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Downfall of the National Conference

The assembly elections 2002 in Jammu and Kashmir saw a vertical division across the state over the issue of participation in polls. There were voluntary voters and voluntary non-voters. But those who boycotted the polls and majority of those who voted had a strikingly similar response to the election results. They equally rejoiced the ouster of the party that for decades remained so close to their hearts.

The National Conference (NC), a party that dominated the Kashmir politics for nearly seven decades, faced a virtual debacle with its numbers declining in the state legislature to less than a half of its strength in the previous assembly and it was for the first time in the electoral history of the state that a party in power was defeated.

The reasons of defeat are varied. There are widespread allegations of corruption and mis-governance. But, more importantly, the party "failed" to give people a much needed respite from their day-to-day sufferings allegedly at the hands of security forces. "Farooq Abdullah was the first person to implement Prevention Of Terrorism Act (POTA) in entire India. He strengthened Special Operations Group (SOG) of Police to inflict more atrocities on people and misrepresented Kashmiris on every forum," said Ashfaq Hussain, a Kashmir University student. Such voices are a common refrain here.

More humiliating for the party than the decline in the number of its legislators was the ouster of both the son and grandson of late Shiekh Mohammad Abdullah from the state. His son Dr Mustafa Kamal was defeated by a huge margin in Tangmarg constituency while the NC president Omer Abdullah was defeated in Ganderbal, a place that sent two generations of the Shiekh dynasty including late Abdullah and Farooq Abdullah to the state legislature.

"We were always dubbed as NC men but we have shunned that tag. The ruling party treated us like cattle and still expected our vote. We have ended this corrupt regime," said Abdul Rasheed, a vegetable seller in Ganderbal where Omer was defeated by a little known rival from Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Qazi Mohammad Afzal. And all across the state such voices for putting an end to "dynastic rule" were widely heard.

The separatists who had been rejecting the elections as a "futile and irrelevant exercise" had also something to cheer about the results. One big reason was that they believed the NC was a "big hurdle" in the resolution of Kashmir issue.

"We expect the new government would remove the hurdles created by the NC in the path of dialogue and it would play its role in facilitating the resolution of the Kashmir issue. They should not follow the programme of the NC and if they did so they cannot be saved by New Delhi," said Shabir Ahmad Shah, president of Democratic Freedom Party.

Prof Abdul Gani Bhatt, chairman of Hurriyat Conference, believes that these elections are no answer to the Kashmir question. "They are not even the first step towards its resolution," he said. But he has some advice for the political parties that have emerged successful in this "futile exercise."

"People voted for two reasons coercion and anger. Their anger was because of the excesses committed by security forces and they wanted an end to it. But those who have won the elections have been advocating talks between New Delhi and separatists besides several other measures. We expect they would live to their promises, otherwise they will meet the same fate," he said.

But if there was so much resentment against the NC here, why did it still emerge as the single largest party bagging 28 seats with the Congress and PDP way behind at 20 and 16 seats respectively. The party appears to have won most of these seats by default. Interestingly, it won seven urban seats where the poll percentage did not enter the two digit mark and most of the people in these constituencies boycotted the elections. This gave advantage to the party as the only voters in these places were a small group of dedicated party activists or "mobile voters" who cast as many votes as they could.

Still another factor was the support of non-traditional voters of the NC. Much before elections the party roped in influential Shia leader Iftikhar Ansari and Gujjar leader Mian Altaf Ahmad and just before elections another Shia cleric Agha Roohullah was wooed. All the three had Congress background and their support bagged the party several seats.

The party also got nine seats in the Jammu province and except one, the rest were bagged in Muslim majority constituencies in Poonch, Doda, Rajouri and Udhampur. Their immediate concern in these places is the growing communal rift and their desire to align with Kashmir. Since NC has been the voice of Kashmiris for long, they preferred to vote for it in the absence of any viable alternative.

Was the downfall of NC a recent development or its ruin had set in motion in the distant past ? Most people here believe that majority of Kashmiris had rejected the party long back. "We have found that people across India were amazed by its bad performance in the elections but this is nothing surprising for us. The party was defeated much before and only this time it was made public. This development alone has caught our awe," said Abdul Rashid Misgar, a retired school teacher.

The downfall of the party has been a march spanning over seven decades. The history of political struggle in Kashmir almost begins with the National Conference, though before its birth people did rise against the despotic Dogra rulers. It was in 1931 that the growing unrest against Dogra regime was given a direction by floating Muslim Conference and late Abdullah was the driving force behind it. Its name was changed to National Conference in 1938 to give a secular colour to the movement. By 1947, the party had a mass following and when the country was partitioned in 1947, Shiekh rejected the two nation theory and decided to throw his weight with India. "He had no legal standing then but he provided the political support to the last Dogra ruler for acceding with India. He had emerged as the most popular leader and was enjoying tremendous public support then," said Mohammad Sayeed Malik, a leading Kashmir expert and former editor The Sunday Observer.

Shiekh ruled the state for the next six years during which a number of reforms took place. The Dogras had converted the entire population to tillers of land and the tillers were again made the owners without paying any compensation to landlords. Besides, the rural debt was liquidated. "He freed the rural economy from the yokes of servitude," said Malik.

But some years later he struck on a confrontationist path with the Centre, was deposed in 1953 and imprisoned. During this period, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad took over the control of the state as well as the NC and in 1965, the then chief minister G M Sadiq merged NC into Congress. While in detention, Shiekh's loyal party cadre launched a Plebiscite Front in 1955 and he was made its patron. The man who swore by the loyalty towards India, preached secessionism in the state.

For two decades, the front continued with its programme. But, in 1975, Shiekh realised that the front was "irrelevant." He had a change of mind and again swore by loyalty towards India. He was freed, paving way to Indira-Abdullah accord of 1975. People were still loyal to him. "Because of his sacrifices, people still had faith in him. They thought if he would falter on some points, he would give respite on others," said Malik. When he died in 1982, lakhs of Kashmiris thronged the roads to accompany him to the grave.

After Shiekh, his son Dr Farooq Abdullah assumed power and used "similar methods" to garner public support. He joined hands with Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq, the leader of Awami Action Committee, by then the only opposition to NC in the valley. The "double Farooq" again exploited the separatist sentiments and won an impressive victory in 1983 elections. This was the time when Farooq adopted a strong anti-Centre stance and was friendly to the strong adversaries of the then prime minister Indira Gandhi including N T Rama Rao of Andhra Pradesh and Jyoti Basu of West Bengal.

His government was short-lived and in 1984, he was deposed in a "coup" by his brother-in-law Ghulam Mohammad Shah and the Congress. There was so much resentment in the state that curfews became the order of the day to maintain law and order and wherever Farooq went he was a given a rousing reception. But, Farooq "realised" that retaining the power was more in the hands of Centre than the Kashmiris and this realisation drew him close to then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

How long would Kashmiris continue to support a family that was changing colors every now and then? Farooq contested the elections in 1987 with the "full backing" of the Centre and the newly- floated Muslim United Front was kept out of power. A deep resentment gripped the valley but there was no violent outburst. These elections, however, dipped the belief of Kashmiris in a "democratic exercise" to an all time low. Two years later, the element of violence caught the imagination of Kashmiris and thousands of youth took to guns.

A long period of central rule followed, only to be followed by another "imposition" of NC rule for six more years. The elections, it is widely believed here, were bet in favour of NC even before voting took place and the party managed a two-third majority which was a dream target for Shiekh Mohammad Abdullah. But, in 2002, the Centre had to choose between its long time ally and the national interest. In the display of free and fair elections, the party was sacrificed at the altar of the interest of the nation.

Muzaffar Raina in Srinagar

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