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Why 'Kashmir's Obama' failed his state

July 29, 2009 09:46 IST

After months of pro-independence protests, state crackdowns and curfews, Kashmir went to polls to elect a new state government last November. The poll participation was higher than usual. People rejected the separatist calls for boycott in most places, arguing that they needed roads, healthcare and employment -- a choice that came from two decades of living and dying in a conflict whose resolution seems as distant now as it did years ago.

The Jammu and Kashmir National Conference, led by its young, 39-year old president Omar Abdullah, formed the new government with support from the Congress party. He was charismatic and articulate -- a new breed of politician who promised change. A storm of media celebration followed. Celebrity news-anchors interviewed Omar's father, former chief minister Farooq Abdullah, who feverishly argued the case for the father not staking his claim and allowing the son to be the chief minister instead. Some pushed the hysteria further by calling him 'Kashmir's Obama'.

A television channel asked me how young Kashmiris were reacting to their new chief minister. We were all supposed to get excited by his youth. It is the policy choices he makes that will make a difference in Kashmir, not his age, I insisted at the time. The wave of euphoria swept away all such dampeners.

A few months after he became the chief minister, I met Omar along with a bunch of Kashmiri journalists in Delhi. He wore an elegant grey salwar kameez and a sleeveless jacket; he was sure of himself, talking about his ideas of generating hydro power in Kashmir by engaging private corporations one moment, joking about something inconsequential the next. It was apparent that he could lobby well with the United Progressive Allaince government for funds and developmental schemes, that he could speak the language of corporate India and maybe convince a business mogul to invest in the state. Yet a question nagged me: Could he deliver on human rights? Would he be able to empathise with the people who voted him to power?

A few weeks after that meeting, news came of the rape and murder of two young women in the south Kashmir town of Shopian, allegedly by the security forces. It wasn't the first. Shock and anger spread throughout Kashmir -- on the streets, in cyberspace. Protesters created a Facebook page for Asiya Jan, the younger victim. Somebody had scanned her school identity card. She was 17 years old, a tender-faced girl. I fought back tears looking at her picture, miles away from Kashmir, on a reporting assignment in another country.

Back home, Omar Abdullah flew to Srinagar from Delhi. Briefed by his trusted police officers, he announced at a press conference that he did not believe the women were raped and murdered, but had in fact drowned in a stream. He ordered an inquiry by a retired J&K High Court judge, Justice Muzaffar Jan. Hundreds and thousands of Kashmiris came out on the streets, seeking justice for the murdered women. The anger against the failure of the state was articulated in that old slogan of independence from India: Aazadi The police responded with more curfews and crackdowns. Kashmir simmered with rage. Omar had failed his first big test. In a single incident, he had lost the trust and respect of many Kashmiris. But wasn't this the man who was going to bring in change? What had gone wrong?

Almost two months after the crime, the Justice Jan Commission gave its report. The judge blamed the police for destroying the evidence but shied of accusing anyone of the crime.

The J&K High Court ordered the arrest of several police officers posted in Shopian. Omar had finally woken up by this time and retracted his earlier statement. He ordered a shake-up of the police force, transferring most of his senior officers. However, a trial is still a long way off.

I have been thinking about the young, articulate and charming Omar Abdullah. Why did he act the way he did? Why was his trust in a much-maligned police force so complete? Why was he absolutely lacking in empathy for the victims? Why could he not feel anything, when almost every Kashmiri had tears in their eyes? Why did Mr Hope fail?

Shopian is barely a two-hour drive from Srinagar. Yet Abdullah didn't care to pay a visit to the family. Was it too dangerous for the most heavily-guarded individual in Kashmir to make that journey? Did it not occur to him that a half-an-hour visit to the house of a devastated family, a few words of comfort might be worth the effort? I had no answers for a long time. Then it struck me: Omar Abdullah has never lived in the Kashmir that ordinary Kashmiris live in. His apathy is a product of his class, though this is not true of all children of privilege. The Kashmir he lived and lives in is a secured, isolated castle. In his Kashmir, you don't stop at a check post; you don't raise your hands and show your identity card; you don't squat in an empty ground in a crackdown with the rest of your town; you don't feel the anger and fear when your classmates go missing and never return.

Asiya Jan lived in the Kashmir, where the head is not held high and the mind is full of fear. I have lived in that Kashmir. Millions of others have. Omar Abdullah has not. That is why he failed Kashmir. There is only one man, whose example Abdullah junior needs to consider and learn from: A poor shawl-weaver's son from Soura, Srinagar, who worked hard to get a Masters in chemistry from Aligarh Muslim University in the late 1920s, when few Kashmiris had access to modern education; a man who found his road to employment blocked by the prejudices of an oppressive monarchy; a man who stood up for the people of Kashmir and led their first modern battle for political rights, justice, and freedom from oppression; a man who became the first prime minister of Kashmir and risked much to create a new Kashmir by abolishing the inhuman feudal system and gave the poor peasants of Kashmir the right to own the land they cultivated with their blood and sweat; a man called Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah.

The author has won the Vodafone Crossword Book Award 2008, in the English Non-Fiction category for his book Curfewed Nights

Basharat Peer
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