By Sheikh Mushtaq
Nearly two decades ago when mainstream politics in restive Kashmir was silenced by the sounds of bomb explosions and armed battles, a 39-year-old woman donned Hijab and took to blood soaked streets waiving green flag to protest against human rights violations by Indian security forces.
When a Kashmiri village burned to the ground in fire-fight, when a mother sunk in grief by the killing of her son, Mehbooba Mufti was often there to offer a “healing touch”.
A pro-New Delhi politician was steadily making inroads into the hearts of strife-weary people first time after armed rebellion against New Delhi’s rule broke out in Kashmir.
She visited the families of militants killed, wailed and wept with the grieving relatives till she became popular on the political stage of Muslim-majority Kashmir.
Mehbooba is no believer in the power of the gun. But she saw her party as a halfway house between the All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference and an intransigent political establishment.
“You need to give people a healing touch. We need to have a sane voice in Kashmir which can help us come out of this bloodshed,” she told me in an interview in August 1999 a month after she and her father broke away from the Congress party and formed their own regional group, People’s Democratic Party.
Tears stood bright in her eyes as she spoke of the Kashmiri people’s suffering. Earlier that day during a protest women police grabbed her by the hair and dragged her to a nearby police vehicle in the heart of Srinagar.
She said her party’s election platform would centre on trying to get genuine, unconditional dialogue on the future of “disputed” state involving all role-players – the Kashmiris and the governments of India and Pakistan – and end violence that has killed tens of thousands of people.
Mehbooba, a single parent to two daughters, is main force behind pro-India People’s Democratic Party and credit for building party goes to her, though prominent businessman, journalists and babus have joined her party now.
But now many Kashmiris feel that Mehbooba who stole slogan from separatists, used anti-India sentiment and became a dominant force in Kashmir politics for a decade and a half now, has taken a U-turn after making her party a success.
“After assuming power she suddenly disappeared,” says Tariq Baigh, a businessman whose brother was killed by security forces years ago. “She has stopped protests against human rights violations; she has stopped visiting victims’ families.”
Parveena Ahanger head of Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) says this woman speaks one language in New Delhi and another in Kashmir. Under the pretext of healing touch, “she has deceived Kashmiris”.
“She has played with our emotions; she has played with the sentiments of mothers who have lost their loved ones. By doing this she has achieved her objective,” said Parveena, whose son went missing after arrest. “We know she was shedding crocodile tears. Now she can’t fool us.”
A law graduate from University of Kashmir, Mehbooba is all set to become the first woman chief minister of the state. She has survived attempts on her life; she has seen scars of violence.
Does she still understand the pain of victims?
“Women are more able to understand the pain of others,” she told me 17 years ago.
(Sheikh Mushtaq is former Jammu and Kashmir bureau chief of Reuters.)