When Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti walked into Srinagar’s oldest women’s college on Sunday morning, she probably expected to oversee the state medical entrance exam and meet officials on a routine visit.
Instead, she was surrounded by angry student protesters – all girls – who shouted slogans demanding “Azadi” – freedom – and against alleged police atrocities during the ongoing violence in the Valley that has left more than 50 people dead and nearly 2,000 injured.
The angry demonstrations underlined rising public anger in the Valley, fuelled by contradicting narratives about the killing of insurgent Burhan Wani on July 8, and the cratering popularity of Mehbooba’s Peoples Democratic Party.
On Thursday, she tried to assuage some of that anger, suggesting that security forces would have spared Wani’s life if they knew he was among a group of militants they were pursuing.
“Considering that the situation was improving in the state, I think security agencies would have given him (Burhan) a chance had they known about his presence,” she said.
But the remark failed to calm frayed nerves in the Valley and came too late, experts said.
She didn’t speak out during the first week of violence and her video statement that came five days after the protests began didn’t mention the encounter. This did major damage to her image and her party’s standing in the Valley, experts said.
“When she saw the mood on the roads she tried to do a U-turn,’’ said senior journalist Sheikh Mushtaq.
Kashmir observers feel the PDP is making last-ditch efforts to win back voters who had overwhelming voted in the assembly elections for Mehbooba and her father – late CM Mufti Mohammad Sayeed – two years ago.
What has PDP worried that the protests erupted from south Kashmir, considered the party’s bastion.
The CM’s Thursday statement also triggered a wave of contradicting responses from her ally in government, the BJP.
The BJP contradicted Mehbooba, saying forces knew of Wani’s presence and that the identity of a “terrorist” didn’t matter.
Terming Wani’s killing as a “success”, Jammu and Kashmir BJP chief Sat Sharma said security forces don’t act “without information”. “They knew who was inside and they undertook their job after taking everything into consideration,” he said.
Earlier deputy chief minister Nirmal Singh had supported Mehbooba’s claim, calling the killing an “accident’’.
The contradictions about how Wani was killed had emerged from Day One.
While senior police officials said Wani was killed following specific intelligence about his presence and that the chief minister was kept in the loop, PDP leaders said the CM had no knowledge.
Within days, the police also changed its stand, saying the operation was to nab Wani’s deputy Sartaj.
The shifting stances, experts say, indicate that the PDP is trying to shift blame for the killing and the consequent violence.
“It’s simple, either she had all the knowledge and miscalculated the turn of events or she didn’t. But if she had no idea, she has no business being in the CM’s chair,’’ said Mushtaq.
The PDP-BJP alliance has not gone down well with the party’s traditional voters--the thin attendance at Sayeed’s funeral was a big indicator.
“The protests are being spearheaded by the same people who voted for us two years ago,’’ said Congress state chief GA Mir.
``Mehbooba put venom in people’s minds and sought votes against the BJP but went along with the same party to form the government. People who voted for her felt cheated,’’ he added.
Mir says even the promises made in the agenda of alliance like a review of the draconian Afspa – which gives immunity to army personnel -- and talks with separatists were not fulfilled.
Separatist have called for a social boycott of party MLA’s, calling them collaborators, and many PDP leaders had to face public anger.
Even Mehbooba herself hasn’t visited the houses of those killed in the protests, asking the families to meet her in a government guest house and talking to the doctors instead.
But the biggest indicator of the challenge Mehbooba is facing is the change in her demeanour.
Over the past two decades, she built the PDP from the ground up by lending a shoulder to “victims of excesses by security forces” and visiting the houses of those killed by the army. She doesn’t step out of her security ring now.