How Mufti Mohammad Sayeed Shaped the 1987 Elections in Kashmir

Rajiv Gandhi (centre) with Farooq Abdullah (left) and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed (right) in 1986. Gandhi and Abdullah’s friendship came in the way of Sayeed’s ambition to become chief minister. hindustan times
23 March, 2016

Almost three decades ago today, on 23 March 1987, an election was held in Jammu and Kashmir that would come to be considered a watershed moment in the history of the state. The elections, conducted only four months after the swearing-in of the chief minister Farooq Abdullah, were reportedly rigged in order to prevent the central government from losing control of the state’s politics. Contesting in the elections were Abdullah’s Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (NC), the Indian National Congress, and the Muslim United Front (MUF), a coalition of Islamic parties that had come together in 1987, and which would, many predicted, perform well in the polls. It is widely agreed that the repression of the popular will in 1987 played a part in setting off the waves of militancy that flooded the state in the years that followed. Many of those who joined the militancy were MUF supporters who saw armed revolt as the only way forward. The MUF leader Muhammad Yusuf Shah would take on the name Sayeed Salahuddin, and rise to head the Hizbul Mujahideen. His election manager from 1987, Yasin Malik, would go on to head the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, a Kashmiri nationalist organisation.

In 1987, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was the senior-most Congress leader in Kashmir. In his January 2016 cover story, a profile of Sayeed, Praveen Donthi explored how Sayeed became the centre’s man in the state. But Sayeed, Donthi writes, had always wanted to be named chief minister. In the following excerpt from the story, Donthi recounts the events leading up to the elections, and the part Sayeed played in the outcome.

In 1986, after the locks of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya were opened, riots broke out in some parts of the country. While Kashmir was largely undisturbed, violence did break out in one district: Anantnag, Sayeed’s stronghold. Here, a number of temples were desecrated, and houses of Pandits were attacked.

During my reporting, I heard allegations that Sayeed himself had organised this violence. Yusuf Jameel, a senior Kashmiri journalist, who covered the riots, told me he heard that “Congress was behind it because they had problems with GM Shah and wanted to get rid of him.”

“An atmosphere of insecurity was created against Kashmiri Pandits,” I was told by Ghulam Hassan Mir, one of GM Shah’s defectors in 1984, who later co-founded the PDP. “Mufti saab was behind it,” he added. Pandit community leaders I met in Jammu concurred on the question of Sayeed’s involvement. “Mufti engineered the riots,” Ajay Kumar Chrungoo, chairman of Panun Kashmir, an organisation of exiled Kashmiri Pandits, told me. He claimed that the Congress “constituted a committee that indicted Mufti, but the report was never made public.” Monga, the current vice president of the Congress in the state, said, “Mufti wanted to be the CM,” and that he “had an understanding with Gul Shah’s MLAs,” who agreed to support him. “He was building pressure,” Monga claimed. “Had the central leadership agreed, he would’ve been the CM.”

But Rajiv Gandhi, who had taken over the Congress after his mother’s assassination in 1984, had a different plan. Appointing Sayeed chief minister would have meant slighting Farooq Abdullah, with whom Rajiv was friends. On 7 March 1986, Rajiv had Shah sacked and imposed governor’s rule on the state. Instead of appointing Sayeed chief minister, Rajiv shifted him out to Delhi, giving him a seat in the Rajya Sabha and the post of union tourism minister. Moving Sayeed out was a step towards bringing Farooq back to rule the state. Abdul Gaffar Sofi, a long-time associate of Sayeed from Anantnag, and a co-founder of the PDP, told me, “Rajiv and Farooq’s friendship came in between Mufti saab and his ambition.”

In November 1986, Rajiv and Farooq signed an accord that reinstated Farooq as chief minister, and proposed a roadmap for stabilising the state, with the centre’s cooperation. When Farooq was asked why he needed the Congress’s support at all, when he had won a comfortable majority in the state, he replied, “The Congress commands the centre. In a state like Kashmir, if I want to implement programmes to fight poverty and disease and run a government, I have to stay on the right side of the centre. That is a hard political reality that I have come to accept.”

Many senior Congress members in the state, including Sayeed and Arun Nehru, were opposed to the accord, no doubt fearing that Farooq’s return would diminish their influence. “Mufti opposed the accord tooth and nail,” Sofi told me. “He said, ‘People upset with the NC would go to Congress and vice versa, now where will they go if they join hands?’”

Farooq probably also had revenge on his mind when he took up Rajiv’s offer. Badhwar wrote in India Today that one of the reasons for his “quick embrace of the centre” was probably to “ensure the quick political demise” of the NC MLAs who had defected in 1984, as well as Sayeed, “whom Farooq blamed for engineering the defections that toppled his government.”

The new chief minister sent a clear signal of antipathy towards Sayeed by appointing to his cabinet Mir Lasjan Mir, a long-time political rival of Sayeed’s. Lasjan Mir had only recently written “a lengthy confidential memorandum to the prime minister outlining corruption charges against Mufti,” Badhwar wrote. Farooq underlined his message by giving Lasjan Mir charge of the ministries of civil supplies and transport, “which have traditionally been the strongholds of patronage dispensed by Mufti’s group,” Badhwar wrote. An embittered Sayeed walked out midway through the swearing-in ceremony of the new government.

Though he was unhappy with the party, as the senior-most Congress leader in the state, Sayeed probably could not avoid campaigning responsibilities ahead of the 1987 elections. But a high-ranking government security officer who was present at one rally that Sayeed addressed, in the town of Khanabal in Anantnag district, told me how, at that rally, Sayeed promoted a new coalition, the Muslim United Front, whose symbol was a pen and inkpot, even while pretending to campaign for the Congress. Also present was Najma Heptullah, then a Congress leader, who was overseeing the party’s campaign in the state. According to the officer, Sayeed told the audience, “No need to tell you who to vote for, my Congress people, there is a tradition.” But even as he said this, the officer added, “he took out the pen from his pocket, holding it and repeatedly shifting it from one hand to the other.” As he did this, he used his “free hand to touch an imaginary flowing beard.” The gestures, the officer said, were a clear “reference to the pen and inkpot, and the beard of the MUF candidates.” According to the officer, Heptullah, who is from Madhya Pradesh and does not speak Kashmiri, “had no clue” what Sayeed said.

The MUF was the closest group the state had ever seen to a spontaneous local political formation. The Congress, NC, and even the Janata parties, were all parties from the centre, or with strong links to the centre. The MUF was the first local challenge to this order.

After weeks of campaigning, votes were cast on 23 March 1987. The next day, counting began. As the numbers were tallied from districts across the state, it started to become clear that the MUF had received an encouraging response from voters. To date, there is no precise information available about exactly how well the MUF performed in the elections. Most estimates put their final tally at a maximum of 15 or 20 seats, a potentially impressive debut for a fledgling political formation. But before the results could be known, the government, threatened by the prospect of a new political force, snatched the election away from the people.

“As the results came in, the victorious new government was busy arresting top MUF leaders … on charges of anti-national activities,” wrote Badhwar, who witnessed the rigging firsthand. “Chunks of the valley … were under virtual curfew even as votes were being tabulated at some counting stations five days after they had been cast.” The political scientist Sumantra Bose wrote, in the book Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace, about a key contest featuring the MUF’s Muhammad Yusuf Shah. His opponent, Bose wrote, “routed in the contest, leaves the counting center in a visibly dejected mood and goes home. But he is summoned back—to be declared the winner by presiding officials.”

Taj Mohiuddin, a senior Congress leader, who was initially part of the MUF, told me, “The elections weren’t rigged by the NC but by the government of India.” Even Farooq, though he initially denied allegations of rigging, came to accept that it happened—even if he deflected the blame away from himself. In 1993, while the state was in the grip of militancy, Harinder Baweja of India Today asked him, “Didn’t the problem start largely because you rigged the elections?” “I am not saying the elections weren’t rigged,” Farooq said. “But I didn’t rig them.”