How about a Hindu CM in Jammu and Kashmir?

The Muslim-majority state has always been headed by a Muslim. Notwithstanding the rise of BJP, the possibility of a Hindu CM is worth debating

Aasha Khosa | December 20, 2014

The month of August 2008 had seen an unusual phenomenon In Jammu. This normally peaceful part of Jammu and Kashmir had erupted in never-seen-before anger. Mass protests against Kashmiri Muslims’ demand for banning the annual Hindu Amarnath pilgrimage to the holy cave of Lord Shiva had brought life to a halt. It soon snowballed into an agitation that was to last two months.

Amid this a group of MPs were on a visit to Jammu to assess the situation and possibly broker peace. They were settling down for a meeting with the leaders of the agitation, when suddenly they were asked to keep the Kashmiris out. Embarrassed, the two present – former chief minister Farooq Abdullah and the then union minister Saifuddin Soz – quietly left the place. Another Congress veteran and former CM Ghulam Nabi Azad looked on in shock and nearly got up too to join them when someone said, “You are from Jammu, and therefore should stay.” Azad hails from Doda, located between Kashmir and Jammu, though he also speaks Kashmiri.

This incident further confounded the confusion of the visitors about the demography, aspirations and sentiments of people of the militancy-struck border state. They too, like most Indians, had believed that the counter-agitation in J&K over Amarnath pilgrimage was a “Hindu Jammu versus a Muslim Kashmir affair”.

The reality, however, turned out to be more complex, textured and nuanced.

Chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir

Ghulam Mohammed Sadiq, Congress (March 1965 –December 1971)

Syed Mir Qasim, Congress (December 1971 – February 1975)

Sheikh Abdullah, National Conference (February 1975 –March 1977, July 1977 –September 1982)

Farooq Abdullah, National Conference (September 1982 – July 1984, November 1986 – January 1990, October 1996 –October 2002)

Ghulam Mohammad Shah, Awami National Conference (July 1984 –March 1986)

Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, PDP (November 2002 – November 2005)

Ghulam Nabi Azad, Congress (November 2005 – July 2008)

Omar Abdullah, National Conference (January 2009 – present)

So, when senior Congress leader Sham Lal Sharma mooted the idea of a Hindu CM for India’s only Muslim-majority state, he was echoing the sentiments of a region and not necessarily of the Hindus, who constitute the second largest chunk, about 30 percent, of the total population in the state. In the run-up to the assembly elections, Sharma asked logically, “If Ghani Khan Choudhary could become the CM of Hindu-majority West Bengal and Abdul Rehman Antulay of Maharashtra where Muslims constitute 2 percent of population, why can’t a Hindu lead Jammu and Kashmir?”

BJP was quick to grab Sharma’s proposal, and party president Amit Shah claimed his party will give the state its first Hindu CM. State congress president Saifuddin Soz was embarrassed about Sharma’s brazen talk, claiming it was his personal opinion. However, he also said the state had a tradition of Muslim CMs. Kashmir-centric parties like Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s PDP gave a restrained response but left it for the smaller parties to speak their preferences. Some of the nasty responses from the lower-rung PDP and NC leaders were enough to raise the Muslims-in-danger bogey.

Why are the Kashmiri leaders intolerant of even the idea of a non-Muslim CM in the name of tradition? The fact is that all the CMs of J&K so far have been Muslims and all but one – Ghulam Nabi Azad – Kashmiris. Azad, who was sent by the Congress high command to the state against his wishes, was feted as the son of the soil in Jammu. People till today attribute his resignation to a Kashmiri conspiracy against a Jammu-born leader. However, despite being a Kashmir-speaking person, Azad had to work hard to make himself acceptable to Kashmiris. “In order to convince people that he was a Kashmiri, Azad-sahib was advised to speak only in Kashmiri and we also launched an informal campaign to spread the word that he had a house in Kashmir and also his wife, singer Shamima Dev, was a Kashmiri to allay the fears of people of an outsider ruling them,” a senior Congress leader told Governance Now.

Also, what did not come on the media radar, in the far-off Ladakh, BJP leader Thupstan Chhewang was at the same time making a similar point during the election campaign. Chhewang said at an election rally, “We are part of a secular India and why should we always have a Muslim CM, why not a Ladakhi this time?” Chhewang told Governance Now that being part of a bigger democracy and a secular nation, why the border state always had a Muslim CM. “Sharma has made a valid demand. Why are Kashmiri leaders saying that being a Muslim-majority state, J&K could have only a Muslim CM?” he asked.

J&K’s Muslim-majority character does not fog the reality that Muslims form a majority only in one region – Kashmir; while the Hindus dominate Jammu region and Ladakh has nearly equal numbers of Buddhists and Muslims. Besides, the three provinces have distinct cultural identities and unfortunately little interaction among them.

Two decades of armed insurgency and turmoil in Kashmir has only drawn the three regions further apart. For Ladakhis and Jammu people, Kashmir is like a spoilt child, who is constantly demanding and is disruptive at the same time. People of Jammu, in particular, have shown exemplary restraint by welcoming the Kashmiris fleeing terrorist bullets from the valley during two decades of Pakistan-backed insurgency in Kashmir. Besides Jammu becoming a safer second home for thousands of Kashmiris, the people of this region have also won praises for their poise and restraint for not falling prey to the provocative sectarian killings by terrorists.

“We are only asking for our right – Kashmiri leaders should at least show some gratitude and magnanimity in saying yes to the possibility of a CM from Jammu,” said a former state chief of the BJP.

However, looking from Kashmir, the people in the valley are in the most pitiable condition – caught between the guns of terrorists and security forces; one generation has grown up amid curfew, killings and violence. A BJP leader from Kashmir explained, “Kashmiris, being natives of a landlocked land, are wary of outsiders – it’s not about religion but about the language.” History has it that Kashmir has seen several tyrant Muslim rulers, including the Afghani Kankar Khan, whose name is a byword for terror even today.

“Ignoring Kashmiri sensibilities and vulnerabilities by imposing a Hindu CM on them in the name of secularism at this stage will not help the nation,” said a National Conference leader, alluding to the Indo-Pak tensions on Kashmir. 

However, in today’s Kashmir where people prefer to wear their Islamic identity on their sleeves, the demand for a Hindu CM from the other side has obviously come as a provocation and one of the reasons why a lesser leader like PDP’s Peer Mansoor Hussain has openly said that “being a Muslim-majority state, J&K can never have a Hindu CM.” He made the remarks at a party workers’ convention in front of top PDP leaders like Mehbooba Mufti and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.

Publicly senior Kashmiri leaders maintain the stand that a CM is elected by legislators and not on the basis of religion. However, privately they admit that having a non-Muslim CM would worsen the Kashmir situation as it could be used by Pakistan to spread unrest at a time when New delhi has an upper hand over Islamabad. “Kashmir is an international issue and having a Muslim as the head of the government would help India ward off criticism,” said a senior PDP leader seeking anonymity.

Ladakh, however, has already achieved a sort of autonomy after the 1989 agitation. The region has twin autonomous hill councils to look after its developmental needs. The rise of the BJP at the centre has further bolstered the confidence of people of Ladakh on standing up to the hegemony of Kashmiri leadership. In fact, union home minister Rajnath Singh has already triggered a debate that the autonomy demand of Kashmiri Muslims should be linked to the Ladakhi demand for union territory status, rekindling Ladakh’s hope for a central patronage and protection against Kashmir’s bullying.

The fact is that the demand for a Hindu CM is seen in the context of the BJP’s larger mission in Jammu and Kashmir. The RSS and hardcore party leaders have always believed in a trifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir on regional lines. This, they believe, would limit the conflict and the dispute to the Kashmir valley and could be dealt with easily. But, BJP will have to get a clear majority in the assembly to be able to call the shots. Till then it would only float ideas like a Hindu CM in order to test the waters.

The story appears in December 16-31, 2014, issue




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