Troubled start

Print edition : May 13, 2016

Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti meeting a family member of a civilian killed in firing by the security forces in Kupwara district, on April 16. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

At Natnusa village in Kupwara district on April 16, people demonstrating against the security forces after a person was killed in firing. Photo: Nissar Ahmad

Members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad protesting in front of the vehicle of the Director General of Jammu and Kashmir Police over the NIT issue, in Jammu on April 11. Photo: PTI

The Mehbooba Mufti government begins work with serious trouble on hand to deal with.

KASHMIR is on the edge again. Soon after she took over as the first woman Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti was up against a major crisis, which reminded her that she was in charge of the “most difficult State in India to govern”. After showing great reluctance to lead a coalition government of her Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for three months, and having called it “unpopular” weeks after her father, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, had passed away, Mehbooba finally accepted its leadership. What led to her willingness to go back to the alliance, which had made a dent in her party’s vote base, is a different story, but now she is facing the toughest challenge of her 20-year-long career in politics, which she began by challenging the anti-India campaign in 1996 by jumping on to the electoral bandwagon amidst widespread militancy.

In the words of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who led the coalition for 10 months from March 2015 to January 2016, the coming together of the PDP and the BJP, given their ideological differences, was like the North and South Poles meeting each other. It was not smooth sailing for him, but he managed to wade through the murky waters. When Mehbooba met Governor N.N. Vohra on February 3 to explain why she was delaying government formation, she said: “I am not Mufti Sayeed. I don’t have the experience and the political maturity he had.” This was to push Prime Minister Narendra Modi to do something extra vis-a-vis Kashmir. Later, after meeting him, she said was satisfied with his assurances but did not spell out what they were.

NIT uprising

While dealing with the reported “dissension” in the party that led her to finally agreeing to form the government, Mehbooba also sent a clear message to the party’s rank and file by not including in her Cabinet two senior party members who were Ministers under her father. She also ticked off two juniors who she believed had not made any impression as Ministers. This made an impact on the party even as questions were raised as to why all those who were believed to be part of a conspiracy to align with the BJP by sidestepping her in government formation were not shown the door. But as one of her confidants pointed out: “It was just a message. Why would she divide her own party by making more people jobless?”

Mehbooba also ordered a reshuffle in the bureaucracy in her first Cabinet meeting and picked for important positions people whose integrity had not been questioned. She cautioned the officers to perform or “perish”. It had weighed on her mind that officers did well during Governor Vohra’s rule but tended to work in such a way so as to discredit the politicians in the elected government. The message was clear on the ground.

But soon politically significant challenges started raising their heads. The first one was a crisis at the National Institute of Technology (NIT) at Srinagar where local students, who comprise 75 per cent of the nearly 3,000 students, were at “war with the non-locals”. Trouble began when local students “celebrated India’s defeat” at the T20 Cricket World Cup semi-final match with the West Indies. It irked the non-local students and a scuffle ensued.

It is not new for Kashmiris not to cheer Team India; it has been so not only during the past 26 years of conflict but even much earlier than that. In early 1980, when Australia and West Indies played against India at the S.K. Cricket Stadium in Srinagar, people openly supported the foreign teams. Certain youths who dug up the pitch later joined the militants and became their top commanders. The strong feelings about cricket and Kashmiris’ preferences were evident when students were suspended and beaten in Meerut University last year. But the issue at the NIT snowballed into a major crisis when non-local students made the extreme demand that the institution should be shifted out of Srinagar.

The reality of the NIT conflict is clouded by more than one version. One of which, presented by the non-local students, speaks of police brutality against them, of not allowing them to exhibit their patriotism on the campus, and of confiscating the tricolour. These charges can be investigated and the “culprits” booked, but the demand that the NIT should be shifted out of Kashmir had dangerous dimensions. Not only was it impossible for the Government of India to concede this demand, but it would also mean pushing Kashmir to the wall. Under the garb of a “security issue”, students cannot demand migration when thousands of them have been enjoying their time in the college since 2004 when it, a Regional Engineering College, was rechristened an NIT. One of the faculty members who spoke to this writer on condition of anonymity said that not a single non-local student had been harmed in the past 16 years. “The incident on the day of the semi-final was an unfortunate one, and the dust would have settled down on its own,” he said.

Unfortunately, some students surrendered to the urge to demonstrate their patriotism on the campus, and the crises that were seen in Jawaharlal Nehru University and University of Hyderabad reverberated in Srinagar, albeit in a reverse direction. It has not been uncommon to see non-local students mixing with local students not only on the campus but also in markets, in cafes and in the neighbouring Kashmir University.

But the way the government chose to settle the issue—by making it a “Central subject” by handing over the campus to the Central Reserve Police Force, endorsing the version about the Jammu and Kashmir Police’s brutality, and not leaving it to the wisdom of the local administration to sort out the issue—has jeopardised the future of thousands of students. It will take a long time to go back to the pre-March 31 situation.

Mehbooba called it a “non-issue” and asked her Deputy Chief Minister, Nirmal Singh, to settle it. She also made it clear to the Centre that accepting the demand to shift the campus was not a solution. Students have temporarily left the campus, but the issue became a potential threat to the stability of the government, which was just a week old.

Handwara killings

Even before she got a respite from the NIT crisis came another challenge. This time it engulfed Kashmir in such a way that five civilians were killed by the Army and the police in four days while dealing with public unrest in the border district of Kupwara. After some youths levelled allegations of molestation of a young girl by Army jawans in Handwara town on April 12, people were up in arms confronting the Army personnel stationed there. This resulted in the killing of two young men, one of them a 21-year-old budding cricketer, Nayeem Bhat. A woman was also killed. As the outrage spread to neighbouring Kupwara, one youth was hit by a tear gas shell, and the next day the Army opened fire at protesters, killing an 18-year-old boy and injuring several people.

The cycle of violence came like a grim reminder of 2010 when 120 civilians were killed by the forces during unrest when Omar Abdullah was leading a government of the National Conference and the Congress.

With people’s anger showing no signs of subsiding, the Army released a video of the girl in which she makes statements suggesting that no soldier was involved in the alleged harassment or molestation. However, this was soon rejected by her mother, civil society and the separatists. The veracity of the video also came under question. According to the police, the girl was taken into protective custody along with her father and produced before the magistrate. “She was coerced by the police to give a statement,” said the girl’s mother. But a senior police official said: “She [mother] has not met her after the incident. How does she know what happened?”

The video went viral on social media too. This led to severe criticism from civil society and political leaders of the Army’s action of releasing the video of a “victim”. The prominent lawyer Zaffar Shah said: “The police or the Army cannot reveal the identity of a molestation victim, but unfortunately they have gone a step ahead by shooting her video and releasing it.” He said those involved should be booked under the relevant section for the serious offence. However, the police denied having shot the video. “It was important to release it to counter the propaganda unleashed by some elements to malign our image,” said a senior Army officer who did not want to be named.

At the time Handwara erupted, Mehbooba was in Delhi for pre-scheduled meetings with the President, the Prime Minister and a number of Union Ministers. She came under flak for not returning to the State immediately. She promised action and a fair probe. But given the fate of such inquiries in the past, this did not inspire much confidence.

The Army came under attack from all sides, including mainstream and separatist political parties, for using excessive force. This created a huge political crisis for Mehbooba who had been known for championing the cause of human rights when she was in the opposition. She visited Kupwara after four days, met the victims’ families and reiterated her assurances. But that may not help her to get a grip on the situation. Not only is “action against erring soldiers” the biggest challenge to her credibility but the coming weeks will be crucial for her as far as the situation is concerned.

Political unrest, if it continues in one form or the other, can consume her government in its early days itself. Kashmir awaits a good tourist season, and if the unrest refuses to die down, it will lead to political instability and put the coalition in a tight spot.