Print edition : April 05, 2013

At the funeral procession of Mudasir Kareem, a student of Hyderabad University, at Parigam village of Pulwama district on March 4. Photo: nissar ahmad

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah making a statement in the State Assembly on March 5. Photo: nissar ahmad

Chaos and confusion dominate the political landscape of Kashmir as no serious Central intervention has happened to soothe the anger over the Army’s actions.

WHEN Chief Minister Omar Abdullah almost broke down in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly on March 5, he was not merely expressing his anguish over the killing of Tahir Ahmad Sofi, a young man from Baramulla; he was making a profound statement about how New Delhi was treating the institution of Chief Minister. Tahir was killed when soldiers of 52 Rashtriya Rifles opened fire on a protest march called by the Mutahidah Majlis e-Mushawarat (MMM), a loose alliance of separatist groups in the Kashmir Valley. The killing was immediately linked to the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which confers unbridled powers to the Army to use force to maintain law and order.

Omar Abdullah supported the demand for the repeal of the law, at least from areas where militancy had almost disappeared. While confirming allegations that Tahir was killed in unprovoked firing, he was concerned about the immunity erring soldiers enjoyed under the Act. “Do people in a procession throwing stones deserve to be shot at? Is this the first time people have thrown stones at the forces? Why did they open fire?” Omar Abdullah asked, his voice quavering. The Chief Minister even justified the walkout staged by the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP). He also cautioned that anger and sadness should not be mixed with helplessness.

His word of caution, however, was out of sync with the other part of his statement, which was: “What should be my answer, when I am even unable to prosecute the Army personnel who carried out such killing? This is why I have been demanding revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.” This clearly indicates that the Government of India does not listen to him on the issue although he is an elected leader.

Every time such a killing takes place, the demand for the repeal of the draconian Act is renewed in spite of the stiff resistance the Army has put up to any amendment to it. (Amendments to the Act have been pending before the Union Cabinet for over two years now.) Incidents in which the Army is directly involved have a bearing on situations like the one prevailing in Kashmir. Past experience has shown that the Army has resisted action in cases such as the March 2012 killing of five civilians in the Pathribal fake encounter in which the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) indicted five officers, including a brigadier. The government’s refusal to sanction prosecution further dented the faith of the Kashmiri people in the justice delivery system of the country. Similarly, the fake encounters in Ganderbal, Machil and Bandipore have affected the process of reconciliation seriously.

The killing of three civilians in a fake encounter in Machil in 2009 caused a year-long unrest in Kashmir. In all, 120 civilians were killed in firing by the police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) during the unrest. That is why there is a consensus across the board in both mainstream and separatist camps that the AFSPA should go in order to ensure justice to the victims. The Chief Minister’s admission that he was unable to prosecute the erring officials speaks volumes about the power of the Army.

The role of the Army in Tahir’s killing will surely be investigated, but there are strong suspicions that the investigation will not be taken to its logical conclusion. Questions are raised as to why the Army entered an area that was volatile. Tension had engulfed the entire town of Baramulla as people rose in protest against the mysterious death of Mudasir Kareem, a research scholar in Hyderabad University, on March 2. The police’s role in tackling the law and order situation has also come under a cloud. But if the officers in the Baramulla administration are to be believed, “the Army does not listen to us and they had left for the area without informing the local police”.

Baramulla is a garrison town with a large presence of the Army, commanded by an officer of the rank of major general, who heads the 19 Infantry Division. The police registered a case of murder against the Army, but its response was ridiculous. “The Army reiterates that the death of Tariq Ahmad could not have been caused due to the firing by the Army personnel as extreme caution was exercised by them and the fire was deliberately aimed in the air. There were intelligence inputs with regard to the plans by the terrorists to entangle Army personnel, particularly in Baramulla, in a protest and to attack the Army taking shield of the crowd with a view to triggering large-scale violence,” a defence spokesman said on March 5. His statement was rubbished by the local people, who said “they killed him in broad daylight by directly firing at him”.

“This [the statement of the Army] is ridiculous. They do it every time as they know they can go scot-free,” said Ahsan Ahmed, a resident of Baramulla.

The death of Mudasir in Hyderabad and the killing of Tahir have come at a critical time. Kashmir was back on the edge following the hanging of Mohammad Afzal Guru, the main accused in the 2001 Parliament House attack case. While his death evoked strong resentment across the Kashmir Valley, people were gasping for a relative calm. But that calm was shattered with the two deaths in early March.

What is significant is that the people of Kashmir do not believe the government’s version that Mudasir committed suicide. The majority of them believe that he was tortured and harassed by the university authorities after he had some problems with a roommate.

The crisis of credibility facing Kashmir has a hand in shaping the situation. Nothing can be said about Mudasir’s death, but the perception that Kashmiris are destined to be mistreated by “India” has played an important role in the reaction to the deaths. A Block Medical Officer in Pulwama reportedly confirmed the “torture marks” on Mudasir’s body.

Kashmir has not compromised its political aspirations in the past few years. The people are deeply alienated, but are trying to reconcile to the fact that a return to normalcy is a crucial aspect of their strategy.

The hanging of Afzal Guru reinforced the sense of alienation, and it would not be out of place to mention that “being anti-India has become an article of faith for Kashmiris”. It is very difficult to mollify the people of Kashmir at this stage with concessions.

Manifold crisis

The crisis facing the State today is manifold. The recent deaths have inspired the separatists who were otherwise devoid of any means to pressure New Delhi into resolving the imbroglio. The irony is that three front-ranking leaders of the separatist camp—Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik—were out of Kashmir when Afzal Guru was hanged. Geelani was on his annual “winter sojourn” in Delhi and Mirwaiz too was with his family there. Yasin Malik had joined his Pakistani wife and one-year-old daughter in Islamabad. It cannot be concluded that the three leaders were irrelevant, but the events that followed Afzal’s hanging added to their relevance: they brought them under a new but loose alliance called the MMM, which gives protest calendars for a week but with no definite goal. The demand for the return of Afzal’s body has been overshadowed by the Baramulla killing, but chaos and confusion dominate the political landscape.

With no serious intervention at the political level, Kashmir is left with a bleak future. The 22-day general strike following the hanging of Afzal on February 9 and the curfew clamped by the government subsequently cost the Valley business worth nearly Rs.2,200 crore. The tourism industry is facing uncertainty as tourist bookings for almost a month have been cancelled. Schools and colleges reopened on March 11, but people are not sure how long the fragile peace will last.

Kashmir today needs a political intervention, but that has to be preceded by the delivery of justice. Ensuring a free and fair probe into the killing of Tahir and bringing the culprits to book is the only way to soothe the people’s anguish. Kashmir may not be on top of New Delhi’s priority list, but the “negligence” it suffers can have far-reaching consequences and can even push the Valley into violent mode.