| A relative mourns Abdul’s death in Srinagar. (Reuters)
Sept. 6: Militants today gunned down an Independent candidate in Handwara in Kupwara district, barely 10 days before the first phase of polling for the Assembly elections in the state.
Abdul Rehman Sheikh, 55, his nephew Ahmed Sheikh and their driver were killed and one person injured when militants opened fire on their vehicle soon after they left his residence in Kupwara for campaigning, police said. Security escorts in another vehicle retaliated, but the militants escaped.
The Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen, which has threatened to kill anyone participating in the polls, claimed responsibility for the attack. Panic gripped the area following the incident.
The killings came as the Farooq Abdullah government put Kashmir separatist leader Shabir Shah, Hurriyat Conference chairman Abdul Gani Bhat and several of his colleagues under house arrest.
State government officials contacted over phone from Delhi said the move was meant to stop the leaders from calling for a boycott of the elections at Friday prayers. At its last meeting in Srinagar, the Hurriyat had decided to launch an anti-poll campaign.
The house arrest came hours before top Hurriyat leaders were to leave for Delhi for a meeting with the Ram Jethmalani-led Kashmir Committee. “We have decided not to go to New Delhi this afternoon for our scheduled meeting with the Kashmir Committee,” Bhat said over phone. “How can we go when the leadership in Srinagar is under house arrest'”
Bhat claimed that the move was aimed at scuttling the meeting. The government is “trying to restrain the Hurriyat leadership from carrying out our meet-the-people campaign”, he said.
But senior officials in the administration maintain they had told Bhat and his team that, despite the house arrest, they could travel to Delhi. He refused to do so and the next meeting of the committee is now on hold.
Police, however, denied the Hurriyat claim that some of its leaders were under house arrest, saying they were “not interested” in going to Delhi for the second round of talks.
Bhat was to be accompanied by Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, Javed Mir of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front and Ali Sheikh of Jamat-e-Islam.
A final decision on talks will be taken by the Hurriyat leaders after another executive meeting.
Bhat said he woke up this morning to find policemen at his residence-cum-office. When asked why the police were there, he was informed that he had been placed under house arrest. “They deployed police in strength outside my house at Wazir Bagh and no one was allowed to either enter or leave my home,” Bhat added.
Moulavi Abbas Ansari, a well-respected Shia leader who is also a member of the Hurriyat executive, was similarly asked by the state police not to step out of his home.
Bhat said Sajjad Lone had also been detained at home. Lone confirmed he too was surprised to find police at his home. But by evening the vigil was lifted.
Kashmir DIG Farooq Ahmed denied the house arrest. “They were free to go anywhere. We had not put them under house arrest,” he said.
The decision to place the Hurriyat leaders under house arrest was made by “New Delhi and its surrogate in Kashmir, the National Conference”, Bhat said. When told there was some confusion at the Centre about the arrests, he said: “They are forever manufacturing lies, so what does it matter what they say' The fact is we are under house arrest.”
Intelligence agencies claim that Pakistan is behind the Hurriyat’s stand not to participate in the elections and to dissuade the public from voting. “The Hurriyat cannot take any decision without first getting a nod from Pakistan. It is in Islmabad’s interest to ensure that people don't come out and vote during the polls,” an intelligence official said.
“We have reports to suggest that Pakistan has advised the Hurriyat not to talk to the Kashmir committee,” the officer added.
The Hurriyat had from the beginning refused to take part in elections. It has not changed its stand despite pressure from the US, the European Union and the Centre. The Kashmir committee had the support of deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani because Jethmalani had hoped to persuade the Hurriyat and Shabir Shah to change their mind on polls. When they made it clear they would not, both Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Advani refused to meet the Kashmir leaders despite despite Jethmalani’s request.