Politics

Capturing the mainstream space

Print edition : June 19, 2020

At Srinagar’s MLAs’ Hostel, the mainstream leaders in detention. Clockwise from bottom left: Former Cabinet Minister Naeem Akhtar; Bashir Mir (Congress); Shah Faesal (J&K People’s Movement); Waheed Para (PDP); Mukhtar Bandh (N.C.); Nizam-ud-Din (PDP) and Aijaz Mir (PDP). Photo: by special arrangement

The political leaders of Kashmir Valley are unable to fathom the endgame of the BJP-RSS as New Delhi lowers the security cover of mainstream players and evicts those kept in safe houses.

New Delhi may be effecting a phased release of leaders of Kashmir’s mainstream political parties who were arrested since Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status was revoked in August 2019, but that is hardly an indication of its softening approach. Many released leaders complain that their security has been withdrawn and that they are staring at forceful eviction from government allotted safe houses in their hometowns. As the threat to their lives has not diminished, these leaders are left with no option but to seek safety at the houses of friends or relatives in Srinagar.

The list of poltical leaders and former legislators who have been forced to vacate their official residences is baffling. Take the case of Ghulam Nabi Niloora of the National Conference or independent politician Jan Mohammad. Their family members have been victims of targeted attacks. Ghulam Nabi’s father, Ghulam Kazi Niloora, who was a legislator between 1977 and 1987 from Wachi in Shopian district, was killed by militants in 1991. In 1990, his brother, who was also a legislator, was shot dead. Jan Mohammad’s father, Ghulam Mohamamad Wagay, was an active leader of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). He was assassinated in Wachi in 2001.

Waheed Para, PDP’s youth wing president, who is under house arrest in Srinagar, told Frontline over the phone that the “mainstream in Kashmir is threatened by the state itself”. He said: “Jammu and Kashmir is the only State in India where political workers are riddled with bullets for upholding the national flag, for identifying themselves with and safeguarding the mainstream. If we are not protected, the mainstream will crumble, the Indian democracy here will crumble.”

He is dismayed at the bellicose nationalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). “We are clueless; we are trying to understand what their endgame is in Kashmir,” he said.

The withdrawal of Waheed Para’s security by Governor Satya Pal Malik in February 2019 created a flutter in Srinagar’s power corridors. Waheed Para was involved with the Sports Council in the State when Mehbooba Mufti was the Chief Minister between April 2016 and June 2018. He was instrumental in arranging mega sporting events and used sports as a medium to connect Kashmir’s youths to the mainstream. “How did we, almost overnight become a constituency of threat from a constituency of peace?” he asked.

He is not the only one to lose his security cover. Following the Pulwama terror strike on February 14, 2019, the State government withdrew or downgraded the security of at least 18 Hurriyat leaders and 155 political leaders and activists. This included the veteran Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani and bureaucrat-turned-politician Shah Faesal.

Omar Abdullah, former Chief Minister and leader of the National Conference (N.C.) questioned the government’s rationale at the time. “I have no doubt this step was taken without taking into consideration inputs from Central and State intelligence agencies which can only mean it has been done for political purposes,” he had said.

Notice to vacate residence

Waheed Para was asked to vacate his Sonwar residence in Srinagar at short notice. “I was asked to vacate in an hour’s time. I could not have gone back to my home town Pulwama, which is in a vulnerable location. I kept shifting from one friend’s place to another’s. This, when the police had been alerting me about possible attacks on my life.”

Notices of eviction were served on the PDP’s Ghulam Mohideen Wachi, who lost his brother to militancy; Ameena Bano, the widow of Ghulam Nabi Patel, a PDP leader who was killed by militants in Pulwama in April 2018; and Sheikh Rashid, an independent politician of Tral (Pulwama).

Ameena Bano was served an eviction notice in December, but it was stayed by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court. On March 24, 2020, a notice was served to her, asking her clear an outstanding rent amount of Rs.7,42,060 within seven days. When this reporter contacted her, she said the administration wanted her to pay the rent for the entire duration of their stay at Pulwama’s MLA hostel accommodation, allotted to her late husband in 2003. “This is outrageous. The two-room flat was given to us for security reasons. There was no mention of any monthly rent to be paid. And now they want us to cough up Rs. 7.42 lakh. I do not have any resources. I do not even have any ancestral house to shift to.”

Jan Mohammad recounted to Frontline over the phone from Pulwama the circumstances under which he fled his home in Shopian in 2002. “It was a tiring campaign day. I was electioneering for Ghulam Hassan Bhat of the PDP. The 2002 Assembly elections were round the corner. In the evening, a few armed militants barged into our house. Luckily, I was at the rear garden. I sneaked out, never to return.” He said “the administration’s eviction drive defied logic.”

For the past 18 years, Jan Mohammed has been living the life of a fugitive, along with his wife, three sons and a daughter. They stayed at the Gazetted Officers’ Hostel in Pulwama, where accommodation was provided to him in 2004 after the security personnel assessed that the risks had not mitigated. Now the government wants him to fend for himself. “Where do I go now? I can’t go back to my house in Shopian. Certainly not now, when the possibility of reprisal attacks on politicians is more distinct,” he said. The High Court temporarily stayed the eviction order, but the future looked ominous, he said.

Frontline has learnt from reliable sources that the administration treated the family of former Shopian MLA Mohammad Yousuf shabbily. Yousuf was given an official accommodation in Shopian in 2016. Shortly before August 5, 2019, the security there was withdrawn. The security at his ancestral house at Meenmandar neighbourhood in Shopian was withdrawn in February 2019, despite the fact that a petrol bomb was hurled there in May 2018.

Post August 5, while Mohamamd Yousuf was incarcerated at the Sher-i-Kashmir International Conference Centre (SKICC) in Srinagar and his son Zubair was sent to a sub-jail in the Shopian Police Lines, their living quarters was “illegally handed over to Shopian’s Additional Deputy Commissioner [ADC]” without any notice served to Yousuf’s family members. The ADC “trespassed” their premises.

Since armed insurgency erupted in Kashmir in January 1990, hundreds of political workers and pro-India politicians have been killed in targeted attacks. The N.C. and the PDP claimed that they lost 6,000 and 1,000 political workers to militancy. Pro-resistance leaders and clerics were also not spared. Notable among the slain were Hurriyat’s Abdul Gani Lone, who was shot dead in 2002; and the Mirwaiz of Kashmir, Moulvi Mohammad Farooq, who was killed in 1990. Sajad Lone, president of the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Conference and son of Abdul Lone, believes that he lost his father because his security cover had been lowered.

Ever since the popular militant commander Burhan Wani, 21, was killed in an encounter at Kokernag in Anantnag in July 2016, Kashmir has been simmering. There was marked anger against mainstream politicians following the PDP’s decision to align itself with the BJP in March 2015. The move was seen as a “betrayal of the mandate”. In the November-December 2014 State Assembly elections, no political party secured a majority. The PDP, which had 28 seats in the 87-member House joined hands with the BJP, which had 25 legislators, to form the government.

Anger began to swell when the Narendra Modi government at the Centre turned “militaristic” towards Kashmir, launching “Operation All Out” in early 2017 aimed at eliminating all violent actors from the field without any corresponding engagement with the stakeholders in the conflict.

Bloodbath continues

In the months that followed, militants targeted pro-India political workers. Abdul Gani Dar and Shabir Ahmad Wani of the PDP, Gowhar Ahmad Bhat and Shabir Bhat of the BJP, and senior politician G.N. Patel were among those who were killed. The attacks intensified at the time of the election. In October 2018, three days before the local body elections in the State, two N.C. workers were gunned down in Srinagar’s Habbakadal. On April 16, 2019, barely 36 hours before the second phase of the Lok Sabha election in the Kashmir Valley, a grenade was hurled at the Tral residence of N.C. leader Mohammad Ashraf Bhat. On May 19, 2019, the PDP worker Mohammad Jamal Bhat, 65, was killed when unidentified assailants fired five shots at him while he was inside his house at Zungalpora village in Kulgam. The five shots were symbolic of the five votes that his family members had cast on April 29 at his insistence.

As home-grown militancy showeds no signs of petering out, the government’s decision to deprive mainstream players of their security cover raises serious questions. Ghulam Nabi Niloora told Frontline that the threat had not receded. “The government does not have any idea how many youths joined the militant ranks post August 5. Earlier, the new recruits used to announce on social media that they had become a mujahideen. Now they are secretive about it,” he said. In December, the District Commissioner of Pulwama sent him a notice to vacate his official residence. He currently resides at a Government Hostel in Pulwama along with his wife and two children.

Niloora’s claims about the adverse law and order situation in the Kashmir Valley matches the government’s stated position in the Supreme Court. In April, while defending its decision against restoring high-speed Internet connectivity in Kashmir, the government told the court that Jammu and Kashmir was in a continuous war with militants “aided, abetted and encouraged from across the border”.

Ruhullah Mehdi, the chief spokesperson of the N.C., said that no previous regime in New Delhi had let political vendetta determine matters of security. “This is exclusive to the Modi government. This is not just unethical but inhuman,” he told this reporter over the phone from Budgam. Ruhullah Mehdi lost his father Aga Mehdi, a Congress veteran, in 2000, when militants blew up the latter’s vehicle with an improvised explosive device at Kanihama village in Budgam. Mehdi said mainstream actors without a security cover would become easy prey to those who wanted to spill the blood of politicians.

There is a widespread belief that by mounting an attack on Kashmir’s mainstream politicians, the Indian government is hurting its own interests. The glaring absence of a political process in the Kashmir Valley is bound to attract more and more condemnation from the international community.

Political workers are indispensable to conducting elections. When this reporter travelled across south Kashmir ahead of the local bodies election in October 2018, some villagers interviewed in Anantnag and Shopian districts said that their decision to participate in the election was largely due to the personal rapport they shared with political workers.

“It’s a barter,” said Imtiyaz Ahmad, a young cousin of the fugitive militant Owais Malik, at the picturesque Arwani village in Kulgam tehsil in Anantnag, half an hour’s drive from Bijbehara, the PDP stronghold and the hometown of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. “A dependence on the political system has been created over the years. Here, in these villages, if one approaches the authorities to secure an electricity line in one’s neighbourhood or install a motor in one’s orchard, one is told chitthi likhwa ke lao [get a letter of recommendation]. We get it from the local MLA or the Collector. At the time of election, the political workers who had facilitated it ask us to vote; we can’t refuse them.”

A former MLA from a south Kashmir constituency, who requested not to be named, said “India is destroying its own tools” as he reminisced about the “politically seismic 1990s”. “Between 1990 and 1996, no one imagined elections could be held ever again. Our workers have made enormous sacrifices to ensure the operation of political process again.”

The question is: who gains from constraining the space for “unionist politicians”, a move that was sure to blast the foundations of Kashmir’s mainstream. Are the government’s adversarial measures an act of impulse? Or, is the RSS eyeing a direct, absolute control of Kashmir?

Ruhullah Mehdi said: “The BJP and the RSS are filled with hatred for Muslims, in particular Kashmiris. Whatever they are doing in Kashmir is a manifestation of that hatred.”

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