Caught in a Bind
BUFFETED BY INSURGENCY AND DISSENT WITHIN HER PARTY, MEHBOOBA MUFTI NEEDS ALL THE HELP SHE CAN GET FROM A RELUCTANT CENTRE
With an inflexible Centre on one side and the cadres of her own party rebelling, Mehbooba Mufti is struggling to control Jammu and Kashmir
FAIRVIEW, JAMMU AND KASHMIR CHIEF MINISTER
Mehbooba Mufti Sayeed’s official residence at the far end of Srinagar’s Gupkar Road, with its freshly painted and varnished facades and neatly manicured lawns, has never looked better. But in stark contrast to the headier times, when the late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed led his People’s Democratic Party to power in partnership with the Bharatiya Janata Party two years ago, there’s a discernible despondency to the place. It also reflects in Mehbooba’s grudging smile as she greets visitors to her home. Thirteen tumultuous months since she reluctantly agreed to succeed her father on April 4, 2016, J&K’s first and only woman chief minister has her back to the wall. This amid civil unrest that simply refuses to ebb, an increasingly obdurate central government that has rejected any possible dialogue with the separatists, murmurs of rebellion in the party and rapidly shrinking support in the PDP’s hitherto unchallenged bastion of South Kashmir.
Close to 90 civilians were killed in the unremitting violence that consumed the Valley last year as ferocious street protests were met with brutal response after the young militant icon Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter on July 8. Over 15,000, including police, paramilitary and army personnel, were injured. Scores of youngsters, including innocent bystanders like young schoolgirl Insha Malik, were blinded by pellets raining from pump-action shotguns deployed to quell the protests.
The brief pause in the violence through the winter freeze now threatens to spiral into yet another cycle of unending strife.
The Lok Sabha byelection in Srinagar on April 9 left eight civilians dead. At least 300, including several evidently unprepared paramilitary personnel who trucked in just an evening earlier to conduct the election, were seriously injured. A second pending byelection in Anantnag, necessitated after Mehbooba’s election to the state assembly last June, was initially deferred to May 25 and ultimately cancelled by the Election Commission.
But it’s far from over. “Kashmir is a tinderbox that no longer needs the killing of another Burhan Wani to set things ablaze,” says a senior security official in Srinagar. Police action at Pulwama’s Government Degree College on April 15 to arrest ‘miscreants’ for pelting stones on an army vehicle sparked off spontaneous protests across the Valley. In Srinagar, young girl students, many in school uniforms, joined in the stone-pelting for the first time (see box: Anger Etched
in Stone). With trouble erupting at the unlikeliest of spots, like the angry stone-pelting and shrill sloganeering for ‘azadi’ and ‘Burhan’ during a procession of schoolgirls in Navakadal (Downtown Srinagar), security personnel remain on a constant nervous edge.
“The magnitude of the violence may be a tad lower than in 2016, but the alienation amid Kashmir’s youth is near-complete,” says Srinagar-based journalist and commentator Shujaat Bukhari. The Hurriyat separatists who had hitherto orchestrated almost every radical manoeuvre in the Valley, he says, “are no longer in control. In fact, they don’t seem to have a clue”.
But it is not just street protests Mehbooba has to contend with. Kashmir is witnessing a significant upsurge in militant strikes, almost in tandem with the spreading unrest. On April 24, three armed Hizbul Mujahideen militants waylaid PDP’s Pulwama district president Abdul Gani Dar and shot him dead pointblank. Earlier in the same week, militants in Shopian targeted National Conference leader Imtiyaz Ahmad Khan. And significantly upping the ante on May 1, three Hizbul fighters, led by Umar Majid, gunned down five police constables and two private security guards accompanying a Jammu and Kashmir Bank cash van outside Pombai village in Kulgam district.
Since the PDP-BJP coalition assumed office in March 2015, 457 people, including 48 civilians, 134 security force personnel and 275 militants, have been killed in the state. And that’s not counting the more than hundred lives lost in the ongoing civil unrest.
Back in Srinagar, Peerzada Abbas Amin has been with the PDP since 2003 and is currently stationed at the party’s heavily guarded headquarters on General Post Office Road. “For the first time in so many years, I fear going back to visit my family in Anantnag,” he says, echoing the fears of most lower and mid-rung PDP workers in the Valley. Mehbooba, too, privately acknowledges the problem where “naturally fearful party workers are no longer living in their villages to escape becoming targets”.
But a big part of the problem, according to PDP workers like Amin, is the CM’s failure to involve the party in the bits and pieces of governance and development that have
been achieved amid the strife. “Workers have been kept aloof,” Amin laments. He points to Laadli and Aasra, two social welfare schemes rolled out for girl children and poor families, as also the amnesty scheme for young stone-pelters, where no attempt was made to involve the PDP workers on the ground. “We have been rendered irrelevant. Why would anyone listen to us?” he asks.
Equally disillusioned, a junior party functionary who played a significant part in the party’s historic 2014 Lok Sabha victory trouncing former CM Farooq Abdullah, says the PDP’s defeat in the April 9 byelection is certain indication of the party’s plummeting support base in the Valley. Whenever they will eventually be held, the byelection in Anantnag, he predicts, “will spell even more trouble for the PDP” in its South Kashmir bastion, where the party’s strong voter base has shrunk perceptibly. A senior J&K Police official familiar with the oscillating electoral trends in Kashmir agrees. “The PDP’s defeat in Srinagar is a strong message to the party’s leadership,” he says, pointing out that even in segments like Kangan, which suffered no violence or killing through the 2016 unrest, the voter turnout was less than a third of that in 2014.
LONG BEFORE MEHBOOBA AND her colleagues even took note, a 2016 security dossier communicated to the Union ministry for home affairs in Delhi just weeks before the Burhan Wani encounter on July 8 had spoken of the spreading alienation amid PDP voters. “The youth on the fringes who were attracted to the PDP (soft separatist line and anti-BJP narrative) during the elections are feeling ‘betrayed’. This includes a large number from the Jamaat and separatist camps, who are pushing apprehensions that the BJP/RSS would ‘destroy’ their Muslim and Kashmiri identity. These elements are constantly on the search for ‘triggers’ to bring people on to the roads,” said the dossier. The assessment couldn’t have been closer to the truth in the Kashmiri hinterland.
Besides her disenchanted workers, Mehbooba also faces trouble from senior colleagues, such as party veteran Muzaffar Baig. A former deputy chief minister in the Mufti’s first government, Baig has said that the PDP has lost significant political ground in coalition with the BJP. He’s even suggesting that Mehbooba should consider pulling the plug and “go back to the people and try earning their trust again”.
The oldest of Mufti Sayeed’s four children and his anointed political heir, Mehbooba contested her first election as a Congress nominee from Bijbehara in 1996 when few were willing to represent the party after six years under President’s rule. By 1999, when the Mufti decided to part ways with the Congress, she was right beside him, taking the lead in building a whole new party from scratch. Working in concert, the Mufti crafted his Kashmir-centric strategy in Srinagar, while Mehbooba tirelessly articulated it on the ground to emerge as the face of the PDP. In 2002, the party won 16 seats and the chief ministership for the Mufti in a three-year swap arrangement with the Congress. In 2008, Mehbooba pushed up her seat tally to 21 and
The Hurriyat separatists who orchestrated most of the radical manoeuvres are no longer in control
Stone-pelting protesters battle security forces at Srinagar’s Lal Chowk on April 24 THE NEW NORMAL