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Asia

First female leader inherits difficult legacy in Indian Kashmir

In Indian-administered Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, the first-ever female chief minister has taken the reins of power in an alliance with a difficult partner who many view as her enemy. Zahid Rafiq reports from Srinigar.

Gender is the least of Mehbooba Mufti's troubles. The 56-year old became the first-ever woman chief minister of Indian-administered Kashmir earlier this week, but she appears to be in a far tighter spot than those who have preceded her in the job.

The daughter and political heir to Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, former Indian home minister and two-time chief minister of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, assumed power on Monday, almost three months after her 80-year-old father died in office.

After the 2014 elections in the region resulted in a fractured mandate, Mufti's Jammu and Kashmir-based Peoples' Democratic Party (PDP) came to power in an alliance with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), which is also the ruling party in India.

Elected for a six-year term, Sayeed died only after a year in power. While Mufti's stepping up to fill her father's position in the party and in the government came as no surprise, it seems have happened in one of the worst ways possible for her.

Difficult bind

Fighting to stop the BJP, Mufti's current ally, was her party's rallying cry as it sought votes ahead of the 2014 elections. The BJP had already come to power in India with a staggering majority, and the PDP urged the majority Muslims in Indian Kashmir to engage in India's electoral process - and not boycott it as called for by the region's pro-independence leadership - to halt the march of the "rightwing anti-Muslim forces of the BJP."

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (center left) greets Mufti Mohammed Sayeed after the latter was sworn in as the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir state

Sayeed (center right) entered in a difficult alliance with the BJP, led by Narendra Modi on a national level

"There was a fear psychosis created here in the name of BJP and we fell for it. It was the first time I ever voted, because for me BJP is an alien rightwing Hindu ideology, it is synonymous to the demolition of the centuries old Babri Masjid [mosque in 1992], the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat [in 2002]," Rayees Ahmad, a bank employee in Srinagar, told DW. "I fell in the trap of voting to keep it away," he said.

The PDP's decision to ally with the BJP in order to come to power in the region did vast damage to the party's credibility among Muslim voters and the notion of a pro-Kashmiri Muslim that Sayeed and - even more so - his daughter had worked hard to create.

While Mufti calls her 1996 entry into politics an accident, there is hardly anything accidental about the two decades of political career that followed.

Armed resistance to Indian rule in the region was still at a high in 1996, when Sayeed, then still a member of the Indian National Congress party, and unable to find candidates willing to contest elections, fielded his 37-year-old daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, a divorced single mother of two girls. She won the race and joined the state assembly.

At a time when pro-India politicians were wary of going among the people, many of whom were up at arms against India and its Kashmiri "collaborators," Mehbooba Mufti ventured out wearing traditional clothes with Islamic accents - green headscarves and flowing green abayas - and visited the mourning families of slain pro-independence Muslim militants killed by Indian forces. She sat and cried with the women and she spoke out against human rights violations.

Face of the PDP

In 1999, the Muftis launched their new party, the Jammur and Kashmir Peoples' Democratic Party, and only three years later came to power for the first time.

Mufti Mohammed Sayeed

Sayeed was the brains behind the PDP, Mahbooba the legs

While firmly entrenched within the Indian polity, the PDP managed to position its political rhetoric close to the aspirations of Kashmiris and spoke a cleverly crafted language that earned them the sobriquet of being peddlers of "soft separatism." With some success, they created an illusion of the possibility of Kashmiri "self rule" within the Indian union. They spoke of joint control of divided Kashmir by both India and Pakistan, joint legislative assemblies, use of dual currencies (Indian and Pakistani) and of porous borders.

If the PDP, under the aegis of the Indian state, was the brainchild of Sayeed, it had the legs of Mehbooba Mufti. While her father, a shrewd politician, was never a particularly popular leader, she became the interface with the people.

"She created an image of being a woman politician who felt the pain of those women who had lost their sons, brothers, fathers, those women who had been raped by Indian forces," said Parveena Ahangar, who heads the Association of Parents of Disappeared People, an organization of people who have had family members disappear since 1989. "In 2002, when her father came to power for the first time, she said she would work to trace the disappeared, but it was all talk," she said.

Ahangar said that neither she nor anyone from her organization had any hopes that Mufti would resolve the disappearances justice.

"It is not about being a man or woman, what has gender got to with it?" she said. "It is about justice and injustice."

Parveena Ahangar stands in front of photos of the disappeared at the office of the Association of Parents of Disappeared People -

Ahangar says the families of the disappeared no longer expect much from Mufti

Srinagar-based writer and social worker Essar Batool said the gender perspective on Mufti's ascent to the chief minister's chair was merely symbolic and that, in the context of recent Kashmiri history, "it would not suggest empowerment."

"When she was in opposition, she made promises to fight for justice and took ethical positions, but since they have come to power a year ago, she has been completely silent. And it makes sense," said Batool, who recently co-authored a book of essays about the mass rape of scores of Kashmiri women by Indian soldiers in 1991.

"When has the chief minister here had any real power? It is a mere extension of the Indian state and not a thing in itself. While you may call me a skeptic, I don't think she can deliver. But let's see how her actions match up to all her talk," said Batool.

As Mufti gains more power, she carries the baggage of the image she created of herself and inherits from her father and an alliance with a party that allows that image no scope. Amid stories of Muslims and Kashmiris, in particular, being beaten or even killed, the BJP's refusal to respect the state constitution and the Kashmiri flag and regular snubs by the BJP high command, the biggest challenge Mufti faces may not be from any opposition but from her allies.

Meanwhile, many in Indian-administered Kashmir appear to be growing indifferent not only to the PDP, but to pro-India politics in general.

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