Mufti Mohammad Sayeed: The man who turned political wisdom on its head

The demise of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed signals the end of an era in the politics of Jammu and Kashmir

Gyan Varma
Updated8 Jan 2016, 09:37 AM IST
Mufti Mohammad Sayeed&#8217;s daughter Mehbooba Mufti is expected to replace him as the chief minister of J&amp;K. Photo: AFP<br />
Mufti Mohammad Sayeed&#8217;s daughter Mehbooba Mufti is expected to replace him as the chief minister of J&K. Photo: AFP

New Delhi: Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed died on Thursday, seven weeks before the first anniversary of the historic coalition government he forged in the strife-torn northern state. He was 79.

The two-time chief minister and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) founder died at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi where he was being treated for a respiratory infection.

His daughter Mehbooba Mufti is expected to replace Sayeed as chief minister of J&K, a dispute over which is at the heart of almost seven decades of tension between India and Pakistan and the subject of three of the four wars they have fought since independence.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is part of a coalition government with the PDP in J&K, lauded the late politician for providing “a healing touch to Kashmir through his leadership”.

“Mufti Sahab’s demise leaves a huge void in the nation and in J&K, where his exemplary leadership had a major impact on people’s lives,” Modi said in a message on Twitter.

The J&K government declared a holiday on Thursday and seven days of mourning as a mark of respect to Sayeed, considered one of the most astute and experienced politicians of J&K with a political career spanning nearly six decades.

The last gamble

Sayeed’s death marks the end of an era in the politics of J&K.

From early on in his political career, Sayeed was known to make unconventional political moves—the latest in March last year when the PDP decided to share power with the BJP in India’s only Muslim-majority state. This was after the BJP won most of the seats in Hindu-dominated Jammu region while the PDP won a big chunk of the assembly seats in the Kashmir valley.

Sumantra Bose, a scholar from London School of Economics, in a piece published in Mint immediately after the electoral outcome last year, wrote, “The outcome of the 2014 assembly election presents a historic opportunity to bridge two divides. The first is the divide between the Jammu and Kashmir regions of the state. The second is the divide between the Kashmir Valley and the Indian Union.”

“The result in Jammu and Kashmir has thrown up the tantalizing possibility of a modus vivendi between Indian nationalism and Kashmiri regionalism. It should not be wasted,” he added.

Mehbooba Mufti, who is likely to take over at the helm, said during an interaction at the annual Hindustan Times summit in 2015, “I think my father has taken a huge decision, he has gone against the tide. It happened in 1947 when the whole country got divided on communal lines; Hindu states went one way and Muslim states went other way and Jammu and Kashmir was the only state which decided to align with democratic, secular India, so that was one time.”

She added: “And again this time, after the election results came, where the BJP got majority in Jammu and PDP won good number of seats in the Valley, so we could have gone with the Congress, National Conference, but my father took this chance because he felt that when we say resolution of Kashmir problem, we need to connect between ourselves, we are disconnected.”

In 1987, he took a similarly bold decision when he quit the Congress and joined the Jan Morcha led by Vishwanath Pratap Singh, who went on to form a short-lived minority government in 1989. Sayeed became India’s first Muslim home minister. During his tenure, one of his daughters was abducted by Kashmiri militants and was released in exchange for the freedom of five imprisoned militants.

Early years

Born in Baba Mohalla of Bijbehara in Anantnag district of J&K on 12 January 1936, Sayeed had his early education at a local school and graduated from S.P. College, Srinagar. He went on to obtain a law degree and Master’s degree in Arab History from Aligarh Muslim University. Sayeed cut his political teeth early, having joined the Democratic National Conference of G.M. Sadiq in the late 1950s.

Sadiq, recognizing the potential of the young lawyer, appointed him the district convenor of the party. In 1962, Sayeed was elected to the state assembly from Bijbehara, the seat that he retained five years later in 1967. He was appointed deputy minister by Sadiq, who by then had become chief minister. A few years later, he joined the Congress—a courageous move at a time when Kashmiris were fully backing Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, founder of the National Conference, who was in jail.

A shrewd organizer and administrator, Sayeed ensured that the Congress got a toehold in the Valley and even managed to carve pockets of staunch support. In 1972, he became a cabinet minister in the state and also Congress’s leader in the legislative council. In 1975, he was made the leader of the Congress Legislature Party and president of the J&K unit of the party.

During his long political career, Sayeed was appointed the Union minister for tourism and civil aviation by former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1986. He quit a year later to co-found Jan Morcha.

Sayeed later returned to the Congress under the leadership of P. V. Narasimha Rao after the disintegration of the Janata Dal.

In 1998, Sayeed won the Anantnag Lok Sabha seat, but later resigned from the Congress. He launched the PDP in the state in 1999 and went on to form a coalition government with the Congress in 2002, when he became chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir for the first time for three years.

The legacy

In all likelihood, Sayeed’s legacy will be inherited by his daughter Mehbooba Mufti. She is known to have played a crucial role in building the PDP and if she does take charge as the CM, it will be her first in an administrative position.

From her recent remarks it does appear that Sayeed’s legacy will remain intact. Addressing the same HT summit, Sayeed, in response to a question on her priorities as a CM, said, “Whenever we want to plan something about Jammu and Kashmir we have to think about people, people who come to vote, in spite of so many things, we need to think what they want, what their needs are, but when I see debates on television, it is only about people in Kashmir for separatism or Pakistan. That is the first thing that has to change. When you think of Kashmir, think of people who are in mainstream, who have hope from India.”

Her bigger challenge will be to keep the coalition alive, especially at a time when some senior leaders of her own party are keen to end the alliance; Sayeed managed to prevail over them. The BJP, on its part, is backing her as the CM choice.

“It will be unfair to judge Mehbooba Mufti just now. It is too early. She is an able politician who is responsible for building the organizational strength of PDP in the state. But there is no doubt that this is her first test in handling an administrative post. She has been keeping a low profile after the formation of the state government in March last year but all that will change now,” said Ellora Puri, Jammu-based political analyst and political science professor at Jammu University.

PTI and Reuters contributed to this story.

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First Published:8 Jan 2016, 09:37 AM IST
HomepoliticspolicyMufti Mohammad Sayeed: The man who turned political wisdom on its head

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