Fire in the valley

Published : Jul 03, 2009 00:00 IST

in Srinagar

IS Kashmir back to square one? This question is haunting all those keeping a close watch on Kashmiri affairs. A new hope had dawned after a promising spring, which began with a high tourist inflow and the conclusion of the Lok Sabha elections on a relatively peaceful note. But the fear was there that a single fire could turn the clock back. And that happened, following the death of two women in south Kashmirs Shopian district.

Until recently, what most journalists were describing as mysterious and alleged is now clear to an extent, especially after the police registered two separate cases of rape and murder. There are many in the official and unofficial circles who believe that it was public pressure that forced the police to reach the conclusion so quickly. It was perhaps for the first time in Kashmirs 20-year-long turbulent history that the police, from day one, refused to register a case in an alleged crime, and it ultimately proved to be detrimental to peace that had come after a long and grinding agitation in the summer of 2008, the Assembly elections, and lastly the parliamentary elections.

On May 29, the relatives of Neelofar (22) and Asiya (18) reported to the police that they were missing. Neelofar, who was pregnant, and Asiya, her sister-in-law, had left for the familys orchard and not returned. The police did help the family in looking for them, and their bodies were found in a nearby rivulet. In a sensitive and highly surcharged atmosphere, where in the words of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah people do not have faith in institutions, this incident assumed dangerous overtones.

The coalition government headed by the youngest Chief Minister in the country was in the process of coming out of election fatigue and gearing up to put the State on a new path of development. But there was something else in store for Omar Abdullah. The valley reeled under tremendous chaos in the wake of a prolonged strike, which ended temporarily after nine days.

Many people, however, blame the government for not handling the crisis properly. Initially, the Chief Minister put a question mark over what could be seen as a sincere approach. While announcing a judicial inquiry headed by Justice Muzaffar Jan, he said that prima facie it appeared that neither woman had been raped or murdered and that it was a case of drowning. This added fuel to the fire as suspicions about the governments intentions had already been raised by sections of people, from the victims relatives to separatist and mainstream parties.

The fact that a first information report (FIR) had not been filed by then affected the trust in the administration. Omar Abdullah was apparently guided by his officials who had dealt with the issue casually and made the Chief Minister follow their line. The Chief Minister did try to make a U-turn by saying that something has happened, but the damage had already been done.

Those who built pressure on the government by mobilising public anger over the death of the two women pointed out that the Chief Minister had pre-empted the outcome of the inquiry. The inquiry is an eyewash as there is no basic groundwork in the shape of a full police investigation, which can come only after registering an FIR, and the Chief Minister himself gave a clean chit to those involved, said G.N. Shaheen, general secretary of the J&K High Court Bar Association.

Later, the hard-line separatist Syed Ali Geelani and even the pro-India Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) president Mehbooba Mufti added strength to the agitation. Mehbooba Mufti, along with her 13 MLAs, upped the ante, but the government denied her the advantage of being arrested. She led a group of people to Shopian, where she faced a hostile crowd. But she emerged as the only politician who dared visit the highly surcharged place. Now the party is focussing on the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and a reduction of troops. Many believe that the PDP has of late turned into a separatist outfit and is fuelling the anti-India tirade.

One point that is emerging is that political parties are almost unanimous on revoking the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, head of the moderate faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), also presented a five-point confidence building measures (CBM) proposal to the government, which includes the withdrawal of the law.

Geelani, Shabir Shah, Yasin Malik and others have been pressing for the same. Omar Abdullah is also of the same opinion. Ever since he took over as Chief Minister, he has talked about working on it but has maintained that it could be done in a phased manner over the next six years.

So, the transition from violence to non-violence (though militancy has not completely waned) is now culminating in demands like this, which New Delhi may not find easy to consider at this stage. The main question is how to douse the flames of alienation.

Noor Ahmad Baba, a professor of Kashmir University, says that it is important for the government to consider these demands.

Unbridled powers to the security forces and location of troops near populated areas are turning out to be stumbling blocks in restoring faith and confidence on the ground, he told Frontline. He sees the recent agitation as genuine and points out that a semblance of normalcy was never normalcy in Kashmir. This situation is symptomatic of the larger issue of Kashmir. Dialogue must start at all levels, he said.

While investigations into the case are on and the judicial commission seems to have got some vital clues, the forensic laboratory report and the medical board report have confirmed rape and murder, contrary to earlier inconclusive reports. The board, according to sources, has concluded that death was caused in one case by bleeding and in the other by neuroshock. On the basis of these reports, the police registered cases of rape and murder. But the biggest challenge before the commission is to identify the culprits, and that becomes quite arduous against the backdrop of allegations against the security forces.

The element of alienation of the people from New Delhi makes a probe like this difficult and that is where faith in institutions becomes the focal point. The registration of the cases has to an extent eased the tension, but the situation will become normal only after the commission completes its investigations by the end of June. Those associated with the agitation will have a tough time in accepting the findings as the commission also has a member from the Bar Association, which had initially rejected the commission.

The government, which came to power on the slogan of peace and reconciliation, is on the backfoot now, as it has put most separatist leaders in jail by slapping the infamous Public Safety Act on them. Geelani, who virtually led the agitation, has of late emerged as a symbol of Islamist resurgence in Kashmir, and the moderates hardly have the guts to negate his stand. Mirwaiz Farooq endorsed his programme, though no one like him is ready to accept that Geelani is the sole arbitrator for Kashmir.

However, the growing influence of Geelani, especially among young people, is something that is signalling a new destiny for Kashmir. Even though Geelani is behind bars, people are religiously following his programme of agitation.

Many analysts believe that it is the government that is making Geelani relevant time and again to what officials otherwise term the dying freedom sentiment in Kashmir. Policymakers in New Delhi continue their refusal to accept the ground reality, and their like-minded analysts make opinions on the basis of voter turnouts. But there was not a single pro-India political leader in Kashmir who during the recent spate of agitation could turn the tide against people like Geelani.

People in Kashmir were ready even for an indefinite strike on Geelanis call. Where then is the space occupied by mainstream parties? New Delhi needs to answer the fundamental questions on Kashmir, where development and employment have failed to make a dent in the anti-India sentiment.

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