After failed peace bid, Mehbooba is running out of options

By Sarwar Kashani,

New Delhi: The Kashmir Valley is reeling under the bloodiest unrest it has seen in years and, to nobody’s surprise, the two-day visit of the all-party delegation of parliament members has done little to improve matters.

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Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti now appears to be running out of options in the valley after the failed bid to open talks with separatist leaders, who refused to speak to a section of MPs from the delegation. The already complex crisis in the state may now have become even more complicated.

As is evident, the central government has been unwilling to give legitimacy or extend an olive branch to separatists who have been spearheading the agitation with unending stone-pelting protests, triggered by the July 8 killing of militant commander Burhan Wani.

Mehbooba, a reluctant first woman Chief Minister of the troubled state, had invited separatist leaders for talks with the delegation in her capacity as the president of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), if not as the head of an elected government.

The separatist leaders, most of whom are either in jail or detained in houses, rejected the offer outright, saying that talks would be futile unless their set of demands — including demilitarisation of civilian areas and accepting Kashmir as an international dispute — were first met.

These are demands Mehbooba is powerless to fulfill, and the central government is unlikely to acquiesce to.

In this apparent battle of egos, Mehbooba and her PDP seem to be caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

Political analysts are of the view that the PDP is losing its electoral popularity due to the trail of death and destruction in the aftermath of Wani’s killing.

At least 74 persons, including two policemen, have been killed in the nearly two months of violence. Over 12,000 have been injured. And the worst hit is the south Kashmir region — the political bastion of the PDP — where most of the deaths have occurred in firing by security forces.

Analysts say that, after losing on account of her party’s decreasing popularity, more so in the south, Mehbooba is left with two options now: Crack down harshly on separatists or step down to make way for Governor’s Rule.

“It is a difficult decision. But what are the options,” asked a veteran academician of Kashmir University, requesting he should not be named. “In this deadly chaos, PDP’s junior partner, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), is consolidating its electoral bases in Jammu and Ladakh,” the teacher told IANS on the phone from Srinagar.

“The BJP has nothing to lose in Kashmir. The current unrest has shrunk the grey political areas (of soft separatism) in the valley within which the regional mainstream parties would conveniently operate to woo voters. The battle lines are now clearly drawn — you are either pro-India or pro-Azadi. And the PDP, which was the biggest gainer of this grey constituency, appears to be the biggest loser,” he said

Aijaz Khan, a former separatist and now a PDP functionary, said if Mehbooba does not step down, it was more likely that the government would deal with separatists with an “iron hand”.

“She will have enough time to regain the lost confidence of her voters before the next elections. Her priority should be governance and not politics. She can restore normalcy with tough governance; let the government function first,” Khan told IANS.

“Or else the government must go and the PDP should prepare for fresh polls.”

But quitting at this juncture could be akin to political suicide for Mehbooba who has built the PDP through grassroots campaigning since the late 1990s. After her father, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s death in January, Mehbooba had unwillingly assumed the office because she was not happy with the PDP-BJP alliance.

She agreed to continue after being assured by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the governance agenda would be fulfilled. Among other issues, the agenda promised to engage Pakistan and separatist leaders in a peace process for a permanent solution to the vexed Kashmir issue.

Two of the five months of Mehbooba’s government have been lost in curfew, shutdowns and deadly street protests. The agenda points apart, the government has not been able to function on a routine basis because most of its offices have remained shut.

Yet, Mehbooba may not have lost all hope for peace. On Monday, she posted on her Facebook page a message to “revive the reconciliation and resolution process through an institutionalised mechanism involving all the stakeholders”.

In a passionate appeal, she said: “The challenge before the leadership of the state and the country is to insulate the process from setbacks that have derailed it in the past.”

It’s not clear if she, or the Centre, would be able to effectively meet the challenge.

(Sarwar Kashani can be contacted at [email protected])