Muslim-majority Kashmir swears in first woman chief minister

Mehbooba Mufti (56) faces hugely complex security and political situation in region

India's only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, has appointed its first woman chief minister.

Mehbooba Mufti (56) was sworn in as chief executive of the disputed, conservative and war-torn Himalayan state, succeeding her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who died in January.

Kashmir has been under federal rule ever since, as Ms Mufti was involved in contentious negotiations to reconstitute the wobbly coalition between her People's Democratic Party (PDP) and prime minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The PDP’s principal support base is among Muslims in the Kashmir Valley, the epicentre of the separatist insurgency for independence that erupted in 1989, claiming more than 65,000 lives. The largely Hindu Jammu region, in the plains, backs the BJP.


This alliance, forged last March following state elections, is the first of its kind for the restive state, and analysts said after Sayeed’s death that both parties had little choice but to keep it going, if they wanted to remain in power.

Most analysts agreed that under the prevailing circumstances, Ms Mufti was the only one capable of sustaining it as she was a “people’s politician”, sensitive to engaging voters at grassroots level, especially women.

In her three decades-long political career, she had faced down multiple militant threats, significantly raising her own and her party’s image in the turbulent region.

Unlike other Kashmiri politicians, Ms Mufti is known to brave discomfort and travel frequently to remote parts of the Kashmir Valley for extended periods, and to connect with locals squeezed between militants and the security forces.

But officials and politicians in Kashmir said she lacked administrative experience, as she had never occupied any official post.

Consequently, she would have to work hard to keep the alliance going with an ideologically disparate partner, with whom differences erupted frequently.

Learn on the job

“Although Mehbooba has been an active Kashmiri politician and is acceptable to both parties as the new leader, she will have to learn on the job manage the hugely complex security and political situation in the province,” a state BJP legislator said.

A divorcee with two daughters, Ms Mufti entered politics in the 1980s, initially as a member of the Congress Party, and was elected to the state legislature in 1996.

Thereafter, she left the Congress Party on ideological grounds and alongside her father founded the PDP, a party considered broadly sympathetic to a less radical section of Kashmiri separatists.

Ms Mufti is also strongly opposed to the Indian army’s decades-old shoot-to-kill policy, sanctioned by the federal authorities to deal with the region’s armed insurgency.

She wants the federal government to restore to Kashmir its singular constitutional status, which grants it special provisions like flying its own flag and formulating its own laws.

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

This triggered the first war between India and the 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 again in 1965 and in 1999 they fought an 11-week long military skirmish in its mountainous Kargil region in which 1,200 soldiers died, a conflict which threatened to escalate into a nuclear exchange.

Rahul Bedi

Rahul Bedi

Rahul Bedi is a contributor to The Irish Times based in New Delhi