His Frozen Turbulence23 June 2010
The Indian Express
Srinagar: Tipped as Kashmir’s hope, Omar Abdullah took over as the youngest ever chief minister of the state on January 5, 2009, riding high on people’s expectations of a change. He began with a clean slate and distanced himself from the political and administrative blunders committed by his party’s governments. A year and a half later, the promise of “a politically serious and administratively accountable” government that hung in the air that January day is being tested on the streets of the Valley. Leave aside politics, questions are being raised about Omar’s capabilities, with the only visible sign of a government being uniformed men, whose support is needed even to clean up garbage in the capital city. A scion of Kashmir’s first family, Omar’s biggest challenge has been the political survival of his National Conference (NC). Over the years, the party has drifted from its core political ideology, eroding its traditional base. With the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) positioning itself as the real representative of Kashmiri aspirations, the CM promised that the NC would return to its history and that of his grandfather Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. However, in the absence of that and with the centralisation of both the party and the government in the person of the CM, the NC is fragmented. Though no party stalwart has come out in the open, many senior leaders privately talk of helplessness. Meanwhile, Omar - the “outsider” who spent most of his life outside Kashmir, who did not even learn to speak the language properly, who was accepted with open arms for being the grandson of the Lion of Kashmir - finds himself stumbling from one crisis to another. His handling of the protests on the street lacks political acumen and his decision to replace the Senior Superintendent of Police of Srinagar to bring calm to the city is being seen as a cosmetic action. STINT IN OPPOSITION During his brief stint as the main opposition leader in the previous PDP-Congress regime, Omar became the first NC leader to travel to Pakistan and speak publicly about finding a solution to the Kashmir issue in accordance with the aspirations of the people. Omar indicated he wanted to get out of his father’s shadow and in what was seen as his coming-of-age, the NC under him snapped ties with the NDA. Omar publicly apologised, several times - most significantly in Parliament - for not parting ways with the BJP-led alliance earlier. In the light of the PDP’s radical politics, Omar made another departure from father Farooq Abdullah’s politics and adopted a reconciliatory tone towards separatists and Pakistan. He raised the issue of human rights violations and promised to upgrade the NC’s autonomy demand to “autonomy plus” to match the PDP’s self-rule agenda. CM OMAR, AND SEPARATISTS The whiff of promise in statements Omar made while outside power evaporated in the heat of CMship. In his 18-month rule, there has been no headway either towards engaging the separatists in a dialogue or towards the autonomy demand. In fact, the Centre has shifted its dialogue goal post further, saying it would talk to only those who are “against” violence - a shift from its “shun violence” pre-condition. The working groups constituted by the Prime Minister during the Ghulam Nabi Azad-led government have put forth their recommendations, but these are gathering dust. While Omar hailed the report of the Justice Saghir-led working group on state-Centre relations, the fact is the report was vague and only added to the confusion. It sought an examination of “the autonomy demand” or “in some other manner or on the basis of some other formula as the present PM may deem fit and appropriate so as to restore the ‘autonomy’ to the extent possible”. Omar’s praise of it was seen as dilution of the NC’s stance on autonomy, especially its demand for restoration of the pre-1953 status of J&K. THE AFSPA The working group led by current Vice-President Hamid Ansari has strongly recommended repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), saying it impinged upon fundamental rights of citizens. It also sought an effective mechanism to fix responsibility for human rights violations, including punishment, strengthening of the State Human Rights Commission on the NHRC pattern, provision of an independent investigating machinery to the Commission, making action on their recommendations obligatory. However, in government, Omar has changed his stance on the AFSPA, saying only amendment and not repeal of the draconian act was possible. THE JAMMU-KASHMIR DIVIDE Omar took over soon after the 2008 Amarnath shrine land row. The subsequent economic blockade of the Valley and the Rajouri-Poonch-Doda belt created a communal divide in the state. This was evident during the Assembly elections which brought Omar to power. While Jammu’s three Hindu-dominated districts elected BJP candidates, the PDP made inroads in Jammu’s Muslim belt. Omar has not made a single effort to bridge this divide. His Cabinet itself is divided on regional lines. Civil and police officials from the Valley are rarely posted to Jammu and Leh as postings are done keeping in view religious identities, thus unwittingly encouraging the divide. The government’s handling of sensitive ethnic groups too has been similarly flawed. The fight between the Gujjars and Paharis has, meanwhile, worsened, with both feeling disillusioned. HANDLING OF PRESSURE When PDP leader Muzaffar Hussain Beigh alleged that Omar was involved in the 2006 Srinagar sex scandal, the Chief Minister said he would resign. While creating a stir, the action exposed both Omar’s political inexperience as well as inability to handle pressure. Even Abdullah Sr didn’t approve. Omar was quick to alter his plans once he had left the Assembly complex, saying he would send in a “conditional” resignation to Raj Bhavan. VIOLATIONS, LAW & ORDER On December 31, 2008, when Omar arrived in Srinagar as the Chief Minister-designate, his message to the Valley was of a “happy new year”. He told The Indian Express: “2009 begins tomorrow and I really want to make it a happy New Year for my people. After first three months, we will come forward to show our progress. That alone will show our seriousness.” It was not to be. In fact, just two days after Omar took over in January 2009, a 45-year-old deaf and dumb villager from Pahalgam was killed by the Army barely a few hundred meters from the Chief Minister’s official residence. A month later, the Army was accused of killing two young men at Bomai village of Sopore. While Omar ordered a magisterial probe and ensured that the Army camp was moved out of the village and action taken against erring officers, 12 days later, there were allegations of the CRPF killing a carpenter at Khaigam village in Pulwama. Again, Omar ensured four CRPF personnel including an Assistant Commandant were suspended. However, the impression that the NC government was seriously trying to prevent human rights violations lost ground after the Shopian incident of May 30, 2009. As bodies of two women were recovered from a Shopian stream and villagers accused the security forces of rape and murder, Omar’s handling of the issue came under severe criticism. Once accused of a cover-up by the PDP and separatists, he acted in haste, declaring that the two women had died of drowning while simultaneously ordering a probe. The comment set the tone for public distrust towards Omar’s government, which only kept growing. Since then, hasty action against police officials rather than ensuring a fair probe has become the Omar government’s standard response to a crisis. With the dust settling in the Shopian episode, 2010 was expected to be different. However, since January, seven young men - Inayat Khan (17), Wamiq Farooq (13), Zahid Farooq (16), Tufail Matoo (17), Rafiq Ahmad Bangroo (25) and Javid Ahmad Malla (18) - have allegedly died at the hands of security forces in Srinagar city alone. Stone-pelting protests have become routine. The Macchil fake encounter, in which the Army was said to have killed three villagers and dubbed them “infiltrating militants” in May, added to the anger. A CAPITAL AT STANDSTILL One measure of whether the writ of the government runs is the response to the strike calls given by the separatists. These render even the government defunct. According to reports submitted by the CID, the attendance of government employees during a strike call is around 5 per cent. The government may seek to hide behind the fig-leaf of stone-pelting, but sources in the police say that many of the kingpins of the stone attackers have been released at the intervention of ruling party politicians. In fact, the young man who nearly killed a policeman during protests in downtown city last week was released after a senior NC minister put pressure on the Srinagar police. The police say it is difficult to control the protests, especially stone-pelting, as the issue is linked to politics and not law and order. The police also complain that they have been left alone to confront the protesters, isolating them from society. For example, while the government has appointed 34 magistrates to accompany policemen while controlling protests in Srinagar, hardly any of them joins in.