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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Who upset India’s applecart in Kashmir in 2008-16?

Ahmed Ali Fayyaz


JAMMU, Jan 15, 2017: Certainly for the first time, the Jammu and Kashmir government’s pre-Budget Economic Survey-2016 has attributed all deficits of growth and other liabilities to the “political strife” that, in a bold official admission, assumed a menacing dimension in the year 2008 and is continuing to be unceasing and intractable. Without comment on his millennial ideas of recovery in the last two — now three — Budgets, one has to appreciate the State’s failures on the developmental front and resource mobilisation admitted by Finance Minister Haseeb Drabu even as, to some, it sounds nothing more than a search for alibi.

Notwithstanding PDP’s passion for the green and the pen-and-inkpot election symbol left behind by the Hizbul Mujahideen’s chief Syed Salahuddin, I had never any confusion about Mufti Mohammad Sayeed being a die-hard Indian patriot and New Delhi’s most trusted politician in Jammu and Kashmir. “Would you also succeed Farooq Abdullah as Chairman of the Unified Headquarters and preside over the counter-insurgency operation of the Police and security forces?”, I asked Mufti at his first press conference as Chief Minister for which he flew to Srinagar in November 2002. “Yes, I will”, Mufti retorted, “without any hesitation, but ensure that there’s no human rights abuse”.

Next month, while we were walking together toward his helicopter after he addressed the PDP’s first post-victory show at Khannabal, Mufti slowed down and asked me: “What do the people say now?” Keeping with my style, I said: “Honestly speaking, many of them feel happy and relieved. But, quite a number of them have apprehensions that the militants would regroup and the separatists would find it easy to reclaim their base”. Allaying the impression, Mufti stopped and said: “I’ll soon wipe them out from the root. Their game is over”.

True to his word, and in total contrast to his soft-separatist rhetoric in statements and public meetings, Mufti wiped out the core of militancy in the next three years of his coalition rule. Almost all the top Hizbul Mujahideen commanders, who in the year 2000 had responded to an Indian initiative and met with Union Home Secretary Kamal Pandey at Nehru Guest House, were caught alive and killed.

Riyaz Rasool was captured in Soura outskirts and killed near Zainakote. ‘Operational chief’ Saiful Islam nee Engineer Zaman was captured in a bank manager’s house, in close vicinity of Mufti’s house in Nowgam, and later killed at midnight. Commander Masood Tantray was seized in Pampore and subsequently killed in a fake encounter. Majid Dar and Farooq Mirchal are believed to have been eliminated by their own organisation.

Even as it was for the first time that a Minister (Dr Ghulam Nabi Lone) was killed in a fidayeen-type attack inside his guarded house in the high security zone of Tulsibagh, normalcy had been restored to a great extent when Mufti cleared out for Ghulam Nabi Azad of Congress in November 2005.

It is no secret that Mufti did not quit until Congress made an announcement in New Delhi that Azad had been chosen as leader of the party’s MLAs. Entire month of October witnessed a flurry of activity from Srinagar to Delhi. A multitude of Mufti’s advocates pleaded for his continuance in chair “in the national interest” for the full term of six years with varied arguments. Retired IB and RAW chief A.S. Dulat, who also served as an advisor to Prime Minister Vajpayee, wrote an article in The Hindustan Times, while strongly favouring Mufti’s extension.

The anti-climax occurred hours after Mufti, having just returned from Uri alongwith Deputy Chief Minister Mangat Ram Sharma, told the journalist Pervez Bukhari that he would soon host an Iftar party for the media. It indicated Mufti’s over-confidence in his continuing as head of the PDP-Congress coalition government. The journalist at a crowded press conference at the Banquet Hall had asked Mufti if he was going to step down or continue at the end of his three-year term that day.

Sonia Gandhi’s decision of inducting Azad as the first Congress Chief Minister after Syed Mir Qasim’s resignation in 1975 was believed to be influenced by Rahul Gandhi. Politicians claimed that the National Conference top brass was also at work through Sachin Pilot, Rahul and others. Amid speculations that men of consequence in Congress, including Digvijay Singh, Ahmad Patel and M.L. Fotedar, were strongly in favour of Mufti’s continuance, even the senior most Pranab Mukherjee in Jammu had given unambiguous indications that Congress would go by the “national interest”, not the party interest.

The valley experienced two more years of peace as Azad began reviving the “developmental constituency” Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad had assiduously created for 10 years and finally abandoned with his resignation as ‘Prime Minister’ under the Kamarj Plan in October 1963. Until June 2007, the militancy was at its lowest ebb. There was no stone pelting, separatist-sponsored shutdown or a major demonstration. Peace and development had decisively neutralised all voices of secessionism and political instability.

Without appeasement to militants and separatists, and while loudly speaking against “terrorism”, Azad became the first Chief Minister who got over a dozen SOG men, including then SSP of Ganderbal Hans Raj Parihar, booked and arrested for killing five innocent civilians in fake encounters as “foreign terrorists”. For years, no court granted bail to the accused. Finally, a catastrophe befell the Valley in June 2007.

While Pakistan,  Hurriyat and the militants had been forgotten by the Kashmiris, the mainstream politicians triggered an explosion of regional and communal polarisation — between the Muslim and the Hindu, between Kashmir and Jammu — for the first time after 1947. Mufti and other PDP leaders warned Azad publicly that they would withdraw support and bring down his government if he did not cancel allotment of a piece of land to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board that had been earmarked in compartment No: 63 of Sindh Forest for temporary use by the pilgrims. Paradoxically, the allotment had been recommended and facilitated by none other than the two PDP Ministers, namely Qazi Mohammad Afzal and Tariq Hamid Karra,

Undoubtedly, the turbulence in 2008, which later came to be known as the Amarnath shrine land row, sprouted out of the statements of the separatist hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who in the months of April and May restricted his focus to the “huge number” of the pilgrims allowed to the shrine cave every year and their polyethylene bags. He contended that it could pose “a potential threat to the environment and ecology”. Soon some pictures of “hutments” being raised in the Sindh forest cover appeared in a local newspaper.

While the arguments and the counter-arguments were being traded between the politicians, Governor Lt Gen (retd.) S.K. Sinha’s Principal Secretary Arun Kumar shot a comment, asking why nobody was concerned over the large number of the pilgrims going to Saudi Arabia every year. It proved to be a trigger.

With every passing day, in the month of June, the coalition partner PDP increased pressure on Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad to either cancel the allotment of the 40 hectares of land or face withdrawal of the support from Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s party that could obviously bring down his government. Leaders of at least two mainstream parties began buttressing the separatists’ charge that the Government had planned to set up “Amarnath Nagar” to make demographic changes in the Valley.

Any politician of Mufti’s stature and experience could have perceived well the consequences. Cancellation of the allotment could expose Azad and his party Congress to enormous hostility, not only in their core constituency in Jammu but also across the country. Azad chose to step down. On July 7, after a discussion on the PDP’s no-confidence motion in Assembly, he announced his resignation. Six people had died by that day in clashes and demonstrations and hundreds had been injured.

Unprecedented for 18 years, the civilian government’s fall created a mainstream political vacuum and Governor Sinha’s administration found itself on the receiving end of a 1990-like mass movement in entire Kashmir valley. For the first time after 1947, it created an equal and opposition reaction in Jammu, leading to an acute regional and communal polarisation. It was after 14 years that pro-Pakistan flags and slogans dominated the demonstrations, the militants and the separatist politicians reclaimed their ground overnight. In Jammu, all the traditional mainstream leaders went into oblivion and a right wing advocate emerged as the only representative of the people.

The agitation was finally crushed with firing and arrests in Kashmir and a settlement with the sponsors of a parallel strife in Jammu, followed by announcement for the Assembly elections. Suddenly all the extremist forces were marginalised in both, Kashmir and Jammu, and a heavy voter turnout in the elections made it clear that the real drivers of the turbulence were within, not outside.

With little regard to their rhetorical statements made during the turmoil, the mainstream politicians in the Valley sought vote for solving the “day to day governance issues” of roads, power, water, health and education. Immediately after winning the elections, even the top leader Omar Abdullah began raising “the larger political issues” and calling for “dialogue with separatists and Pakistan”.

In presence of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Omar asserted that Kashmir was a “political issue” that required a “political solution”. This, nevertheless, failed to save him from attempts of a new “ragda” that unfolded soon with the mysterious death of two young women in Shopian as the residents alleged that both had been “raped and killed by Police or security forces”.

Senior State Congress leader and former Union Minister for Water Resources, Prof Saifuddin Soz, said in a statement that he would take up the matter of the Shopian “rape and murder” with the Prime Minister. While the separatists were still struggling to find takers to their allegations of “rape and murder”, the statement from Prof Soz lent seriousness and credibility to the public outrage. Clashes and demonstrations ended only when, four months later, CBI booked about a dozen doctors and lawyers for being “part of a conspiracy to defame the security forces and destabilise the Government with false allegation of rape and murder”.

In the following months and years, almost all those in the forefront of the Shopian agitation were found indulging in crimes like burglary and rape. One of the doctors, who had played key role in sending fudged vaginal smear to the FSL to project it a case of “gang rape”, was caught on camera committing rape on a middle-aged female patient at his clinic. Another leader of the agitation was found to have committed rape on a 14-year-old maid who, according to an uncontested story in Kashmir Images, was passed through abortion at a clinic in Anantnag. Later, Police arrested the same leader with the proof that he had broken into his brother-in-law’s jewellery shop and stolen gold worth Rs 60 lakh.

Two more of the ‘leaders’ were known activists of PDP and NC—one appointed as a prosecutor by Mufti’s government and another by Omar’s government. 

Again, in the year 2010, attempts were underway with the beginning of the tourist season to bring down Omar Abdullah’s government. Death of a teenage student, Tufail Matoo, in Police action against a small group of demonstrators triggered a major turbulence. Over a hundred people got killed in Police and security forces firing and hundreds injured. Those killed in the clashes included PDP’s District Youth President in Anantnag.

Incredibly even the ruling NC’s own activists were found involved in enforcing Hurriyat’s shutdown calendar. One of such persons smashed the head of a shopkeeper for defying the shutdown call in Nowhatta area and left him dead. About a dozen of them attacked and captured a Policeman and left him almost dead on the highway near Narbal. They were found to be the sons of the staunch supporters of a National Conference leader and Cabinet Minister in Srinagar.

In competition, activists of almost all the mainstream political parties outsmarted even the separatist hardliners and militants while levelling allegations, attacking Police and security forces and calling for “solution of the Kashmir dispute as per the aspirations of the people”—their euphemism for Azadi. Finally, this theatre of the absurd began fading out only when Rahul Gandhi made it clear in Kolkata that Omar Abdullah’s government in J&K would not fall.

In September, NC’s Member of Parliament Shariefuddin Shariq was the first to allege that the Police (of his own government) had shot dead “three innocent civilian youths” in cold blood, near Qamarwari in Srinagar. An investigation made clear that all the three were active militants carrying guns. They had shot dead two Policemen and taken away their rifles. One of the three slain assailants next day turned out to be the MP’s own grandson.

With the arrival of winter, this time the separatists disappeared, alongwith their shutdown calendar, for a longer pause.

Like that of the year 2008, which saw the anti-climax in a successful Assembly election, the summer turmoil of 2010 was followed by the highest-turnout Panchayat elections next year. The signing off slogans like ‘khoon ka badla June mein lenge’ proved to be hollow as the people of Kashmir did yet again turn their back on the separatists. Developmental activity went remarkably up and the Valley witnessed the best of its trade and tourism seasons in 2011, 2013 and, until the day of floods, 2014.

Much more than the separatists, it were the mainstream opposition leaders who attempted to create another major turbulence when Afzal Guru was hanged to death in Tihar Jail in February 2013. Someone demanded Guru’s mortal remains and someone glorified his death as “sacrifice” and “martyrdom”. To beat them in the same currency, even Chief Minister Omar Abdullah warned the Centre that Guru’s death would lead to a fresh spell of insurgency. It didn’t. Nobody died in protest.

Again, the same year, the mainstream political parties, including BJP, left no stone unturned to create the stage for a communal flare-up when six demonstrators got killed during a mob attack on a paramilitary camp and when, subsequently, at least three persons got killed and hundreds of shops and vehicles were set on fire on the day of Eid in Kishtwar. Omar put his put down and did not allow any of the political leaders — notably the BJP’s top brass from Jammu and Delhi and the separatists from Srinagar—towards Kishtwar for several weeks.

In the four years following 2010, the only major threat to normalcy poured in with the flash floods of September 2014. Like in 2002-08, Kashmiris forgot about militancy and separatist politics and no major clash or incident of bloodshed occurred to disturb the tranquillity. Significantly, death of two civilians during an operation in Sumbal followed by killing of two young students in Army’s firing at Chhatergam did not shatter the ambience of peace in the Valley.

Before and after the floods, the year 2014 proved to be historic as Jammu and Kashmir witnessed the best-held Parliamentary and Assembly elections. From October to December, hundreds of hugely attended political rallies took place across the Valley. Colourful banners, buntings and posters, besides giant hoardings of different political parties— particularly those of Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi—surfaced throughout South Kashmir. None of these were guarded by Police or security forces and not one was damaged, set on fire or pulled down anywhere. Around a dozen personnel, including militants, died but the fidayeen attack on a Police establishment on Baramulla-Uri Road failed to disrupt the atmosphere for elections. 

The Assembly elections of unprecedented enthusiasm and participation were conducted in October-December, 2014. For the first time after 1983, there were no allegations of rigging, other unfair means, no attempts of intimidation, intervention or coercion by security forces or partisan role of the polling staff. The results were equally accepted by all the political parties even as none of them secured majority of 44 seats to form the Government independently.

Over two months of negotiations between the PDP, that had won maximum number of seats (25) in Kashmir, and the BJP, winner of 25 seats in Jammu, culminated into the formation of a coalition Government headed by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in March 2015.

Within a week of his taking over, Mufti ordered the release of Massarat Alam Bhat— driver of the 2010 turmoil. Next month, Alam was permitted to organise a major pro-Pakistan demonstration in reception of the separatist hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani in front of the office of Director General of Police and the J&K Police headquarters on the airport road. While his followers waved hundreds of Pakistani flags, Alam led them with slogans like “Hafiz Sayeed ka kya paigam, Kashmir banega Pakistan”.

Next day, Alam organised a similar show in Tral on occasion of the 4th day ceremony of the militant Burhan Wani’s brother, Khalid, who had been killed in an encounter between the militants and Army on a hill top.

Even as Alam was re-arrested under BJP’s and the national media’s pressure, his two demonstrations proved to be a turning point. Thousands of the Kashmiri youths, particularly the College and University students, began identifying themselves with the separatist movement and looking for fresh icons.

The vacuum was filled up by the 21-year-old not-so-famous Burhan Wani who hogged headlines and dominated media—social as well as the regular—with his inflammatory statements, videos and interviews. Until his death in an encounter, Government did not block his access to Internet as he kept posting threats to Police, announced to establish Caliphate, mobilised and enrolled youths and even organised cricket tournaments in South Kashmir.

Within a year of the history’s most successful election, South Kashmir became out of bounds for all pro-India politicians including the Ministers and MLAs of the ruling party known to be having a soft corner for Burhan and his organisation. After March 2015, there was not a single cordon-and-search operation by security forces that was not disrupted by stone pelting mobs. Over a dozen of the top wanted militants are said to have escaped under the cover of these clashes. Even civilian casualties failed to restore order and fear of the forces.

By the time three militants of Bijbehara area died in an encounter in Mattan, in November 2015, PDP and NC had completely surrendered their space to the militants. While as 8,000 to 10,000 residents of Mufti’s home town of Bijbehara attended the funeral of each of the three militants, less than 4,000 participated in Mufti’s own when he was laid to rest in January 2016. Even the shops did not shut.

Even after the Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti was returned from Anantnag in a low-turnout by-election in June, the boiling point of the much-sustained unrest came with Burhan Wani’s death in an encounter within a fortnight. It proved to be a volcanic eruption as nearly 90 demonstrators were killed and thousands injured in the subsequent clashes and protests for 5 months in the Valley. The number of the participants in Burhan’s funeral is claimed to be between 50,000 and 200,000. This groundswell, Mehbooba recently admitted in Assembly, had not been imagined by anybody in her party of the Government. An unprecedented barrage of Pakistani flags all across the Valley did not subside until hundreds of people---some claim thousands---were detained.

Police and administrative machinery remained almost completely crippled for over four months of continued curfew and shutdown. They fished in the troubled waters but, as on date, the Government has not produced any credible evidence of Pakistan’s or Hurriyat’s hand in the ‘Ragda-2016’. On the contrary, every mainstream political party’s subscription to the turmoil is evident from North to South Kashmir.

From stone pelting to arson, that damaged hundreds of public properties, schools and over 15,000 vehicles and caused loss of Rs 16,000 crore to the State economy, it were the workers of the mainstream political parties who were openly on the forefront. Family background of the detainees, who attacked Police stations and looted weapons, makes it all the more clear. Not surprising if the elected lawmakers of PDP or NC or an independent MLA call Burhan Wani a “martyr” and his death “sacrifice to the cause of freedom”.


STATE TIMES Jan 16, 17, 18 (2017)

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