Ensure Political Space

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By Khursheed Wani

On April 4, Mehbooba Mufti completed two years in office as Chief Minister. Initially, after her father’s demise, she was reluctance to step into her father’s shoes. Some inexplicable back-channel developments, later, compelled her to rush to Delhi to announce her unconditional willingness to continue the coalition with BJP that her late father had cobbled up in March 2015.

Soon after she took over, an unending cycle of civilian deaths began in Kashmir. It began with Handwara close on the heels of her oath ceremony when army trained its guns on protesters who raised alarm over alleged molestation bid on a female student by an army man. From this ill-omened beginning her government went into tumultuous summer of 2016—a dark phase in the Kashmir’s contemporary history.

Last week when Mehbooba’s government reached another milestone, there was nothing to revel about. The day coincided with the ritual fourth-day mourning of 13 local militants and four civilians mowed down in south Kashmir. Mehbooba had to cut short her Delhi visit, fly home and remind the security establishment to adhere to standard operating procedures.

Prior to the Shopian killings and subsequent explosive situation, the government got a few weeks of respite when the ground situation seemed changing for good. With a riot of colours in famed Tulip garden, thousands of visitors began enjoying the mesmerizing spring across the valley. Surging footfalls were encouraging. A conclave of Travel Agents Association of India in Srinagar sent positive vibes.

During this short-lived lull, Mehbooba attempted to rediscover her party’s political stances. She spoke about engagement with all stakeholders and Pakistan and regretted that Kashmir was seen through the security prism. “We are using a bullet for bullet only. And bullets lead to wounds and injury,” she told TAAI participants. “Our problem is that our country has left us alone.”

In a quick follow-up, Police Chief SP Vaid announced that Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik were free to pursue their political activities. Therefore, on March 30, Geelani was allowed to offer the congregational Friday prayers, first time in 8 years, in a Hyderpora mosque. Mirwaiz also delivered his weekly sermon in Jamia Masjid.

However, the government’s decision did not last for more than a few hours. On Apri l 1, the curbs were re-imposed. Malik was driven to Central Jail while Geelani and Mirwaiz were put under house-arrest.

Questions are being raised on the coherence of the government’s resolve to work for restoration of normalcy in Kashmir. The killing of 12 militants, belonging to a cluster of restive villages, during one night without offering them a chance to surrender, did not match with the commitments of the government that it was working hard to save the lives of the local militants. The killing of militants at a large scale would definitely demoralize their cadre but it has not stopped the massive public mobilization across Kashmir. Now, it is another big challenge for the government to re-open the educational institutions. Like last year, the students took to streets in Srinagar on April 5. The anger is seething.

The freedom of Hurriyat leaders cannot be an isolated affair. It should have been complimented with other measures. The least security grid could have done, was to assess the ground situation before going for massive killings in and out of the encounter sites. The resentment in Shopian is volcanic. The unprovoked and unjustified killing of civilians by troops misusing the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act and subsequent intervention by the Supreme Court to halt procedural action against them has left the people seething in anger.

Mehbooba Mufti predicament is that she has not found any effective tactic to rein in the army. Her repetitive insistence on SOPs only highlights abject helplessness. Initially she was blaming the people for inviting the wrath of the security forces and justifying the unbridled use of force but now she seems to have realized, though helplessly, the facts of the ground.

The Chief Minister took a step to reach out to an affected family in Kangan where 22-year youngster Gowhar Ahmad Rather was shot by a policeman in his head. He died in hospital. The cop was suspended pending inquiry. A common refrain is why Mehbooba did not muster courage to reach out to a host of victims in Shopian, which was once a bastion of her party. The promptness she exhibited in travelling to Kangan and genuinely initiating inquiy against the cop was not replicated in Shopian. Isn’t the human shield case in Dragad village fit to be inquired into?

In Shopian, people are angry and they require vent to their choked feelings. An available remedy is to allow them to protest. If the separatist leaders are allowed to go and meet the bruised and humiliated people, their feelings can be assuaged. The separatist leaders also require a space that has been perpetually denied to them. Talking about talks with Pakistan can be politically right but it has no meaning until the smothered people in Kashmir are allowed to walk and talk freely. If this involves any risk, it has to be taken. The time for Mehbooba Mufti and her party is running fast.

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