Mufti Sahib knew how to live with wounds, hide the pain and pursue his agenda unstoppably. I didn’t have the fortune to see him in my life as I was too young to be conscious of political people. Nonetheless, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was the one who I felt was a politician with an indomitable agenda pursued through the medium of politics. He was of a different breed of politics — with an unflinching belief in the idea of change and transformation.
Influenced early on as a part of his intellectual evolution by socialism during his years of education at Aligarh, he realised through a long and arduous thinking process that politics could be anything but the preaching of staunch idealism. Instead, for him, politics was an art of making a possibility, sometimes even if that would mean through hard negotiations. He was a politician by passion, a lawyer by training, troubleshooter in engagement and farsighted thinker in dreaming of a peaceful, prosperous and self-reliant Jammu and Kashmir.
While the tallest leaders surrendered before the India-Pakistan relationship’s complexity, Mufti Sahib always looked at it as an eternal optimist. He had a fair idea of history and understood India and Pakistan through the civilisational perspective and knew well about the limits of reconciliation. But as a politician, he would leave that luxury for the abstruse academic debaters. After all, he was a believer and a doer who saw possibilities when many of his colleagues would give up.
This utopian belief would never let him give up on creating a just and lasting peace between India and Pakistan. He was a contrarian to the core as he did not believe the common notion that the India-Pakistan conflict was a child of partition. He did not believe the partition was solely responsible for the intractability of the Kashmir conflict.
He understood better than any first-rank scholars of the depth of Hindu-Muslim incompatibility. This made him conclude that the biggest breakthroughs in conflicts couldn’t be found through an absolute solution, but regular management of issues while accepting all the fragilities. He believed Kashmir could be used to create peace in South Asia and be made a model for reference in solving other Muslim issues around the world.
The solution in his mind was through investment into various sectors like education, culture and youth engagement. India-Pakistan peace was his ultimate dream for which he could put in any effort. That’s why he motivated Atal Bihari Vajpayee to open roads to Pakistan, making 2003–2005 the brightest patch in India-Pakistan peace history.
He could foresee the grand economic engagement with Europe through Pakistan decades before China would start it in the form of the Belt and Road Initiative (B&RI). At a time when the certainty of the B&RI as a part of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is still under question, keeping the strained US-China relationship in view, this part of the world will probably need a peacenik like Mufti Sahib who can champion the cause of economics before the world.
Mufti Sahib’s demise on 7 January, 2016, left a gaping void as significant in J&Ks administration as it left in his party. That day the secretariat in Jammu wore a grim look as the elephant in the room had gone, never to return. He was equally good at governance as he was as a politician.
He was an ardent worker, read files like an efficient bureaucrat and took decisions like a statesman with unimaginable ease in a clear fashion. The speed of his disposal, the long-sightedness in his actions with an inimitable smile on his face, his gravitas would make bureaucrats often go gaga. His mantra in the administration was simple and broadly based on three things:
He clearly distinguished between aspirations and grievances. While he redressed grievances through governance, he tried to fight aspirations through his tallest political stature. He was never weighed in by his status, never bothered about government protocol.
In one of his first weeks after assuming office in 2015, he ordered the deputy commissioner and senior superintendent of police of Budgam not to come to the airport to receive him as was the protocol established, thus, disentangling a complex web of bureaucratic formalities. He was light and simple, addicted to his job.
Mufti Sahib was an extra-ordinary human by all standards. I don’t think he was an archetype Kashmiri, but was rooted in Kashmir’s socio-religious identity, and a fearless one at that. He was a wanderer in the real sense for whom narrow political divisions did not matter and he would think above all of them. He was a rootless universal whose passion was to uplift, empower and emancipate through institutions that for him were possible by the direct, straightforward politics that he believed and pursued.
His decision of allying with the BJP was a well thought out decision. I disagree with the popular view that he undermined Narendra Modi or the rising Hindu right’s power. I think he was willing to take that risk.
While most of the top PDP brass was in shock at his decision, it was he who was cool and composed — reflecting the demeanour of a fighter — ready to take up the most difficult challenge of his life. I think his eyes were wide open to the possibilities of such a decision, but he was prepared to take the shot. It was a statesmanly decision to engage with the country’s most extremist political party.
Modi also moved a step forward and saw an opportunity in Mufti Sahib and allowed the government to function smoothly. As Mufti Sahib was beginning to realise his project, he fell ill and passed away, leaving the giant-sized project to pygmies (compared to him). I think the weight was too and the project began to annihilate towards the end of the coalition in 2018.
His absence left a deep void in J&K. The State withered after his passing. The absence of a leader of his stature probably led the Prime Minister to think that there was no stakeholder left in Kashmir and what eventually decided what happened on the fateful night of 5 August, 2019 (removal of Article 370). I have absolutely no doubt that his decision to partner up with the BJP did delay the 5 August decision by 4 years.
Mufti Sahib was a great believer in the power of economics. I am not sure whether he had changed into a free-market proponent, but he did want to give a fillip to local industries mainly related to horticulture and tourism. The high-density orchard which he inaugurated in Kokernag was not just a piece of orchard for him, but a clear break from government jobs to create an entrepreneurial state envisioned through the State’s fascinating sectors from horticulture, tourism, dairy to sheep farming.
At the core of his heart were young women who he wanted to have unfettered access to modern life and economic independence. He was no reader of British feminist movements, although his peer instincts made him a sage-like figure attaining knowledge and exposure by his deep lust for change. It was the feminist in him which young women of the State miss most about him.
He made an unprecedented outreach to Kashmiri Pandits. In Bombay, where he had gone to meet them, he appealed to a large group, “Wherever you have gone, you have made space for yourselves. So it’s not you who need us but we who need you. The State is incomplete with your absence.” Thus, in one line, he encapsulated his Kashmiriyat and leader like spine. He had laid out a comprehensive plan for their return, but it was not to be, like most of his dream projects.
He was much needed, admired and loved just to become a mere memory for all of us in the PDP family. Rest in peace, Mufti Sahib.
Danish Iqbal works in the media cell of J&K-PDP.