By Vijay Prashad
On Monday, Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami, 72, who was in Delhi for medical treatment after a court order, has been allowed by the Supreme Court to return home to Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). He was brought to Delhi from Srinagar, where he had been under house arrest.
Tarigami is a four-time Member of the Legislative Assembly, which had been dissolved by the Narendra Modi government last year. He is a central committee member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M). The CPI(M)’s general secretary, Sitaram Yechury, had twice tried to go to Srinagar, and then – armed with a Supreme Court order – was able to enter the city, see Tarigami, return to Delhi with the news that he was very unwell, and then – thanks once more to the top court – arranged his transfer to AIIMS, Delhi. Tarigami, the brave communist, who was shifted to J&K House in the capital, remains gagged by the government of India.
Communists are loath to talk about themselves. They see themselves as part of the tidal wave of history, just another person in a monumental struggle to make the world a better place. Tarigami, like other communists, is like that. He prefers to talk about the issues at stake and not about himself. Those who have met him or seen him talk on television, rightly assume that he is in his 50s. There is a youthfulness about him, not just about his personality but also about his physique. He is energetic, his hands flying in all directions, but his concern for the working-class, the peasantry, and – in broader terms – the Kashmiri people, remains steady.
Since 2014, Tarigami’s general demeanour has been less optimistic as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have taken an already belligerent Indian government position regarding Kashmir and made it toxic and dangerous. The framework of ‘national security’ has not made any positive impact on the people of Kashmir, who have been steadily alienated from New Delhi. Tarigami’s sober warnings should have been taken seriously. Now, the state’s future seems even more bleak.
Tarigami was born in 1947 – which makes him not a man in his 50s but in his 70s. His family name, like that of other similar peasant families, comes from his village – Tarigam. This village is along the old road that links Shopian to Anantnag, an arc below Srinagar that lies near National Highway 44 to Jammu. The village is in Kulgam district, where Tarigami had four times won a seat to the J&K Assembly (1996, 2002, 2008, and 2014). It is a remarkable feat, since this district – and large parts of southern Kashmir – is in the grip of the Jamaat-e-Islami and other separatist organisations.
A walk around Kulgam’s villages, such as Arwani, Bichroo, and even Tarigam, shows the depth of support for the Jamaat and its former leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. But, Tarigami and the CPI(M) have worked hard to build up their own support in the villages of this district. He was able to win the seat first in 1996 because of his reputation as an honest and decent man, but also because the Jamaat and other separatists had decided – since 1989 – to boycott elections.
Over these decades, Tarigami has insisted on putting development ahead of any other issue, making sure that schools, hospitals, and roads reshaped the character of his district. It is on this platform of development that Tarigami emerged as a singular leader in the state. And it helped that there is not one whiff of corruption about him.
A Communist in Kashmir
Politics did not come easily to Tarigami. His family was not political, even as Kashmir was swept into the centre of world politics within months of his birth. The shortened timeline for India’s partition by the British imperialists left the question of Maharaja Hari Singh’s Kashmir unsettled. It was Singh’s fear of the intrusion of irregular troops from the newly formed Pakistan that forced him to sign an Instrument of Accession to India. This entire episode remains deeply controversial, and one of the reasons for the tension between India and Pakistan.
Tarigami’s uncle – for some reason – would take his little nephew to listen to Abdul Karim Wani, an important communist leader in Kashmir. Wani’s lectures had an impact on Tarigami, who then moved slowly not only into politics, but more firmly into the world of Indian communism.
It is important to pause and consider that the early Kashmiri nationalism of the 1940s had intimate ties to communism. Founded in 1932 by Sheikh Abdullah, the All-Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference was renamed seven years later as the All-Jammu and Kashmir National Conference. This drift into secularism was derived from Sheikh Abdullah’s close association with communists such as B. P. L. [Baba] Bedi and Freda Bedi (the parents of the film star Kabir Bedi), Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Alys Faiz, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad and G. M. Sadiq, Ghulam Mohiuddin Qarra and Mahmooda Ali Shah (later an immensely popular principal at Government College for Women on MA Road in Srinagar). The communists had a powerful presence in Kashmir, not only amongst intellectuals but also amongst the peasantry, who desired above all else, land reform.
In 1944, the National Conference adopted the Naya Kashmir programme, which was essentially written by Baba Bedi. It called for the abolition of landlordism, extensive land reform, and ownership of the key industries by the Democratic State of Jammu and Kashmir. The NC took this message to the people, who wanted to throw off the wretched conditions of exploitation for something better. The communist influence on Sheikh Abdullah and the National Conference led to the creation of a militia in 1947 that both effectively overthrow the Maharaja and blocked the lashkar columns from taking Srinagar.
People like Wani emerged out of this world, and he would bring this cosmopolitan anti-feudal and socialist outlook to a very young Tarigami in Kulgam.
Tarigami’s political work began in Kulgam, when he and his friends took up the cause of farmers against the forcible procurement of rice. This was in 1967, when the Chief Minister was G. M. Sadiq – a former communist who broke with the party and drifted into an association with the Congress party through his Democratic National Conference, formed in 1958.
Fifty years ago, for his fight with the agricultural workers and peasants, Tarigami was taken to prison. Over the decades, Tarigami would frequently be arrested by the government and thrown into places such as the Sub-Jail Reasi (not far from Vaishno Devi) and the very dangerous torture centres of Red-16 and Papa II.
Tarigami was in prison when his wife died tragically in 1975; the government released him on parole for a month but rearrested him – cruelly – after three days. None of this broke his spirit. He continued to fight for the vision that he had learned from Wani – helping build the confidence of Kashmiri peasants and workers, fighting for miners and midday meal workers, addressing the basic, everyday issues of the people to unite them against the forces of division. It is the most powerful legacy of people like Baba Bedi and Abdul Karim Wani, and now Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami.
Tearing Apart Kashmir
Kashmir sits in the eye of the vortex, dragged in many directions, pulled by external forces and by internal forces, unable to find its equilibrium. Wars have been fought between India and Pakistan putatively over Kashmir in 1948, 1965, 1971, and 1999 – with endless border skirmishes and interventions by irregular forces.
Since 1989, Kashmir has faced an internal insurgency that has been the excuse for the Indian State to send in tens of thousands of troops; Kashmir now appears to be the most militarised place on the planet. Rather than bring the people of Jammu, Ladakh and Kashmir together, the governments have put in place a dynamic that rips them apart. Political grievances are met with armed force. Dialogue has been set aside.
The Modi government has now literally torn apart the state, breaking it into Jammu, Ladakh and Kashmir. The communists – like Tarigami – opposed all this. Tarigami called for dialogue between India and Pakistan, and a process of reconciliation inside J&K. The dialogue across the border is essential, he has said on many occasions, and it has been recognised across the spectrum – except perhaps by the RSS and Modi’s section of the BJP. There can be no real political settlement for Kashmir if there is a refusal to hold talks across the Line of Control.
The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council could very well have provided an example to the rest of the state. It should have been a mechanism to devolve power to the people, and then use these locally rooted authorities to start a serious discussion between the relatively isolated sections of Ladakh, Jammu, and Kashmir. On the table for such a discussion would be the return not only of Kashmiri Pandits to the region, but also the young men who joined the insurgency and now live in limbo in Pakistan. Both should be given a pathway to return. All this has been raised by Tarigami in the Legislature. None of it has been taken seriously.
Several times Tarigami has said that despite terrible violence, and despite the presence of tens of thousands of Indian troops, dialogue between the Kashmiris and New Delhi provided the impetus for a majority of the population coming out to vote in 2008 and 2014. There is, he said, ‘accumulated anger’ against Delhi, but if there is any attempt to renew dialogue, the Kashmiri people have responded sincerely.
Since 2014, with the BJP in power in the Centre, seriousness of purpose towards dialogue by Modi and his government has not been in evidence. Kashmir’s desire for a new beginning has been met with more troops, more pellet guns, more young men being tortured. ‘The average Kashmiri’, Tarigami says, ‘feels threatened’. No wonder that only 7.14% of the voting population turned out for the Srinagar by-election in 2017. There is no confidence in the process, none in New Delhi.
Harsh repression is not new to the Valley. Tarigami has experienced it his entire political life. In 1967, he went to prison. He went there again in 1975. And then, in 1979, he was the first person to be booked under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act of 1978. Legal protection for harsh violence traverses the security apparatus. The Public Safety Act is one such protection, while another is the Armed Forces Special Protection Act (AFSPA), which has been regularly condemned by the J&K Assembly. These laws are an invitation to human rights violations. They provide not only a shield for the violations once done, but also provide an incentive to torture. They create a view of the Kashmiri as a terrorist, creating the groundwork for the harsh crackdown and now for the endless curfew of the entire state.
People like Tarigami have insisted that there are not only two sides to this dispute, the side of the Indian State and the side of the secessionist insurgent. The State disregards him, preferring to see its adversary in Kashmir as the insurgent – whom it redefines as the terrorist. Tarigami appears out-of-focus to the State, which does not want to respond to the rational criticisms and proposals of the communists.
The insurgents – particularly the Jamaat section – are threatened by the communists, whom they know to be brave defenders of the Kashmiri people. To delegitimise them, the Jamaat says that communists like Tarigami are against religion, particularly against Islam. Several times Tarigami and Mohammed Khalil Naik – another communist leader – have been physically attacked. It is often not clear if the attack has come from para-military state forces or from the insurgents.
Either way, the communists – such as Tarigami – are seen as a threat by both. In 2004, as Naik campaigned in Wachi, he was attacked several times by grenade and gunfire. The next year, militants entered the heavily guarded Tulsibagh colony in Srinagar and attacked the homes of Tarigami and the Minister for Education Ghulam Nabi Lone. Lone was killed. Tarigami’s guards fought off the attackers, although one of his guards was killed. The day before this attack, the CPI (M)’s Ghulam Nabi Ganaie was assassinated in Anantnag. Last year, guns and grenades were fired at Tarigami’s home in Kulgam.
If matters were bad before 2014, since then they have been beyond terrible. Dialogue between India and Pakistan has broken down. The alliance between the BJP-RSS and the People’s Democratic Party alienated a population already alienated enough; faith in the political class went to zero. Meanwhile, as Tarigami frequently said, the anti-Muslim and anti-Dalit attacks across India and the disregard for the Sachar and Mishra Committees suggested to Kashmiris the fanatical face of the Modi government.
A few days before Kashmir was shrouded in the Modi curfew, Tarigami spoke to Frontline’s Anando Bhakto. The RSS, he said, ‘wants to change the demographics of the state’. A new cohort of Indian troops had arrived in the Valley, while the Indian government asked students from outside the state to leave in a hurry. ‘It appears as though somebody is at war with the people here’, Tarigami said. He knew that the repeal of Articles 370 and 35A was in the offing, and that the RSS-BJP government was eager to bifurcate the state and change its entire character. All this, he said, would increase insecurity and conflict.
In the days before the closure of Kashmir, Tarigami met with Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti, Ghulam Hassan Mir, Hakeem Yaseen, and others. All these political leaders agreed that the troop build-up presaged something nasty from the BJP. They were right. They are now all under house arrest and gagged.
The last few lines in Tarigami’s interview to Bhakto are worth quoting, because these are his last known public utterances: ‘Don’t forget that this [Modi] regime is more authoritarian and stands for more centralisation of power. Once they succeed in Kashmir, the impact will be felt in the rest of the country as well in the near future. That is my concern’.
Courtesy News Click