“Today Gandhi’s country has brought people of Kashmir to their knees. What makes you so arrogant? Tell me what makes you so arrogant,” bellowed the firebrand opposition leader Mehbooba Mufti in her Assembly speech in 2013 when centre refused to return the remains of Afzal Guru who had just been hanged.
And then pointing towards the then Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, she thundered: “And you are also responsible for bringing Kashmiris to their knees. You say, nothing is in your hands. You are helpless”.
But now with death toll touching 37, and over 1500 injured and a hundred youth set to lose eye-sight in one or both their eyes, Mehbooba’s reputation as a tough, pro-Kashmir leader lies in tatters, much like Omar’s political credibility was left reeling from the 2009 and 2010 protests from which he is still struggling to recover.
And as Mehbooba lands smack into the same uneviable situation and tries to brazen it out, the video snippets of her fiery 2013 speech have landed on social media. Her present conduct stands in sharp contrast to the video in which she is all fire and brimstone against Omar and the then home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde for not informing Guru’s family about his execution.
“Such arrogance on your part Shindeji,” Mehbooba is heard saying in the speech.
But in the five days since the protests broke out, piling up killings and injuries, Mehbooba has struggled to appear in command. Far from appearing proactively to stop killings, a demand she made of Omar in 2010, Mehbooba went invisible for the first three days. What is more, when on the third day, the education minister and the state government spokesman Naeem Akhtar called a press conference at Secretariat, he walked out in a huff when asked why wouldn’t Mehbooba resign as she had sought Omar’s resignation through 2010 mass revolt.
“I won’t take any questions,” Akhtar said and left the hall.
Though Mehbooba later spoke, talking to the official media, she had little more than platitudes to offer, saying the killings had been provoked by the ferociousness of the protests.
And on Wednesday, talking to media after paying homage to the pre-partition Quit Kashmir martyrs of 1931 on their 85th anniversary at the Srinagar’s Martyrs Graveyard at Khawaja Bazar, Mehbooba sought people’s support in pulling the state out of the vortex of violence and bloodshed, saying “her heart is overwhelmed with great sadness and sorrow as a result of the killings in the Valley”.
She once again accused “the elements with vested interests” of instigating the protests, calling them more dangerous than the militants who take up guns and put their lives on the line.. The CM also called upon the parents to counsel their children not to go out and throw stones. But far from carrying any conviction, her words only evoked further anger.
Here was a leader who would once rail against the self-same platitudes by her opponents but was now mouthing them verbatim.
For people, the implicit message in CM’s belated breaking of her silence was that the killings were the outcome of the provocations by protesters themselves leaving no option for the security personnel but to fire to kill.
Mehbooba didn’t own up to the responsibility of her own government in the killings. Just saying that her government will investigate the disproportionate use of force, if any by the government. This again meant nothing concrete. She has already blamed the protesters for provoking the use of force. Besides, there have been scores of such inquiries in Valley over the past two decades whose outcome is either pending or has attracted little follow-up action. There is hardly a case where a probe has ended to the satisfaction of the people or where the culprits have been adequately punished. And over the years, this has been a predominant source of the trust-deficit between the successive state governments and the people in Valley
Mehbooba’s belated defence of her government may have thus only served to further indict it. If anything, her explanation has once again attested to the frightening cookie-cutter world of the mainstream politics in the Valley. No matter, how disparate and radical ideological stances leaders espouse to mobilize the support of people, once in power they settle into set roles, even their statements seem to be familiar and predictable.
When around 130 youth – most of them teenagers – were shot dead through 2010, PDP was the shrillest in its condemnation. Seeking immediate resignation of Omar, PDP had expressed disbelief that he was coolly presiding over the killings. In response, Omar said little except tweet now and then his regret over the deaths. But now after Mehbooba’s own government has been responsible for the killing of 34 persons over three days, she has acted hardly any different. She may have expressed her own “anguish” over the killings, but on the whole she has struggled to appear empathetic enough. Her response has been subdued and more in the nature of addressing a routine problem something that is very unlike that of her coalition partner BJP’s approach towards the lathi-charge of the outstation students at NIT Srinagar in April.
But is it Mehbooba’s failure alone or the inevitable outcome of the entrenched structure of the state’s polity whereby the state’s leaders walk a tightrope between the demands of New Delhi and the expectations of their supporters? It is both. Perhaps, more a structural problem than the undoing of Mehbooba. But leaders are expected to override the structures.
Not so in Valley, though. But how one longs for this kind of politics in J&K. Except for fewer fleeting interludes, the politics in the state has been predictable, banal, feudalistic and morally compromised, confined to dynasties and the elite sections of the society. For a moment, Mehbooba had appeared different. For example, when she resisted the temptation to become CM for three months following the death of her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, seeking fulfilment of development demands before she did so.
But as her response to the killings now has made clear, she may have routinized herself faster than even Omar did.