SRINAGAR: Barricades of burning tyres marked the route home of the former Chief Minister, Farooq Abdullah, from Humhama airport. Mobs of young men lined the streets defying curfew orders — and police bullets. “People used to say I didn’t know how to run a government,”, he said, peering out of the dark-tinted windows of his bullet-proof car at the clouds of smoke that shrouded the streets, “and now look at the mess we’re in.”
Less than two months ago, politicians like Mr. Abdullah were discussing strategies for winning elections to the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, which are scheduled to be held in October. But poor political judgment — and an apparently catatonic administration — precipitated a crisis, which have made even the prospect of an election appear somewhat surreal.
Monday’s secessionist march to the Line of Control spiralled into murderous street clashes between police and protesters and have now claimed 20 lives. It was initiated by the state’s Fruit Growers and Dealers Association early this month. Orchard owners claimed that hundreds of trucks laden with fruit were rotting because of a blockade of the Srinagar-Jammu highway by Hindu chauvinist groups — part of the Shrine Board riots which have gripped the State these past eight weeks. It is likely the claims were hyped —most varieties of Kashmir apples do not ripen until the end of August — but growers were legitimately concerned that protracted problems on the highway would destroy their highly-perishable crop as it came to market.
Kashmir Divisional Commissioner Masood Samoon immediately held negotiations with the fruit growers and promised to ensure proper security for fruit trucks on the highway. At the end of their talks, association chief Bashir Ahmad Baig deferred the march to the LoC until August 7.
The Jammu and Kashmir government delivered on part of its promise — but not enough. Although hundreds of trucks did indeed begin to move along the highway to Jammu, Kashmir-based truck drivers and orchard-owners were too terrified by the prospect of Hindu chauvinist attacks to risk the journey. It would have taken no great effort to allow convoys to travel under Army escort. None, however, was provided — increasing the fruit trade’s frustrations. Still, the Association agreed to hold back on their march for another three days, until Union Home Minister and members of an all-party delegation visited Srinagar. At the end of his August 10 meeting, Mr. Patil announced that the State government would make bulk purchases of the small quantities of early-flowering fruit to compensate growers for any losses they sustained because of the disruption of the Srinagar-Jammu road.
As more fruit came to market over the next month, Mr. Patil said, “if there’s still some damage, we’ll assess the loss and pay full compensation on the pattern of relief provided to other States in case of such circumstances.” It was a generous promise — but the people who needed it most weren’t there to listen. Fruit growers’ representatives had been called to meet Mr. Patil and his delegation — but for reasons that still haven’t become clear, were eventually refused an audience. After being kept waiting in an ante-room for several hours, the fruit growers’ representatives left Srinagar, angered — and sceptical of the government’s promises. Their fears were well founded: no announcement was made on how, and when, the government intended to keep its word.
When it became clear the fruit growers’ march on Muzaffarabad would go ahead — and would have the backing not just of secessionist groupings but also the People’s Democratic Party —Jammu and Kashmir administrators again failed to prepare for a showdown.
Despite intelligence warnings that the LoC march would gather tens of thousands of supporters, the State government and top police officials refused to impose a curfew. “Coordination was needed with the Army,” a senior government official said, “since it is responsible for holding the ground in rural Kashmir, and for securing the LoC. But no one in the government acted.”
In the event, small groups of police personnel were left to hold back the marchers. Desperate police units finally opened fire at protesters in Sheeri, leading to the loss of five lives — including that of secessionist leader Sheikh Abdul Aziz.
Little seems to have been learned from Monday’s disaster. All through Tuesday, police at rural outposts like Lalpora in Lolab, Trehgam in Kupwara and Kraalgund in Handwara were besieged by mobs — but nearby Army units did not have orders to intervene in their support.