No sign of the Muftis, Pakistani flags take over Jammu and Kashmir chief minister’s hometown
Ahmed Ali Fayyaz
Militants roam freely in Bijbehara. Graffiti declares it is 'Burhan Wani's town', while the Muftis' ancestral home looks deserted
Ahmed Ali Fayyaz
Mehbooba Mufti and her parents have lived in Srinagar for over 40 years now but the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir has never severed her attachment to Bijbehara, a town in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district. Neither did her parents.
The family frequently shuttled between their ancestral home in Baba Mohalla of Bijbehara, a densely populated downtown area on the left bank of the Jhelum river, and their second home in Srinagar when her father, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, was Union home minister in 1989-90 and a separatist insurgency was sprouting like a volcanic eruption. Her sister, Rubaiya, was effortlessly lifted from a minibus by Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front guerrillas in 1989.
When Sayeed ceased to be in power, his personal security officer, Abdul Jabbar, with a pistol in his pocket, would escort the politician’s wife, Gulshan, hiding under a burqa, on a passenger bus from Nowgam to Bijbehara and back. When Sayeed became the state’s chief minister for the first time in 2004, he took an extraordinary interest in Bijbehara’s development. He roped in J&K Bank chairman Haseeb Drabu and added splendour to the famous Dara Shikoh garden across the Jhelum.
On January 29 this year, Sayeed, in his second stint as chief minister, was scheduled to inaugurate a resthouse in a corner of Dara Shikoh garden. He didn’t make it. Sayeed died in Delhi on January 7. He was laid to his eternal rest close to the resthouse, furlongs away from his ancestral home. His only child in politics and successor, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, made numerous trips to Bijbehara for the remembrance rituals.
The three-storey family home, made in typical Kashmiri architecture in the early years of the 20th century, now stands forlorn, guarded by the Jammu and Kashmir Police from inside. Sayeed’s brother, Mufti Amin, and nephew, Mufti Sajjad, live in an adjoining house, in the elbow of the shrine of 14th century saint Baba Naseeb-ud-din Gazi.
On a visit to the neighbourhood on Tuesday, for five minutes, there seemed to be no sign of life in the ghost house. Knocking on the gate didn’t go waste though. One of the armed guards, exposing half of his face from a peephole, said the Muftis had shifted “to some other place” after the situation turned explosive with Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani’s death in an encounter on July 8.
Only a few people could be seen strolling or driving in the neighbourhood. It looked like a curfew town. Four neighbours said Mufti Amin and Mufti Sajjad, who retired as a divisional forest officer and is now the Peoples Democratic Party’s coordinator for south Kashmir, could be “either in Srinagar or at their new mansion” in New Colony of Bijbehara.
On October 30, two officers, including a senior official of the education department, claimed to have seen a green and white Pakistani national flag hanging against a side window of the Mufti home. That room was where Sayeed had spent the prime of his youth. The flag did not exist two days later. The guards had perhaps mustered the courage to remove it – the way one had been pulled down earlier, but not before it had made headlines and been shown on television news channels.
A short distance from Baba Mohalla, a Pakistani flag fluttered, along with two flags of “Azad Jammu and Kashmir” (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir), on the arch of the entrance to the Mazaar-e-Shuhada, a public park-turned-cemetery for civilians and militants killed by security forces after 1993. An eerie silence prevailed. Nobody seemed to be living in the rows of opulent houses in New Colony. Graffiti on street walls and alleys declared Bijbehara “Burhan’s town”, “Hizbul Mujahideen’s town” and part of the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan”.
Mufti Sajjad’s palatial new house is at a stone’s throw from the cemetery, which is meticulously fenced with a plinth and painted iron grill and houses the tombs of 43 men. Twenty-two of them were among the 34 demonstrators killed in firing by the Border Security Force on October 22, 1993, during a procession against the Army siege of the shrine of Hazratbal. The month-long stand-off between the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front and the Army was later resolved when the Union government gave safe passage to the militants holed up in the shrine without bloodshed.
Of the 34 killed, the names of 32 are inscribed on a marble stone at the rear of the cemetery. The last one is that of a 15-year-old Kashmiri Pandit boy, Kanwal Ji Kaul alias Babloo.
Kaul’s name is conspicuously missing from a new commemoration installed on the left side of the park’s entrance. “It’s not because he was a Pandit,” said Ghulam Rasool, a resident. “In fact, around a dozen of the Muslim martyrs’ names are also not there. The management has put up the names of only those who are buried here.”
Eighteen of the 21 buried in the New Colony graveyard between 1994 and 2016 are militants – seven of them foreigners, including an Afghan national. At the bottom of the list are the names Adil Ahmad Sheikh and Tanveer Ahmad Bhat, both Hizbul Mujahideen militants and residents of Bijbehara who were killed in an encounter at Siligam Mattan in Anantnag on November 23, 2015. Around 8,000 people attended the funeral prayers of each of them, around double the number who joined Sayeed’s last rites.
Aamir Nazir Latoo, a Masters student of commerce at Aligarh Muslim University and a former Delhi University pupil, is the last name on the list. He was one of the four Bijbehara civilians killed in firing by security forces during the summer unrest after the death of Burhan Wani. The turbulence, which has waned but not ceased, claimed around 90 lives across Kashmir and left thousands injured.
The graveyard in New Colony is one of four in Bijbehara, the others being at Jablipora, Zirpara and Pirshah Mohalla. The flags of Pakistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir have been removed from these three.
There have been reports of militants visiting New Colony, which some residents confirmed. They said that on October 22, the anniversary of the 1993 massacre, armed militants appeared at the graveyard and paid salutes to the men buried there.
One of the residents is a retired police officer. In July, he received a letter alleging his son, a station house officer in adjoining Kulgam district, had committed atrocities on innocent people. As directed in the letter, the retired policeman walked into the local mosque and read out an apology on behalf of his family, fearing that a member could be killed or his house demolished. In Kulgam, militants and demonstrators damaged the house of his son’s father-in-law, who was an MLA in the 1970s, and paraded dogs with tags of his grandchildren’s names. His son, now posted in a different district, could not attend an engagement of a family member in Bijbehara last week as he learned that militants were on the prowl.
Two residents, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “They [militants] stay here without fear of cordon and search operations as they enjoy tremendous public support.” According to them, small groups of armed men, including Pakistani jihadist cadres, appear at weddings and mosques where they indoctrinate the youth for jihad.
One of the officials, who did not want to be identified, claimed militants had recruited 20 cadre and 50 overground workers in the last four months in Bijbehara.
Members of the Special Operations Group of the Anantnag Police, however, claimed only five youth were missing in all of Anantnag, and that just two of them were residents of Bijbehara. “We are aware that one of them has joined the Hizbul Mujahideen and another the LeT,” said an officer. “We are trying to learn about the three others.”
He, however, admitted militants enjoyed “substantial public support” in parts of Anantnag, particularly in the Bijbehara-Kulgam belt. He said the Special Operations Group, along with the Army and Border Security Force, carried out cordon-and-search operations “wherever we get specific information”. Residents said that the Police and security forces swooped down on some interiors and spread fear while thrashing the youths and shattering windows, like on the day of Eid-ul-Azha, but they insisted that the forces had not ventured into areas like New Colony for fear of the mob and the militant attacks.
According to Inspector Arshad Khan, station house officer of Bijbehara, the town is among the places worst-hit by the 117-day-long unrest in the Valley. “We have faced fierce attacks from stone-pelters and miscreants,” he said. “They killed a police official by pushing his vehicle into the Jhelum. They torched trucks, damaged hundreds of civilian and police vehicles and left the drivers and commuters besides scores of our men injured.”
He added that the last three days, though, had seen no fresh attacks and expressed relief at the fact that a good number of vehicles were now plying on the Srinagar-Jammu highway after over three months of anarchy.
Confirming the presence of militants in the chief minister’s town, Khan said, “Yes, once they thrashed some residents as punishment, attacked Mufti Sajjad’s house, and on July 11 (the day Aamir Nazir Latoo was injured in firing), they attacked the CRPF.” He added, “In the latest incident on October 22, they paid tribute to people buried in the cemetery. We have registered five FIRs against them and their supporters.”
Khan also said the police and security forces had removed numerous Pakistani flags and anti-India and pro-Pakistan graffiti across town. “Let me admit, we are less in number. At some places, we erase graffiti or remove a Pakistani flag but they return the next day and install it again,” he said. “As of today, we are not aware of any Pakistani or PoK flag being there in the town.”
On Wednesday, after the inspector sensed a story on Pakistani flags would run in the media, a large number of police and security personnel swooped on Bijbehara and removed the enemy vestiges.
The situation in Bijbehara is to a large extent the way it is because of the disconnect between pro-India politicians and residents. The politicians’ failure to take on the separatists politically and their leaving everything to the police and Army has given new lease of life to militants and separatists, who had been almost completely marginalised by the massive voter turnout during the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in 2014.
“The BJP government at the Centre failed to consolidate the gains of the successful Assembly elections. On one hand, they seem to be more concerned about strengthening their base in Jammu and ruling the State. On the other hand, they chose to remain permissive to the premium the Congress government had kept on the separatism. The result is that even a party like NC does now borrow the Hurriyat language”, said a retired headmaster. “Nobody is representing the real Kashmir constituency”.
Competitive separatism and lending credence to the Pakistani narrative, remarkably in rotation by Mehbooba’s PDP and Omar Abdullah’s National Conference for years, have made hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani the most relevant politician in the last 18 months of the PDP-BJP rule. Government has failed to break his writ and the near-total shutdown his followers have enforced for four months.
Nazir Ahmad Najar, whose son Shafqat alias Waseem was hit by pellets used by security forces in September and lost his eyesight, said his family had been voting for the PDP since 2002. “The Muftis’ home is yards away from my home but none of them enquired about my son, let alone visiting us at home or in the hospital,” said Najar, who runs a street barbeque stall.
“They just make false claims and statements,” he added. “We were not given a pie of support. The local Jamia Masjid did a bit of support but I spent 90% on the treatment of my son out of my pocket.”
Who will he vote for the next time? “No one,” he said, sitting in his house with its shattered window panes. “If I will see anybody going to the polling station, I will kill people. We need nothing from them, just azadi.”
Asked what the government should do, he replied, “They should hold a plebiscite under the UN resolutions and solve the Kashmir problem for ever.”
Najar’s second son, Irfan, is a first-year BA student at the Government Degree College in Bijbehara and wants to excel in sports, like the famous cricketer from the same neighbourhood, Pervez Rasool. But unlike Rasool, Irfan plays volleyball. Along with his father and his brother Shafqat, Irfan believes Sayeed would not have been “this cruel”. “He too would have harmed the freedom struggle but, for sure, he would have been different”, Irfan said.
“Mehbooba is no match for her father. She is making juvenile statements and hysterical reactions and taking diktats from the BJP. Even three months after the demand came from different quarters, she has failed to freeze the pellet guns. Over a thousand people were injured, over 300 like me turned blind”, said Shafqat, who claimed that he was fired upon by a CRPF man when he was returning to his home from a market.
Dr Bashir Ahmad Veeri, the National Conference legislator from Bijbehara, said the situation was a result of the “immoral relationship” between the PDP and the BJP. “In elections, PDP leaders beat us all in opposing the BJP. They asked the people to vote to keep the killers of Gujarat’s Muslims away from power in India’s only Muslim-majority state,” he said. “But within months, they formed a government with the same BJP leaders. How could it be acceptable to the Kashmiris?”
Veeri predicted not more than 7% to 10% of Kashmiris would turn up to vote if elections to two vacant Lok Sabha seats, Anantnag and Srinagar, were to be held any time soon.
Admitting to his government’s failure to connect with people, PDP spokesperson Dr Mehboob Beg said, “Yes, nobody comes forward to meet us.”
Giving a sense of Geelani’s call for a social boycott of the government, he added, “I stayed at my Sarnal (Anantnag) home for a couple of days recently and not a single person visited me. They just called on the phone and said they would see me in Jammu next time. There’s tremendous fear among the people.”
The ruling party held a workers’ meeting in Anantnag on Tuesday but only a few attended it.
Beg said the alliance would find a way out of the current mess. “It (turmoil) may die down but it will raise its head again and again until the unresolved dispute is settled,” he said. “We formed a government with the BJP after they committed in the Agenda of Alliance that the Centre would hold talks with Pakistan and the separatists. Talking to Pakistan is absurd as long as the stone-pelting and border clashes continue, but there should be no hindrance in talking to the Hurriyat. We are optimistic the BJP will take the initiative.”
The legislator said “intellectuals and newspapers” were also to blame for the situation. “In every opinion piece and news report, you see glorification of turbulence and legitimacy being accorded to the separatist mindset,” Beg said. “During Indira Gandhi’s time, you would see nothing like this. The writers would fear action against them. Now, there’s no such fear.”
[Ahmed Ali Fayyaz is a senior journalist. He has been Srinagar Bureau Chief with Daily Excelsior and Jammu & Kashmir Bureau Chief with The Hindu]
[Published exclusively by Scroll.in]