Caught in a Bind


India Today - - INSIDE - By Asit Jolly in Sri­na­gar Pho­to­graphs by ABID BHAT

With an in­flex­i­ble Cen­tre on one side and the cadres of her own party re­belling, Me­hbooba Mufti is strug­gling to con­trol Jammu and Kash­mir


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

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