, if translated successfully to action on the ground, would be a welcome development for the women of J&K.
Bukhari, one of the Kashmir valley’s richest businessmen, has been a controversial politician. He was perhaps the only political leader of some standing in the Kashmir Valley who was not put under detention in August last year. He has also been questioned on several occasions by Indian investigative agencies for alleged involvement in a terror funding case involving his brother Tariq. As for the other leaders who have opted to join his party, well nigh all have broken over from other established political dispensations. They have been described by some quarters as a group of political opportunists seeking to make hay while the established political leadership of J&K languishes in prison. Allegations of the ruling Indian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) being behind the formation of the Apni Party have also abounded.
Despite all this, the fact that some form of political activity is resuming in J&K and is potentially waking the state from the eerie slumber that it had slipped into over the last 7 months cannot but be viewed with positivity. The pragmatic and progressive ideals and ambitions articulated by the Apni Party cannot be faulted, even if the extent to which the party would actually adhere to them remains to be seen. Resumption of the democratic process is an important component of the healing and resolution that must occur in J&K. Whether the Apni Party will succeed in winning over the trust of the people of the state adequately enough to categorize the party’s establishment as the beginning of a thaw also remains to be seen.
However, if the Apni Party, through its actions, does not succeed in firmly establishing its place in the imagination of the people of J&K, the people will continue to await the release of their big three politicians, something that, in the interest of democracy, ought to happen sooner rather than later in any case.