If the Kashmir conflict is over, why are thousands of our people in jail: Mehbooba Mufti

Mehbooba Mufti addresses the media in Delhi, on 6 February 2023. Arrush Chopra/NurPhoto/Getty Images
20 February, 2023

Mehbooba Mufti is the leader of the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party and the last chief minister of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. She is also the vice-chair of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, comprised of several regional parties focussed on the restoration of the former state’s constitutional safeguards, such as Article 370 and Article 35(A) of the Constitution. On 5 August 2019, the day the union government read down Article 370, Mufti was detained and placed under house arrest, without any charges, for over six months. In February 2020, she was further detained under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act. Mufti was finally released on 13 October 2020, after the Supreme Court’s intervention. Since then, she has been at loggerheads with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, her former ally. On 9 February 2023, the Delhi Police briefly detained her in the national capital during a protest against the J&K administration’s anti-encroachment drive, which has led to large-scale demolitions. 

“Why do I have to protest in Delhi? Only because I cannot even think of protesting in Kashmir,” Mufti told Shahid Tantray, a multimedia reporter at The Caravan, during an interview on 10 February. “Since they are in power, they want to bulldozer everything, weaponise the majority they hold in parliament, weaponise the agencies and weaponise the Constitution.” Mufti spoke about J&K’s history, politics, the people’s aspirations, the Kashmir issue and the way forward, among other things. 

Shahid Tantray: How do you see the current situation in Kashmir?  
Mehbooba Mufti: The situation has severely deteriorated after 2019—the way Kashmir was treated, the special status scrapped and various laws imposed, and our land, jobs, minerals and resources were outsourced. They have now reached our homes. Earlier, Kashmiris were called terrorists, then drug addicts and, now, they are encroachers. Everyone who lives in J&K is not a citizen but an encroacher. Because of the laws that existed before 2019, we had been able to build our homes. The rich might go to court, but everyone knows how justice is served in the courts. Even the chief justice of India said that lower courts are frightened—they don’t even give bail, et cetera—but at least the rich have an alternative. The targeting of those who don’t possess anything except a roof over their heads has led to extreme panic and terror among the citizens.  

Tantray: Do you think that there have been attempts to dissolve the Kashmiri identity since 2019? Do you think that Kashmiri Muslims are being told that they do not have a future here? 
Mufti: There is a word, they want to “unpeople” J&K. They want to diminish the identity of the people of J&K, be they Muslim, Dogra or Ladakhi. They have a goal: one nation, one religion and one language. They want to embark on implementing this goal starting from J&K. They want to change the demographics of J&K. That’s why they outsource our land, contracts and jobs. They want an influx of people from outside J&K. Hundreds of thousands of people from outside J&K have been included in the voters’ list, so that the ratio of minority and majority changes completely.  

Tantray: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue MS Golwalkar wrote that Muslims, Christians and communists are a threat to the Hindu nation. Do you think that the current BJP government works as per the RSS’s ideology, or is it different? 
Mufti: Absolutely. This government is not working as per the Constitution, no matter how much they say so—they wouldn’t have unconstitutionally ended the special status of Kashmir if they did. They clearly have an agenda. You can call it Godse’s or Savarkar’s. [Nathuram Godse assassinated Mohandas Gandhi in 1948. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was a leader of the Hindu Mahasabha and is credited with developing the political ideology of Hindutva.] It is the Hindu Mahasabha’s agenda: India should be a Hindu nation. 

[Jawaharlal] Nehru [India’s first prime minister] had made the principles of secularism and democracy the foundation of the Constitution. Now, since they are in power, they want to bulldozer everything, weaponise the majority they hold in the parliament, weaponise the agencies and weaponise the Constitution. They are trying to weaponise everything. Unfortunately, the minorities have to face the brunt of all this, the minorities who decided to stay in India in 1947 and vested their trust in the Constitution.  

Tantray: You spoke about Jawaharlal Nehru. You praised the Congress leader Rahul Gandhi—Nehru’s great-grandson—for the Bharat Jodo Yatra and called him a ray of hope for Kashmiris. But Nehru also violated the rights of the Kashmiris, the promised plebiscite. That is something you do not talk about. 
Mufti: Look, Nehru played a very important role in whatever we got in the Constitution. He gave us special status—we had our own laws and were partners in the country, not subordinates. I am not Nehru’s lawyer, but it is important to note that, ever since J&K was given special status, the Hindu Mahasabha always pressurised Nehru under the agenda of “one constitution, one religion, one language,” which led him to do what he shouldn’t have. The Hindu Mahasabha was responsible, since it was always talking against the Muslims in Kashmir. This is why people in J&K who were in the minority—those who said that we should have moved to Pakistan—became a majority. The people of J&K saw it as a betrayal of their loyalty towards India.   

Tantray: Before 2019, there were two types of politics prevalent in Kashmir—resistance and unionist. Now, unionist politics is treated the same way as the resistance leadership was. What are your views on this? 
Mufti: The BJP’s agenda is to not tolerate any dissent. The Enforcement Directorate, the National Investigation Agency and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act are used against anyone who shows dissent—including journalists, who are bound to raise questions as part of their jobs. Take the example of Siddique Kappan, who has spent two and a half years in prison for nothing. Umar Khalid is still in jail. There are many such examples.

It suits them if we talk outside the Constitution, since they can arrest people as terrorists. It doesn’t suit their agenda if we talk about the Constitution and the resolution of the Kashmir issue, because then they can’t paint us as anti-nationals. They have a problem with mainstream parties, which is why they try to discredit them so that they don’t have to face any restrictions.  

Tantray: Do you think that unionist parties have failed to protect Kashmiris? Do you think there is a need for introspection for unionist leaders? 
Mufti: Everyone should reflect and introspect. However, it is misleading to think that Hurriyat has been decimated. Hurriyat is not the name of any person. It is a sentiment. No matter how you decimate it, you will not yield any results until you address that sentiment. And, if parties like ours are in question—the ones you call unionists—we have tried to take a neutral stand. We have spoken of liberation, self rule, resolution and rights. We have worked for the people of Kashmir and we feel the root of every problem is Kashmir. We want to resolve the Kashmir problem.  

Tantray: What is the Kashmir problem, according to you? 
Mufti: The Kashmir problem is an emotional issue, a sentimental issue. We took a bold decision, with a lot of hope, to stick with India, which is a democratic country, by side-lining our religion and Pakistan. We had some conditions, though. When the conditions were presented, there were many voices raised against our rights and the special status. This made us question our choice and not feel confident in the Indian government. Nehru promised that they would give Kashmir independent powers and autonomy, and show the world how a minority state is kept. We trusted them. People were murdering each other in 1947, but the Kashmir Valley was the only place where people protected people, no matter who they were, and gave a place to Christians and Sikhs and Kashmiri Pandits. We thought that, just like we gave a place to them, perhaps India, which was becoming a secular state, would respect us as a minority community. But, when they kept raising questions on Kashmir’s special status, differences kept on increasing. The erosion of the special status led to differences. 

The Kashmir problem is a creation of Hindu fundamentalists and communal politics, the Hindu Mahasabha. If they didn’t have an agenda against us Kashmiris—one nation, one religion, one language—Kashmir would have been, as Nehru said, “a show window for all of the world to gaze at.” 

Tantray: You said that “Hurriyat is a sentiment.” What is the scale of this sentiment in Kashmir? 
Mufti: It’s not about our agenda and the sentiment. It’s about the in-between. Keeping the sentiment and the reality in mind, we must be very pragmatic. We must come up with a solution keeping all of this in mind and we need to take J&K’s aspirations into consideration. We want to make Kashmir a model for the entire world to see: how a Muslim-dominated state is sustained in a Hindu-dominated country, because of its secularism. You must balance reality and sentiment. My father [the PDP founder, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed] used to say “peace with dignity.” We don’t want to be slaves but partners, the middle path.  

Tantray: After almost a decade in power, the BJP often claims that the Kashmir conflict is over. What do you think about this claim? 
Mufti: If the conflict is over, why are thousands of our people in jail? Why are people not allowed to talk? Why are the forces being increased in number every day? Why did the Kashmiri Pandits flee? Why are Pandits who were living there for over thirty years leaving now? If everything is okay, then why is there such strict surveillance? So many agencies are rushing behind Kashmiris, businessmen, politicians and journalists.  

They are trying to fool the entire nation that everything is okay since we scrapped Article 370. They are painting a rosy picture but, unfortunately, even the media is trapped, or biased, and broadcasts false news. Usually, the media covers all protests, but now, so much has been going on here that is not covered by any mainstream media.  

They are claiming that they are giving ration to 800 million people, which simply means you failed to provide them employment. The people are so poor that they cannot even afford ration. Now, the BJP goes to these people, gives them free ration and advice to buy a plot in Kashmir because they have scrapped Article 370. There is nothing more scandalous than this. 

Tantray: As you said, the Kashmir conflict is still ongoing. Who are the parties involved in the Kashmir problem and where do the people of Kashmir stand? 
Mufti: The major party concerned are the people of J&K. Pakistan claims to own a part of Kashmir, and our government claims another part. All parties need to sit and come to a conclusion that allows the people of J&K to live with dignity. We asked them to open all roadways and allow trade through the silk route, like it was before 1947—it was a hub of economic activity. Look at how even the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation is at a halt, because India and Pakistan are not on the same page about Kashmir. There is no SAARC leadership. It would have been prominent if we could head the SAARC and make it work in our favour. You could have started solving the problem from here. J&K could have been a model of SAARC cooperation for development if they opened all roadways, banks, et cetera. But they are only bulldozing over everything.  

Tantray: Nehru promised a plebiscite, Narasimha Rao said, “Sky is the limit,” Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s doctrine was “Insaniyat, Jamhuriyat and Kashmiriyat,” and then Narendra Modi abrogated Article 370. What is your view of politics amidst all this? What do you think the people of J&K received in all this? 
Mufti: I don’t think that we haven’t received anything. There was significant development by Vajpayeeji: a ceasefire that is still going on. Dr Manmohan Singh also helped facilitate trade in many areas. But, unfortunately, there was no continuity. When the Congress [central government] wanted to do something, Musharrafji [the former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf] wasn’t there. When the Congress finally came into power in Kashmir [in alliance with the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference], Modi took control of the centre. We had expectations from him as a Hindu majority leader, because Kashmir has been a challenge for all prime ministers. We thought that nobody will challenge him since he is a Hindu leader. That’s why we said that, if he is willing, he can solve the conflict in Kashmir with a humanitarian approach. But I still have hope. I believe that there was a map that Vajpayeeji and Muftiji had made, and I think self-rule is the only solution to the Kashmir problem.   

Tantray: Going back to 2019 again, according to you, how was the response of the international community? 
Mufti: Who are we talking about in the international community? What is left of the international community? If they acted as they should, Palestine wouldn’t be going through what it is. We don’t have any expectations from the international community, including the United Nations. UN is there to just show that they are making an impact. 

Tantray: Do you think that the people of J&K have accepted the abrogation of Article 370? The People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration is mostly silent. 
Mufti: When the ED approached Farooq Sahab [Farooq Abdullah, a former chief minister of J&K and president of the NC], I was the first one to speak up and acknowledge that it was wrong. Look, the PAGD is an amalgamation of multiple parties, and we have all been rivals in the past. It’s not easy, but we all are trying. The PAGD is standing.  

Tantray: It has taken the PAGD almost three years to even decide whether to make its vision document public. In that time, so many orders have been passed in J&K. Do you think the PAGD exists just for the sake of it? 
Mufti: You tell me. In this situation, where we are not even allowed to step out of our homes—do you know how many times I have been under house arrest? We can only live when it suits their convenience. What can the PAGD do in such a situation? They can only come down on the streets to protest. Why do I have to protest in Delhi? Only because I cannot even think of protesting in Kashmir. There are so many forces always surrounding me. In such situations, there’s only so much we can do. We can talk.  

I am here right now, trying to talk to people in parliament, including Derek O’Brien [a Trinamool Congress leader], and I expect them to raise these issues. Nobody can show dissent, everyone is in fear and the judiciary is the last resort, but it has been rendered powerless now.  

Tantray: When the PAGD was formed, the aim was to spread awareness and mobilise people. Have mainstream politicians failed to do that? 
Mufti: No, we have not failed. People are in so much fear, as there is extreme surveillance. I have never seen so much fear in the eyes of the Kashmiri people. Even a person whose house was being demolished covered their face while talking, because there is so much terror. People are detained when they are out on the streets to protest peacefully and are asked to give in writing that they will not protest again. They don’t even keep the detained people in Kashmir. They take them away to Agra or someplace else. What will the people do? The current situation in Kashmir is worse than in Guatemala, in my opinion.  

Tantray: In 2021, Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and you went to meet Narendra Modi. Who moderated that meeting, and what happened there? 
Mufti: I didn’t even want to go to that meeting. I had told them initially that we would attend the meeting only if they released some people who don’t have any serious charges against them. People were arrested for just pelting a couple of stones. Then others said that we should go to the meeting without any conditions. Later, it was decided that a committee would be formed to decide if there are any people that could be released. But nothing happened. There was no real purpose of that meeting. It was just a consequence of pressure. If I hadn’t gone to that meeting, they would have said that the meeting was sabotaged because of me, but I didn’t have any expectations from the meeting.  

Tantray: In that meeting, what was going on in your mind when you met the home minister, Amit Shah, who announced the abrogation of Article 370 and put you behind bars?  
Mufti: I told him that my father joined hands with you believing that you are a nationalist, that you are a patriot and that you will feel for the people of Kashmir. That I thought he would understand that Kashmir is the biggest problem of the state and work toward resolving it. I told him that I didn’t think that he would use his power to sacrifice J&K. You have betrayed all Kashmiris who decided to stay back in India. I told him a lot of things that will interest you. You should listen to the recording if you get it.  

Tantray: How does the China–Pakistan relationship affect the Kashmir issue? 
Mufti: China has only come into the picture after 2019, and captured our land in Ladakh, where our people used to graze cattle. This has now been declared a buffer zone. It is a very big change in the status quo from China but, if the BJP is not ready to accept that China has acquired land and harmed our sovereignty, it is turning a blind eye to the problem. China has increasingly involved itself since Article 370 was scrapped. 

There have been multiple negotiations with China. They even killed so many of our people, but the BJP doesn’t flinch. They see everything from the Hindu–Muslim lens and that’s why, when it comes to China, they can’t polarise people and are quiet about it. They let our land go. If the BJP was in opposition and something happened when the Congress was in power, they would have piled them with questions. But now, when China has our land, they don’t even allow anyone to talk about it, neither on television nor in parliament.

Tantray: You were an ally of the BJP at one point. Do you regret being an ally? 
Mufti: I think there was no other way to save Article 370. Modi’s vision was to bulldoze everything, so everything was clickbait. Sometimes, when your opponent is too strong, you have to save your own house by getting on their side, and that’s what I tried to do.  

Tantray: Critics say that if the PDP had not aligned with the BJP, the current situation in J&K would not have been this bad. 
Mufti: I always wanted to keep the BJP out of my house, but the people didn’t let that happen. They got 25 seats [out of 87 in the 2014 assembly election], and the only option that we had was to be with them. The people of Jammu voted for them. The BJP bulldozes over flourishing parties to gain power. We felt that, if we worked with them, we could convince them to align their goals with our vision and have them agree to it in writing. 

Tantray: But in the 2002 election, you had 16 seats and the NC had 28, but you formed a coalition with the Congress. Did you not think that the NC had the mandate then? 
Mufti: They went from 57 to 28. We moved from one to 16. You have to factor that in. Even then, our alliance with the Congress had an agenda. We formed an alliance with the Congress based on our agenda, the same way we formed the alliance with BJP. It worked with the Congress because, when we said we would end the Prevention of Terrorism Act, they agreed, and dialogue with Pakistan was restored. There was a visible impact. That’s the same reason why we formed the alliance with the BJP, which was dangerous for us because we were aware of the consequences.  

Tantray: The word around Kashmir is that there are two Mehbooba Muftis: one, who, as an opposition leader, would go visit families of slain militants to offer condolences, and the other, who, while in power, framed civilian deaths during protests as “trips to get toffees.” Which Mehbooba Mufti should people see?  
Mufti: The Mehbooba Mufti who was in power retracted the FIRs of twelve thousand people. Has anyone else ever done it? When I was in power, I wrote a letter to the whole country’s leadership, including Arun Jaitley, Rajnath Singh, Sitaram Yechury, Mallikarjun Kharge, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ram Vilas Paswan and Sharad Yadav, and brought them to Kashmir to negotiate with the Hurriyat Conference. I also wrote to the Hurriyat. I was the one who managed to get security forces to halt their counterinsurgency operations against local militants for a month. Is that doable in today’s time?  

I made the statement on sweets, but it was like a mother reprimanding her children when they touch something hot. It’s the same Mehbooba Mufti who got thousands of Kashmiri youth released from army camps and the same Mehbooba Mufti asking those children, “Why did you go there?” 

Tantray: Do you not think this betrays a lack of trust towards you by the people of Kashmir? 
Mufti: A mother is a mother. When a mother is angry, she scolds the child, and that’s how I feel about those children. I had begged them to not let their children go there. I don’t regret anything. These remarks are not relevant.  

Tantray: You often praise Vajpayee, but what about his role in the Babri Masjid demolition. Do you think that you are whitewashing his actions? 
Mufti: No, with the kind of respect Kashmiris got under his leadership, there was a lot of hope. He stretched a hand of friendship toward Pakistan when Musharrafji was in power. Even after the Gujarat riots [the anti-Muslim pogroms of 2002], he gave statements against Modiji. What is happening today, nothing like this happened when he was prime minister. Vajpayeeji had his own ideology but, as a prime minister, he was a prime minister for all, not only for J&K but minorities as a whole. He proved to be good for the minorities.  

Tantray: AS Dulat, a former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing, claimed in his book that the PDP was created by Ajit Doval, the current national security advisor. How do you respond to this? 
Mufti: How should I respond? If you want to put someone on a pedestal, to pull someone else down, I can’t do anything. Everyone knew Mufti Sahab and what he did. Political parties that are created by intelligence agencies are in front of us. Everyone knows what their role is.  

Tantray: How do you see the future of J&K? 
Mufti: J&K is heaven and it has always been. Now, if someone tries to convert it to hell, we will not let that happen. Day comes after every night, and the sun rises. It will not last long. It will blow up in their faces. You can’t suppress anyone for so long. Pakistan was suppressing East Pakistan and you know how that ended. India is a huge, beautiful nation. We should not give up hope because of the BJP.  

This interview has been translated, edited and condensed.