The 23rd March 1987, the day that changed Kashmir as never before

Muslim United Front

The 23rd March 1987, the day that changed Kashmir as never before

Many formidable Indian politicians have said on record that elections for Jammu and Kashmir’s legislative assembly have seldom been free and fair. The alleged widespread rigging in the 1987 elections could well be described as a watershed moment in the Himalayan region’s tumultuous political history, as the then newly formed political alliance of like-minded parties, Muslim United Front (MUF), felt disgruntled after most of its candidates were declared unsuccessful. Did the 1987 elections compel Kashmiris to question a political process controlled and managed by New Delhi and did the ‘rigging’ fuel popular anti-India armed uprising of 1989, Daanish Bin Nabi tries to ferret out.

In words of Prem Shankar Jha, one of India’s leading journalists and columnists, it was New Delhi which put a question mark on the electoral process in Jammu and Kashmir.

“If New Delhi had not rigged the elections then people like Yasin Malik and Salahuddin (Yusuf Shah) would obviously have joined any other mainstream Indian political party and situation in Kashmir would have obviously been different,” Jha said in an earlier interview with Rising Kashmir.

It is an open secret that India’s then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi led government with the help of the then ruling party in Jammu and Kashmir, National Conference (NC), facilitated the alleged rigging of elections.

According to the “Statistical Report on General Election, 1987 to the Legislative Assembly of Jammu & Kashmir” about 74.88 percent voters exercised their right to adult franchise, but in spite of these controversially exaggerated statistics the elections ended up as a major embarrassment for the Government of India.

The Islamic Students League (ISL), one of the constituents of MUF, was an influential organisations formed in 1984. Initially, it was known to people as ‘Tala’ party. It was renamed as the ISL in 1986. Mohammad Abdullah Shirazi became its first president while Mohammad Yasin Malik ISL’s general secretary.

As part of an electoral arrangement MUF offered three seats to ISL, but it refused to contest elections. The party did not believe in the electoral system under Indian constitution. However, the ISL was instrumental in building sympathy and support for MUF in the Kashmir Valley and also supported it from outside. ISL also took MUF’s campaigning responsibility in all the five assembly segments of summer capital, Srinagar.

The main objective, according to MUF, behind contesting elections was to address Kashmir’s political question.

Altaf Ahmad Shah, son-in-law of Kashmir’s inarguably most popular resistance leader Syed Ali Geelani, was also an active MUF activist.

“The 1987 elections were fought to control the assembly, not for governing J&K but to find a constitutional way-out for creating international pressure on India so that it respected the aspirations of Kashmiri. Whether we would have passed the resolution or not is debatable, but the important thing about MUF was that all the constituent parties were pro-independence or pro-right to self determination. Our primary objective was to pass a resolution, favouring Kashmir’s independence. That way we could have demonstrated to the world what Kashmiris wanted,” recollects Altaf Shah.

MUF gained popularity as an indigenous Kashmiri political platform, fighting for the Kashmir issue.

Mohammad Yusuf Hakeem, then member of MUF’s governing body, says that Pakistan had no role in MUF’s creation.

“I was one of the members from ‘Shia Rabita’ Committee. Pakistan had no hand in creating MUF. This amalgam was totally indigenous. The root cause of militancy in Kashmir is the rigging in 1987 elections,” he firmly believes.

Origins of MUF

In many ways MUF was a platform founded by intellectuals. Three professors — Abdul Gani Bhat, Abdul Rahim and Sharief-ud-Din — were instrumental behind MUF’s creation.

Prof. Abdul Gani Bhat, a professor of Persian language at Sopore Degree College, was dismissed from services in February 1986 along with two other professors for their “anti-India” activities.

“I along with two other professors, Abdul Rahim of Geology Department and Sharief-ud-Din of Arabic Department were dismissed on February 27, 1986. Our services were terminated on the ground that we constituted a threat to the security of Indian state,” recalls Prof. Bhat.

After their dismissal the trio formed Muslim Employees Front (MEF) in March 1986, a prelude to MUF.

According to Prof. Bhat MEF became a reality at Ghulam Rasool Bach’s residence in Sopore.

“First, we organized ourselves as Muslim Employees Front (MEF). Ghulam Rasool Bach and Mohammad Ashraf Saraf were instrumental in doing that. MEF was formed at Prof. Ghulam Rasool Bach’s Sopore home. MEF took care of Muslim Employees and MUF dealt with political issues of Muslims. The constitution of MUF was adopted on July 13, 1986 at Botengo, Sopore. Molvi Abbas Ansari, Dr Qazi Nissar, Khaja Mohammad Bhat (then Amir-e- Jam’at-e-Islami, JeI), Dr. Ghulam Qadir Wani, Hakeem Ghulam Rasool Wani were its founding members.”

Finances play an important role in any political movement. The MUF, in words of Prof. Bhat, was literally “penniless”.

“There were financial, transportation and communication constraints. We were absolutely dependent on the JeI. The Jamaat too had only one vehicle. With time not at our disposal we still managed to mobilise the masses. Jammu and Kashmir’s then chief minister, Dr Farooq Abdullah, got jittery about the peoples’ movement and in panic went to meet Rajiv Gandhi, then PM of India, and decided to rig the elections. For me, it was the moment when India changed Kashmir forever,” Bhat says in his uncanny style.

The building-up to the 1987 elections was euphoric.

MUF’s election rallies and campaign songs became a major attraction for Kashmiri youth who enthusiastically participated in rallies and went crazy while dancing.

When MUF’s candidates, clad in shrouds, were introduced to people on 4 March, 1987 in Iqbal Park Srinagar, the scenes were historic. More than 100,000 people attended the memorable rally.

Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai, then an important MUF candidate and presently general secretary of Tehreek-i-Hurriyat, recollects how the key MUF candidates presented themselves before the masses, wearing shrouds.

“We introduced MUF candidates for legislative assembly in Iqbal Park. Our candidates like Syed Shah (Shabir Shah’s brother) Mohammad Yusuf Shah (now chief of United Jehad Council, UJC), Ghulam Nabi Sumji were clad in shrouds that day. Because we had pledged that we will try our best to achieve our goal and would neither abandon our struggle nor give up on our principled stand,” says Sehrai.

The immense love for Pakistan among the youth was evident on that very particular day. Each time a speaker would use the word Pakistan, the atmosphere would turn electric and the ecstatic crowds would be on their feet.

“In my speech, I said let there be no mistake about it, I love Pakistan but it does not mean we hate India. When I said, ‘I love Pakistan’, Yasin Malik, Javid Mir and Ashfaq Majeed literally turned crazy. There was passionate sloganeering all around. And it was same for every speaker who spoke on that historic day,” says Prof. Bhat.

MUF’s public rallies would mostly reverberate with religious slogans. Islam was invoked to mobilise the masses and attract the potential voters. Songs like “Aei  Mard-e-Mujahid Jaag Zara, Ab Waqt Shahad Hae Aaya,” (O’ brave warriors, wake up, the moment to achieve martyrdom has come) became popular in MUF’s election rallies.

Structure of MUF

The decision making body of MUF was Majlis-e-Muntazima (Executive Council). Five people who became core members of ‘Majlis-e- Muntazima’ included then Amir-e- Jam’aat Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, Qazi Nissar, Molvi Abbas Ansari, Prof. Abdul Gani Bhat and Dr Qadir Wani. Governing body of MUF consisted of over 15 members. Prof. Bhat also featured as MUF’s chief spokesperson while Moulvi Abbas Ansari became its convener. On the ground, it were the JeI and ISL sympathisers who helped MUF to organize and manage MUF’s election campaign.

March 23, the Election Day

The March 23, 1987 was chosen as the day for the elections in Jammu and Kashmir. It is a mere coincidence that March 23 is also the Pakistan Day. There was euphoria and jubilation all over and most Kashmiris believed that MUF candidates would emerge triumphant.

However, it was not to be.

Many polling agents of MUF who now either are working in government departments or have retired as senior government officials told me that the 1987 election should never be taken as election rhetoric. It was a strategy. The strategy was to reach out as many people as possible. MUF wanted people to get educated about their political rights. And the election was the best occasion to mobilise people.

In words of Altaf Ahmed Shah, March 23 was an anti-India day in Kashmir.

Election Rigging

The elections were allegedly rigged. It was a ‘mass rigging’. Many historians hold NC solely responsible for the “rigging”.

“Farooq Abdullah and the NC government were responsible for rigging. They feared that MUF might win it big. Since 1947, NC has had a formula of winning, they would only give five seats to the opposition, rig the elections and form a government of their own. Dulat in his book has categorically said that we would structure the elections in Kashmir which says it all,” says Dr Javid Iqbal, a local commentator.

Former chief of the JeI Khwaja Mohammad puts blame squarely on the police and army.

“Elections were always rigged in Kashmir. That’s why MUF jumped into the election fray to provide genuine democracy to people. And people overwhelmingly supported this movement, as they came out in record numbers to cast votes. It was not the democracy, but monarchy (police and army) that won the day. Massive rigging took place. Almost every single polling booth was captured. Ali Mohammad Watali, the then DIG Police, was at the forefront in this ‘tamasha’. Army supported him (Watali) in every possible way. Rajiv Gandhi, then India’s Prime Minister, also gave it (rigging) a go ahead. On the counting day, our (MUF) fate was sealed,” Mohammad says.

Echoing Dr Iqbal’s views, Altaf Ahmad Shah says that “the statecraft of Delhi always foresees things in Kashmir. New Delhi had all the data and profiles of MUF candidates and it (Delhi) knew if MUF came to power it would not remain silent on the disputed nature of Kashmir. Delhi conspired against us and rigged the election through agencies.”

Former DIG of J&K Police, Ali Mohammad Watali, refused to make a comment.

However, National Conference’s general secretary Ali Mohammad Sagar rfutes all allegations of election rigging.

“All the allegations of rigging are a myth created by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. Had we rigged the elections how come the MUF won four seats? If there is any rigging in any assembly segment, there has to be some evidence to support it. Was there any complaint registered in the court of law? How was Syed Ali Geelani able to win his assembly seat? The allegations of rigging are totally baseless and misleading,” asserts Sagar.

The result in the assembly constituency, Amira Kadal, from where Mohammad Yusuf Shah alias Syed Salahudd fought elections created ripples.

Altaf Shah was the chief election campaigner for Yusuf Shah.

“Bemina Degree College was the counting centre.  I am one of the witnesses regarding what happened on the counting day. When counting started, Yusuf Shah was leading round after round. He was way ahead of his immediate opponent, Mohi-ud-Din Shah. Counting was still on, Yusuf Shah had a clear majority. But then a shocking statement about Mohi-ud-Din’s victory was announced. I will not claim that we would have won the majority, but MUF had the strength to form the government on its own because there was a wave in favour of the MUF,” says Altaf Shah.

However, it was not only about Amira Kadal. Allegations of enormous rigging were alleged and reported from other assembly segments as well, for instance Kupwara.

“More than 10,000 votes were stolen from my polling booth in Kupwara with the help of police and army. There was a total ‘Goonda Raj’ in my constituency. There was no one to stop them. Mushtaq Lone, who was declared winner in Kupwara, won with a margin of more than 2000 votes,” says Ashraf Sehrai.

Hakeem Mohammad Jabbar was MUF’s candidate for Sonwar assembly constituency. Mohammad Yusuf Hakeem, Jabbar’s brother, was polling agent for his brother. He had a similar account to share.

“Ballot boxes were transferred from Hazratbal constituency to Sonwar so that fake votes would be cast. National Conference’s Abdul Samad Teli was eventually declared winner by a margin of 1200 votes,” says Hakeem.

Yasin Malik, presently chief of pro-independence Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) and then polling agent of Yusuf Shah, also shares his bitter experience of the 1987 elections.

“We took a rally from Maisuma Chowk. Yusuf Shah was leading it and for the entire day we campaigned in Srinagar. On that very night many of our members were arrested. Some of us went underground and campaigned for a cause. On the counting day, 27 March 1987, NC’s sympathisers were counting fake votes in favour of their candidate Mohi-ud-Din Shah. One of the polling booths was at Convent School. Yusuf Shah was severely beaten, his clothes torn apart. Then we proceeded to Saraibala booth. SSP Gill was present there. He fired upon us and we rushed for safety, but Hameed, one of our colleagues, was caught. He was taken to Shergari Police Station. It is on record that SSP Gill and Mohi-ud-Din Shah themselves beat Hameed to pulp inside the police station. When we reached to Bemina Degree College, the counting for Habakadal and Amirakadal assembly segments was underway, but there too NC men were deployed. SSP Gill had also reached there by that time. When I asked him what is happening, he replied that ‘you are the most wanted man but I do not want to arrest you inside a polling booth’. We protested and went to JeI’s Batamloo office. Finally, on 3 April, I was arrested and sent to Red 16 Interrogation Centre. And I was tortured there because of which my heart valve got severely damaged. Subsequently, hundreds of other ISL activists were jailed and sent to Red 16 where they were brutally tortured,” says Malik.

Author Prof. Sumantra Bose in his book, ‘Contested Lands: Israel–Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Cyprus, and Sri Lanka’ also admits that the 1987 elections were “blatantly rigged”.

“…The MUF evoked a significant popular response and acquired an army of young volunteers who worked tirelessly in its campaign. Their efforts and hopes came to nothing when the election was blatantly rigged by the bureaucracy and police at the behest of the NC-Congress alliance, which won sixty-two of the seventy-six seats at stake, while the MUF got just four,” writes Dr Bose.

Curbing Political Space

Two unfortunate events changed Kashmir’s political landscape.

One, the hanging of Mohammad Maqbool Bhat in February 1984. In the same year, Farooq Abdullah was dismissed in a bizarre manner.

Two, the rigging in 1987 elections proved a catalyst for ‘secessionism’ in Kashmir.

Former JeI chief Khwaja Bhat says that Jama’at’s Batamaloo office was raided and many MUF members arrested.

“On the counting day, our Batamaloo office was raided. Most of us were arrested, including Yusuf Shah (Salahuddin), Prof. Bhat, Sheikh Mohammad Ashraf and others. However, Yasin Malik managed to give police a slip in the first raid. I was sent to Reasi jail and kept in solitary confinement,” he says.

The arrest spree continued for days together and most of the activists of MUF were arrested, in violation of democratic process. The only ones left unharmed were four winning candidates.

“All of us were arrested. Only the four MUF candidates who were declared winners were let free. Polling agents and campaigners were arrested and tortured,” he says.

Photojournalist Mohammad Ameen Pholu covered the 1987 elections for Urdu daily ‘Aftab’ and Pana Asia (Japanese Photo Agency). Pholu captured the mood of the people through his lens.

“There was a wave in favour of the MUF. People wanted a change and voted overwhelmingly for it. But why the MUF was not able to form the government, only Allah knows,” he says.

The rigging and subsequent arrests pushed the dissenters to start an armed struggle against India’s rule in Kashmir in 1988.

Non-violent separatist politics in Kashmir would take a backseat until the emergence of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) in 1993, a conglomerate comprising of more than 23 religious, social and political groups committed to striving for Kashmir’s resolution through peaceful means.

About the incarceration of MUF activists, Dr. Bose argues in his book that “a vindictive crackdown on the young men who had worked for the MUF followed — many were incarcerated for months without charge or trial, and some were tortured.”


If one goes by popular belief, the MUF was expected to win between 25 to 30 assembly segments, but won only four: Sopore, Home Shalibugh, Anantnag and Kulgam.

The alleged electoral fraud meant that the there were no takers for Indian democracy in Kashmir.

Dr Javid Iqbal says that “the people got disillusioned with Indian democracy and thought that democracy might not be a solution to their problems. In despair, people lost all hope in the democratic process.”

Some believe that had India provided platform to the MUF, the chaos prevalent in Kashmir would not have continued and perhaps democracy in Kashmir would have flourished. However, it in no way implies that that the larger political question of Kashmir would have ceased to exist.

Dr Sheikh Showkat Hussain, expert in International law, believes that India’s former spymaster A S Dulat has clearly shown in his recently released memoir how elections in Kashmir have always been managed by New Delhi.

“Former R&AW chief, A S Dulat, has made everything clear in his book, in which he writes that elections were always managed by New Delhi right from 1952. The consequence of the rigging was eruption of militancy in Kashmir.”

The larger question today to ponder over today is why New Delhi failed to respect either the shroud-wearing Kashmiri politicians of 1987 or the gun-wielding Kashmiri militants of 1989? New Delhi by undermining democratic processes in Jammu and Kashmir has only itself to blame.

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