On October 18, Peoples Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti and three of her party's ministers went to Srinagar airport to receive the body of Zahid Bhat. The 16-year-old trucker, who had been attacked with petrol bombs by Hindu groups in Udhampur, had succumbed to his burns in Delhi. Back home, Mehbooba's alliance with the BJP threatened to burn her, too.
On October 9, Bhat was travelling in a truck on the Jammu-Srinagar highway when some people attacked him and the conductor, Showkat Ahmed, with petrol bombs. Driver Rameez Ahmed escaped unhurt. The injured duo was taken to Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi and Bhat was moved into the intensive care unit. He had 80 per cent burns. In a few days, he was shifted to the ward but, because of dehydration, he was moved back to the ICU.
“We immediately consulted the doctors when his condition worsened,” said Moulvi Muhamamd Ashraf, one of Bhat's relatives. “He died in the ICU at 11:55am on Sunday” Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed had visited Bhat in Delhi, but that, said Ashraf, was a token gesture. “No politician visited our home when Zahid was in Delhi,” he said. Bhat's family, unhappy with the government's response, returned the airfare and relief amount. “Why was he moved from the ICU when he had 80 per cent burns? Who directed the doctor to shift my son from the ICU?” asked his father Ghulam Rasool.
The trucker's death seems to have unnerved the PDP leadership, especially Mehbooba. And, fearing widespread protests, she didn't accompany Bhat's body to Batengoo, his village in Anantnag. Uncharacteristic, considering she built her party's image by frequenting the homes of victims of Kashmir's many conflicts.
But her caution did not avert disaster. The protests had started as soon as news of his death broke. To contain the violence, curfews were imposed in various parts of the state. In Batengoo, hundreds hit the streets and shouted pro-freedom, anti-PDP and anti-BJP slogans. The protesters blocked the Srinagar-Jammu highway by burning tyres and massive logs of wood. In south Kashmir, youth threw stones at security forces and the police had to use tear gas shells. And, the arrest of the accused was not enough to douse the fire in Kashmir.
Police sources said the attack was in response to a beef party hosted by independent MLA Abdul Sheikh Rashid on October 8. The following day, Rashid was assaulted by two BJP legislators in the assembly.
The PDP knew its partner had messed up and, after more than half a year of teaming with the BJP, the leadership seems to have realised its mistake, say party insiders. It had hoped that the BJP would not force its hindutva agenda and instead focus on development. But the BJP forced a beef ban, resorted to violence in the assembly and has been clearing Muslim nomads from Jammu forests under the pretext of reclaiming forest land.
Now, some PDP members have urged the leadership to reconsider the alliance. Said PDP MP Tariq Hameed Karra: “At a time when the minorities in India are looking towards a united leadership to counter the radical hindutva elements, the PDP should not be seen cozying up to such elements for the sake of power. The highly deplorable action by the BJP legislators in the assembly has brought shame to the house and the alliance. The outrageous action is almost akin to the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri.”