Mehbooba Mufti set to become Kashmir’s first woman head

Lawyer to take over as chief minister after incumbent Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s death

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi and home minister Rajnath Singh stand before a casket containing the body of chief minister of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, at Palam Airport in New Delhi, on Thursday. Photograph: EPA/Indian Press Information Bureau

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi and home minister Rajnath Singh stand before a casket containing the body of chief minister of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, at Palam Airport in New Delhi, on Thursday. Photograph: EPA/Indian Press Information Bureau

 

India’s northern Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir province is poised to get its first woman chief minister, following the death of the incumbent Mufti Mohammad Sayeed (79) in New Delhi on Thursday, from a respiratory disorder.

Mr Sayeed’s daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, a 57-year-old lawyer, who currently heads Kashmir’s ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and has faced multiple militant threats, is to take over as chief minister in the conservative Himalayan province.

Ms Mehbooba’s PDP is in a controversial alliance with prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Its main support base is among Muslims in the Kashmir Valley, the epicentre of the separatist insurgency for an independent Muslim homeland that erupted in 1989 and has claimed more than 60,000 lives.

The BJP’s political bailiwick, on the other hand, is in the largely Hindu Jammu region, in the plains. This alliance is the first of its kind for the restive state.

Analysts say Ms Mehbooba lacks administrative experience and will have to work hard in an alliance with an ideologically disparate partner, with whom differences have erupted frequently since the alliance was forged last March following elections.

“Even though Mehbooba has been on Kashmir’s political scene for nearly two decades and is acceptable to her party members as the new leader, she will have to learn on the job,” a senior official in Kashmir’s summer capital Srinagar said.

Divorcee and a mother of two daughters, Ms Mehbooba entered politics in the 1980s, initially as a member of the Congress Party, and was elected to the state legislature in 1996. She subsequently left the Congress Party on ideological grounds and founded the PDP, which is considered broadly sympathetic to a section of Kashmiri separatists.

Ms Mehbooba is strongly opposed to the Indian army’s decades-old shoot-to-kill policy, sanctioned by the federal authorities, to deal with the armed insurgency. She wants the federal government to restore to Kashmir its singular constitutional status that grants it special provisions such as its own flag and the right to formulate its own laws.

These were some of the rights grated to Kashmir when it ceded to India after independence from colonial rule in 1947.

This triggered the first war between India and the then newly-created Islamic state of Pakistan, which led to it being divided between the neighbours, but claimed by both in its entirety.

The two countries went to war over Kashmir in 1965 and in 1999 they fought an 11-week long military skirmish in its mountainous Kargil region, in which 1,200 soldiers on the two sides died, and which threatened to escalate into a nuclear exchange.

Mr Sayeed, a former lawyer, became India’s first Muslim home minister in 1989 for a brief period. Later the same year another of his daughters was kidnapped by Kashmiri militants. She was released in exchange for five jailed rebels, a move for which he was severely criticised.