Omar Abdullah begins third year - after months of turmoil

By F. Ahmed, IANS
Wednesday, January 5, 2011

SRINAGAR - Omar Abdullah, the country’s youngest chief minister, Wednesday began his third year at the helm in Jammu and Kashmir after two tumultuous years.

It is doubtful if the 40-year-old scion of the state’s first political family would have ever imagined how many hiccups and headaches accompany a hot seat, more so when it is in Kashmir.

Abdullah took office Jan 5, 2009 after his National Conference won 28 seats in the 87-member assembly. After hectic parleys, he came to head a coalition with the backing of the Congress that won 16 seats.

Known for his secular credentials and vision for the state, Abdullah was blessed by United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chief Sonia Gandhi who wanted him to head the government for the full six-year term of the assembly.

Even with a troubled history, it seemed a good beginning in Kashmir.

The chief minister’s big challenge came in May 2009 when vocal protests started in south Kashmir’s Shopian district after two women were allegedly raped and murdered.

Based on information provided by security forces, he first said the duo drowned accidentally. But under public pressure, he retracted and vowed to punish those who raped and murdered “my sisters”.

The U-turn made many believe that Omar Abdullah had feet of clay. Six police officers were suspended for their alleged involvement in the crime.

But the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) later concluded that no rape took place and the women were not forcibly drowned. The CBI said the post-mortem report by local doctors was fabricated.

Abdullah learnt his first lesson the hard way.

It was hard to believe that it was the same Abdullah who stood his ground and got an army camp vacated from Sopore earlier - something that happened for the first time since an armed insurrection began in 1989.

Even as Abdullah recovered from the damage to his image from the Shopian saga, a bloody unrest started in the valley June 11 last year when a stray tear smoke shell hit a schoolboy in Srinagar’s Old City.

The separatists not only took control of the public outcry but held the valley hostage for over five months. By the time calm returned, 110 people had died in clashes with security forces. Hundreds were injured.

Separatists virtually called all the shots during those months, issuing calendars calling for shutdowns, more protests and civil curfews.

An overwhelmed administration responded in a knee-jerk manner — clamping curfews when hardliner separatist Syed Ali Geelani called for protests and lifting them when he asked people to resume normalcy.

Railway stations, police stations, government offices and even homes of local policemen were torched by mobs which ruled the streets.

Some say that Abdullah almost decided to relinquish power at the height of the crisis. There was even a suggestion that he be replaced by his more experienced father Farooq Abdullah. But the Congress shot this down.

Eventually, it was perseverance and advice from the senior Abdullah that made his son remain the chief minister.

It marked a turnaround in the younger Abdullah’s attitude.

In no time, he began reaching out to people not only in far flung areas of the valley but also in places worst hit by the unrest.

Finally, the self-defeating decision of the separatists to continue an agitation that caused immense hardships to people and seemed to take them nowhere killed the campaign.

After the crisis, the chief minister has started pursuing a developmental agenda in a pro-active manner.

A team of interlocutors headed by senior journalist Dileep Padgaonkar has been set up to address and define the aspirations of the people of the three regions in the state in a bid to resolve the Kashmir problem.

Abdullah now inspects developmental projects personally, holding district development board meetings and public meetings across the state. Ordinary folks flock to them to redress their grievances.

The noises by some in the state Congress that Abdullah should share the post of chief minister with them has only made him stronger.

The main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has, at least for now, decided to lie low.

“Like Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Abdullah has now to prove that the key to the people’s heart lies in good governance, better education, providing jobs and better healthcare,” a senior government official said.

“The larger question of resolving the Kashmir issue can be left to New Delhi and Islamabad,” he added.

(F. Ahmed can be contacted at

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