It was announced today that former Jammu and Kashmir Governor Jagmohan has been named for the Padma Vibhushan, to be awarded on this year’s Republic Day celebrations.
Jagmohan held the post of governor for two nonconsecutive terms at the height of militancy in the state. In 1984, then-prime minister Indira Gandhi replaced the then-governor BK Nehru, and gave the post to Jagmohan. This was a part of Gandhi’s plot to dismiss the chief minister at that time, Farooq Abdullah. In his January 2016 profile of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the late chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Praveen Donthi recounts how, during Jagmohan’s second term as governor, the state entered a period of “unfettered repression.”
TOWARDS THE END OF THE 1980’s, [Mufti Mohammad] SAYEED, DISGRUNTLED with his position in the Congress, sought an opportunity to reinvent himself politically. He seized an opportunity after communal riots broke out in Meerut in May 1987. Resigning from his post as union tourism minister, he deplored Rajiv’s [Gandhi] “insensitive” approach to the violence, and returned to Jammu and Kashmir.
In an interview with [Inderjit] Badhwar (an India Today journalist) later that year, he criticised Rajiv’s leadership of the party. The Meerut riots had left him feeling that there was a “communal divide” in the country, he said. But he found that Rajiv was “incapable of reacting emotionally.” He ranted against the Rajiv-Farooq accord, and the sidelining of the old Congress guard. “No one consulted me” on the accord, Sayeed said. The prime minister, he insisted, had failed loyal party workers. Rajiv “is not like his mother,” Sayeed said. “She consulted us on every issue as she did a cross section of people. But now, after our sacrifices, we’re thrown away like flies, reduced to the status of pygmies.”
In the same interview, Badhwar asked him if he would start a new party. Sayeed replied, “The ball is in the leadership’s court. I’ve simply come back to square one.” While he would continue to address national-level issues, he said, “I will welcome VP Singh or for that matter, even leaders of the opposition, if they wish to address issues in this state.”
The nod to Singh wasn’t incidental. In July that year, Singh had been expelled from his post as defence minister in Rajiv’s cabinet for speaking out against the Bofors gun scandal. He seemed well positioned to emerge as the leader of an anti-Rajiv brigade. Sayeed’s strong stand against Rajiv paid off when Singh’s Jan Morcha movement transformed, in October 1988, into a political party, the Janata Dal. Singh appointed Sayeed to the new party’s steering committee.
In the next general elections, in 1989, Sayeed contested from Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh. He had never won a fair election in his life. Riding the wave of popularity for Singh in Uttar Pradesh probably seemed a safer bet than trying his luck again with the voters of Kashmir. Indeed, the Janata Dal won a huge majority of the seats in the state. Sayeed was one of the 54 successful candidates, out of a total of 85 seats.
In December, the National Front government came to power in the centre—a coalition of national and regional parties led by the Janata Dal, with the Left and the BJP providing outside support. Singh was sworn in as the prime minister, and chose Sayeed to be his home minister, usually considered the second-highest post in government. Sayeed was the first Muslim to ever head the ministry. According to Mohan Guruswamy, who was Singh’s close associate and informal advisor, Sayeed’s appointment was Singh’s way of showing that his was a secular government. “VP Singh wanted to send a signal that he is not concerned about the BJP giving support from outside,” Guruswamy said. Sayeed, too, spoke in support of this political vision. “To fight communalism and extremism is my first motto,” he said in an interview to India Today after he was sworn in. “While we believe that there is no problem which can’t be solved through negotiations, we will never compromise with those who divide the country.”
The challenge before Sayeed was enormous, largely owing to the strife in his own home state. Jammu and Kashmir was by then in the throes of full- blown secessionist militancy. A number of armed groups had sprouted, whose members crossed over to Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and returned, after training, to wreak violence in the state. “They have lost their fear,” a deputy superintendent of a newly formed commando unit told India Today in May 1989. “They stand right in front of your guns and dare you to shoot them. How can you fight people like these? In the past the most they did was pelt stones or set off crude home-made bombs and then ducked for cover. This behaviour is new, it is almost un-Kashmiri.”
As it turned out, Sayeed’s first major crisis as India’s home minister was also a deeply personal one. Six days after he was sworn in, his second daughter, Rubaiya, a medical intern, was kidnapped in Srinagar by the JKLF, which demanded the release of five militants incarcerated in the city, in exchange for her safe return. Guruswamy, who met Sayeed during this time at his house at 10, Akbar Road, in Delhi, recounted that he used to be “very quiet” while “people around him would talk a lot. He knew that the boys wouldn’t harm her and she would be looked after well.”
Farooq, as the chief minister of the state where the militants were incarcerated, took a firm stand against giving in to the kidnappers’ demand. He told the media that even if his own daughter had been kidnapped, he would not agree to releasing militants. Nevertheless, all five militants were released after six days, on 13 December 1989. They were greeted with jubilation in Srinagar.
Sayeed has always maintained that releasing the militants was the state government’s decision. “Neither I nor the centre was in the picture when the state cabinet decided on the release,” he told India Today in January 1990. But recently, at the launch of Dulat’s memoir in Delhi, Farooq presented an alternative version of events: he recalled that the union ministers Arif Mohammad Khan and IK Gujral had travelled to Srinagar during this period, with the intention of dismissing him if he resisted the release. “This will be the last nail in India’s coffin, I told them,” Farooq said.
Guruswamy said that Sayeed, “being the home minister, he had a chance to say no and come out a strong man, but he didn’t.” The decision to release the prisoners is believed to have been a key factor in boosting militants’ morale. “It was a turning point,” the senior journalist Yusuf Jameel told me. “It was seen as a victory of people over India, the government and its security forces. It had a tremendous impact.”
The prime minister believed that the crisis couldn’t be resolved militarily. Singh appointed a Kashmir Affairs Committee headed by the railway minister, George Fernandes, to tackle the crisis. According to India Today reports, Sayeed resented this. Possessive of his political terrain even in the backdrop of such a serious crisis, he continued to involve himself in the state’s affairs. “Differences between the railway minister and the home minister escalated, with the former accusing the union home minister of creating confusion and of resisting a solution to the Kashmir problem,” the journalist Seema Mustafa wrote in The Lonely Prophet, VP Singh’s political biography. Fernandes was in favour of talks with the militants, and established contact with some, but Sayeed didn’t allow him to work freely, wrote Mustafa.
Jammu and Kashmir’s insurgency took an even more grave turn when the government responded with brutal repression. Sayeed was a key player in enabling this response. Mustafa wrote that at one point, faced with a spiralling violence in the state, Singh considered appointing Jagmohan (whom Indira had deployed in 1984 to topple Farooq’s government) as the state’s governor, since he had a reputation as a firm administrator who could rein in difficult situations. Singh encountered opposition immediately from the Left MPs, who alleged he was anti-Muslim. Singh changed his mind, wrote Mustafa, but Sayeed and Arun Nehru [a senior Congress leader] stepped in to ensure that his original plan was carried through. Jagmohan was sent to the state in January 1990. Farooq, who had opposed the move, saw this as an opportunity to leave the state.
Under Jagmohan, Jammu and Kashmir entered a period of unfettered repression. Two days after he took over, the valley witnessed its first bloody massacre after the outbreak of militancy. Fifty protestors were killed in Central Reserve Police Force firing in what is now remembered as the Gaw Kadal massacre. Other killings followed—the Hawal massacre, the Bijbehara massacre. Militants targeted Kashmiri Pandits, leading to an exodus of hundreds of thousands from the valley.
As home minister, Sayeed played a vital part in enforcing this bloody regime. He defended the decision to deploy Jagmohan to Kashmir in a June 1990 interview to India Today, neatly glossing over the killings and massacres of people. “By sending Jagmohan to Kashmir we made major gains,” he said. “He set up this nucleus of officials to fill the administrative vacuum. And we established the authority of the state.”
Praveen Donthi is a Staff Writer at The Caravan. He is trained as a researcher in modern Indian history and became a journalist by accident. He has previously worked for Tehelka, Hindustan Times and Deccan Herald.