Is Mufti Sayeed's PDP a creation of the National Democratic Alliance?

In discussions with other PDP founders, Mufti Sayeed said he wanted to form a new party because he felt under-appreciated by the Congress.
17 April, 2019

On 14 April this year, while addressing a rally in Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a jibe at the families of former chief ministers, Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah. "Abdullah family and Mufti family destroyed lives of three generations of J&K,” he said. “The bright future of J&K can be ensured only after their departure.”

In response, Mufti pointed out that the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party had earlier entered a political alliance with her party, the People’s Democratic Party. “Why does PM bash political families pre-elections and then send his envoys to stitch alliances with the very same parties?” she said. The BJP became a part of the state government for the first time in 2015, when it partnered with the PDP. The alliance broke down in June 2018, leading to governor’s rule in the state.

In the following extract from “The Collaborator,” The Caravan’s January 2016 cover story, Praveen Donthi traced the political journey of the PDP founder Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the origins of the party, and its alliance with the BJP. He reported on the view that the PDP, formed in 1999, was a creation of the National Democratic Alliance government, launched to fill the need of a “pro-India party.” Sayeed had the credentials of being the first Muslim home minister of India. One theory about “the genesis of the PDP,” he wrote, is that “the BJP government funded and supported the PDP to prop up opposition to the National Conference.” The “purported reason for this move,” was that the NC leader “Farooq Abdullah was becoming an inconvenience to the centre.”

Towards the end of the 1990s, Farooq had started asking for greater autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir. “After coming into power, the NC government submitted a state autonomy council, or SAC, report in the assembly recommending the restoration of a 1952 agreement with the central government, by which the centre would have no control over the state, except in the areas of defence, external affairs and communication,” Donthi reported. He noted that the BJP leader LK Advani wrote in his memoir, that the party had advised Abdullah “not to press for the implementation of the SAC report.” Donthi added, “Many observers believe that the SAC report made the central government sufficiently anxious that it decided to set up an opposition party to counter any further such moves.” According to Liaqat Ali Khan, a former commander of the Ikhwan, a counter-insurgency group, all the Indian agencies were directed to support the PDP.

Two days after the end of the Kargil war, at the end of July, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed made his dramatic announcement. After a lifetime of working with national parties, he was now forming a new regional party, to “persuade the government of India to initiate an unconditional dialogue with Kashmiris for resolution of the Kashmir problem.” The National Conference government, he said, had “failed to provide a healing touch to the Kashmiris who suffered immensely.” The state needed a new regional party, Sayeed said, and his Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party would field candidates from all six parliamentary constituencies in the state for the upcoming elections that same year.

At first, Sayeed and his colleagues considered naming their new party the Democratic Socialist Party. “But since ‘socialist’ is a much abused word, we opted for People’s Democratic Party,” said Ved Bhasin, who was a close friend of Sayeed’s and among those Sayeed consulted closely in the late 1990s through the process of forming the PDP. (Bhasin died in November last year.) Though Bhasin was in frail health, he agreed to meet me for an interview; but after about 15 minutes, he retired to rest, and I continued my conversation with his daughter Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal, and her husband and the present editor of Kashmir Times, Prabodh Jamwal, both of whom were also present through early discussions with Sayeed about forming the party.

As we talked in the visitors’ room of the house, over tea, Prabodh recounted that, “The decision to float the PDP was done in this very room in January 1998. There were a few close friends only.” It was perhaps an indication of Sayeed’s leadership style that other co-founders, Sheikh Ghulam Qadir Perdesi in Srinagar, and Abdul Gaffar Sofi in Anantnag, also made similar claims. When I met them in their homes, they, too, said that the PDP had been conceived in those very homes. Sayeed, it seemed, had ensured that everyone felt like they were central to the founding, while retaining firm control of the outfit.

In the early discussions with the other founders, Sayeed said he wanted to form a new party because he felt under-appreciated by the Congress. Taj Mohiuddin recounted that Sayeed, soon after his win from Anantnag in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections, complained that “the Congress party doesn’t listen to us,” and that Sitaram Kesri, then the president of the party, meddled excessively in the party’s affairs in the state.

Perdesi told me Sayeed was also disappointed that he wasn’t being made the president of the party’s state unit. “We were all behind him,” Perdesi said. “We went to Delhi to meet Sitaram Kesri.” According to Perdesi, the Congress high command gave Sayeed a choice: either his daughter Mehbooba could retain her position as the leader of the party’s legislators, or he himself could be appointed the head of the state unit. But, Perdesi recalled, Sayeed said that he wanted both posts.

Mohiuddin tried to dissuade Sayeed from forming a new party, saying that he didn’t have the resources. Sayeed had the reputation of a being a clean politician, and was not known to stash away illicit funds. “I said ‘don’t start a party yet,’” Mohiuddin remembered telling him. “‘You don’t have the money.” Mohiuddin told me that he offered to speak to Sonia Gandhi, effectively the highest authority in the Congress. In their conversation, he told, me, she agreed to “resolve any misgivings” that Sayeed had. “I spoke to Mufti at night from Delhi and told him that Ahmad Patel, who was the general secretary, will come and have lunch with you tomorrow,” Mohiuddin told me. Sayeed agreed, according to Mohiuddin. “But in the morning by 8 am, they announced the formation of a new party,” Mohiuddin added. “I cut a sorry figure.”

Sayeed’s choice of party symbol was telling of how he wanted to position the new outfit. A decade or so earlier, he had illicitly supported the Muslim United Front by miming their symbol at a campaign for the Congress. He now chose that symbol for his own party. Perdesi said they “deliberately chose the symbol because it had already been popularised among the masses by the MUF,” Perdesi said. “We didn’t have to explain our symbol.”

In trying to piece together the origin of the PDP, I heard different kinds of stories about how the party was formed. Some people told me about the discussions they had with Sayeed, and his vision for the party. But I also heard tales that pointed to a far more mysterious beginning.

One such story was that the PDP had received support from separatists and militants. Soon after the party was founded, Omar Abdullah, Farooq Abdullah’s son, who was contesting the 1999 elections from the Srinagar constituency, said about Sayeed and Mehbooba, in an interview, “They have been making heroes of militants, visiting their residences, distributing money among their families and, finally, pleading for unconditional talks with them.” Omar also alleged that Sayeed had cultivated links with the separatist groups Hurriyat and Jamaat, and that he had won the Lok Sabha elections from Anantnag with their support. This was a serious allegation: separatists had boycotted elections for over two decades. News that they had supported a mainstream politician had the potential to seriously undermine their credibility.

But it was, indeed, true that Mehbooba had been making overtures to separatists for some years before the party’s launch. From 1996 onwards, she began to reach out to the families of people who had been killed by security forces. She also occasionally attended the funeral ceremonies of militants, a radical move for a mainstream politician at the time, with the insurgency fire still raging. She showed great empathy for bereaved women on these occasions, often weeping along with them. As a political strategy of staking some claim to an opposition space, it was noticed. “The Hurriyat felt a bit insecure and nicknamed her rudaali”—a professional weeping woman—Anuradha, who is a friend of Mehbooba's, told me. “Till then no politician had ever reached out to victims.”

Among the most symbolic of Mehbooba’s visits was to the funeral of Abdul Hamid, a higher-secondary-school student who was killed by security forces in the village of Sirgufwara, near Bijbehara. Hamid’s life lay at the intersection of two political streams. His father, Ghulam Nabi Khan, better known as Amir Khan, is a Hizbul Mujahideen militant, who is now second in the organisation’s hierarchy, after the leader Salahuddin. Hamid’s maternal grandfather, Ghulam Mohiuddin Ganai, was an old-time Congress supporter who followed Sayeed to the PDP. Some people I met in Anantnag believed that Sayeed, through Ganai, enlisted Amir Khan’s support for the PDP.

Another theory about the genesis of the PDP is the stuff of political thrillers: that the BJP government funded and supported the PDP to prop up opposition to the NC. Farooq has made this claim in the past. The purported reason for this move was that Farooq was becoming an inconvenience to the centre. Towards the end of the 1990s, he began speaking of greater autonomy for the state. After coming into power, the NC government submitted a state autonomy council, or SAC, report in the assembly recommending the restoration of a 1952 agreement with the central government, by which the centre would have no control over the state, except in the areas of defence, external affairs and communication. No government since the Sheikh’s in 1953 had suggested such a drastic measure. In his memoir, BJP leader LK Advani wrote that the BJP advised Farooq “not to press for the implementation of the SAC report. Indeed, Atalji told Dr Abdullah to decide whether to continue in the NDA at the centre following the Union Cabinet’s rejection of the state assembly’s autonomy resolution. To his credit, Dr Abdullah allowed the issue to lapse.”

Many observers believe that the SAC report made the central government sufficiently anxious that it decided to set up an opposition party to counter any further such moves. In 2008, the senior journalist Parvaiz Bukhari published a story hinting at this in Mail Today. “The PDP’s foundations were laid when New Delhi began to regain control in Kashmir after militancy struck a blow to the political power structure which existed in the shape of the NC,” Bukhari wrote. “In the run-up to the 1996 elections, the first seven years, electoral politics was principally dependent on the NC. In such a scenario, New Delhi found the NC more demanding and reminiscent of 1952 when Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah began to question the state’s accession to the Indian Union.” According to Bukhari, his story hasn’t been refuted by the PDP. Vijay Dhar, the son of the DNC’s DP Dhar, made a similar connection in tracing the origin of the PDP, saying, “The PDP is an extension of the Democratic National Conference, which was a result of the need for another pro-India party at the time.”

Hilal Mir, the editor of the daily Kashmir Reader assured me that Bukhari’s story was true. “Look at the founding members of the PDP and you will see that all of them are close to the New Delhi establishment,” he said. Among the prominent founders is Ghulam Hassan Mir—also one of the defectors who pulled down Farooq Abdullah in 1984. According to Hilal Mir, “Ghulam Hassan Mir is the most important of them, and he is an agency man.”

At the end of August, I met Hassan Mir at his home on the outskirts of Srinagar. I wanted to ask him about the founding of the PDP, but we ended up having a long and surreal conversation about the many grotesque distortions of democracy in the state. He told me freely that the central government had orchestrated his election to the assembly several times. We then came to the matter of the PDP’s origins. I asked Hassan Mir if the party was the creation of the centre. “Maybe the intelligence agencies supported Mufti but it was not known to anybody down below,” he said, not confirming that rumour, yet betraying no surprise whatsoever at the speculated scenario. “No intelligence agent ever told me to do anything, though I have always been close with the centre. Maybe Mufti got some facilitation from them, but not to my knowledge.”

At the end of September, I met Liaqat Ali Khan, a 46-year-old former commander of the Ikhwan, the counter-insurgency group, at his house in a high-security colony for police officers in the town of Khanabal, near Anantnag. In 1998, the year before the PDP was formed, Khan and other fellow Ikhwanis had joined the BJP. (He has since quit the party.) He told me about a meeting he had with LK Advani around that time. Khan and the others had been reining in militants since 1994, and now they wanted to retire as politicians. For this, they sought Advani’s support. Sayeed’s name cropped up in his conversation with Advani.

“When we went to meet Advani in Delhi, he asked us ‘What is Mufti all about?’” Khan told me, remembering that he responded, “Mufti is with the militants.” Khan assumed that knowledge of Sayeed’s links with militant groups would dissuade the BJP from supporting him. But he now believes that he read the conversation wrong, and that the BJP was interested in Sayeed precisely because of those connections. Khan told me he didn’t realise “that we had seconded what Mufti had already sold them. We should have been smarter. Mufti had told the BJP and the RSS that he will get the Hizbul, Hurriyat and other separatists to the table.” Khan said he didn’t receive support from the BJP, while the party threw its weight behind Sayeed.

“Ajit Doval was the joint director of IB here at that time,” Khan said. “We were young when these things happened. We didn’t understand the game plan. All the government of India agencies, and all the assets they had, be it RAW, the IB and others, got a directive to support the new party.” This support continued into the 2002 elections, he said. By his account, the army was roped in to gather information that could help the party’s candidates. “The army did an exercise and they asked all the company commanders for feedback from the village level,” Khan said. “They had recommended the issues that should be raised in the elections for getting support.”

As part of his account to me, Khan even made the extraordinary statement, in passing, that “Farooq Abdullah was taken into confidence for creating the PDP.” It remains to be seen how this claim might fit into the already bewildering labyrinth of connections that appear to exist between the state, centre, political parties, and separatists and militants.

One September evening in Srinagar, I met with a mid-ranking police officer who was posted in Anantnag district between 2000 and 2005. The officer told me that the army extended considerable support to Mehbooba when she campaigned, particularly in areas prone to violence. “Mehbooba Mufti used to extensively travel in south Kashmir those days,” he said. “She was the only person who used to visit an area like Hapatnar, under Aishmuqam jurisdiction, where even the army patrols wouldn’t go, sometimes twice a day. There were always IEDs planted there but nothing ever happened to her. The army used to give her outer-ring support by area domination.”

The officer was present for many of Mehbooba’s campaign speeches during this time. His account of them suggests that she would tailor her political message depending on her audience. “Her speeches were different in every village,” he said. At some places, he said, “She used to say the ‘Abdullahs are an elite family from Srinagar but they derive power from villagers, so vote for us, my father is a villager.’” But “in a village where the azaadi sentiment was high,” Mehbooba would shift to a far more radical message, sometimes alluding to the similarity between the PDP’s electoral symbol and that of 1987’s Muslim United Front. “She would even say, ‘This symbol was given to me by my brother Salahuddin. He gave the mantle to fight the mainstream politics,’” he said.

Another strategy the officer described involved propping up PDP members as saviours. “They would first get people arrested by the army,” he said. “The local PDP man would get them released. The released would go to the village and spread the word. It was the modus operandi before and after the elections.”

During the elections itself, the officer said, “I noticed that the army used force selectively” to favour the PDP. In many parts of the state, he explained, due to a fear of violent reprisal, voters would not step out until told to do so by the army. “The villages with old-time NC supporters used to wait for the army to come and tell them to vote so that they could use it as an excuse to vote. But the army never went to them.” He added: “The militants would also attend her meetings, and that also became a signal for people.”

In the 2002 elections, the NC won only 28 seats, its lowest count ever. The three-year-old PDP managed to win 16 seats in its very first election. After being the predominant political power in the state for decades, the reign of the unchallenged NC had come to an end.

The PDP and Congress struck up an alliance to form the government, along with the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party, and the Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Freedom Party. Sayeed’s ability to marshal influence from across the political spectrum became clear after the elections, when the question arose of who would be the next chief minister. With Sayeed’s rival Ghulam Nabi Azad also eager to stake a claim, the PDP and the Congress fought for more than a fortnight over the matter. But, according to Taj Mohiuddin, Sayeed used his connections with senior Congress leaders to pip Azad to the post. “The high command first decided that we will have a Congress chief minister,” Mohiuddin said. “Azad was going to the governor to stake a claim. But Mufti said, ‘Wait now, what’s the hurry?’ Then the orders came from above that Mufti will be the CM.” Mohiuddin himself believed the Congress might be able to gain the upper hand with the help of other legislators. “I opposed Mufti’s claim for the post of CM because the independents wanted to support Congress,” Mohuiddin added. “And I was told to shut up, as simple as that.”

The Bharatiya Janata Party, or the BJP, became part of the state’s government for the first time in 2015, when it partnered with Sayeed’s Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party, or PDP, after two months of negotiations. In the assembly elections held at the end of 2014, the PDP had emerged in the lead, with 28 seats, and the BJP followed, with 25 seats. Both were well short of the required 44-seat absolute majority mark.

The two parties’ decision to form a coalition, was surprising since they are, in many ways, fundamentally incompatible. And indeed, not only does the PDP draw its votes largely from the Muslims of Kashmir, while the BJP relies on the support of the Hindus of Jammu, the parties don’t see eye to eye even on the basic question of the relationship between Jammu and Kashmir and the union of India. Since its inception, in 1999, the PDP has promoted an approach of “soft separatism,” favouring talks with separatists, militants and Pakistan, and demanding a high degree of autonomy for the state. The BJP, on the other hand, does not recognise the space for such negotiation. It has long demanded the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which guarantees special rights to the state, including some degree of autonomy.

Apparently undeterred by the gulf between the two parties, Sayeed pushed forward with the coalition, travelling to Delhi at the end of February to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi, exchanging an awkward hug with him in front of waiting cameras. Afterwards, he bravely assured journalists that this was “a historic opportunity with the government at the centre that has a clear mandate of people to deliver.” The results had shown that “the PDP is the choice of people in Kashmir and BJP in Jammu,” he said, and the parties had therefore decided to “unite together to give a government which will give all-round development to all the regions in the state.”

The bonhomie was short-lived. In early March, at the press conference held after the new government was sworn in, Sayeed expressed his gratitude to the separatist group Hurriyat, as well as “Pakistan and militant outfits for the conduct of assembly elections in the state.” It was a provocative statement, and was, predictably, met with outrage, as Twitter users took their cue from television hawks and declared that Sayeed was a “#ProPakCM.” Modi spoke out, and assured parliament, “If somebody makes such a statement, we can never support it.”

Since then, the two parties have expended significant time and energy locking horns with each other. They have fought over the release of the jailed separatist Masarat Alam Bhat, a proposed tax on helicopter rides to the Amarnath shrine, a court ruling reviving an archaic beef ban, and the location of a medical college. Many of these disagreements have had religious overtones, and some have spilled over into violence on the streets. Sayeed had claimed in the early days of the government that the alliance was an opportunity to bring Jammu and Kashmir together. But as one issue after another exacerbated tensions in the state, the government seemed rather to be driving the two regions and their people apart. Sayeed looked helpless throughout.

It is an uncharacteristic situation in which to find Sayeed. For most of his career he has had a close relationship with the government of India, working as the centre’s trusted man in Jammu and Kashmir, helping them exercise immense control over the state. He has also had his share of political rivalries, most notably with the Abdullah family, which has long dominated Kashmiri politics.

In early October, I heard that Sayeed was due to inaugurate a club in Pahalgam, in south Kashmir, and that journalists were invited for the event. The state had just been through turmoil over the beef ban, and the atmosphere was still tense.

Sayeed arrived dressed in a midnight-blue suit with a yellow tie. He had been ill recently, but that afternoon, he smiled easily, and had a spring in his step. Taking his place on the dais, he began by praising the prime minister. “Some people say, ‘What did Modi give Mufti?’” he said. “The transformation, the change, the developmental pace, it is mind-boggling and unprecedented.”

Then, he seemed to hint at some complaints. “Because of many reasons, I am not going to blame anybody, it has become a remote control,” he said. “Whatever Delhi wants is what will happen,” he continued. “Whatever they wish, they will do it.”

“India is a country of 1.2 billion,” he said. “Jammu and Kashmir is a part of that federation. It is a bouquet. This is India’s only state with a Muslim majority. This has become a symbol of Indian federalism and secularism, a symbol of diversity. If there a modern state in our country, it is Jammu and Kashmir.” He made no mention of the fact that the state was in crisis over the question of a ban on beef.

Sayeed is today theoretically in a more stable position than in his first term as chief minister, since his agreement with the BJP allows him a full six-year term. And yet, he seems uncomfortable and depleted in his role. When I spoke to Sayeed’s friends and colleagues to understand his present position, the impression I got was of a master politician, who, at the evening of his career, is uncertain about his legacy, and unsure of how to deal with new energies coursing through the state.

For one, with the change in government, his relationship with the centre is not as strong as it once was. “There should be visible development and flow of funds from Delhi, and this time it is not happening,” a bureaucrat who is close to Sayeed told me. “With Congress, he had a lot of contacts. Once, I was going with Mufti saab to the US and Pranab Mukherjee, who saw him sitting in the VIP lounge, came and touched his feet.” In the present government, however, “there is that disconnect. He doesn’t know Modi or Amit Shah. He has a good relationship with Rajnath Singh but it is only professional. Personal touch is what is badly missing this time.”

Sayeed’s age also raises the question of succession in PDP. “Mufti is not able to work more than two-three hours a day,” the bureaucrat told me. “It is time Mehbooba takes over from him.” But this transition may not be easy to execute, especially within the current alliance. A senior PDP leader told me that “Modi’s oft-repeated political dharma of ‘no khandaaniraj’”—family rule—could be a hurdle for Mehbooba. (The PDP is already sometimes jokingly referred to as the Papa Daughter Party.) “In the elections he had appealed for an end to ‘baap beti ka sarkar’”—father-daughter government—“but ended up aligning with them anyway and has already compromised once,” the leader said. Another senior PDP leader told me that on the issue of succession, “Delhi had asked Mufti to first see if there is consensus in the party.” According to the leader, “that in itself is a message to Mufti that all is not well within the party.”

This is an extract from “The Collaborator,” Praveen Donthi’s January 2016 cover story for The Caravan. It has been edited and condensed.