Shopian Deaths Spiral Into Azadi Groundswell

7 June 2009
The Indian Express

Srinagar: On Wednesday, when Hurriyat hawk Syed Ali Shah Geelani extended the hartal call for two more days, amid the high-voltage drama of his arrest, the Valley had already entered another bout of unrest, which metamorphosed into the familiar Azadi groundswell. With Government failing to step in effectively, the Valley seems set for a summer of discontent. The situation has followed a familiar pattern. While last year it was the land transfer to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board that set off a storm of protest, this year it has been the mysterious deaths of two women in the South Kashmir town of Shopian. More than 100 people, including security personnel, were injured in clashes which have even spread to the countryside, including places which voted overwhelmingly in the recent polls. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s own constituency Ganderbal is one such place. The two women - Neelofar Jan and her sister-in-law Asiya - were found dead under mysterious circumstances last Saturday, a day after they went missing. Their bodies were recovered from the Ranbir Ara nallah, around 90 metres apart. The news sparked outrage, with people alleging that the women were raped and then murdered by security forces. Now, five days after the incident, the entire Valley is in the throes of the ferment. The situation took on a bigger dimension when Geelani seized on the deaths as an example of the “abysmal human rights situation” in the state and called for a one-day strike on Monday. This quickly made the deaths a Valley-wide issue. The massive response to the hartal encouraged Geelani to call for four more days of shutdown. “The Government is acting as if nothing has happened. The police are coming across as non-serious and callous,” Geelani said at a press conference on Monday. Ever since, the hawk has set himself up as the sole leader of the agitation, without taking on board his moderate counterparts such as Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and JKLF chief Yasin Malik, who was himself detained by the police on Friday in Srinagar, where he was protesting against the deaths. Adding a new dimension to the situation, even the mainstream People’s Democratic Party is seeking a political share in the agitation manufactured by separatists. PDP president Mehbooba Mufti took out a rally in Lal Chowk along with her eight legislators on Tuesday to press for a speedy probe. The party leaders were carrying placards with slogans like ‘Resolve Kashmir’ and ‘Withdraw Armed Forces Special Powers Act’. She was detained briefly at Kothibagh police station. Pre-empting the separatists, Mehbooba called for a march to Shopian on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Government investigation has crawled along. Despite the best efforts of the CM, there are widespread rumours of a Government hush campaign. Also, the Government didn’t register an FIR for the killings, a lapse that further fanned the flames. On Monday, the CM overturned the decision of his government to set up a special investigation team to probe into the incident and announced a judicial inquiry, headed by a retired High Court judge. “Since people don’t trust the Government probe, we have ordered a judicial one,” Omar said. However, Omar ruled out any “prima facie evidence” that the women were raped and murdered, a statement that was criticised as tantamount to prejudging the investigations. “What will the judge find out when the CM rules out foul play?” Mehbooba asked. Meanwhile, the protests continue. Geelani on Friday called for two more days of hartal to be followed by a march on Sunday.