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A bridge too far

As he woke up, as usual, before sunrise, Syed Ali Shah Geelani took his cup of tea to the front lawn of his residence, which stands on the road leading to the Srinagar airport. The doctors had advised the patriarch to get his pacemaker replaced and he should have travelled to Delhi for the procedure, but right now he had no time.

books Updated: Sep 17, 2010 23:37 IST

The Absent State: Insurgency As An Excuse for Misgovernance
Neelesh Misra and Rahul Pandita
Hachette n R499 n pp 350

In Srinagar, a man long revered by Kalashnikov-wielding fighters was struck once again by chest pain.

As he woke up, as usual, before sunrise, Syed Ali Shah Geelani took his cup of tea to the front lawn of his residence, which stands on the road leading to the Srinagar airport. The doctors had advised the patriarch to get his pacemaker replaced and he should have travelled to Delhi for the procedure, but right now he had no time. Right now, he was busy contemplating the recent events that had shaken Kashmir.

Five years ago, in 2003, Geelani’s party had split. Two years later, the moderate faction of the Hurriyat Conference, led by young Mirwaiz, had chosen to open negotiations with New Delhi. The talks had eroded Geelani’s authority. Even the Jamaat-e-Islami, a party which he had led for many years, had not been according him much importance.

Around the time that the Amarnath land controversy broke, Geelani had been detained in order to prevent him from travelling to Amritsar, where he was invited by Sikh radicals to speak on the 24th anniversary of Operation Blue Star, the 1984 military operation, ordered by the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, to flush out militants holed up in the Golden Temple, the holiest of shrines of the Sikh community.

Within a fortnight, Geelani’s influence rose so much that on June 19, 2008, the moderate faction of the Hurriyat announced that it had set up a committee for the unification of the party, which would come up with a joint action plan on the land transfer issue.

On June 24, Feroze Ahmed, a 35-year-old bus conductor, became the first victim of firing by the security forces, aimed at quelling the protests. Hundreds of men, women and children came out on the streets in defiance of the curfew. The situation was so tense that many Kashmiris believed it to be worse than the one in 1990, when pro-freedom sentiments had been at their zenith in the state. The fresh lease of protests by ordinary Kashmiris took even the separatist leaders by surprise. “Till just a few weeks ago, these leaders had lost their hopes of reviving the so-called movement,” said a senior Kashmiri journalist. “I remember that a senior leader stood at Lal Chowk to make a speech. People would look, wait for a moment, and then turn back to their work. No one listened to his speech.” Following the agitation on the transfer of land, however, large groups of Kashmiris hit the streets shouting pro-Pakistan slogans. “The separatist leaders couldn’t hide their glee,” said the journalist.

During one of the protest gatherings, Geelani climbed on to a stage and addressed the people. “Do you accept me as your leader?” he roared into the microphone. Thousands of hands went up in acquiescence. The response of the people was so resounding that many leaders did not know what to do, how to lead, or where to steer the course of the agitation.

The story of a carpenter

When they brought him in through the huge iron gates of the graveyard, 37-year-old carpenter Abdul Rehman Padder had six fingers on one hand and no face on the right side. He wore two pairs of socks and two trousers, one over the other, to fight off the cold. But the layers of clothing would not be of any help now — he was stone-cold already. The carpenter had been killed by the police after being branded as a Pakistani terrorist. The graveyard in Sumbal town, not too far from Srinagar, is where foreign militants — Pakistanis and Afghans — are usually buried.

Kashmir’s crippling unemployment had zigzagged through the lives of both Padder and the man who lowered him into the grave, 30-year-old Mushtaq Ahmed Baba. Both wanted desperately to be police officers, but that required them to pay a bribe. Unemployment is rampant in Kashmir, and the 79,000-strong police force is probably the largest employer in the state. Baba did not have the money to pay off the police personnel who claimed they could help get people recruited in the force. “I was qualified. They did not hire me. I went for the interviews so many times,” said Baba, who was studying science at Srinagar’s government college when militancy raged in the state. “The other applicants told me, “Why are you wasting your time if you don’t have money to give?” There are just no jobs here. That was one of the reasons why the militancy started,” Baba said, looking at the rows of graves. “I could not do much for myself. So I started doing this — digging graves.”

Padder, on the other hand, was able to arrange for the money and, his family alleges, paid his tall, lanky policeman cousin Farrukh Ahmed Padder R75,000 to be passed onward in the quest for a job with the police. Farrukh worked for the dreaded Special Operations Group, the police wing often accused of having made extra-judicial killings their USP. A year went by. The job did not materialise. Abdul Rehman kept asking his cousin to get him the job or return the money. Finally, one day, Farrukh — now under trial — allegedly summoned him. Rehman was last seen at the Batmaloo bus station in Srinagar.

A few days later the police found a bullet-ridden body and buried it, identifying it as that of Abu Hafiz, a Pakistani militant. They said they knew his name because a diary had been found on him. But, unknown to the police officers, a missing report filed by Padder’s family led to his mobile SIM card, still in use, being traced — and thereon to his alleged killers. The body was exhumed 45 days after it was buried and a DNA test revealed it to belong, not to a Pakistani terrorist, but to a young, jobless Kashmiri carpenter.