Iltija Mufti wants to talk. In fact, she wants to listen more than just talk. She says Kashmiris are going through the worst time in history, and her weapon of choice is a fortnightly video blog called #AapKiBaatIltijaKeSaat. She’s firm it is not inspired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Mann ki Baat.
The youngest member of the formidable Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) political dynasty of Kashmir took baby steps into politics three years ago when she took over the Twitter handle of her mother Mehbooba Mufti, who was incarcerated after the abrogation of Article 370.
Then, on 27 May, 35-year-old Iltija sparked political speculation when she posted a video on the PDP’s official Twitter handle, criticising the BJP for creating a “khamoshi aur khauf ka mahaul (atmosphere of silence and fear)” and urging Kashmiris to “speak up”.
Iltija says the post was not about her joining politics, and all she wants to do is start a conversation. But that is how many politicians begin their careers. Hillary Clinton started a ‘listening tour’ of America in 1999, ahead of running for Senate. Rahul Gandhi travelled to the far reaches of the country in his ‘Discovery of India’ tours in the late 2000s.
“I am from a political family, I can join politics whenever I want. The idea of this message was not to announce my entry but to start a conversation with the Kashmiris who have not been allowed to speak up,” she insists.
On a pleasant June afternoon at the elegant family home in Srinagar’s Gupkar Road, Iltija wants to stick to talking about Kashmir and Kashmiris. That, and the BJP, for which she reserves scathing criticism — including for protests in the Valley over suspended party spokesperson Nupur Sharma’s comments about the Prophet Muhammad. Staying on such topics, she claims, would be more “appropriate” than talking about herself.
But, whether she wants to make it official or not, Iltija through her TV appearances and public outreach, is becoming known not just as her mother’s daughter, but as the future face of the PDP.
Like Mehbooba, Iltija has a talent for fiery expositions, but unlike her mother, she leaves her hair uncovered, speaks with an accent that’s more New Delhi than Srinagar, and says outright that the late party patriarch, her grandfather Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, made a “mistake” by allying with the BJP in 2015.
Becoming ‘Mummy’s Girl’
Speaking in English interspersed with chaste Urdu, Iltija occasionally lapses into Hindi heartland colloquialisms, especially when she is indignant.
For instance, when talking about alleged custodial deaths in Kashmir, she says: “Kanpatti pe bandook rakh ke… unkno thok diya jaata hai (Guns are put to their temples, they are finished off).”
Her fluency in Hindi is unsurprising. She was born in Delhi and did her schooling from the capital and Shimla.
Iltija Mufti as a baby with her mother and elder sister Irtiqa | Photo by special arrangement
Away from home, she was an outsider in more ways than one, but this pushed her towards books and the ability to empathise with different points of view.
“I had dyslexia as a child and found my refuge in books. If only I had a penny for the number of times that I got smacked for inverting the C alphabet in my cursive-writing books! As someone with learning disabilities, I felt like reading offered a whole new world of unconventional knowledge, interesting characters, and different perspectives,” she says, adding she especially enjoys historical fiction, mythology, and non-fiction about anthropology and the human mind.
Among her favourite novels are Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, both sweeping sagas with strong political undercurrents, but told through the narrative lens of common people.
Despite her love of psychology and literature, Iltija chose to study political science for her undergraduate degree at Delhi University’s Sri Venkateswara College. After that, she flew to the UK, where she did her master’s in international relations from Warwick University.
Like any other well-heeled young woman, she explored various career options in the years that followed, including a stint at Gulf News in Dubai, and then a job as a research assistant for a Delhi-based think tank.
Yet, Kashmir and politics were never too distant.
Between the Dubai and Delhi jobs, she moved home in July 2015, when her grandfather was serving as Chief Minister in the unlikely PDP-BJP coalition government. He was nearly 80 and her brief was to help him keep track of meetings and maintain notes.
After his death in January 2016, her mother — who was often dubbed “Daddy’s Girl” in the media, and even in a police dossier on her — took over, and Iltija flew the coop again. Her mother had everything under control.
That did not last. The BJP broke the alliance in June 2018, claiming that militancy and radicalisation were worsening in Kashmir. The BJP’s national mouthpiece Kamal Sandesh also said that the PM’s “strong political will and determined approach” would bring “lasting peace and development” to the region.
J&K then came under Governor’s rule, followed by President’s rule six months later. It was becoming clear that “normality” was not about to return anytime soon. Military and paramilitary presence swelled in the state, several local leaders were placed under house arrest, and internet services were suspended frequently.
As the atmosphere in Kashmir grew more ominous, Iltija had another homecoming. A few months later, Parliament voted to abrogate Article 370, which granted special status and ‘autonomy’ to J&K, on 5 August 2019. J&K’s statehood was revoked and it became a Union territory under the rule of the BJP central government.
That day Mehbooba Mufti and other Kashmir leaders were placed in detention and cut off from public life. This was the time that Iltija took up the mantle of becoming “Mummy’s Girl”, even saying so at a press meet in 2020.
“Yes my mother was unapologetically a ‘Daddy’s Girl’. I am unapologetically a ‘Mummy’s Girl’. “ I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry upon seeing the charges in the dossier slapping #PSA on @MehboobaMufti says her daughter Iltija while addressing scribes at IWPC @iwpcdelhi pic.twitter.com/dEDdX9ETsm
— Smita Sharma (@Smita_Sharma) February 18, 2020
Iltija took over the reins of her mother’s Twitter account, as well as that of the PDP even though had never been much of a social media user before that (“it stunts personal growth”).
The internet was blocked in the Valley for six months, but Iltija says she managed to “fool” the system and kept her broadband working. It was a risk, but it kept the conversation going.
Since then, there has been no clear communication about elections and regional parties — like the PDP, National Conference, and J&K Apni Party — have been struggling to find a space for political dialogue. Amidst a spate of civilian killings this year, security is tight and there are restrictions on movement in several parts of the Valley.
Mehbooba has been back for a while after her 20-month incarceration, but Iltija doesn’t want to stop what she started, even if she and her mother don’t always see eye to eye.
‘I’m the house bully now’
Dinner table conversations at the Mufti household revolve mostly around politics and the situation in the Valley, but there are light moments too.
“I argue a lot with my mother… and I thoroughly enjoy being the house bully,” Iltija says. Despite the occasional butting of heads, her mother is “more of a friend” and confidante.
“My mother impersonates people very well and has a wicked sense of humour so we also share funny anecdotes,” she says.
Humour is a trait that Iltija possesses too, especially when she recounts her impressions of the various politicians who’ve visited her home. One of her earliest and most vivid memories is of Lalu Prasad Yadav sitting in the beautifully decorated living room and ejecting chewed paan into a spittoon.
However, despite being part of the Mufti dynasty, is there a risk that Iltija could be dismissed as a prodigal daughter who just parachutes in now and then?
Iltija Mufti | Photo by special arrangement
Iltija doesn’t believe so, especially when there is social media to keep connections alive. Clearly, she sees herself as a mouthpiece for the people — a role one might expect her mother to claim.
“I want to just give the people hope. Our voice is the biggest weapon we have and I want to embolden the voice of the Kashmiris,” she says.
“In a place where we barely have the freedom to leave our homes, the only way to stay connected is social media… My nani (maternal grandmother) also stays on the phone all day— that’s where I got the idea from (to reach out to Kashmiris online).”
So far, the response to her first video has been modest, and mixed. Some said she was destined to be the “next CM”, others dismissed her a “dynast”.
But, in her conversation with ThePrint, Iltija stressed she was more interested in speaking the “truth” rather than in “pleasing people”. Still, like any politician, she does seem to care about her image. Before starting the interview, she checked the frame of the camera, and found it wanting — “This shows my profile. Don’t you think it should be straight?” she asked.
Angry young woman
In last month’s video, Iltija did indeed speak of hope, but dwelt longer on the “oppression”, “injustice”, and “humiliation” of Kashmiris, winding up with a couplet on patience in the face of hardship: “Kar leta hun bardash tera har dard isi aas ke sath; ki khuda noor bhi barsata hai, aajmaishon ke baad (I bear every pain inflicted by you with the hope; That even god showers us with light after trials).
An air of despondency & despair has seeped through Kashmir.Everyday new blows are inflicted on us & it’s important we #SpeakUp. The purpose of these fortnightly videos is to throw light on issues & decisions that affect our lives#AapKiBaatIltijaKeSaat#آپ_کی_بات_التجا_کے_ساتھ pic.twitter.com/SRU9C8mteC
— J&K PDP (@jkpdp) May 27, 2022
The latest trial, so to speak, came in the form of shutdowns and internet suspension in parts of the Valley after protests broke out over ‘blasphemous’ remarks about the Prophet Muhammad from BJP leaders Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal. The former has been suspended and the latter expelled from the party, but Iltija is not impressed.
“It’s obvious that the BJPs rabid fringe elements have been mainstreamed. What worries me the most is that it took Arab outrage for the government of India to even make cosmetic changes. The future doesn’t look bright for minorities in India,” she says.
Criticising the BJP is something that Iltija does with passion and eloquence, eyes flashing, rather like her mother. Occasionally, she digresses from other subjects to excoriate the ruling party, and has to be reminded to return to the topic at hand.
“There’s a strong anti-India sentiment in the Valley. Tourism doesn’t mean everything is normal in Kashmir. It’s going worse with each passing day,” she says.
Iltija places the blame for this squarely on the central government: “They have manufactured this anti-India sentiment in Kashmir. They’re making Pakistan’s way in the Valley easy. Defaming political parties is one thing and defaming Kashmiris is another. This government has defamed each and every Kashmiri.”
According to Iltija, the government is peddling “half history” to get votes, but is letting down Muslims, Dogras, and Kashmiri Pandits by stoking communal tensions to “get votes”. Further, she says, the communal conflagrations elsewhere in India are contributing to the radicalisation of young men in Kashmir.
She also takes a jibe at J&K’s Lieutenant Governor, former BJP Union minister Manoj Sharma, seemingly alluding to the recent controversy around him worshipping at a protected temple: “I don’t have a problem with his faith, but he does more puja and less governance.”
But when asked about what she thinks is the way forward, she is not so certain.
‘I’m not happy with anti-India sentiment’
Despite her obvious bitterness towards the Union government and its representatives, Iltija says she is “not happy with the anti-India sentiment” in the Valley. But she also believes the people cannot be blamed for the way they feel.
“We shouldn’t get hyper about Kashmiris feeling resentment against India. Instead, we should understand the reason behind it and work towards fixing it,” she says.
She admits that she has no concrete solutions to offer at this stage. “I know it’s difficult to revoke the abrogation of Article 370. And I do not know how to go about it right now — but I do know that where there is a will, there’s a way. And according to me, the way is to keep raising your voice against the wrongs done to Kashmiris,” Iltija says.
Amid this uncertainty, Iltija says she holds on to her mother’s advice on how to handle problems with “grace and dignity”.
“My mother made it a point to make me understand that politics and power should not determine our sense of personal worth. The most important piece of advice she has given is that life is what you make of it, there will always be problems. But what matters is how you deal with them,” she says.
Growing up in a political family has also taught her that power and materialistic happiness are transient, but “inner peace” and a “sense of gratitude” are worth holding on to, she added.
Nevertheless, she does not agree with every political decision that her family members have taken.
‘My grandfather made wrong assumptions about Modi’
Iltija’s face softens when she talks about her grandfather Mufti Muhammad Sayeed.
Sharing a photo of him sitting with her on a bench in front of the Taj Mahal, she reminisces: “The photographer insisted we take this picture. I felt so self-conscious that I refused at first, but then caved in. Now I’m glad this picture was taken because it’s the last one I have of me with my grandad,” she says.
The last picture that Iltija has of her with her grandfather Mufti Muhammad Sayeed | Photo by special arrangement
It is evident that Iltija’s hopes for Kashmir are in line with the PDP’s broad vision of “self-rule”— often described as ‘soft separatism’— and free movement between “this Kashmir and that Kashmir”.
But, there was a time when the ‘soft separatist’ PDP was in a more than a three-year alliance with the nationalistic BJP, brokered between Narendra Modi and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, and then carried forward by Mehbooba until the BJP broke ties in June 2018.
Since then, Mehbooba Mufti has defended her father’s alliance with the BJP as his attempt to capture the “djinn in the bottle”.
Iltija, however, is not quite so circumspect. She says her grandfather made a “mistake” in thinking that the BJP would do any good in the Valley.
“My grandfather assumed two things. Firstly, he thought Modi is here to stay, he will become a cult figure in Kashmir. He will be immensely popular. And the second thing he assumed, which was wrong, is that Modi will be moderated by the people of this country,” she says. “But Modi made everyone radical. He is destroying the peace of this country.”
Mehbooba’s image as a “firebrand” leader suffered in the fractious alliance with the BJP too, but Iltija is less critical of her: “My mother had a vision to form the government with the BJP. While the PDP was there, we didn’t let them touch Article 370,” she says.
She makes sure to underline that while she and her mother are different people, they both want the same thing.
A case in point is a controversy from April this year, when an Army-run school in Baramulla sent out a circular that staff members should not wear a hijab on the premises. Mehbooba Mufti lashed out at the BJP for its “bulldoz(ing)”, and tweeted that girls in Kashmir “will not give up their right to choose.”
Iltija similarly says that the move was an example of BJP “gundagardi (strongarming)” and it wouldn’t work, whether or not a woman believed in covering her hair or not.
“I never cover my head. My mother does. But she has never asked me… Women should never be asked to wear a hijab and they should never be asked to take it off if they are comfortable with it. Agency should be theirs. Who is the BJP to reform Muslims?” she asks.