For almost three months, People's Democratic Party (PDP) chief Mehbooba Mufti avoided formation of a new government in Jammu and Kashmir after her father's death.
The overriding reason behind her dilemma was the fear that her party has become unpopular by striking an alliance with the BJP. Mufti, insiders argued, was afraid renewing the partnership could be politically disastrous. But, after vacillating for weeks, Mufti decided to make the easier choice of staying in power instead of risking a fresh election or a rebellion within her party.
Turns out Mufti's political premonition was justified.
For the past few days, the Valley has been in turmoil over a spate of unfortunate incidents. People are protesting in many parts of the state. Several towns and cities in north and south Kashmir have been shut down. Separatists are dictating the agenda. And the government has become a mute spectator.
Apart from the unrest on the ground, Mufti would be worried more about the vitriolic reactions to her handling on the crisis, especially among the youth. Angry with the turn of events that has led to the deaths of four persons in firing and clashes with security forces, Kashmir's youth are deriding the chief minister in unmentionable language.
The media too is ripping her apart.
In a scathing editorial, Kashmir Reader slammed her for betraying her electorate. "On a day like Wednesday, the earlier avatars of chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir would drop everything and appear on the scene for the sake of maintaining a façade. That Mehbooba comfortably chose to wander from door-to-door in New Delhi on the day instead might count as a little merciful reprieve for the beleaguered Kashmiris from having to deal with her earlier shameless pretence. She begged for more money for government employees and 'development', more rice for the Kashmiris, and that all important promise from India’s defence minister for only for a time-bound inquiry. Isn’t it where it all always ends!"
An op-ed in Greater Kashmir pointed out: "Once again talk of ‘people’s mandate’ has lost its place value and sanctity. And, in ‘ collateral damage’ India gets far more alienated. India holds Kashmir, not governs. That Kashmir convincingly conveys."
Unfortunately for the government, Kashmir's current generation of youngsters is not afraid to come out in the streets and express its opinion. People who have watched Kashmir for decades say that since the current generation of Kashmiris is used to unrest and protests, it is not afraid to spill over into the streets even when restrictions are in place or the security forces are firing tear gas shells, bullets or lobbing grenades.
Since antagonism against security forces simmers just below the surface, even a small incident leads to massive protests and violence. Once the cycle of protests, firing and retaliation begins, separatists jump into the fray, providing political leadership and triggering state-wide shutdowns.
The current chain of events also has its genesis in a protest by local youth in Handwara, around 60 kilometre from Srinagar. On Tuesday, as allegations that a teenager had been molested by security forces emerged, a large crowd gathered outside an army post and started pelting stones.
There are conflicting versions of the event that led to the violence. While locals allege the girl was followed into a washroom by security personnel and molested, the army has put out a video in which the girl has denied the incident. In the video, shot inside a police station, the teenager has called the incident a result of a conspiracy by some local youth. There is also speculation that the teenager had gone to meet somebody from the army camp and things spiralled out of control when she was spotted by some youngsters. Since the girl and her father are now in "protective custody," nobody has been able to speak to them independently.
But, the allegations and their veracity became secondary because the army failed to deal with the protest. Instead of using mild force, it fired at the crowd. This lead to the death of two youth--one of them a budding cricketer who was shooting pictures of the protest--and a woman. Another person died in a related incident. Four innocent persons lost their lives in the incident.
The use of undue and indiscriminate force by security forces has always rankled Kashmiris. For years they have been demanding that the army and police find better ways of dealing with them instead of triggering a spiralling cycle of deaths and retributive violence. Kashmiris feel angry with the government also because people responsible for such incidents are rarely punished.
Mufti's problems are manifold. Having fought the election on the contentious issue of AFSPA--the provision that gives the army special powers--and keeping the BJP out of the Valley, she is now on the wrong side of both the promises. From somebody who was seen fighting the excesses now, Mufti is being derided for watching helplessly, turning into a Delhi stooge.
"This is the same person who until a year ago would rush anywhere in the valley to shed contrived tears at the slightest provocation," former chief minister Omar Abdullah tweeted, summing up the prevailing sentiment against Mufti.
The ongoing agitation is a huge challenge for the new government. The government's inability to control the violence, calm down tempers and put up a narrative that counters the separatists have raised huge questions about its legitimacy and acceptance. Perhaps, for the first time in the history of India, a new government has appeared so helpless, ineffective and unpopular from its very first day.
"Was she ever popular? Does she have the power to lead people, make them come out on the streets?" argues the editor of a popular Kashmir newspaper. He says Mufti was chosen only to ensure that people get basic facilities like water, roads and electricity. But, recent incidents have forced people to regret even this decision.