It's election time in Jammu and Kashmir and once again the politicians are divided between issues of national integration and separatism to gather votes. It's not electricity or water supply, but security of the people and declarations of equidistance from India and Pakistan that hog the electioneering, speeding up a strange competition in raising secessionist voices.
Kupwara and Bijbehara are two areas in the Kashmir valley infamous for the gruesome incidents of terrorism and mayhem in the early 1990s. Here last week, Mehbooba Mufti, firebrand leader of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and daughter of former home minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, accused National Conference leader Omar Farooq of having traded Kashmir's interests to New Delhi in return for power and vested interests.
And she thundered, "India and Pakistan can't gamble with Kashmir's future." She was quoted as having said, "Neither of the two neighboring countries can politically afford to gamble with Kashmir's future and my party has played a vital role in bringing a change in the status quo maintained over Kashmir..."
It's noteworthy that it was Mehbooba's sister Rubaiya Sayeed whose abduction (1989) created a furor when her father was union home minister and he decided to release five hardcore jailed terrorists to obtain her safe release.
Mehbooba has been accusing the Farooqs, her party's bitterest rivals, of kowtowing before the Indian government and selling the interests of the Kashmiri people. And she is drawing huge crowds in her public meetings, worrying both the Congress as well as the National Conference led by the father-son duo.
Hence if Mehbooba's separatism draws votes, why should other politicians lag behind? Separatism and demanding secession from India have become a matter of daily symposiums and public meetings. The media reports such deliberations with an ease shown by Delhi journos in reporting a Kathak recital. Newspapers publish anti-India group leaders' photographs on front pages with a touch of thrill and respect and their names bear a prefix - "senior separatist leader"!
On one such public programme in Srinagar, a few lines from a local newspaper are worth mentioning - "Senior separatist leader and the chairman of the Geelani faction of Hurriyat Conference Syed Ali Shah Geelani said that casting votes would simply mean supporting the cause of mainstream politicians who facilitated the oppression of people's rights in Kashmir."
This meeting was held by a local organization under the banner, 'Elections under Occupation'.
Taking on the PDP, Farooq Abdullah retorted, "Where were these so-called philanthropists when New Delhi and Islamabad entered into an agreement over sharing of river waters? India gave Sindh, Chenab and Jhelum waters to Pakistan... wahan kis saudagar ne sauda kiya tha? Mehbooba kahti hai ki humne riyasat ko bech dala, arey tere baap se bada saudagar kaun hai, delhi mein home minister kaun tha?( who was trading off Kasmir's interests then? Who can be a bigger trader than Mehbooba's father who was home minister then?).
Mehbooba's press conference with Pakistan People's Party (PPP) leader Asif Zardari in Pakistan also made waves here as this was considered a strange and extraordinary move on their part. Obviously, Zardari spoke about a solution that ruled out the Indian position of holding Kashmir within Indian territory as an inseparable part and Mehbooba almost toed Zardari line.
Early this month when Omar Abdullah was in Pakistan, (attending the same Pugwash conference with Mehbooba) he stated that if Pakistan hangs Sarabjit Singh, India will have to hang Afzal ("India may hang Afzal if Sarabjit is hanged"). It was considered not only against Indian realities but also an atrociously communal statement and a dig at New Delhi. Omar Abdullah made another statement in Pakistan which in essence regretted his grandfather's mistake in 1947. This sentence was left incomplete, leaving journalists to draw their own 'logical' conclusion, as some wrote that the only thing that Sheikh Abdullah did in 1947 was to oppose Jinnah and support Kashmir's merger with India.
So while in Pakistan, Omar, in a vague manner, implied that for a Kashmiri leader visiting Pakistan it's important to say what is music to Islamabad's ears. He also criticized a mature statement by PPP chief Zardari to keep the Kashmir issue in deep freeze. As an Indian, he should have naturally welcomed Zardari's stand but he rebutted it like hardliner separatists, saying the PPP chairman's stand that India-Pakistan ties should not be held hostage to the dispute had little support in Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir.
And then the grand Mufti Sayeed threw a bombshell by demanding that the Pakistani currency should be made acceptable in Kashmir like Indian rupees. He wanted to underline his party's equidistance from both 'India and Pakistan'. He is assiduously trying to maintain an image of Kashmir's 'real' emancipator and selling, rather trying to use the separatist theory to his political benefit that considers secession as the only panacea for Kashmir's ills.
Mufti's PDP is almost on the verge of severing its ties with the ruling coalition led by the Congress. So long as Sayeed was chief minister, his voices were reflecting New Delhi's line of thoughts and he was full of praise for Congress leaders. When under the two-party agreement he had to leave the chair for the Congress candidate, (Ghulam Nabi Azad), he at once turned a radical voice of the separatists.
How can vote bank politics turn a former home minister of India and a former minister of state for external affairs, responsible for strengthening India's global position and defending Indian stand on Kashmir and other issues protecting the nation's integrity and the constitution, into rabid anti-unity leaders is a democratic irony that can occur only in a soft state called India.