To assuage the rising public anger, Mehbooba Mufti said the security forces killed Burhan Wani by mistake.
In 1996, when Jammu and Kashmir held its first assembly elections after nine years of governor's rule, there was no one to contest from the Congress. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, then a senior leader of the party, fielded his wife, Gulshan, from Anantnag, and daughter Mehbooba, from Bijbehara, his hometown. The Mufti had wanted to field his son, Tassaduq, from Bijbehara, but he was not old enough to contest. That was how Mehbooba, a single mother of two daughters, who was then working with an airline in Delhi, was ushered into the turbulent politics of Kashmir. Her mother lost, but she won. The Mufti subsequently quit the Congress and set up the Peoples Democratic Party. Mehbooba was quick to understand that showing sympathy to the people who have suffered at the hands of the security forces and militants was the best way to win popular support. Twenty years later, when she became chief minister following the death of her father, leading a government in alliance with the BJP, she was hoping to build on the support she enjoyed.
Yet, she seems to have quickly forfeited that support following the killing of Burhan Wani, the young commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen. The valley erupted in protest following Burhan's death in an encounter on July 8 and as the security forces retaliated, more than 50 people were killed and over 4,000 suffered injuries.
One of her aides told THE WEEK that Mehbooba was shattered to see the goodwill she enjoyed turning into such hate and anger, especially in the south Kashmir district of Anantnag, from where she won a byelection in June. The chief minister has made a few attempts to win back public support. Her security officers recently organised a meeting with family members of some of the victims of the recent attacks. The meeting, held at the Dak Bungalow in Anantnag, was an attempt to show that she was reaching out to people. But the meeting, which was held under heavy security, was criticised by many, including former chief minister Omar Abdullah of the National Conference. “Mehbooba has made the same mistake as me. I went into a shell in 2010 and she has also withdrawn into a shell,'' he said. “The first 24 to 48 hours are crucial. That is when your people need to see and hear you.''
Mehbooba appeared on Door-darshan, appealing for calm and asking parents to rein in their kids from taking part in stone pelting. She promised to look into the use of undue force against the protesters, yet there has been no let up in violent clashes. On July 31, when Mehbooba went to the Srinagar Women's College to meet students taking part in the common medical entrance examination and their parents, she was booed.
A day before, Mehbooba’s trusted aide and education minister Naeem Akhtar’s cavalcade was stoned in his home district, Bandipora. Khalil Bandh, another PDP legislator, suffered fractures when his vehicle rolled over after it was attacked by protesters. In the border town of Kupwara, PDP legislator Abdul Haq Khan's cavalcade was attacked by angry protesters on August 1.
Mounting public pressure has forced many leaders to leave Srinagar for Jammu. Some have even decided to give up their political careers. National Conference leader Iftikhar Misgar, who lost the Anantnag byelection to Mehbooba, quit mainstream politics to join hands with the separatists. He announced his resignation at a rally organised by the separatists in Anantnag on July 31.
Mehbooba has opted to stay confined to her office except for a few photo opportunities. To assuage the rising public anger, she said the security forces killed Burhan by mistake. “Considering that the situation was improving, I think the security agencies would have given him a chance had they known about his presence,” she said. But the BJP disagreed with the chief minister. “Security forces do not act without information,” said state BJP president Sat Sharma. “They knew who was inside and they undertook their job after taking everything into consideration.”
Congress leader A.G. Mir said the PDP-BJP alliance no longer enjoyed popular support. “The protests are being spearheaded by the same people who voted for them two years ago. Mehbooba sought votes against the BJP, but went along with the same party to form the government. People who voted for her felt cheated,'' he said. Jammu-based political analyst and author Rekha Chowdhary said Mehbooba was fighting for her own political survival. “We have to wait and see how the PDP restores its image,'' she said.
Scholar and historian Sidiq Wahid, who has been involved in Track II diplomacy on Kashmir, said the state was witnessing an intensification of demands for the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. ''The people of Kashmir have had enough. India and Pakistan need to sit down and discuss the resolution of the Kashmir dispute with the people of Kashmir.'' He said the PDP's decision to ally with the BJP was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. “Sometimes when India is in the mood, it allows people to talk, sometimes Pakistan does so, but the two countries never seriously get down to discuss the resolution. India expects those who want to resolve the issue through talks to capitulate first and contest elections. And when they do so, they are left in the lurch,'' said Wahid.
With her survival at stake, Mehbooba has come down hard against the protesters and those who instigate them. ''If you play with the future of our children, who should be in schools and colleges, then what azadi are you talking about?” she told a television channel. “Instigating protests is a business for many. They infiltrate the crowds and direct them towards police stations and camps of security forces. They know when a police station or a camp is attacked, there would be retaliation. They escape themselves and the common people are killed,” she said.
But most of her party workers and ministers believe that such rhetoric would only cause more anger. ''She is in office, but not in control,'' said a senior journalist. For someone who was expected to alter the political landscape of Kashmir, Mehbooba appears increasingly isolated even as the opposition and her detractors within the ruling coalition enjoy the show from a distance.