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The Mehbooba Mufti government faced what has widely been called her “worst crisis” on the evening of July 10, when a militant attack left seven Amarnath yatris dead and 19 injured. The attack was at first seen as the beginning of the final countdown to the imposition of Governor’s rule in Jammu and Kashmir, where protests and crackdowns have been the order of the day since the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander 22-year-old Burhan Wani on July 8 last year. Three days later, though, the BJP was all praise for the J&K government, the CM and the people of the Valley. Home minister Rajnath Singh lauded Kashmiris for condemning the killings. PDP says its alliance with the BJP has become stronger after the attack.
What did the CM do to earn the BJP’s approval? Within an hour of the attack, before the news could make it to the TV screens, Mehbooba rushed to Anantnag town, around 70 km south of Srinagar, and met the survivors at the district police lines. According to her close aides, she hugged women survivors, consoled them and ensured they could call their relatives. While many experts in Delhi were quick to pen obituaries of her government, minister Naeem Akhtar, also the government spokesperson, said the CM’s biggest worry was the fear of hate attacks on Kashmiri Muslims living in other states, which would have “played into the hands of the perpetrators”.
From the police lines, Mehbooba rushed to the district hospital. A senior doctor tells Outlook that the CM met each one of the injured and apologised with folded hands. Akhtar points out that she also directed the hospital authorities to allow the media to enter the premises for interviewing the survivors. She thought that would help in reassuring people across the country that the people of the Valley as well as the J&K government were with them. “This ended speculation and calmed the situation,” says Akhtar.
Even as the police were figuring out what had happened, Akhtar was already pointing fingers at Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and had even named the man responsible—one Abu Ismail. “The gang of gunmen belonging to LeT and led by Ismail from Pakistan identified as perpetrators of yatra attack. Police on hot pursuit,” tweeted Akthar, despite condemnation of the attack by the Lashkar as well as the Muzaffarabad-based militant conglomerate United Jehad Council (UJC), which includes Hizbul Mujahideen, the biggest militant group operating in Kashmir. Lashkar spokesman Dr Abdullah Ghaznavi called the attack an inhuman, “un-Islamic” and condemnable act and blamed government forces for it. According to the police, Ismail, in his 20s, is the “most wanted” militant in the Valley after Lashkar commander Abu Dujana.
After spending the night of July 10 in Anantnag, the CM rushed to Srinagar airport the next morning, escorting the bodies of the dead yatris. She paid floral tributes to them and called a cabinet meeting to condemn the incident, which she called a “terrorist act” and an attack on Kashmir’s syncretic culture and pluralistic values. “Such cowardly attacks will only strengthen the resolve of the government and the society to fight violence with renewed commitment.... Such acts, which strike at the roots of Kashmir’s value system and traditional ethos, will not be tolerated,” reads the cabinet note issued after the meeting. “The culprits of this heinous crime will soon be brought to book and the fight against perpetrators of violence will be carried to its logical conclusion.”
The cabinet announced Rs 6 lakh as ex-gratia to the families killed in the attack and Rs 2 lakh each for the injured. Bus driver Sheikh Saleem Ghafoor will be awarded Rs 3 lakh for his bravery. Mehbooba also spoke with the Maharashtra and Gujarat CMs, conveying her sympathies.
In the Valley, most of those condemning the attack also sought to draw attention to alleged rights violations by government forces.
Leaders of the ruling PDP believe the CM’s response to the killings of yatris must have reassured the Centre that INStitutions in Kashmir are stronger than they thought. “The government was on its toes, the people were angry and shocked. Now, there is greater trust in Kashmiris among others than ever before,” says PDP youth leader Waheed-ur-Rehman Parra. “Both Rajnath and the PM have acknowledged the hurt Kashmiris felt over the killings. The Centre trusts the PDP government more now.”
In fact, the PDP-BJP bonhomie was already on full display since July 6, when the state assembly approved the central legislation to implement GST. President Pranab Mukherjee issued the Constitution (Application to Jammu and Kashmir) Amendment Order, 2017, and J&K ceased to be the only state that had not rolled out GST even after the July 1 deadline. While the Opposition National Conference (NC) described the assembly resolution as the biggest assault ever on the fiscal autonomy of the state, Mehbooba and her finance minister Haseeb Drabu said GST was the biggest test so far for the coalition government and that J&K’s special status has been protected under the presidential order. “The assembly shall have exclusive powers to make laws in respect of imposition of any taxes as enabled under section 5 of the Constitution of Jammu and Kashmir. This way, all safeguards under Article 370 have remained intact,” Drabu tells Outlook.
On the other hand, PDP’s coalition partner described the assembly resolution as the “beginning of the process of complete integration of Jammu and Kashmir with India”. In fact, at a gathering on Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s birth anniversary on July 6, finance minister Arun Jaitley said this is the first time the country had become economically integrated, adding that consumers in J&K would also feel they belong to India. The BJP’s J&K chief Sat Sharma called the GST resolution a “slap on the faces of the separatists”. The BJP did not rebut the CM’s view of the GST resolution, nor did the PDP object to anything the BJP said about GST, such was the seamless understanding between the two parties.
Justifying the apparently contradictory views, Akhtar says, “The CM skilfully settled the GST issue, mainstreaming it by linking it with Kashmir’s special status and leading to the convergence of two hostile interests.”
BJP insiders rule out President’s rule, saying the democratically elected government is the only way forward. “The attack on yatris was a reaction to the successful operations carried out by security forces against militants in the past few months,” says a senior BJP leader. Jitendra Singh, minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office, who visited the Valley on July 12, says operations against militants would continue and that eliminating all militants is the “permanent solution” Rajnath has been talking about in past few months. “Militancy,” Singh says, “is on the last leg in Kashmir.”
The state government says it ensured yatris could safely visit the cave shrine the very next day after the attack. In fact, the yatris didn’t want to stop at the transit camp before proceeding ahead under a security cover. Clearly, the attack has struck no fear in the hearts of the Hindu yatris to Amarnath.
In the afternoon of July 11, the police were desperate to stop unregistered yatris at Mirbazar yatra transit. Take Nain Thakur, a 40-year-old yatri who was insisting he had registered himself with the shrine board in his home state Gujarat. Thakur, who runs a chemist shop in Palampur, hired a car from Jammu in the evening of July 10 to reach Baltal the following evening. The driver, Shafat Ahmad Bhat from Kanipora, Srinagar, who was carrying 10 yatris, including Thakur, to the Amarnath shrine, had assured them that there was no problem in the Valley.
A police official near the transit camp says many unregistered yatris such as Thakur cross the Banihal tunnel every day to reach the cave shrine. “They are causing a huge problem,” says the official. “Legally, you cannot stop them. They will argue with you. They have hotel bookings at Srinagar and other places. Some of them visit Kashmir as tourists and then go for the yatra as well.”
Thakur and his friends knew about the lethal attack, but they were not afraid. “We have come for the pilgrimage, so nothing can harm us,” says Thakur. “And then there is also the army to protect us.” The police say the bus (GJ-09 Z9976) that came under attack on July 10 was also not registered with the shrine board. The passengers had visited the shrine on July 8 and, during the return, the bus, in violation of the security protocol, was on the road after 7 pm, when the army and paramilitary forces were not patrolling it.
In Srinagar, IGP (Kashmir range) Muneer Khan tells Outlook that the gunmen opened fire at around 8.15 pm at a police bunker and the bus carrying yatris at Khanabal, around half a km from Botengoo. “The police bunker also got 15 to 20 bullets. Being bulletproof, there was no loss of life there,” he says. “Both the police and the yatris were targeted by militants. Our priority is to catch the militants dead or alive.”
The attack brought to the fore a chink in the armour of the security establishment. Police sources claim the army had not taken care of the roads leading to the highway, giving an opportunity to the militants to strike. It is the army’s responsibility to dominate the interior roads, they say.
Within an hour of the attack, Mehbooba rushed to Anantnag. Governor N.N. Vohra met the survivors later at the Srinagar airport.
A senior army official, however, argues that the army cannot be on the road all the time. “There is a specific timing as per the SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) when the army is manning the roads. The incident took place at 8.15 pm, when the army is not supposed to be on the roads”, he says. Jitendra Singh says all lapses will be taken care of. MoS (Home) Hansraj Ahir told reporters in Srinagar that there would be road-opening parties on both the yatra routes during the night to protect the yatris.
The police say they were anticipating the attack and had already written to security agencies to make elaborate security arrangements along the yatra route. They cite a letter written by IGP Khan, on June 26, to the IGP CRPF, the army’s 15 Corps headquarters and all the DIGs that militants might attack the police and the yatris to create communal tension in the country.
The letter, accessed by Outlook, reads fairly unambiguous: “Intelligence input received from SSP Anantnag reveals that the terrorists have been directed to eliminate 100 to 150 yatris and about 100 police officers.... The attack may be in the form of standoff fire on yatra convoy, which they believe will result in flaring up communal tension across the nation.”
Ghulam Mohammed Panzoo, a shopkeeper who claims to have witnessed the incident, says the whole market was open and it was business as usual when, suddenly, “we heard gunshots, downed the shutters and ran away”. “This was the first incident of firing in Botengoo, though, during the 1990s, a few grenade attacks had taken place on the highway.”
What Botengoo, a village of 4,000 people, has witnessed more recently—October 2015—are large-scale protests after an 18-year-old local, Zahid Rasool Bhat, died after being set ablaze near Udhampur on the Srinagar-Jammu highway. The accused were agitated over a rumour of cow slaughter in the area and hurled petrol bombs at the truck Bhat was travelling in. Last year, a young man was killed in the village when the security forces opened fire at protesters.
The killing of Amarnath yatris has angered Kashmiris, with separatists calling it a dastardly act. Khurram Parvez of Jammu-Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society and G.N. Suhail, director of the Centre for Research and Development Policy, led a sit-in at Srinagar’s Pratab Park in solidarity with the families of the dead and the injured. Parvez explains that the protest was organised to express outrage against the killing of civilians, irrespective of their political, ethnic and ideological background. “We are all united against the killings of Amarnath yatris. Are Indians united against the killings, disappearances, torture, sexualised violence, maiming and demonisation of Kashmiris by the Indian State?” he asks.
Suhail points out that Kashmiris have in the past, too, vehemently condemned the killing of innocent people. “Senior citizens, trade bodies and people from other walks of life took part in this sit-in, to send a strong message that such acts will not be tolerated,” he says. While condemnation of the yatri killings poured in from across Kashmir, most of those condemning also sought to draw attention to alleged human rights abuses by government forces in the Valley.
In its statement condemning the attack, the J&K High Court Bar Association, Srinagar, said it is also important to condemn “killings and blindings of innocent Kashmiris, who have been targeted by the Indian forces using bullets and pellets.” Akhtar, though, says it’s high time Kashmiris were unequivocal in condemning acts of terror without trying to relate them to other incidents of violence. “This is terrorism—a millstone around the neck of every Kashmiri. Whatever our political problems, which need to be resolved, we can get rid of this millstone only by taking a clear stand against all forms of violence,” says Akhtar, giving a peep into the mood of the government that survived the July 10 attack.
By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar and Anantnag