Lost to Power

  • Naseer Ahmad
  • Publish Date: May 31 2016 2:57PM
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  • Updated Date: May 31 2016 2:57PM
Lost to Power

How Mehbooba Mufti lost her fire, and her way

On April 16, as Kashmir was seething over the killing of five people by the army in Handwara, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti reached Kupwara, and chaired a high-level meeting.
It wasn’t what she did that was noteworthy, but what she did not: Mehbooba did not visit the five grieving families as she used to when out of power. She instead met with local legislators, and senior police and civil officials.
The chief minister told the assembled eminences that she had spoken on the phone with Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and met the army’s Northern Commander Lt Gen DS Hooda. She had conveyed to them that incidents like the recent ones at Handwara and Natnusa were unacceptable as they set back the state government’s efforts to consolidate “peace dividends”.
“I have told General Hooda to exercise maximum restraint while dealing with law and order situations,” she said, and added that Parrikar had assured her of a time-bound investigation into the “unfortunate incidents” that led to the killings of civilians at Handwara and Natnusa so that exemplary punishment is meted out to those found guilty.
Three days before the meeting in Kupwara, Mehbooba was in Delhi to meet Parrikar. According to an official spokesman, the chief minister called for a time-bound enquiry so that those responsible for the deaths are handed exemplary punishment. This, she reportedly told Parrikar, “will act as a deterrent” against such incidents in future.
The next day, and the day after, two more young men were killed – one in Kupwara after being hit on the head by a teargas shell fired by the police; the other in the firing on protesters at Natnusa. According to the eyewitnesses, the firing was unprovoked, not a response to stone-pelting as the army has claimed.
Now, rewind the clock to June 2009, when Omar Abdullah was the chief minister and Mehbooba the opposition leader.
According to the police, Mehbooba stormed the Shopian police station to protest inaction on the alleged kidnapping, rape and murder of two women, one of them 17. The police claimed the women had drowned, only to lodge an FIR for rape and murder under intense public pressure. Soon, Shopian’s Superintendent of Police was also suspended.
But Mehbooba wasn’t satisfied.
She arrived in Srinagar and led out a march against the police and the Omar administration. “We will continue with our demand for the revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and reduction of troops. The government claims protection of the rights of civilians is its topmost priority but the tragic incident of Shopian exposes its hallow claims,” Mehbooba thundered while addressing the protest.
“It seems the government has made up its mind to absolve the perpetrators of the rape and murder of the women. What is the point of a judicial probe when the chief minister has ruled out rape of the victims,” she raged.
That was in 2009. She wasn’t chief minister, so she could have done little about getting justice to the two women. But now she does have the power, then why isn’t she doing anything?
The protests, and the resultant killings, in Handwara were triggered by the alleged molestation of a schoolgirl by an army man. She’s all of 16, yet she has practically been kept under house arrest by the police. While Mehbooba was visiting Kupwara, human rights activists in Kashmir and outside were calling for the girl to be freed. They were denouncing the circulation of her videotaped statement by the police as unacceptable and unheard of. Still, the chief minister didn’t so much as say a word about the girl, forget visit her.
It’s of a pattern. Handwara isn’t the first crisis to confront Chief Minister Mehbooba. Nor is it the first to which she has responded, as analysts put, unlike Mehbooba. In early April, when the police’s lathicharge on non-local students at the National Institute of Technology, Srinagar, caused a storm, opposition leader Omar Abdullah asked Mehbooba to speak up. She chose not to. She didn’t even issue a formal statement on the NIT episode despite being the state’s home minister as well.
Worse, she all but outsourced the management of the crisis to the central government. She watched as the HRD ministry, on April 6, rushed a team to the NIT to assess the situation, and the HRD minister in New Delhi assured the media of the students’ safety. The two-member team of the HRD ministry stayed on the campus for over a week, meeting with students and officials of the administration. In fact, even when individuals and groups associated with the BJP described the J&K police as terrorists for beating up the “nationalist” students of the NIT, and the campus became more tense, Mehbooba did not intervene.
It you want to understand how uncharacteristic, and, of course, hypocritical, it was of her, recall 2010. When Union Home Secretary GK Pillai stunned the state government by announcing from Delhi the lifting of curfew in Kashmir, Mehbooba and her party ridiculed Omar for ceding power to the Centre, and accused him of “lowering the dignity of the chair of chief minister of J&K”. They kept harping on about it for the next four years.
While Mehbooba, for whatever reason, swallowed the Centre’s perceived slight over the NIT crisis, the police wouldn’t take the insults directed their way lying down. Throwing caution, and service rules, to the wind, they took to social media to vent their frustration. “Many of my colleagues have been asking and many more must be thinking ‘whose war are we fighting?’” a top police official posted in north Kashmir wrote on his Facebook page. Still, no word from the chief minister.
The NIT controversy has subsided now, not due to deft handling by the government but, rather ironically, due to the outrage over the Handwara killings. It may soon raise its head again.
The big question is: why is Mehbooba the chief minister so different from Mehbooba the opposition leader?
“I think we have seen her only as an opposition leader. Even when the PDP was in coalition with the Congress, she was more opposition leader than ally. Now as chief minister, she acts the way all people in power act, and we are surprised,” says an admirer, a practicing doctor who requested not to be named.
The suggestion that Mehbooba played an opposition leader even when in power is not unfounded. Party insiders says she was solely responsible for pulling the plug on the PDP-Congress regime led by Ghulam Nabi Azad in 2008 in the wake of the bloody agitation against the transfer of forest land to the Amarnath Shrine Board.
In the next six years of Omar’s rule, Mehbooba played the role of an ardent critic of the establishment to perfection, positioning her party as the only true spokesperson of Kashmiris. Now, in a stunning reversal, she has parked herself and her party on the other side of the fence, letting the central government dictate her position on virtually every issue.
But this is nothing unusual, says Prof Siddiq Wahid, former vice chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology. Now that Mehbooba  is the ruler, he argues, her primary compulsion is to keep the power, as happens to be the case with nearly every politician.
“If we observe the behavior of parties that seek political power, we note a pattern. They are sharply critical of it when not in power. They mute their criticism when they sense it’s close at hand. And they strive to keep power once they attain it,” Prof Wahid says. “The PDP’s pre-election oratory was sharply critical, not least of its coalition partner’s exercise of power from Delhi. It became timid for eleven weeks when faced with the prospect of having to reject power. And it has become tame on attaining power. Ms Mufti follows the same pattern, no more, no less. But we need to break the pattern.”
But who will break the pattern? Responding to the barrage of criticism over the handling of the Handwara killings and their aftermath – not least from the National Conference, which seems determined to give back in kind what it got from Mehbooba during its six years in power – the PDP trained guns at the National Conference, reminding the party that at least 112 protestors, mostly young men, were killed by the police and the paramilitary under its watch in 2010. But by thus seeking moral equivalence with its arch enemy, the PDP in one swoop abandoned its claim to being a principled party.
Perhaps, it’s less painful than admitting that despite being in power, they are virtually powerless? As Gautam Navlakha says, the J&K government barely has a say in the affairs of the state that really matter. “The best kept secret in Jammu and Kashmir is that the armed forces and the police are a law unto themselves, and they are controlled by New Delhi. Mehbooba Mufti’s actions prove that she, like her predecessors, is helpless, if not unwilling, to end the reign of tyranny which prevails,” the prominent human rights activist told Kashmir Ink.
The PDP’s youth leader Wahid-ur-Rehman Parra doesn’t buy the argument. “The chief minister met the victims and she met them as chief minister and this is in sync with her policy of healing touch and conflict transformation,” he says. She “raised her concerns through a process”, Parra continues, and “it was through the process” that an enquiry was ordered and bunkers removed from Handwara “after pressure was mounted from New Delhi”. Parra, thus, concedes that the real power in Kashmir flows through Delhi, no matter who the chief minister, Omar Abdullah or Mehbooba Mufti.
If this wasn’t handicap enough, Mehbooba has been trying hard to cosy up to her ally BJP, against which she was railing not very long ago. Why does she have to be so submissive? The BJP nearly fragmented the PDP when she tried to play hardball over government formation after Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s death in January, and the Hindutva party remains the power behind her throne. Mehbooba Mufti has been tamed.