Kashmir loses faith in ‘princeling’

SRINAGAR: Omar Abdullah, the youthful, articulate scion of one of south Asia’s pre-eminent political dynasties, raised hopes of healing and progress when he was elected last year as chief minister of India’s conflict-scarred state of Jammu and Kashmir.Now those hopes lie in tatters, as disillusioned Kashmiri youths armed with stones fight daily street battles against heavily armed Indian security forces in a wave of feverish anti-India protests that have rocked the Muslim-majority region.Since the protests erupted in mid-June, security forces have opened fire repeatedly on furious crowds, killing 57 civilians – including six this weekend – and wounding hundreds.Mr Abdullah – English-educated, tech-savvy and earnest – is struggling to restore a semblance of normality to his deeply troubled realm, and secure New Delhi’s backing for a political package to redress some of Kashmiris’ long-standing grievances.His battle to pull Kashmir back from the brink of chaos is the first serious test of India’s heralded new generation of political leaders – a cohort that includes his friend and contemporary, Rahul Gandhi, heir apparent to the ruling Congress party. So far, though, 40-year-old Mr Abdullah’s performance does not auger well.“A lot of these political princelings think their own good intentions are a substitute for governance and hard political decisions,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research.“It’s ‘I am a nice guy, I care for the poor’,” said Mr Mehta. “In a sense, your virtue becomes your policy. But beyond a point, nobody cares about your virtue.”Mr Abdullah’s election in January last year heralded change in a state haunted by the legacy of a Pakistan-backed separatist insurgency and its brutal suppression, which together claimed about 68,000 lives.He pledged to attract investment, create jobs and improve neglected basic services. Mr Abdullah, whose grandfather spent years in jail for advocating Kashmiri independence, promised to reduce security forces’ overbearing presence and bring justice for human rights abuses.The honeymoon ended abruptly, however, when the suspected rape and murder of two Kashmiri women on May 2 revealed the chasm between the privileged Mr Abdullah – groomed among India’s elite, mostly outside Kashmir – and his war-scarred subjects. Mr Abdullah’s backing of initial police claims that the women had drowned incensed locals, who suspected foul play by security forces.“He knows Kashmir from the books he has read . . . but he doesn’t have a grip on the real thing,” said Arif Ayaz Parrey, a Kashmiri lawyer involved in reconciliation efforts in the disputed region.“Kashmiris have been trained by experience to always contest government versions of events. That he doesn’t share that sentiment creates a basic disconnect.”Mr Abdullah’s efforts to push New Delhi to repeal laws granting immunity to the military for human rights abuses in Kashmir have also faced stiff resistance.“New Delhi is basically just not budging on that,” Mr Mehta said. “And he is not such a big authority figure that others move when he speaks.”Meanwhile, security force abuses have continued. A high-ranking border patrol officer was arrested this year for the fatal shooting of a 16-year-old boy who booed passing troops, while an army colonel was relieved of duty and a major suspended for allegedly killing three Kashmiri civilians, claiming they were foreign militants.Kashmiri anger boiled over in June when a 17-year-old Srinagar schoolboy was killed by a police tear gas canister, triggering a cycle of protests, police killings and ever angrier protests. Separatist leaders are urging strikes and protests.As bloodshed has escalated, New Delhi has accused Mr Abdullah of poor governance and failing to “reach out” to his disgruntled constituents. Reflecting the public disenchantment, a Kashmiri policeman in a high-security VIP box hurled a shoe at Mr Abdullah as India’s flag was hoisted in Srinagar at Sunday’s Indian independence day ceremony.Yet even Mr Abdullah’s Kashmiri critics concede the crisis extends far beyond their rapidly greying elected leader.“He is not in control. No chief minister in Kashmir can do anything without blessings from Delhi,” said Mr Parrey.“The only purpose he serves is as a scapegoat for the central government. But if he gets something done in real terms, I think public opinion about him might change.” (The Financial Times)

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