Trial by Fire

  • Naseer Ahmad
  • Publish Date: May 31 2016 2:48PM
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  • Updated Date: May 31 2016 2:48PM
Trial by Fire

Handwara killings and NIT fracas spell out the most urgent task for Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti: rein in the security apparatus

It did not take long for Mehbooba Mufti to get a crash course on what her government has to contend with in the coming few years. Barely days after she took over as Jammu & Kashmir’s first woman chief minister, the Indian media went hysterical about the lathicharge on non-local students studying at the National Institute of Technology, Srinagar. The police’s inept handling of an administrative issue snowballed into a crisis as the media and the political parties, especially the Congress, quickly shrink-wrapped it with the flag.
The party, indistinguishable from the BJP while in opposition, complained that the non-local students were being harassed for raising the Indian flag on the campus.
 Others jumped in and added spice to the absurd drama by trying to project Kashmiris as sexual predators. They alleged that non-local girls were being threatened with rape. It didn’t matter, of course, that the girl students had only complained about not being allowed to go out after 6 pm. Or that they had said they didn’t have any complaints against the local people.
 Fearing it might lose self-granted copyright on nationalism to the Congress, that too – horror of horrors – over Kashmir, the BJP activated its actors, and right on cue, Anupam Kher and Ashok Pandit landed at the Srinagar airport, tricolors neatly folded in their pockets, to complete the script.
 The background score was provided by the ultra-nationalists of Jammu and Kathua, who retuned their classical “Kashmiris are oppressors” chorus to the demand for shifting the NIT campus out of Kashmir. 
The ugly politics inflamed passions and, unsurprisingly, the consequences soon followed. Kashmiri studying in Jammu were threatened and harassed, forcing many to flee. The students were targeted apparently in retaliation for the police action against non-locals at NIT, as if the J&K police is a little gang of Kashmiri Muslims.
 In Kashmir, the police, in the name of fighting the insurgency, has long been trampling on civil liberties, even basic human decency, without thought. They freely use their lathis, teargas shells and often live bullets, at just the sight of a protester. When that triggers unrest, they fire some more to calm the street.
 Predictably, it did not take long for the police and the army to show their “skills” to the new chief minister. While the NIT controversy was raging, the men in uniform shot dead five people protesting the alleged molestation of a minor girl by an army man. The police, who otherwise make even getting a copy of an FIR the most frustrating of experiences, swiftly videotaped the girl’s statement put it out through the social media. The army did one better, releasing the statement to Indian TV channels. And the same channels which had been aghast at the lathicharge of the NIT students, repeatedly telecast the statement to justify the killings of the five Kashmiris. You cannot but marvel at how the security apparatus in Kashmir has become a law unto itself, with the elected government, ostensibly in charge of the state’s affairs, merely a mute spectator.
 Mehbooba, of course, can’t do anything about India’s jingoistic media. Many of those who run it are immune to reason, as Mehbooba well knows. Just last year, they called her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed “pro-Pakistan” after the release of the separatist leader Masarat Alam. That such characterisation of a chief minister nullifies their own argument that the participation of Kashmiris in elections shows their faith in Indian democracy didn’t bother them. Then again, logic has no place when it comes to the Indian broadcast media, and the  print media is fast catching up.
So, what Mehbooba can deal with is the police and the army, though it’s more difficult given it enjoys institutional impunity under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and other statutes. Whether she does, and indeed wants to, we’ll know soon, from her handling of the prosecution of the killers of Handwara. 
Mehbooba has long eulogised her late father for bringing “accountability” to the security apparatus when he first became chief minister in 2002. Last year, she told the parliament, “Hum nay thoda POTA khatam kiya, ham nay logun ko aaram diya, thodi rahat di. Aur kyoun na hum Kashmir ka zikr is parliament mein hi karain, aur kahin kyoun jayain.” It is such rhetoric that has twice won the PDP power in a little over a decade. Now that Mehbooba has five years to turn the rhetoric into meaningful action, she could start with reining in the security forces and leverage her alliance with the BJP to get AFSPA withdrawn. 
The PDP’s Agenda of Alliance with the BJP notes that the two parties have historically held differing views on AFSPA, but emphasises that the coalition regime would examine the need for denotifying “disturbed areas”. “This, as a consequence, would enable the Union government to take a final view on the continuation of AFSPA in these areas.”
 AFSPA is applicable only to areas declared “disturbed” under Section 3 of the Act. It is not technically in force in Ladakh as the state government has not notified the region as disturbed, while Jammu was brought under the law only in 2001. Since AFSPA is most sternly applied to the valley, the PDP, being a Kashmir-centric party, has been over the years sought its revocation. But since coming to power, the party has not talked about it, in stark contrast with Omar Abdullah, who in his six years as chief minister used every forum he could find to seek the law’s revocation. 
The other major challenge facing Mehbooba is to provide Kashmiri Muslims a sense of empowerment. Admittedly, she took an important step towards this direction by bringing back to the secretariat some Kashmiri officials who had been shown the door during Governor NN Vohra’s three-month rule. It’s a big concern that there are only a few Muslims at top decision-making positions in in J&K’s administrative set-up. This despite the fact that Muslims make up 73 per cent of the state’s population and have a literacy rate above 60 per cent. 
Whether Mehbooba can provide the Muslims more than a token space in decision-making in the police and the bureaucracy will depend largely on how she manages her coalition partner’s demands. She is unlikely to have forgotten how the BJP torpedoed Mufti Sayeed’s attempt to post a Muslim officer in Reasi.
Mehbooba has her work cut out for her.