February 18, 2020
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Celebrations Can Wait

Farooq Abdullah has won the mandate he wanted. But he heads a broken polity and the guns could boom yet again.

Celebrations Can Wait

EVEN the weather gods decided to smile on October 1, the day when counting of votes cast in the first three phases of the Jammu and Kashmir elections began. The entire Valley basked in the warm glow of the autumn sun. And as it became clear by the morning of October 2 that Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference was set for an unprecedented sweep, there were joyful songs on the lips of most Kashmiris. Songs of hope. That, after the seven-year spell in hell, the worst was behind them. That heaven might, after all, be just a ballot paper away.

 "This vote is clearly a vote against the gun," said a cigarette vendor in the state capital’s Residency Road, his smile as warm as the sunshine swathing the road. "The gun always pointed towards us. The guns of the security forces, the guns of the militants, and for the last one year or so, the guns of the surrendered militants who had taken to counter-insurgency. I only hope Farooq sahab can live up to the people’s expectations. It’s been a long, long nightmare," the bearded man said.

However, the euphoria seemed to be waning by that evening itself. Self-doubt surfaced once again. Will Farooq Abdullah really be able to bring back peace? After all, it was during his last stint as chief minister that the drift had set in, allowing militancy to raise its head like never before. And even if he changes his style of functioning, will the conditions allow him to function? The doubts were raised across the board, among the common people, in political circles, in evening get-togethers of the bureaucratic community. As if on cue, the weather worsened. Dark clouds whirled across the sky and soon enough it began raining, bringing on a chilling wintry gloom.

Scepticism vis-a-vis Farooq Abdullah’s capacity to deliver was just one thing. Besides that, the forebodings were largely on two counts. One, the burden of the tide of expectations set off by the National Conference group’s two-thirds majority sweep. Two, the debris of militancy: all forms of support systems considered essential to keep a civil government afloat currently lie in various degrees of rigor mortis. To add to the gloom, there were murmurs in high places that the security forces, particularly the Army, had developed over the years a vested interest in keeping the Kashmir situation on a boil.

Said a senior bureaucrat, considered to be one of the frontrunners for the post of Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister: "There has been virtually no tax collection in the Valley for close to five years now. There has hardly been any investigation of criminal cases. And the dispute redressal mechanism too has largely given way to Shariat courts. Kashmir has fallen into ways from where it will be an uphill task pulling it out." 

Even people holding as high positions as advisers to the Governor, General K.V. Krishna Rao, are worried on this count. "Over the last five to six years, the whole system of accountability has been completely eroded. Everybody, just about everybody has got too used to not working, and yet making a quick buck. It will not be easy for Farooq to restore discipline in the officialdom and simultaneously get the cooperation essential for the government to tick," said a non-security adviser.

Theory apart, the specific areas of worry have frightening dimensions. This would cover the systematic undermining of the civil administration, including the police force, ever since the advent of Gen Rao on the scene. The retired army general was clear that the Army must have a pre-eminent, predominant role in anti-militancy operations and would brook no counsel to the contrary. And in his focussed approach to the fight against militancy, he ignored the civilian requirements almost completely. That he seldom allowed a holistic view of the problems of the state to emerge is evident. During his three-year stint as head of state and government, he hardly ever had a full meeting with his advisers, who are virtually cabinet ministers when the Governor’s rule is in force. "Even during the entire 40-odd days of the Chrar-e-Sharief imbroglio, not a single full meeting of the advisers was held," admits one of them. "We hardly knew the thinking of the government in which we were supposed to be as good as ministers," he says. The deprived official’s analogy is telling: the structure of the Governor’s government was like that of the Army, with offi-cials being informed only on a need-to-know basis.

The fear is that the security forces, once again particularly the Army, has got too used to this style of functioning to submit enthusiastically to the requirements of a people’s government, where the civilian face must be upfront. Director General of Police Mahendra Sabharwal is confident that, with the new government in, the urban areas of the Valley, particularly capital city Srinagar, will see the re-emergence of Jammu and Kashmir police in the forefront. But even he concedes that the Army and the paramilitary forces will have to play the dominant role in the rural areas and the higher mountain reaches.

Other senior police officers suggest that a civilian face is an ideal that may not be easy to reach straightaway, even if efforts are made. The police force itself has to be considerably augmented first. The dominance of the state police can only be gradually upgraded, they say.

But the question remains. Does Farooq have that kind of time? With the return of the people’s government, the expectations have risen sky high. Even those who didn’t vote expect him to show that he is firmly in command, and want to see him put an immediate stop to the human rights abuses by security forces. The worry in some quarters of the civilian administration is that just a couple of high-handed security operations, with a dozen or so civilian casualties, will be enough to wipe out the fund of goodwill Farooq Abdullah is starting his latest innings with.

ADD to that the whispered fears that sections of the Army have assumed a "political role" in the Valley. These fears pertain mainly to the role of the Rashtriya Rifles in propping up surrendered militants like Kukka Parrey—who, incidentally, is now an MLA. This is no longer seen as mere battle strategy. Some civilian officials analyse this as a political agenda the armed force is acquiring in the Valley, and warn of its grave implications.

Another crucial question remains unsettled. Who is going to run the motley groups of surrendered militants? They are believed to total around 5,000 gunmen, and it will be difficult for newly-enthroned politicians to be answerable for their every future act.

Some senior police officials suggest that they be formally inducted in a couple of police or paramilitary battalions. This would ensure two things at once: that they carry on their fight against militancy, and yet are brought into the ambit of some kind of discipline. The last has not been heard on this yet.

All this pertains to the problems within the system. There remain the problems caused by the secessionist movement and the presence of a large number of Pakistan-trained militants who may try to make their next move into the spotlight soon. There can be little doubt that once the Hurriyat leaders come out of jail, they will try and resume their regimen of hartals and demonstrations, or that the militants will use the crowds as cover to launch their attack. The aim will be to try and provoke security personnel to open fire on crowds, causing major civilian losses. As said earlier, just a couple of such incidents could be enough to put the Valley aflame and destroy the trust in the Farooq Abdullah government.

The all-important question is: how soon can Farooq get his act together and to what extent will he have New Delhi’s backing? The Chief Minister needs to show his people that he is sincere about winning back the autonomy the state once enjoyed. Can he wrest it soon enough? He has announced that he will set up a committee to go into the question and review all laws made since 1953. His father, Sheikh Abdullah, had done just that after the Beg-Parthasarathy accord of 1975. But the committee report never saw the light of day and prodded the defunct Plebiscite Front into spawning new secessionist groups. Nearly 40,000 people have lost their lives in the last seven years of militancy. And the Kashmiris are impatient to ensure that these lives were not snuffed out in vain.

But will New Delhi have the political courage to grant the kind of autonomy that is being demanded? After all, though the United Front Government is federal-minded, it is dependent on outside support for survival and has been lurching from one crisis to another ever since it came into being. To add to this, the top priority of all non-BJP parties is to keep the saffron brigade out of power. Will they risk giving the BJP an issue right up their alley? For, this is prime ammunition that they can use to corroborate their general charges of minority appeasement affecting national security. That too, when the spectre of a midterm parliamentary poll have already begun to loom.

But then, there is always hope. All hopes must right now necessarily rest with Farooq Abdullah. Even the gods seem to know that. For, after two-and-half days of virtually non-stop rains, the sun shone again on October 5. That was the day Farooq—often portrayed as the tigercub-gone-astray—arrived in Srinagar to resume charge of the ravaged state. An omen of the times to come? Inshallah yes! 

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