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Death knell for Kashmir’s premier political outfit?



Death knell for 's premier political outfit?

Pushp Saraf

Join us or perish. This is the writing on the wall for the undivided Jammu and Kashmir's foremost political outfit All-Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference (MC) after the July 21, 2016 Assembly elections in “Azad” State of Jammu-Kashmir (“AJ&K” also known as “Azad' Kashmir and abbreviated as “AJK” and “AK”), as the occupied territory across the Line of Control (LoC) is locally known. The party has been nearly vanquished on its home turf. It has thus become the first victim of its own creation — “Azad” Kashmir. It had helped in the formation of the territory as part of its wider political agenda to lead the merger of Jammu and Kashmir with Pakistan. Now it has been submerged by the bigger political forces which can't trace roots to the same soil. Is this not something ironical?

A greater irony is that the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz Sharif) has driven the proverbial last nail in MC's coffin (for decades the two parties had moved together). With Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif taking personal interest in the elections his party bagged an overwhelming 31 of 41 seats for which elections were held to directly assume power for the first time.  MC was relegated to a distant second spot which it shared with the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the other main party of Pakistan, with three seats each. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan also made debut in “AK” Assembly by winning two seats. The remaining two seats went to Jammu-Kashmir People's Party (JKPP) whose leader Sardar Khalid Ibrahim, son of the late MC stalwart Sardar Ibrahim, emerged victorious and an independent candidate.

MC had remained a major force even after PPP opened its “AK” chapter long ago. It maintained strong local base. It had links with the secessionist leaders as well as other sections of society on this side of the LoC as well.  In the last polls in 2011 it claimed 5 seats finishing third behind PPP, which had emerged on top with more than 20 seats and PML-N.  The defeat dented its bid for power but not image as a credible force. The second successive crushing defeat now leaves little doubt that it is heading for the dustbin of history. Clearly it has lost its utility as a tool to further their designs for the major Pakistan players which evidently feel that they no more need a homespun “Kashmiri” party like MC to build bridges for them in “AK” or elsewhere in the undivided State. Any such conclusion implies that the elections in “AK” are rigged by the party in power in Islamabad.  At the same time it can't overlooked that MC's extensive organisational base, visible till not very long ago, has suffered serious erosion with quite a few leaders moving to other parties. Also, while the people may have sympathy for the party they find it ill-equipped to meet their economic expectations.

On the other hand, the change in PML-N's — rather Pakistan's — approach towards MC is possibly on two counts: (a) the country has veered around to the view that it is comfortably placed in the region after having destroyed all secular symbols of the undivided J&K and usurping the property rights of non-Muslims forced to migrate to Jammu and Kashmir with the connivance and cooperation of MC; and (b) somewhere it realises that the demand for a plebiscite in the undivided J&K is like chasing a mirage in view of the Shimla Agreement between the two countries and while it can keep the pot boiling in the “Muslim Valley” on the issue by pledging “moral, political and diplomatic support” to anti- elements it should focus on tightening  its hold over “AK” instead of leaving matters in the hands of MC. At another level, this is a signal for pro-liberation forces in “AK” seeking a “united, independent and secular” J&K that they face harsher days ahead (already they have faced a setback following the death of their most popular leader Amanullah Khan) and are likely to be dealt with an iron hand.

MC was founded in Srinagar in October 1932 with Sheikh Abdullah as its first president and Chaudhary Ghulam Abbas as general secretary. The party's original agenda was to secure accession with the undivided India.  The Sheikh changed the nomenclature of the organisation to the Conference at a special convention in Srinagar on June 10 and 11, 1939 to underline a secular approach. However, as Muhammad Ali Jinnah's All-India Muslim League toeing the two-nation theory picked up momentum some of the Sheikh's erstwhile colleagues kept alive MC and struck rapport with Jinnah formally adopting a resolution for the accession of the Muslim-majority J&K with Pakistan. The Sheikh and his party firmly stood up against the two-nation theory.

For decades after 1947 MC enjoyed an enviable status in the occupied territory.  Its top leaders Chaudhary Ghulam Abbas, the only person to hold the post of the Supreme Head of “AK” with the power to appoint its “President”, Sardar Ibrahim, Sardar Abdul Qayum,  Sardar Sikandar Hayat and Mirwaiz Moulvi Yusuf Shah along with a host of others, were virtually household names on either side of the LoC.  However, they could not stay together for long. At times their personal political ambitions clashed. They vied with each other to get political authority for which they had to remain in the good books of powers-that-be in Pakistan which in turn used them as pawns in accordance with their own priorities. Broadly over the years MC's in-house political drama went on like this: Chaudhary Ghulam Abbas versus Sardar Ibrahim, Sardar Ibrahim versus Sardar Qayum, Sardar Qayum versus Sardar Sikandar Hayat. In fact, the power tussle spilled over to the younger generation as well with Sardar Attique Ahmad Khan, who had the benefit of being guided by his formidable father Sardar Qayum, and Raja Farooq Haider, paradoxically adviser to Sardar Qayum at one time, also figuring in a fight for the Prime Ministerial berth (“Across the LoC: Two big events”, Border Affairs, October-December 2008; and “Across the LoC: The revolving door”, Border Affairs, July-Oct-December 2009). Raja Farooq Haider switched his allegiance to PML-N when Nawaz Sharif personally opened the local unit of his party in Muzaffarabad, the capital of “AK”, months before the 2011 elections and has now been rewarded for his six-year long loyalty with his elevation as the “Prime Minister.”

While launching the “AK” unit of his party Nawaz Sharif minced no words that he felt betrayed by MC. He said he had considered MC as PML but the former by its conduct had killed his trust. He accused MC of deserting him by supporting his bête noire and military dictator Pervez Musharraf (Sardar Qayum who was alive at that time had lent his support to the peace process initiated by Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee stressing the need for dialogue among different sections of society on both sides of the LoC.  The slain charismatic Jammu and Kashmir leader Abdul Ghani Lone had made a visit to the occupied territory in 2000 and described Sardar Qayum as the tallest leader of the undivided State after Sheikh Abdullah).

Some of Nawaz Sharif's other utterances then were (a) The PML would not be merely an addition of a new political party in the region's political arena but would stir a revolution;” (b) “I have never compromised the mandate of people or bothered about anyone, whether in civvies or in uniform…. this has been my determination and the same I am carrying forward to “AK”; (c) “More often than not Pakistan has seen disrespect to the mandate of the people at the hands of the men in uniform who imposed martial laws , deposed the governments and sent some into exile and some behind the bars …. unfortunately our politicians lick the feet of such persons. Damn such ,” and (d) “I have the same unwavering love and affection for Kashmiris as they have for Pakistan.”  He also sought a sort of loyalty assurance from the ex-MC leaders who have joined him. He wanted them to remain disloyal to dictators! (“Is Muslim Conference on its last legs?”, Border Affairs, January-March 2011).

With this background in view, it was small wonder then that Nawaz Sharif rushed to Muzaffarabad on July 22 within hours of his party's thumping victory in the Assembly polls. Addressing a public gathering he made no pretension of hiding his joy and exhorted the people “to cheer for Pakistan, cheer for ‘Azad' Kashmir and cheer for freedom of ‘India-held' Kashmir.” He declared: “We are waiting for the day Kashmir becomes Pakistan.”  He urged the people “not to forget the sacrifices of innocent Kashmiris on the other side of the border.”

PPP is extremely unhappy over losing power and has alleged rigging. Actually even before the election schedule was announced its chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari said in a statement: “There are disturbing reports that non-Kashmiri Pakistanis living elsewhere in the country have been registered as voters in various constituencies in connivance with some federal government agencies.” After the elections, his party rejected the results “due to massive rigging and manipulations.” Aseefa Bhutto Zardari, sister of Bilawal Bhutto, termed the poll results as “overcooked.”

The change in government in Islamabad has invariably been followed by the change in Muzaffarabad except recently when Nawaz Sharif did not dislodge the local PPP Government apparently waiting for the elections to tilt the scales in his favour.  Now that PML-N and PPP both have developed clear stakes in “AK” they would watch the interests of those who join them instead of catering to MC or any other party. PTI too has arrived on the scene and another Pakistan party, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which is a reckonable force in the Sindh Province, had representation in the previous House.

The MC is left in the lurch.

Confirming the usual trend, PTI chairman Imran Khan said that traditionally the party holding strength in Islamabad tended to win the “AK” elections; however, he would “still like to congratulate PML-N over its victory”. His party's Central Information Secretary Naeem-ul-Haque was categorical: “AJK' results prove once again that it is difficult to beat the ruling party. But PTI needs to re examine its strategy there.”

Dawn has quoted Hasan Askari, a senior political analyst, as saying: “The ‘AJK' government is always a dummy. The federal secretary of the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs is always more powerful than the ‘Prime Minister' of ‘AJK'. Whichever party rules in Islamabad, it brings its own government in Muzaffarabad using whatever tactics it can to win the elections.” Arif Bahar, a senior journalist in Muzaffarabad, has been quoted:  “People here don't have a political mind, there is no political culture…The four main clans — Suddhan, Gujjar, Jat and Rajput — decide the fate of the political parties and they always lean towards the party ruling in Islamabad to get ministries, offices, funds and development schemes. In the history of ‘AJK', I have never seen a single prime minister or president who was elected against the will of Islamabad.”

Atif Nazar, a researcher, has written in The Express Tribune“…the two key issues that determine favourable results in AJK elections are biradri (clan or community), and who can get financial assistance from Pakistan. Your clan and its connections are critical but even this factor does not apply everywhere as people's desire to bring improvement in their living standards is becoming increasingly more important. This makes the government in power in Islamabad a critical factor because on that depends the flow of resources to ‘AJK'. But one must not underestimate two additional factors. First, the PML-N's choice of leadership in the form of Raja Farooq Haider, who over the years has developed the reputation of being bold, courageous and honest, helped in getting people interested. The choice of better leadership compounded with his association with a party that was seen as influential in getting resources from Islamabad turned the tide for the PML-N. Second, there was the incumbency factor which means that dissatisfaction with the PPP's performance played a major role in shifting votes away from it towards a party that is seen as performing better in Punjab.”

Tariq Naqash, one of the best-known journalists of the region, has a matter-of-fact report in Dawn exposing the palace intrigues in Islamabad: “After ruling for five years, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) lost the July 21 general elections miserably due to ‘bad governance and corruption.' That's what everyone alleges publicly. But there is hardly anybody who can figure out what reduced a party that won about 20 seats in 2011 to an also-ran this time round. Most people in ‘Azad Kashmir' were put off not only by bad governance or corruption but also by the penchant of the PPP's central leaders for meddling in the region's affairs. It was an open secret that the strings of the government in Muzaffarabad were being pulled by people in Islamabad and Karachi. Chaudhry Abdul Majeed was chief executive in name only. It was Faryal Talpur who called the shots. And worse than that was the fact that the authority on her behalf was exercised by one Chaudhry Mohammad Riaz, one of the caretakers of Zardari House, Islamabad. In an attempt to provide him the fig leaf of law, the gentleman was appointed adviser to the ‘AJK' prime minister with the status of minister in Dec 2013. However, Mr Riaz never attended his office in Muzaffarabad, opting to sit in Islamabad's Kashmir House to take decisions on ‘AJK' affairs. Such was his clout with Ms Talpur that senior officials would fawn on him for a posting of their choice. ‘Yes, I knew that every summary about postings and transfers would be first sent to Mr Riaz for getting approval from Ms Talpur and only then the Prime Minister would give his assent,' says one official privy to the wheeling and dealing over the past five years. Apart from that, members of the cabinet as well as PPP cadres had also developed ‘direct links' with PPP leaders holding important official positions in Islamabad, mostly on the strength of biradri to dictate terms to Mr Majeed, the prime minister… But unfortunately the PML-N, which exploited the ruling party's misrule during the election campaign, seems to be no better either.”(Faryal Talpur is sister of Asif Zardari, PPP co-chairperson and former Pakistan President).

Observers say that the developments in the Kashmir Valley on this side of the LoC have not influenced the voter behaviour. Atif Nazr says in an article “Money—not Modi, in AJK”: “…some people may assume that raising slogan of accession of entire Kashmir to Pakistan can play an important role in winning votes, but the history of past elections of ‘AJK' shows otherwise. People vote for those parties who promise to create employment, bring development and an end to corruption and nepotism. Parties focusing mainly on the accession issue, such as Jamaat-e-Islami, have failed. A similar problem is seen in the case of nationalist parties, who, in any case, hide behind boycotting elections. Were they to contest elections they may find out that ordinary people have little traction towards them.”

In the entire political discourse MC is conspicuous by its absence. Can Sardar Attique, who has twice been the “Prime Minister” and controls MC as the political heir of Sardar Qayum — regain his party's pride of place? (Courtesy: Border Affairs)



The Northlines is an independent source on the Web for news, facts and figures relating to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and its neighbourhood.

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