• Uneasy lies the head: Protesters pelt stones at armed forces during a demonstration in Srinagar over recent civilian deaths in Handwara and Kupwara.
    PTIUneasy lies the head: Protesters pelt stones at armed forces during a demonstration in Srinagar over recent civilian deaths in Handwara and Kupwara.

If morning shows the day, then Mehbooba Mufti’s stint as the J&K chief minister seems riddled with unrest and obstacles

April 12. Handwara, north Kashmir. A group of young men raised the alarm as they saw a man in army fatigues entering a public toilet being used by a schoolgirl. As they rushed in to grab the intruder, he, reportedly, ran to the safety of a bunker. The news of the “controversial, yet proven” molestation bid spread like wildfire, after which hundreds of protesters stormed the streets of the restive town. Anti-army, anti-India slogans rent the air as stones were pelted at the forces. What happened next has multiple versions. One is that the men in uniform opened fire without warning, killing on the spot Iqbal Faroor Pir (21) and Nayeem Qadir Bhat (22), a budding cricketer who was reportedly chosen for a national-level training camp.

The Handwara deaths triggered protests in other parts of the Valley. And those resulted in two more deaths, including one in Kupwara. Matters worsened when a video of the minor girl went viral online. In the video, allegedly circulated by the army, the school-goer exonerated the soldiers of all accusations. She, instead, blamed the local youths for the ruckus. The army has since denied its role in the making and/or release of the video. But the damage was done already. Human rights groups joined the protests, demanding strict action against those who compromised the Handwara girl’s privacy and safety by releasing the video online. Reacting to the same, social activist FA Ganai says, “How can they release the video of victim, especially when she is minor… it might affect her future.”

In less than 24 hours, the Handwara incident became a major challenge for Mehbooba Mufti, the state’s first woman chief minister, who’d assumed office only a week ago.

As a member of the Opposition, Mufti had taken to the streets on innumerable occasions. Armed with the green PDP flag, she had been the face of many protests against civilian killings in Kashmir. But the roles have reversed now. Already under fire for the students-police clash at NIT Srinagar, following India’s exit from the World T20 tournament in March, Mufti’s first healing touch for Handwara was the removal of army bunkers. But that isn’t being considered relief enough from a politician who is known for being vocal against “erring” forces.

Sheikh Showkat Hussain, who teaches law and human rights at Kashmir’s Central University, says the new chief minister has to walk the extra mile to deliver what others have failed to. “It is time for her to stand by what she promised and deliver what she has always demanded from others. It’s time she proves her pro-people stand.”

The Centre’s decision to send 36 companies of paramilitary forces to the Valley thwarts Mufti’s endeavour to send a stern message to the army. This is doubly embarrassing for a party that is in alliance with the BJP. “We are in constant touch with the Centre over the violation of Standard Operating Procedure by the armed forces in Handwara. We want assurance that such things won’t happen in future,” says a PDP leader on condition of anonymity.

Omar Abdullah, former chief minister and National Conference leader, criticised Mufti’s absence from the scene on the day Handwara went up in flames. Mufti was in Delhi that day to discuss the NIT fracas with the Union ministry. In his tweet, Abdullah accused Mufti of going on a “self-promoting tour of Delhi” while people under her rule fell to bullets fired “by security forces”.

While refusing to comment on whether Mufti has failed the state — she completed a month in office this week — Imran Nabi Dar, provincial spokesperson of NC, slams her for her absence on the day of the unrest. “Mehbooba should have returned the same day… and directed the army to restrain firing. But she didn’t and we lost two more lives the next day,” says Dar. The leader should have summoned the Unified Command — an umbrella body of security agencies in Kashmir headed by the CM — to a meeting and issued strict orders to the forces, he adds. “What happened in Handwara is unfortunate. It shouldn’t have happened, but let Mehbooba understand her responsibilities as a CM and behave like one,” says Dar.

Sans the guidance of her father and mentor, Mufti’s administrative skills have been called into question in the recent weeks. The political wedlock between her party and the BJP has brought her little solace as she grapples with the NIT and the Handwara crises. It’s not just her future as chief minister that depends on how she tides over this trouble but also that of her party, which is in an uneasy alliance with the BJP.

“The Handwara and the NIT issues have already left their mark on the Mehbooba government,” says Hussain, but if she tackles it well it could be a “turning point” in her career. “If Mehbooba succeeds in punishing security personnel for innocent killings, those criticising her today will shower praises on her,” he adds.

Tawqeer Hussain is a Delhi-based journalist



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