The mysterious death of a “rogue” National Conference worker Syed Yusuf in police custody last week has snowballed into a serious crisis that might prove to be a final nail in the coffin of regime of Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah.
The Opposition political group, PDP has charged Omar with the alleged killing as “murder for money”. The bruised and beleaguered Omar Abdullah is facing the worst time in his political career, where his moral standing and reputation are at stake.
Yusuf, a murky land dealer from south Kashmir, according to sources, was known closely to Omar and his father Farooq Abduallh, former Chief Minister and was a frequent visitor to Omar Abdulah. He was a regular at Omar house and even would not be stopped or scrutinised by the security personnel, the sources say. Moreover, when Farooq Abdullah was in Srinagar, he would meet him everyday and the family claims he knew about the food, Abdullahs took, their personal problems and even every bit of furniture in Abdullahs’ nest.
Yusuf is variously described as a political operative, facilitator and a fixer with easy access to the Abdullahs particularly Farooq. A day prior to his death, Yusuf was confronted by Omar and State Home Minister Nasir Aslam Wani and later interrogated by crime branch officials at Omar’s residence itself. Yusuf is believed to have extracted crores from two middle-rung National Conference leaders on the promise of lucrative posts in government and state legislature. Mohd Yusuf Bhat and NC activist from Kokernag Abdul Salam Reshi had paid to Yusuf in lieu of the promise that they would get a berth in the government.
Interestingly, it is Home Minister Wani’s daughter that Omar is likely to marry after his divorce with his former wife Payal Nath, say the media reports. Yusuf was last spotted by security cameras being escorted out of Omar Abdullah’s Srinagar residence by state police crime branch officers after being accused of taking a bribe in exchange for a minister’s and a legislator’s seat. The next day Yusuf died, allegedly in police custody, and the official version says, he died of cardiac arrest.
The death not only exposed murky financial dealings but has also put Omar to serious allegations of being an accused, in a state where custody deaths are a familiar phenomenon. The death has not only created ripples in Kashmir’s political arena but added on to the list of Omar’s personal and political problems. The crisis is not only the worst ever that Omar has faced in his almost three years in power superseding even the 2010 unrest which led to the killing of around 120 and has also come at a worst possible time.
Political analysts comment that Omar has to act fast and put in the damage control exercise otherwise he might face a whip as New Delhi has big stakes and would not like to forego the goodwill generated over the last few months during which a summer of peace, calm and relative tranquility ensured a big economic boost for the strife-torn state in the form of a record tourist season. The heir-apparent of Congress Rahul Gandhi during his two-day visit to state did not make any public appearance with Omar, cold shouldering him under political compulsions of the state Congress leaders.
The state Congress is a coalition partner in government with Omar wants Chief Ministership for the remaining three years of the government. Omar would complete three years in January next. Omar, on his part, has pleaded innocence and denounced any involvement in the death of the influential National Conference worker Yusuf, who has been tagged allegedly as the front face of the shanty secret deals of the National Conference leadership. Omar, during a press conference, informed that he would file a defamation case against the people who levelled “false murder allegations” against him.
Contradictions persist over the sequence of events between Yusuf’s entry into Omar’s Srinagar residence and his exit after being ‘questioned’ by Omar and some police officials. What happened there holds the probable key to solving the mystery. Wide divergence between eyewitness account and versions trotted out by the governmental side left most of the issues hanging by a thread. Why a cab was hired to fetch Yusuf while he could have used his own car, which he normally used in reaching Omar’s residence is one major question, which the PDP is raising alleging that Omar wanted to reach some deal to hide some corrupt practices of Abdullahs. Yusuf’s younger brother Mohammad Sayeed said, “Omar Abdullah’s home was his second home. We always thought he would be the safest there. He was Abdullahs own man and worked for them.”
The government version is that the Home Minister had sent his official care to bring the deceased. The opposition is also raising the issue of transfer of the five policemen in Omar’s security. “It was routine, which merely coincided with the unfortunate death of Yusuf,” stated the State Home Secretary. Yusuf was believed to be in the know of many developments and was a conduit for many political leaders and bureaucrats, things seem to be taking quite an ugly shape thus assuring Omar and his team a tough time ahead.
This development also paints another dirty picture of the politics prevailing in Jammu and Kashmir. Some senior BJP leaders have already shown their face by cross voting during the last Legislative Council elections under monetary gains thereby shaking the very trust and confidence of the masses.
In the past few weeks, Jammu and Kashmir, which otherwise saw a smooth and peaceful summer, unlike the past few years, once again has volcanised as some serious controversies, majority of them political in nature and interestingly initiated by Omar Abdullah, who since 2009 when he took over the reigns of the state in coalition with Congress as Chief Minister, has been trying hard to prove righteous heir to the “throne”.
The “murder” controversy has also unleashed a bitter and highly personalised fight between the ruling and opposition parties. The chaotic scenes witnessed on the state assembly floor, with ruling party and the opposition members screaming, abuses and hurling objects at each other, underline the gravity of the situation.
OMAR IN THE SOUP
Taking political mileage of the custodial death, People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the main opposition party in Jammu and Kashmir, took out a rally in Srinagar demanding Omar Abdullah’s resignation over his alleged involvement in the incident. After interrupting the state Assembly session for two successive days, PDP activists, led by party chief Mehbooba Mufti, gathered for a rally at Lal Chowk to ensure an impartial probe. Mehbooba accused Omar of hiding facts in the death even though Omar had ordered a judicial probe even before a demand was made. “The Chief Minister has taken the law into his own hands and we have a dead body at the end of the day. What about the security of the common people, the corruption in the system? Everyday there is reports of cases of embezzlement in the newspapers, but Omar till now has never called a meeting to sort it out,” Mufti said.
“To ensure a fair probe into the death of the National Conference worker, Omar Abdullah must step down,” said Mehbooba Mufti adding: “Otherwise the probe would be nothing more than an eyewash.” PDP holds the view that Yusuf was beaten up and tortured inside the Chief Minister’s residence following which he died of cardiac arrest. Mehbooba Mufti said, “For the first time we have a Chief Minister who himself interrogates someone and then executes him. If this is what happens inside the Chief Minister’s residence then one can image the condition of security in the state.”
Other political groups are also after Omar, baying for his blood for resignation. The state BJP has demanded a CBI probe into National Conference middle man Yusuf’s death and alleged that the “whistleblower was silenced to death” in suspicious circumstances. BJP chief spokesperson Jitendra Singh said, “The issue of mysterious death of NC activist is no longer an internal matter of National Conference, particularly in the wake of allegations of torture death and the issue also involves another serious angle of ‘cash for MLC seat’.” Singh further said, “There was a widespread public impression in the last few years that the ruling coalition had turned the state Legislative Council into a gaushala (cowshed) for alleged rehabilitation of defeated politicians, rich businessmen and blue-eyed boys of the influential politicians and political families.”
“The state has pioneered in this cash for MLC seat phenomenon and earned the dubious distinction of demolishing the sanctity of Upper House which was envisaged as the House of Elders to accommodate men of merit who could make an intellectual contribution to the functioning of legislature,” he said.
Claiming “there is something fishy” in the alleged custodial death of an NC worker, another opposition political group, National Panthers Party in Jammu and Kashmir has also demanded a CBI probe into the incident and dismissal of Omar Abdullah government, saying it had lost its mandate.
“This government has lost its mandate, there is a constitutional breakdown in the state. We demand the Governor should intervene… and immediately dismiss this government,” Panthers Party MLA Balwant Singh Mankotia said. (PG)
But, the past few weeks have witnessed that Omar has been inviting controversies on his own. For instance, his clemency tweets for Parliament attacker 2001 Afzal Guru, currently facing death sentence caused a furore – embarrassing the National Conference. Only days later Omar had to apologise for revealing the names of over 1300 rape victims, a legal offence. However, after rocky Assembly session, the Omar government was able to craft its way out of a politically sensitive resolution for clemency for Afzal Guru moved by an independent legislator Abdur Rashid. But Yusuf’s death in custody has landed Omar in a fresh snowballing crisis that more than any other threatens to take down his government. Omar invited another criticism when he provided state hospitality to former Prime Minister of Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), Sultan Mehmood Chowdhary during his personal visit to Indian side of Kashmir recently.
A media report has claimed that the Jammu and Kashmir Government lavishly spent on former PoK Prime Minister and even the State Home Minister Wani accompanied him. Omar Abdullah rubbishing the claim of lavish spending expressed happiness that former “Azad Kashmir” premier accepted the hospitality of the elected Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir in his tweet on microblogging site Twitter. Abdullah, who recently faced several controversies over his divorce and re-marriage speculation, is facing stern criticism as Chowdhury is believed to be a close friend of the separatists in the Kashmir.
A political commentator in lighter vein stated that nothing seemed to go right for Omar since he had taken over the Chief Ministership. He should get his horoscope checked or rectify the vastu of his residence or office. “He has lost his wife, kids, looks old and on a more serious note, his clean image and competence to rule the state with constant failures,” said the commentator for obvious reasons, not to be named.
He further added that amidst series of controversies that Omar has invited since 2009, under pressure from state Congress, the high command is likely to review the performance of Omar and may go in for rotational Chief Ministership.
It will not be easy for Omar to regain control and win back the confidence of people. He will have to do some serious introspection as to why someone like him popular, charismatic and seen as well meaning by many till recently suddenly finds himself isolated and so cut off from the ground reality. Why have analysts begun to describe him as an authoritarian democrat? What makes him surround himself with cronies of dubious character and suspect credentials?
Would Omar survive or go is now a major question. And whether he would invite another controversy before the expiry of his term is to be seen?
By Prakriiti Gupta from Jammu