By Prem Shankar Jha
ON SUNDAY, a day after Kashmiris celebrated Eid peacefully on a day that remained unmarred by confrontations with the police, the government of Jammu and Kashmir clamped down the most draconian curfew the Valley has seen in more than two years. Had Omar Abdullah lit a match in a petrol storage depot, he could not have done a better job of setting Kashmir on fire. As of the morning of 14 September, 17 Kashmiri youth died in police firing, another half-dozen were in critical condition and more than 40 were seriously injured. More ominous still, for the first time in the entire intifada, two policemen had also died, a sure sign that the self-imposed restraint was breaking down.
Did the state government set Kashmir alight by accident or design? Omar Abdullah and Kuldip Khoda, the Director-General of Police, accused the followers of Mirwaiz Umar Farooq of not adhering to his promise to control his followers and allowing them to burn down the offices of the Power Development department and the Crime Branch of the Kashmir police. He, therefore, slapped FIRs on him, placed him under house arrest and announced a curfew within hours of the incident.
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Kashmiris are convinced, however, that the buildings were set on fire by ikhwanis in the pay of the state police to create the pretext for the crackdown that followed. They point out that the Mirwaiz’s procession had been absolutely peaceful and his speech had been moderate and constructive. He had, in short, honoured the commitment given personally to Omar Abdullah. The Crime Branch building was 500 metres away from Lal Chowk, across the Jhelum river and well off the procession route. Eyewitnesses are unanimous that they saw smoke billowing out from the building while the Mirwaiz was still speaking.
What makes Khoda’s account less than credible is the disproportionate nature of the state government’s response. If the Mirwaiz had been unable (or had not tried) to prevent miscreants from using his procession as a cover for their misdeeds, the most they needed to do was to place him under house arrest. How did his failure justify inflicting such draconian punishment on the population of Srinagar and the entire Valley. For Eid had passed peacefully. Not a single stone had been thrown and not a single policeman hurt. Would it not have been better to take advantage of the respite to start building bridges with the people once again?
But the way in which Omar Abdullah and the state police had used the slimmest of pretexts to launch a premeditated crackdown plan makes it exceedingly likely that the burning of the Crime Branch building was indeed Kashmir’s equivalent of the Gulf of Tonkin incident of 4 August 1964 (a fictitious attack by north Vietnamese navy on an American destroyer) that gave the Johnson administration an excuse for declaring war on North Vietnam.
THE ABDULLAHS, father and son, had motive enough to manufacture such an incident. Omar’s 6 August crackdown had turned into a fiasco. His police officers had started to take leave rather than fire on their own people. As many as 1,800 constables had failed to turn up for duty. In desperation, Omar had to ask Hurriyat Conference leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani to request the ‘boys’ to heed the curfew and abjure violence. This had gravely undermined the authority of his government in Kashmir.
In Delhi, confidence in his capacity to restore order and govern the state was dwindling and the demand for Governor’s rule was gaining strength. In a sudden volte face, the BJP, which had earlier been demanding the replacement of Omar with Farooq Abdullah, had also begun to demand Governor’s Rule on the grounds that only the Centre could launch the massive crackdown that was now needed to keep ‘those renegade Kashmiris’ under Indian rule. The J&K government was also raring to have another go for the Centre had allowed it to induct a number of battalions of the Rapid Action Force from India and boost the number of CRPF companies deployed in the state.
The Abdullahs also had personal reasons for wanting to regain control of the Valley. By failing to recognise the moral force of the Kashmiri intifada (locally called the Ragda) and allowing his police to use bullets against stone-throwing youth, Omar had unwittingly made his government the most hated in Kashmir’s history. Farooq Abdullah therefore knew that if governor’s rule was imposed on the state, the election that would soon follow would spell the end of the National Conference (NC). Keeping it in power at almost any cost, therefore, became Farooq Abdullah’s all-consuming goal.
Today, everything hinges upon crushing the uprising in Kashmir. If the NC succeeds, it will not only be able to prevent the imposition of Governor’s rule but also persuade New Delhi that it is the only Kashmiri party that has the commitment to India and the political will to ensure that the state remains firmly within the Indian union. The longer New Delhi dithers and the higher the post-11 June death count (now 91) rises, the more will it become a prisoner of the NC in Kashmir.
This Faustian pact is anything but new. On the contrary, its origins can be traced back to the very different conditions that prevailed in 1947, when Sheikh Abdullah firmly sided with India in the run-up to Independence and Partition. It was an asset to India when the NC was the indubitable champion of Kashmiriyat in the Valley. But this mantle fell from its shoulders when Farooq Abdullah agreed to fight the 1987 election in coalition with the Congress. Since then he has been fighting a protracted no-holds-barred fight to prevent that mantle from shifting to any other Kashmiri party.
By siding assiduously with him since then, Delhi has gradually become an opponent of Kashmiri nationalism. It allowed Farooq first to rig enough seats in the 1987 elections not only to make sure that its rival, the Muslim United Front, would come a distant second (that was never in doubt) but that it would fail. One of those who lost his seat by a mere 35 votes after a prolonged recount was Syed Salahuddin, who went on to found the Hizbul- Mujahideen. What followed is now history.
WHEN ABDULLAH came back to power in 1996, one of his main preoccupations was to prevent the Hurriyat and the JKLF from returning to the mainstream of Kashmiri politics. In this, he had ruthless, albeit unsolicited, help of the ISI. In 2000, when Abdul Majid Dar, the leader of the Hizbul- Mujahideen in Kashmir Valley, offered a ceasefire and agreed to secret talks with the Indian Home Secretary, the J&K government sabotaged the talks by getting its principal information officer and its director-general of police to inform the media of the conference. The time they gave them, however, was 90 minutes before the secret meeting was to have started. As a result, when Dar and his companions arrived at Chashma-shahi guest house, they found 150 press and television journalists waiting for them (Dar later broke with Salahuddin and was duly assassinated).
When, a few months later, the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s unilateral announcement of a ceasefire was enthusiastically endorsed by the Hurriyat, Abdullah made no secret of his scepticism and warned that the ceasefire would only undo the gains made by the security forces in the previous years. When P Chidambaram initiated his quiet diplomacy in 2009 and invited Yasin Malik and the Mirwaiz for talks, one of Kashmir’s most senior police officers leaked the information deliberately to the press.
In recent weeks, as the search for an alternative to the endless, mindless killing of Kashmiri youth gathered momentum, the NC devoted all its energies to discrediting its main political rival, the PDP. Thus, for weeks, everyone in power firmly believed that it was the PDP that was behind the stone-pelting. When Abdul Ahad Jan threw a shoe at Omar Abdullah on 15 August, by the evening nearly all the television newsrooms in Delhi had received ‘credible information’ that he had been incited into doing so by Nizamuddin Bhat, the secretary-general of the PDP. And when the state government summarily dismissed the extraordinarily able, and incorruptible, chairman of the J&K Bank, Haseeb Drabu, the story quickly spread that he had been dismissed because he had been financing the stone-pelters. Drabu had been appointed by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.
It is against this background that Delhi needs to consider the wisdom of continuing to back the Omar Abdullah government through thick and thin. There is very substantial, if not legally conclusive, evidence that India is becoming the victim of one political party’s determination to stay in power, no matter what the cost. The cost is a steadily hardening animosity in Kashmir as the belief gains ground that Delhi is behind the state government’s killing spree. Whether this perception is true or false is no longer relevant. The only thing that matters is what the Kashmiris believe.
By failing to recognise the moral force of the Kashmiri intifada and allowing his police to use bullets against stone-throwing youth, Omar has unwittingly made his government the most hated in Kashmir’s history
It is still within Delhi’s power to change this perception. Four steps will do so more completely than the government can imagine today. These are, one, to suspend the assembly and create an interim government for a few months under the venerable Congress leader Saifuddin Soz; if for some reason this proves impossible, then declare Governor’s rule straightaway.
Two, announce that curfew and Section 144 will no longer be applied. But ask all processionists and demonstrators to keep the peace and cooperate with the police in ensuring that there are no mishaps. Both the Hurriyat and the police are already familiar with these procedures as they had been successfully used to avoid conflict during the vast post-Amarnath demonstrations from 14 to 21 August 2008, before New Delhi inexplicably reversed its policy of restraint and opted for a state-wide crackdown.
Three, Delhi should, through clear and unambiguous announcements, make it clear that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the Disturbed Areas Act will be lifted from the entire Valley but only after cooperation between the public and the police has been re-established and demonstrations have become orderly and peaceful.
Four, a fresh general election will be held as soon as life returns to normal in the Valley. Delhi will then lose no time in resuming a dialogue with the elected government on ways to move towards lasting empowerment of the Kashmiri people within the framework of the Indian Union and, when conditions are once more propitious, with Pakistan.