June turmoil

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For the third consecutive year, the month of June has turned out to be the most turbulent in Kashmir. Khursheed Wani reports

It may be a coincidence that massive anti-India demonstrations in 2008 began in June following controversial order of the then coalition government transferring state land to Amarnath Shrine Board. The following year, the alleged rape and murder of two women in Shopian threw Kashmir Valley in cauldron of violence. And, now the killing of three youngsters in Srinagar in a matter of 10 days followed by shooting two protestors in Sopore has again evoked turmoil.

There is a pattern in June turmoil, not altogether coincidental. The disorder has started at the peak of tourism season and drastically lowered the inflow of tourists. The people allege that the provocation for the start of turmoil has invariably come from the police and security forces. The separatists have chipped in to cash in on the public anger and attempted to give it an anti-India direction. And, finally, the official machinery has been employed to suppress the people through unbridled use of power.

But for the official apathy, the reoccurrence of June turmoil was avoidable. On June 11, three days after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had reassured people on his “zero tolerance on human rights violations” promise, police personnel fired a targeted teargas shell in Rajouri Kadal killing 17-year-old Tufail Ahmad Mattoo. Police initially attempted to cover up and pass the killing off as a consequence of juvenile rivalry. Even, two persons, who dared to escort a bleeding Mattoo to hospital, were declared “proclaimed offenders” and people were asked to help trace their coordinates. If the autopsy report had not spilled the beans, the botch-up was meticulously planned to divert the public attention. This turned out to be the provocation for the latest phase of June turmoil.

The public resentment on killing of Mattoo was imminent. On June 12, paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) ruthlessly beat up 25-year Rafiq Bangroo, a participant in anti-government protests against the killing of Mattoo. A week later, Bangroo died in hospital. Even as his relatives conceded to government pressure and decided to bury him in their Danamazar ancestral graveyard instead of Eidgah Martyr’s graveyard, the imminent could not be avoided. While returning from the burial ground, the relatives and friends of Bangroo protested in front of a CRPF bunker and allegedly attempted to set it on fire. The paramilitary force said they  fired in “self-defence”, killing youngster Javaid Ahmad Malla on spot and injuring four others.

The chain of events explains the provocation was from the authorities. Interestingly, when Matoo was shot dead, chief minister was holidaying along-with his family in Ladakh. And, on the day when Bangroo breathed his last at Institute of Medical Sciences, the chief minister reportedly was on a weekend holiday at Gulmarg. He did return to the city in his official chopper for separate meetings with National Conference legislators of Srinagar district (the NC whitewashed Srinagar in 2008 elections bagging all 10 seats) and police officers to take stock of the situation, he flew back to Gulmarg in a few hours.

The killings in Srinagar city came handy for separatists to raise the issue of alleged human rights abuses. They were in the agitation mode, following the killing of three village boys in Machhil sector, who were passed off as intruders and killed for promotions and accolades by the Army. Understandably, the separatists of all hues called for strike and protest demonstrations. The authorities clamped unannounced curfew in the old Srinagar city. The strike call by separatists is complimented by authorities’ restrictions, and the net result is that the normal life comes to a grinding halt. Most period of June, post Mattoo’s killing, has seen the normal life paralyzed in the Valley.

Questions are genuinely raised on the (mis)handling of situation by the chief minister. The responsibility was not fixed immediately when the teargas shell fatally hit Tufail Mattoo. Instead a failed attempt to cover up the incident was initiated. Ironically, the police are yet to come out with a convincing answer as to who fired the teargas and what was the provocation. The people in the area maintain that no stone-pelting or demonstrations were going on in the area at that time – a formatted excuse for the police and paramilitaries to target the youth. Secondly, the CRPF was not sensitized to cope with the aftermath of Mattoo’s killing. That resulted in brutally pouncing on Bangroo and his subsequent death. The cascading series of errors continued when the personnel of same battalion of the CRPF killed Javaid Malla.

The problem with National Conference leadership is that they initially choose to remain silent on vital issues, especially on the errors committed by them. However, they open up too much on the same issue when the damage has been done. The chief minister and his Srinagar legislators remained silent on killings. When the rug seemed to be slipping from beneath the feet, Omar Abdullah came out with remorse on killings but with a rider that Malla’s killing was suicidal. He justified the killing on the CRPF’s theory of self-defence and asked as to what was the alternative with the paramilitaries when the protestors attempted to roast them alive in the mobile bunker. Omar’s arch enemy Mehbooba Mufti picked up the point and related it with the Shopian botch-up when Omar Abdullah’s initial “guess” that the two women might have drowned in the stream was eventually proved by the CBI. She drew the parallels between Shopian investigation with that of official probe announced to examine the circumstances leading to Malla’s killing. Divisional Commissioner Kashmir, Naseem Lankar has been asked to probe the killing.

Mehbooba Mufti is no darling to the victims’ families. She was humiliatingly turned back from the residence of Tufail Mattoo, when she arrived there to express her condolences with the family. In fact, the turn of events in old city, which have a definite impact on the entire valley, warrants a holistic overview of the ground situation. There is a tendency in mainstream politicians to misdirect or deliberately misunderstand the situation. From PM’s announcement to open employment avenues for Srinagar youth to Mehbooba Mufti’s attempt to identify herself with the violence victims and Omar Abdullah’s latest vibes on his readiness to join hands with Mirwaiz Umar Farooq led Awami Action Committee to “Save Srinagar”– are deviations.
At least two people were killed and more than 10 injured when troopers and police. opened fire on protestors after a gunbattle in the town in which two suspected militants were killed.

Apart from announcing a judicial probe, Omar Abdullah brought about a change in police set-up following the Srinagar killings. This is a genuine exercise in the interest of administration. But, this too was done in an amateurish way. SSP Srinagar Reyaz Bedar was replaced with Ashiq Bukhari, a known counterinsurgent officer, who has served in Budgam and Anantnag. The chief minister dented the reputation of Bedar by saying that he lacked the capability to manage crowds. Instead Bukhari was eulogized for being highly professional. A common impression is that there is politics behind bringing in Bukhari to head Srinagar police.

Interestingly, Bukhari was last time in news only when Muzaffar Baigh spelled out him as one of the reasons for being recalled from the council of ministers in 2006. Beigh had not raised the issue of suitable positing for Bukhari in the Ghulam Nabi Azad’s cabinet. Former chief minister Mufti Sayeed, Beigh said, was interested in Bukhari’s befitting posting. This also explains why Bukhari was sidelined till his latest posting by the NC led regime.

Hurriyat (G) leader Masarat Alam’s guerilla type press conference at a hideout to announce protest calendar followed by a total strike in the valley on June 25 are not mere aberrations. Even though, the official media frequently announced chief secretary’s circular to heads of departments, the attendance in government offices remained thin. It is an irony when separatists allow the government to function, it does, and when they decide otherwise, the life in the valley comes to a grinding halt.

Omar Abdullah and his government are seized of the reality. That is why a massive crackdown has been launched to arrest separatist leaders and youngsters allegedly involved in stone pelting. However, the official measures are adding fuel to the already combustive circumstances. Syed Ali Geelani’s incarceration in Cheshma Shahi jail and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s home detention has prevented an all-party separatist meet, but the separatists’ programmes have not been grounded. The observers believe that the government requires broad political understanding to involve different shades of opinion in political dialogue and liberal permission to political entities for expression. A teenager dragged from examination center and detained in police lock-up would not serve the purpose but worsen the situation, says lawyer activist Bashir Sidiqui.

Unlike corporates there is no tradition in governments to celebrate achievements of first quarter and publicize them. If that had been the case, Omar Abdullah would not have been in a position to celebrate in first week of July when he completes the maiden quarter of his tenure. With receding level of violence, his government was expected to reduce the level of fear-psychosis. “A man on street is not feeling safe and secure. The prosperity and economic stability are secondary priorities”, says lecturer Rafiq Hussain.

About Author

A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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