By Riyaz Wani
IT WAS the first peaceful summer in the three years of his rule. But just when Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was starting to breathe easy, he found himself in his worst crisis ever. A party activist he sent into police custody for taking money from two colleagues died, raising troubling questions not only about the murky financial dealings within his own party but also exposing Omar to serious allegations in a state where custodial deaths are an agonisingly familiar phenomenon.
Syed Yusuf, a National Conference broker from Bijbehara, was called to the CM’s residence on 29 September. An official vehicle was sent by Minister of State for Home Nasir Sogami to pick him up. The CM wanted to talk to him about the alleged bribes he took from the two middle-rung NC leaders — a representative from Omar’s constituency, Muhammad Yusuf Bhat and a party activist from Kokernag, Abdul Salam Reshi. They were apparently promised a place in the government. As the matter didn’t sort out, Omar called the Inspector General of Police (Crime) Raja Ajaz Ali and directed him to investigate.
It is here that the drama began. The IGP reached the CM’s residence at 5.49 pm and left with the three activists — two complainants and the accused — at 6.13 pm. Yusuf said he felt uneasy and was asked to move to one of the escort vehicles. On arrival at the Crime Branch at Rajbagh, the medical officer on duty, Dr Irshad, attended to the patient. He was subsequently referred to the police hospital in Srinagar where, according to the official version, he died the following day at 9.45 am.
The death came amidst a stormy Assembly session, two days after the government had engineered its way out of a politically sensitive resolution for clemency for the 2001 Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru, moved by independent MLA Engineer Abdur Rashid. The government had also succeeded in riding out the issue of 2,156 unmarked graves in three districts of the Valley. But Yusuf’s death lands Omar in a crisis that more than any other threatens to take him down personally.
What went wrong? And why does it make Omar more vulnerable than ever? Several reasons are cited. One, it was the CM who sent his partyman into custody. Second, the deceased Yusuf had reported “uneasiness and nausea” at the CM’s residence itself. It was only on arrival at Crime Branch headquarters that he received medical attention. “If Omar handed Yusuf over to the police on learning that he had taken money, it was a correct step. But then the person dies in custody and that is a crime. What led to this death? The circumstances go back to his meeting with the CM at his residence. The CM cannot escape from this,” says noted lawyer Zafar Shah.
What, according to Shah, also doesn’t help matters is the shuffling of five policemen in the CM’s security. The government has termed the transfers, which include DSP Shabir Ahmad, the CM’s long-time personal security officer, as a “routine administrative matter”. “It merely coincided with the unfortunate death of Yusuf,” says Home Secretary BR Sharma.
Complicating matters further was Reshi’s statement to the media that Yusuf was taken to another room by the IGP (crime) and the CM’s PSO Shabir Ahmad after which his condition deteriorated suddenly. “In the vehicle, he didn’t talk apart from asking for water,” says Reshi.
The opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) says the government is trying to cover up this sequence of events and is instead focussing on the money Yusuf took from his colleagues. “Murky money trail is a serious issue but that has temporarily been relegated to the background considering the person who allegedly took money is dead. His death is the story now,” says chief PDP spokesman Naeem Akhter.
Omar is caught in a cleft stick. An inquiry commission will be seen as mere formality as long as he is the CM
Yusuf’s alleged illegal financial dealings are of considerable value. He is alleged to have taken Rs 84 lakh from Bhat in lieu of making him the roads and buildings minister and around Rs 34 lakh from Reshi to get him a berth in the legislative council.
Omar’s promise of an inquiry by a sitting high court judge has also run into problems. Legal experts are of the opinion that a sitting judge cannot head such a commission without permission from the President of India. “The state government has the power to appoint a commission of inquiry, but when it comes to appointing a sitting judge, the power is not absolute,” says Bilal Nazki, former Chief Justice of the Orissa High Court. “If a judge accepts an assignment without a request from the President, it will be in violation of the law. For the President to make such a request, she has to be approached through the Union council of ministers, which is a requirement under the Constitution.”
Now if the commission of inquiry is delayed, it will invite the charge that the government is trying to cover things up. Omar is therefore caught in a cleft stick. A commission of inquiry, even if constituted, will be seen as a mere formality as long as he stays the CM. The PDP already wants him to step aside to let the probe go ahead without inviting questions to its credibility. And, at face value at least, their argument seems sound.
THE CRISIS is not only the worst ever that Omar has faced in in power — perhaps superseding even the 2010 unrest that led to killing of around 120 youth — but it has also come at the worst possible time. His coalition partner, the Congress, wants the chief ministership for the remaining three years of the government. Rahul Gandhi, on his recent visit to the state, lent credence to these reports by avoiding a joint appearance with Omar. Rahul is reported to have denied Omar’s dinner invitation. In fact, sources say during their breakfast meeting, Rahul’s security officer didn’t allow the state government photographer to snap their pictures together.
Omar will complete three years by year-end and the Congress is likely to clamour for a change of guard and seek to rule for the rest of the term. Rahul’s reported cold shoulder to Omar has added grist to the rumour mills in the state. And with Omar finding himself on the back foot on Yusuf’s death in custody, the Congress is likely to cash in on the opportunity. “With this death, Omar’s moral standing is badly undermined,” says Naseer Ahmad, author of Kashmir Pending. “The Congress can now easily press the point home about Omar’s inexperience and immaturity.”
In hindsight, could Omar have tackled the situation differently without getting himself directly embroiled? “No, he did what he should have done,” veteran NC leader and Omar’s uncle Mustafa Kamal told TEHELKA. However, when asked if the CM could have acted with more circumspection, Kamal admits there is always scope for improvement. “Some say Omar should have let them go and then told the police to arrest them,” he says. “That he should not have called the police home. But I think he did what was right under the circumstances.”
Riyaz Wani is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.