An ageing newspaper vendor at a bus stand in Sopore town, 55km northwest of Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir, has been selling newspapers for 45 years in the market. He says he has never seen people so frightened.
"You don’t know whether a person coming to you is a customer or killer," he told this correspondent on Monday, "Mufti (Mohammad Sayeed) had promised good days and development. We have seen nothing. Here no one knows when unknown gunmen will come to kill you. As far as development is concerned, you can see for yourself," the vendor said.
For the past two decades, a bridge which would have connected Sopore to Handwara has been undergoing construction and residents of Sopore now joke about it. They say it will be completed in 100 years.
Except the newspaper vendor, no one was ready to talk to reporters in Sopore. After 9pm, you will not see anyone stepping outside their homes. In the past three weeks, six people have been killed by unknown gunmen and there has been no response from the Jammu and Kashmir Police or the state government. Chief minister Sayeed has not even issued a statement.
Sopore is the second biggest business hub of the Kashmir Valley. Businessmen here deal directly with traders in Delhi for exporting fruits, mostly apples. After last year’s floods and this year’s inclement weather, the traders of Sopore say that they are economically ruined. "And now for the past two months, this cult of unknown gunmen has taken everything from us, including our sleep," says a prominent trader.
Omar Abdullah’s six years
In this uncertainty, the National Conference (NC), which was rejected by the people in the 2014 Assembly elections for its dismal performance while in office, sees a chance to regain the confidence of the people. In the six years of Omar Abdullah’s tenure in the state, the year 2010 was the worst in terms of civilian killings. That year, according to government figures, around 120 youths were killed by firing by the police and security forces trying to quell protests which started after the killings of youths in Srinagar. In the subsequent clampdown, nearly 5,000 youths were booked in different police stations and they were charged in cases of stone pelting. Omar promised justice to the families whose children were killed but did little to ensure that policemen, who are not covered under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), faced the law for firing on the youths.
To his credit, Omar as chief minister gave stirring speeches in the Assembly. He said Jammu and Kashmir was a unique state as it has not merged with the Union of India but it had acceded. He talked about the 2010 killings and said every time he thought about it, his heart bled. He called for revocation of the AFSPA as violence went down to 70 per cent under his rule.
On the governance front too, Omar weathered many storms. Three of his ministers had to resign on charges of corruption and impropriety. Public perception was that various ministers in his cabinet were involved in corrupt practices. Omar did nothing to correct that perception. Anti-graft organisations like the Jammu and Kashmir State Vigilance Organisation and Jammu and Kashmir Accountability Commission were silent during his rule.
These days, Omar says the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government kept him in the dark about the hanging of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru. But when in power, he maintained a Sphinx-like silence over the issue.
Tourism did grow in the six years of Omar. In 2014 alone, 11,40,446 domestic tourists and 27,172 foreign tourists visited the Valley. Then came the floods of biblical proportions in September 2014, turning the Valley into a vast lake. The Kashmiri habit of constructing huge houses and keeping rations stocked for months saved them.
But the economy was completely ruined. Realising that Omar had no chance to rejuvenate his party, the People's Democratic Party (PDP) insisted on elections in time so that the next government could do relief and rehabilitation for the flood-affected. That was the priority.
Delusions of PDP
During the election campaign, the PDP would cite examples of Sayeed’s three-year rule from mid-2002 to mid-2005. It would describe it as an era of development, peace and security. PDP leaders also sought full majority to stop the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and ruled out an alliance. The PDP had thought it would win at least 44 seats in the 87-member Assembly and would govern on its own. But an overconfident PDP got only 28 seats. The NC, which the PDP had dismissed as a spent force, got 15. Omar was laughing after the elections, even though his party was reduced to only 15 seats. He was expecting a complete rout.
When the PDP-BJP government was formed after negotiations between Haseeb Drabu of PDP and Ram Madhav of the BJP, it was perceived that the PDP has gained a lot during the negotiations owing to guarantees that Jammu and Kashmir would continue to enjoy special status, that the disturbed areas notification which gives teeth to the AFSPA would be de-notified, that talks would be held with stakeholders including separatists, that Pakistani refugees would not get special status, that conditions to facilitate resolution of all issues of Jammu and Kashmir would be created, that the state would be made fiscally autonomous, that power projects from the government of India undertaking National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) would be returned to the state, that rehabilitation and relief for the flood victims and their families would be carried out.
Omar in Opposition
It was expected that Sayeed in power would provide great relief to people and implement the "Agenda for Alliance". Instead, for the last three months, the Sayeed-led government is facing one crisis after another. Whenever Omar, during his rule, arrested separatists and kept them under prolonged detention, the PDP cited its "peace and development" of 2003, which it calls the "Battle of Ideas" philosophy. The PDP describes this battle as the core of its ideology, which prescribes space to every political thought to express itself, including separatist thought. Separatists call PDP’s "Battle of Ideas" a soft counter-insurgency operation to make them irrelevant. With the arrest of Masarat Alam Bhat and the house arrest of other separatists, the PDP seems to have lost the "Battle of Ideas".
The PDP-BJP coalition has not ruled for 100 days. It has survived after 100 days. Such is the growing chasm between the PDP and the BJP that the ruling coalition didn’t celebrate its 100 days in power. Instead, it gave a chance to Omar to remind them that the ruling coalition completed 100 days of "U-turn" on every issue. Omar first gave a press conference and then subsequently staged a rally at Lal Chowk against the government. He made a powerful speech at Regal Chowk and indicted the Sayeed-led government for killings of civilians in Sopore and communalising the situation in Jammu.
He said the killings in north Kashmir’s Sopore by unknown gunmen started after defence minister Manohar Parrikar made a statement that militants should be neutralised by militants. He accused Sayeed of reviving "government-backed gunmen culture in Kashmir" which had created a reign of terror in the late 1990s. He accused the PDP-BJP government of playing communal politics, neglecting rehabilitation of flood-affected people and implementing the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) agenda in the state.
Omar referred to a recent order issued by the state’s forests minister Bali Bhagat, who is also a senior BJP leader, on the eviction of alleged encroachers from forest areas. Omar said that in spite of the fact that encroachment in the forest areas has taken place in Ladakh, Kashmir and Jammu, the present government had ordered an inquiry only in those areas of Jammu where the Muslim population was in a majority. He said all such decisions, including the ones about arresting and releasing the separatists, were being taken in Nagpur.
He said his government assessed losses in Kashmir as a result of the devastating floods at Rs 44,000 crore and submitted the proposal to the Centre. "Now deputy chief minister Nirmal Singh is saying that the damage is only of Rs 3,600 crore. I should remind him that floods affected south and north Kashmir, and deluged Srinagar. Since he is from Jammu perhaps he doesn’t know all this," he said. He said Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised assistance and help to the flood-affected people in his presence and later forgot everything. He said as Opposition leader he and his party would not remain silent.
Omar is right in saying that Sayeed of 2015 is not the Sayeed of 2003. The perception on the ground is also the same. With the Centre not providing him any money and liabilities of Rs 9,000 crore left by the previous government, employees and contractors are without money, unknown gunmen are on a killing spree in Sopore and Sayeed is visiting Bollywood to revive tourism.
The PDP did nothing to counter Omar's list of allegations. In three months, the PDP-BJP government has provided so much room to Omar that the NC, which had lost complete ground during the 2014 elections, has not only found the ground beneath its feet but is walking tall too.