Kashmir's Young Chief Minister Tested Amid Efforts To Quell Protests

Kashmir's Young Chief Minister Tested Amid Efforts To Quell Protests

27 July 2010
The Washington Post
Emily Wax

Srinagar: As India's youngest chief minister, Omar Abdullah, 40, has posed for the cover of GQ magazine. MTV-India featured him whitewater rafting in this disputed region's mountain-fringed rapids, and until recently, he was best known for his youthful blogs on Kashmiri politics and for playing himself in the Bollywood film 'Mission Istanbul.' A third-generation scion of Kashmir's most famous political family, Abdullah became an icon of a new breed of young and dynamic leadership, a symbol of hope in the troubled Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir after his party won the most seats in the 2008 elections here. But this summer, Abdullah has faced his toughest political test as the state's chief minister after simmering public protests exploded when a 17-year-old was killed in a clash with Indian police and paramilitary soldiers. In the weeks following, at least 14 more people have been killed, including teenage anti-India protesters tossing stones at security forces and civilians hit by stray bullets while leaning out of their windows or walking to work. Abdullah said he felt forced to call in the Indian army after police and paramilitary units failed to control weeks of street protests in this mountainous region, nestled between Pakistan and India and claimed by both. Text messages were shut down and the popular social media Web sites Facebook - used to organize protests - and YouTube - used to promote them - suddenly became the subject of Abdullah's scorn and police monitoring. Abdullah had faced criticism before. But suddenly he was in the hot seat, accused of being an aloof puppet of India, out of touch with Kashmiris' deep mistrust of the army and the young people's dream of freedom from India. 'I've had better days, but I've had worse, too,' Abdullah said in an interview in his bungalow in Kashmir's summer capital of Srinagar. 'That's why they say chief minister of Kashmir is one of the toughest jobs in the country.' Blocking text messages was not a violation of free speech, Abdullah said, but an important tool in controlling the cycle of protests, killings and counterprotests in Kashmir. 'Democracy has responsibilities. It gives you rights, but how you use it also has repercussions in Kashmir that can be deadly,' said Abdullah, wearing a gray suit with a pink tie and jabbing at his BlackBerry. In June, Abdullah was riding high on popular support. Before a visit by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Abdullah spoke out about allegations that the army had killed three innocent youngsters and passed them off as militants. The army ended up suspending a major. 'Almost every encounter now has a question mark,' Abdullah said before Singh's visit. 'Army is the judge, jury and the hangman. There's absence of transparency, as a result of which people have lost faith in the system.' The irony, many here say, is that just a few weeks later Abdullah had to turn to that same army when the protests turned into a deadly cycle. In Kashmir, Indian security forces operate under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), also known here as 'black laws,' which give authorities broad authorization to arrest, search, and shoot without questions. Human rights groups say they have led to arbitrary arrests, killings and torture. Many Kashmiris want a reduction of these powers and the drawdown of hundreds of thousands of security personnel, who occupy every street corner, their machine-gun nests surrounded by sandbags and barbed wire. Zafarul-Islam Kahn, the publisher of the Milli Gazette, the country's leading Indian Muslim newspaper, said Abdullah's calling in the army 'was like putting petrol on fire.' Kashmiris saw his actions as insensitive and extreme and wondered why modern crowd-control methods weren't used. 'The problem is that Omar Abdullah has never lived in the Kashmir that ordinary Kashmiris live in,' said Basharat Peer, author of 'Curfewed Night,' a book that describes a generation of Kashmiris haunted by war and loss. 'In his Kashmir, you don't stop at a military check post, you don't raise your hands and show your identity card, you don't feel the humiliation and vulnerability that comes with living with an overbearing military presence.' Nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir and continue to dispute ownership of the former Himalayan princedom, India's only Muslim-majority state. Peace talks have been stalled since deadly attacks on Mumbai in November 2008, which Delhi blames on a Pakistani-based militant group. English-born Abdullah inherited the party leadership in 2002 from his father, Farooq Abdullah. Omar Abdullah is also the grandson of Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, who was one of Jammu and Kashmir's most important leaders. Those who defend Omar Abdullah say that he has inherited chronic problems and that he is well-intentioned and will become more sophisticated about Kashmir's rough-and-tumble politics. 'We've had two bad weeks - that doesn't mean the whole year is like that,' Abdullah said, with a black-and-white framed photograph of his grandfather on his desk. 'I'm still here. I haven't run away.'


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