Dispatch

Old Rivals in Kashmir Are Joining Forces Against Modi

India’s attack on Kashmiri autonomy has united two parties that were once sworn enemies. The newly formed Gupkar Alliance could reshape the disputed region’s politics and cause problems for the BJP.

Former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti (L) gestures while talking with Jammu and Kashmir National Conference President Farooq Abdullah (C) along with his son and former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah (R) after a meeting in Srinagar on Oct. 15.
Former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti (L) gestures while talking with Jammu and Kashmir National Conference President Farooq Abdullah (C) along with his son and former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah (R) after a meeting in Srinagar on Oct. 15. TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP via Getty Images

SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir—A day before India stripped Indian-administered Kashmir of its special status in August 2019 and downgraded it to a federally controlled territory, all the regional political parties held an emergency meeting in Srinagar. The regional parties had sensed that the country’s ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was planning to fiddle with Kashmir’s special status and vowed to defend the legislation. The joint declaration by the Kashmiri political parties came to be known as the Gupkar Declaration, borrowing its name from the posh neighborhood in Srinagar where several former ministers live.

Hours before the Indian home minister announced in parliament the decision that would change the course of Kashmiri politics, almost all of the top and lower-rung politicians in Kashmir were detained. Among those were three former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir: Mehbooba Mufti, Omar Abdullah, and Farooq Abdullah.

The rest of the world discovered on Aug. 5, 2019 that the Indian government had revoked Article 370 of the constitution, erasing the quasi-autonomous status of Kashmir—a former princely state that was independent before the creation of India and Pakistan and is currently disputed by the two countries. The move was widely seen as an attempt to change the demography of the region. The senior Kashmiri politician Naeem Akhtar, who was a cabinet minister in the last elected government in Kashmir, said the move was also aimed at “disempowering and disenfranchising” Kashmiri politicians.

SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir—A day before India stripped Indian-administered Kashmir of its special status in August 2019 and downgraded it to a federally controlled territory, all the regional political parties held an emergency meeting in Srinagar. The regional parties had sensed that the country’s ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was planning to fiddle with Kashmir’s special status and vowed to defend the legislation. The joint declaration by the Kashmiri political parties came to be known as the Gupkar Declaration, borrowing its name from the posh neighborhood in Srinagar where several former ministers live.

Hours before the Indian home minister announced in parliament the decision that would change the course of Kashmiri politics, almost all of the top and lower-rung politicians in Kashmir were detained. Among those were three former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir: Mehbooba Mufti, Omar Abdullah, and Farooq Abdullah.

The rest of the world discovered on Aug. 5, 2019 that the Indian government had revoked Article 370 of the constitution, erasing the quasi-autonomous status of Kashmir—a former princely state that was independent before the creation of India and Pakistan and is currently disputed by the two countries. The move was widely seen as an attempt to change the demography of the region. The senior Kashmiri politician Naeem Akhtar, who was a cabinet minister in the last elected government in Kashmir, said the move was also aimed at “disempowering and disenfranchising” Kashmiri politicians.

Naeem Akhtar, a senior PDP leader and former cabinet minister, at his residence in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, on Nov. 2.

Naeem Akhtar, a senior PDP leader and former cabinet minister, at his residence in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, on Nov. 2. Sharafat Ali for Foreign Policy

On India’s 74th Independence Day on Aug. 15 this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that Kashmir will soon have elected representatives and a chief minister of its own. The last time Kashmir had an elected government was in 2018. Since then, it has been ruled by New Delhi through its representatives.

When Modi made the pledge, the most recent chief minister of the region, Mufti, had just completed her year in detention. Other politicians who were released before her were either restricted to their homes or barred from meeting other party members. No political activities were allowed. Several politicians said they were asked to sign a declaration pledging silence over all developments in Kashmir after the Article 370 decision. Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, in an interview with the Indian website the Wire, revealed that while he was in detention, he was told if he signed a document pledging silence on all developments in the erstwhile state he would be released immediately. But, Abdullah said, he refused the deal.

The last time Kashmir had an elected government was in 2018. Since then, it has been ruled by New Delhi through its representatives.

It was only after Mufti was released that political parties from across the political spectrum—which were once fierce rivals—began to work and indulge actively in political activities. At least seven regional political parties met Mufti at her residence and formed an alliance in the face of a challenge from Modi’s handpicked local operatives.

Modi’s BJP has been trying to create new political forces in Kashmir to sideline the established parties like Farooq and Omar Abdullah’s National Conference and Mufti’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which are demanding the restoration of Article 370. As a result, fresh faces have started to emerge since August of last year that have been favoring the BJP’s decisions on Kashmir. When most of the politicians in Kashmir were in detention, a new political start-up called the Apni Party was formed. Interestingly, it was only the Apni Party and the BJP that have been allowed to carry out political activities in Kashmir when all other politicians were barred from doing so.


The formation of the alliance marks the beginning of a new chapter in Kashmiri politics. The two key members of the alliance, the National Conference and PDP, have long been engaged in a turf war with each other.

The two parties used to campaign on promises of proper roads, uninterrupted electricity supplies, jobs, and an amicable solution of the Kashmir issue within the ambit of the Indian Constitution. The National Conference advocated complete autonomy for the disputed region—with only defense, foreign policy, and communications being handled by the Indian government. The PDP’s softer policy of self-rule proposed economic integration and a political superstructure that would empower subregions within Kashmir. Since both the parties used to bank on these agendas to remain relevant, the abrogation of Article 370 has pushed them into an identity crisis.

Indeed, the PDP was formed in 1999 to counter the long-standing clout of the National Conference. “Our growth is at the cost of the other. Our constituencies are in conflict with each other,” the PDP youth leader Waheed Ur Rehman Parra said. But now, he added, “there are more threats than conflicts that are uniting us.”

Former chief minister and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah said the Gupkar Alliance is a sign of the times. “Last year it would have been unthinkable for the political parties that have been rivals for as long as you can remember. … The alliance is a response to the unprecedented situation that we find ourselves in,” he said.

The alliance is all the more significant because it includes both parties that kept India’s hold on Kashmir intact since 1947, when Kashmir acceded to the Union of India. New Delhi has always relied on a local face to extend its control. The National Conference, and later the PDP, filled that space. Without a local politician to represent India in Kashmir, it would have been difficult for New Delhi to counter separatist groups there.

But after the Indian government struck down Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status, both the PDP and National Conference agendas—the very essence of their existence—were rendered irrelevant. The Kashmir-based political analyst and noted academician Sheikh Showkat Hussain told Foreign Policy that ever since the autonomy of Kashmir was taken away, the “so-called mainstream politicians” are facing an existential crisis because the slogan they used for mobilizing people has lost its value.” That slogan was the promise of autonomy for the erstwhile state.

Imran Nabi Dar, spokesperson of the National Conference, at his residence in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, on Nov. 1.

Imran Nabi Dar, spokesperson of the National Conference, at his residence in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, on Nov. 1. Sharafat Ali for Foreign Policy

“We are in a George Floyd moment: Like he was pinned to the ground and choked, all the political parties, the religious parties, and even the separatist groups are fighting for an identity now,” Imran Nabi Dar, a spokesperson for the National Conference, told Foreign Policy.


Since August 2019, India has amended or repealed over 200 laws of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir through executive orders. Some of the laws, like the new land law, throw Kashmir open for sale to every Indian citizen wanting to buy land or property. Kashmir-based politicians and critics see these executive orders as an effort to change the political and geographical demography of the disputed region.

The Indian government adopted the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act to amend or repeal these laws. As such, it does not require the nod of Jammu and Kashmir’s government to make these changes. With no elected government in place, the administration functions through a government-appointed representative, called the lieutenant governor, who furthers their powers and control through bureaucrats. The appointment of these representatives and bureaucrats is also politically driven. Current Lt. Gov. Manoj Sinha is a veteran of the BJP and has also been a strong proponent of right-wing Hindutva—an ideology that seeks Hindu dominance in India.

With no government in place, the BJP government in New Delhi can directly rule and control Kashmir through its handpicked representatives.

The political parties in Kashmir say that concentrating power and control in the hands of bureaucrats dilutes democratically elected institutions and strengthens New Delhi’s rule in the region. The Indian government, on the other hand, maintains that it aims to strengthen grassroots democracy. Modi and the entire BJP camp have been targeting the families of former chief ministers Mufti and Abdullah for strengthening what they call dynastic politics. Since both parties fundamentally differ from the BJP when it comes to ideology and policy, Modi sees the two families as a hindrance to making inroads in the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley. With no government in place, the BJP government in New Delhi can directly rule and control Kashmir through its handpicked representatives.

National Conference’s Dar told Foreign Policy that the entire power and control in Indian-administered Kashmir now lies with BJP bureaucrats and the security agencies. The PDP’s Akhtar agrees, calling it “bureaucratization” of the region.

Waheed Ur Rehman Parra, the youth leader of the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party, at his Srinagar residence on Oct. 31.

Waheed Ur Rehman Parra, the youth leader of the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party, at his Srinagar residence on Oct. 31. Sharafat Ali for Foreign Policy

With what these politicians call “bureaucratic rule” in Kashmir, the PDP’s Parra and Akhtar said India has created a political vacuum in Kashmir. As such, “there is an absence of politics in Kashmir, and everyone who indulges in political activities is attacked,” Parra said.

Explaining these attacks, Parra said that since Aug. 5, 2019, no politician was allowed to speak of politics; lawyers and journalists were summoned and some of them even booked under an anti-terrorism law. “There was a crackdown on everyone who tried to question the Indian government for its Kashmir policies,” Parra said on Oct. 31.

A few weeks after we spoke, Parra was arrested by India’s National Investigation Agency on the dubious charge of allegedly supporting the banned pro-Pakistan militant outfit Hizbul Mujahideen.


While the politicians differ in their views on whether they face an existential crisis, there is a consensus on the fact that the Indian government has managed to shift the goal posts and agendas for Kashmiri political parties. Parra, who is president of the PDP’s youth wing, said the Indian government has “successfully” moved the goal posts from the complete resolution of the Kashmir conflict to the much smaller aim of restoring autonomy under Article 370.

Even Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has long advocated a bilateral resolution of the Kashmir dispute, is now also talking about restoration of Kashmir’s special status. That acts in favor of New Delhi at two levels: It erodes the relevance of National Conference and PDP, which had been proposing self-rule and autonomy, and it shifts the focus from larger demands for independence and freedom from India to simply restoring autonomy and sovereignty.

Dar, whose party’s agenda has been autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir, told Foreign Policy that right now they are only fighting for the reversal of Article 370. But as far as the National Conference is concerned, Dar added, “Our stand is clear, that is the restoration of the pre-1953 situation [when the Indian government had no control over Kashmir except in areas like defense, external affairs, and communications] and that is never going to change.”

Meanwhile, most of the region’s secessionists have been dormant since the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status. While many of them are either under house arrest or lodged in different jails across India, those who are free have remained out of the spotlight and maintained their silence on political issues since August 2019.

The secessionists have long demanded the solution of the Kashmir dispute according to resolutions passed in the United Nations and all groups in the separatist camp—as the secessionists are known in political parlance—demand to secede from India. As such, the abrogation of Article 370 only vindicated their political standing, the political analyst Hussain said.

The secessionists have called for a statewide lockdown only once. (Before August 2019, the separatist camp would frequently call for shutdowns and protests against what they deemed anti-Kashmir policies.) The Hurriyat Conference—an amalgam of political and religious groups demanding freedom from India and accession to Pakistan—only spoke on Article 370 after more than seven months. And the pro-independence Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front—a secessionist group that demands the complete independence of Jammu and Kashmir with no ties to India or Pakistan—issued its first official statement on the move after six months. These secessionists maintain that their fight is not for autonomy but for freedom from India; events in the past two years have likely made their anti-India position more attractive, even if they are unable to organize due to house arrests and detention of their leaders.

The National Conference leader Abdullah told Foreign Policy that as of now they are taking legal recourse to reverse the decisions taken by the Indian government since last year. “The fight for the restoration of Article 370 as of now is a legal fight. We are bolstering the legal fight with a political fight,” he said.

The Gupkar Alliance has also reached out to several political groups in Ladakh—which was carved out of Jammu and Kashmir in August of last year and downgraded to a federally controlled territory—and in Jammu, a predominantly Hindu region. Bringing the politicians from Ladakh and Jammu on board holds significance, because people from these regions showed the least resistance when Kashmir’s special status was abolished. Now, with them on board, the Gupkar Alliance can build significant pressure on Modi’s government by contesting local elections together. PDP’s Akhtar and Parra said the strategy to reverse the changes made by the Indian government will evolve with time.

But the ruling BJP has time and again made it clear that it is nearly impossible to reverse what it did in August 2019. The BJP is trying to project the revocation of Kashmir’s special status as a new era of development and peace for the region; it maintains that the old order bred separatism and corruption in Kashmir.

The Gupkar Alliance is in its infancy right now. As old rivalries between political parties take a back seat to cooperation, the alliance sounds hopeful, so much so that when Mufti—the leader of a party that always emphasized the positives of union with India—addressed a press conference for the first time after her yearlong detention, she placed her party’s flag next to the flag of Jammu and Kashmir, a flag that New Delhi has removed from official buildings in Kashmir, and said she would not hoist the Indian tricolor until Kashmir’s special status is restored.

Haziq Qadri is an independent multimedia journalist based in Indian-administered Kashmir. He covers politics, health, and human rights in India. Twitter: @haziq_qadri

Qadri Inzamam is an independent journalist based in Indian-administered Kashmir. He writes on politics, gender, and human rights. Twitter: @Qadri_Inzamam

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