On 5 November, a tall and imposing man rose to speak at a People’s Democratic Party (PDP) election rally in the north Kashmir town of Kupwara. He shared the stage with PDP patron and former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. In a press statement, the PDP mentioned him as its “senior leader”. Following a public and media uproar a day later, the party swiftly disowned him, even denying that he had addressed the rally.
The leader in question was Syed Ashiq Bukhari, a retired senior police officer, known for playing a key role in counter-insurgency operations in the state spanning two decades. He was a prominent member of the Special Operations Group (SOG) of the J&K Police, which was specially formed to take on the militancy in the 1990s.
Rising through the ranks to become a Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), Bukhari’s last posting was in Srinagar, where his actions included tackling the 2010 unrest. Around 120 youth — many of them from Srinagar — died in the violence that lasted five months.
But now Bukhari has become a veritable outcast. An entrenched public anger in Kashmir against the police, blamed for a plethora of atrocities and killings over the years, has made Bukhari — a well-regarded man in his village — a liability rather than an asset for the PDP.
Ironically, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who appointed Bukhari as SSP Srinagar and gave him a free rein to handle the 2010 protests, was among the first to slam the PDP for welcoming Bukhari into its fold.
“When Mufti Sayeed unabashedly welcomed a recently retired police officer, who was at the forefront of the police response in the 2010 unrest, into the PDP, he has yet again exposed his bent of mind and ideology before the people. The people, especially the youth of this state, will pay Mufti back with equal vengeance in the coming election,” Omar said while addressing party workers at Sonawar, one of the two constituencies from where he is contesting. “Mufti Sayeed should give an answer. How can he express remorse over the loss of lives in 2010 when he has welcomed a certain SSP into his ranks?”
Omar’s uncle and senior National Conference (NC) leader Mustafa Kamal called Bukhari a “dreaded figure”.
“Speaking of change while empowering notorious, dreaded figures such as Ashiq Bukhari — whose very mention brings tears to the eyes of hundreds of mothers who lost their young sons, and who has a questionable track record when it comes to extortion from the youth — is as despicable as the PDP’s politics can get,” said Kamal. “Ashiq Bukhari is a figure of notoriety when it comes to his brutal and ruthless track record as a police officer. So, this association, while very natural, is a prime example of what the PDP represents as a political party. Mufti Sayeed stands completely exposed.”
What is more, soon after the PDP issued the statement announcing that Bukhari had addressed its election rally, sections of the local press dusted off and republished old reports that said Bukhari had killed “300 militants” in his career with the sog, an accusation also levelled by the NC. “Bukhari who once boasted about killing 300 militants in front of a visiting diplomat from Pakistan was also instrumental in eliminating five Hizbul Mujahideen commanders who had started a dialogue with the Centre,” said NC spokesman Junaid Mattoo.
Soon, a chastened PDP declared it had nothing to do with Bukhari, with its spokespersons going to great pains to distance the party from him. “I read his name in the press release. I don’t know anything about his joining the party,” senior PDP leader Naeem Akhter told the media.
PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti also jumped into damage-control mode, terming the inclusion of Bukhari’s name in the party’s press release as a “clerical mistake”. This despite the fact that Bukhari is known to have gone to great lengths to help mobilise support for PDP candidate Muzaffar Hussain Beigh in the 2014 General Election.
“Our office-bearer who issues press statements was told by someone that Bukhari has joined the PDP,” Mehbooba told reporters. “Bukhari was with someone present in the rally. Without checking the facts, our person issued the statement, which is a plain clerical mistake. In the statement, it wasn’t mentioned that Bukhari has joined but that he was present in the rally.”
This is the first time in the past two decades that a retired police officer has tried to join politics but found out that he has no takers. As Bukhari’s example lays bare, the political parties in the Valley are fearful of being identified with their counter-insurgency past. Recruiting retired police officers also sits uneasily with their rhetoric against human rights violations. So, the political parties may connive at the security excesses and dither on taking action while in power, but they will not welcome retired security personnel into their fold, lest it burden them with their perceived unsavoury baggage.
However, the political entities have not been averse to opening their doors to former bureaucrats with a corrupt past and counter-insurgents with a record of human rights abuse. In 1996, when the NC returned to contest the Assembly polls in the state, it inducted the infamous counter-insurgent Javed Shah.
Shah was a prominent member of the State-sponsored militia Ikhwanul Muslimoon, led by counter-insurgency kingpin Kuka Parray, which fought militant groups and also unleashed a reign of terror in the countryside. On the other hand, Shah’s companion Mir Niazi joined the Congress. Later, Shah was killed in a suicide attack at his Srinagar office in 2003.
In 2005, the PDP-led government sacked Syed Asgar Ali, then director of the rural development department, for his involvement in the multi-crore Panchayat Ghar Electrification scam. But a year after his ignominious dismissal, Ali joined the PDP and was nominated as a Member of the Legislative Council.
Interestingly, retired police officers have found a home in the BJP. In March, former IGP Farooq Khan, who is credited with founding the SOG, was inducted into the BJP by the then prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi during his Hira Nagar rally in Jammu. Khan’s name is associated with the killing in cold blood of five innocent persons at Pathribal in March 2000. They were then passed off as the terrorists responsible for the massacre of 36 Sikhs at Chittisinghpora. Similarly, former Punjab DGP PS Gill, who belonged to the J&K cadre of the IPS, is now also a part of BJP and reportedly one of the contenders for the state governorship.
In 2010, New Delhi conferred the Padma Shri on Ghulam Mohammad Mir, who was allegedly part of the Ikhwanul Muslimoon and has claimed to have been instrumental in the killing of more than 5,000 militants. Among those who had recommended his case was former chief minister and NC leader Farooq Abdullah.
While the BJP may be aggressively bidding for power in the Muslim-majority state, an attempt that is an oxymoron of sorts on its face, the political compass of the state remains largely rooted in its conflict politics.
For all his counter-insurgency exploits, including the arrest of four policemen in 2012, one of whom had provided sim cards to the militants responsible for the 26/11 attacks, Bukhari may be a hero in New Delhi, but in Kashmir, his past is a stigma. And a liability for any Kashmir-based party he might like to join as the PDP discovered to its dismay within 24 hours of his entry.