Srinagar: Peoples Democratic Party chief Mehbooba Mufti’s refusal to shift to the accommodation she was offered by the Jammu and Kashmir administration after she was forced to vacate her high security residence in Srinagar has put security agencies in a bind. Mufti called the alternative housing option given to her ‘unliveable’. Official security teams have deemed her current house outside the city unsafe but have not taken steps to ensure she is protected as per protocols governing a Z+ category individual.
A former chief minister of J&K, Mehbooba Mufti had been living at Fairview, a double-storied government lodge on Srinagar’s high security Gupkar Road, since 2005. She was served multiple eviction notices in October this year, asking her to vacate the lodge before November 15.
While the reading down of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, stripped J&K of its semi-autonomous status, it also ended various privileges for lawmakers under the J&K State Legislature Members’ Pension Act, 1984. One such privilege was rent-free residential accommodation for former chief ministers. The law was scrapped following the promulgation of the J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019.
According to reports citing official claims, the Union Territory administration, led by Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha, had offered Mufti three alternative accommodations at Srinagar’s garrisoned localities of Tulsi Bagh and Church Lane – home to some former J&K ministers and lawmakers, political leaders and top government officers – and a third one at Srinagar’s Transport Yard.
Mufti’s daughter Iltija, however, disputed the claim in these reports and told The Wire that only one accommodation – M-5 at Tulsi Bagh – was offered as an alternative to the family, and not three. But this was found “unsuitable” because of “lack of privacy” and other issues.
“Our family is not used to a luxurious lifestyle but that place is lying in a dilapidated condition and it is woefully short of basic facilities,” she said.
In the meantime, the PDP president, who has previously said that she doesn’t own any living quarters, shifted to her sister’s residence, which is located in Khimber, some 34 km from Srinagar city.
Weeks before she shifted however, the J&K police, on November 3, set up a committee to carry out a security review of the newly-built, three-storied house owned by Mufti’s brother-in-law and sister – who don’t live there.
Two security reviews by J&K Police along with other security agencies, accessed by The Wire, show that the Khimber residence, which is located in a “desolated” area on the outskirts of Srinagar’s Hazratbal locality, is “unsafe” as there were “apprehensions of [a] terrorist attack” on the former chief minister.
A report filed by the committee states that the house is located in an area where “recently militant attacks [have] happened”, lacks proper road and reliable electricity, and has poor mobile connectivity, making the former chief minister and her family “vulnerable from [a] security point of view.”
In 2017, a police sub-inspector was killed and a special police officer was injured in a militant attack in nearby Zakura, which one would need to pass to reach Mufti’s new residence. In 2018, an SSB trooper was killed and six security personnel were hurt when militants attacked an SSB convoy in the same locality and later fled from the area.
On February 4 this year, two local militants of The Resistance Front, which police believe is an offshoot of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, were killed in Zakura. On March 11, a Pakistani terrorist was killed in retaliatory firing when three militants opened fire and tried to snatch the weapon of a security guard outside Hazratbal.
Mehbooba Mufti, who moved into the house on November 28 along with her mother and daughter, however, told The Wire that the administration didn’t officially convey to her that the house was not safe for her before she moved there. “I learnt from the media that the house was deemed unsafe by security agencies after I moved here,” she said.
Grave observations in first report
The first security review, led by the sectoral in-charge, a deputy superintendent-ranked officer of J&K Police’s Security Wing, and comprising officers from other agencies, was carried out on November 4. The report, submitted on November 9, makes grave observations about the security situation around the former CM’s house.
“The backside of the house is covered with dense forest and there is every apprehension of terrorist attack/fear of wild animals, besides a high transmission power line is passing alongside of the said house,” the report states, adding that the route to the house from Srinagar city is “hypersensitive” due to “dense forests”, making it “unsafe for her movement.”
The PDP leader, who has been a member of the Lok Sabha, enjoys Z+ security cover and the SSG personnel deployed with her work in shifts. The committee’s report states that the daily movement of SSG personnel from Khimber to their base in Srinagar’s Gupkar Road area will “expose [them] to public interference which can lead to a huge security breach.”
As remedial measures, the committee suggested that five security posts need to be built around the house with “proper accommodation” for security guards.
“For smooth and hassle-free movement from proposed residence to Srinagar, four to five companies [of security personnel] are required to be deployed for Road Opening Party duties,” it said, adding that the security deployment will incur “huge expenditure” on the exchequer.
After the committee submitted its report, a “comprehensive security review” of the house was carried out by another committee of senior security officials led by a Deputy Inspector General level officer of J&K Police, which reiterated some of the concerns of the first committee.
Second review calls for more arrangements
The second committee carried out the review on November 11, noting that the house was “surrounded by orchards and open land that needs to be dominated on regular basis.” Adding to the recommendations of the first committee, it called for raising the boundary wall of the house “upto eight feet” and building a new boundary wall with a gate between the house and the barracks of security personnel.
The report said that 10 guard posts, five watch towers, one wireless grid, two access control units and “two Detts” are required to be built for securing the house.
The committee recommended construction of basic living facilities for security personnel, CCTV surveillance and parking slots for security vehicles and visitors, while stating that the building can accommodate the “security and safety needs of VIP”. It, however, noted that developing security infrastructure in the area was a “challenge” due to the presence of an overhead high-transmission electricity line and “wet and muddy” land.
‘Admin insensitive about wellbeing of security personnel’
More than a fortnight after shifting to the house, Iltija Mufti shot off a letter to L-G Manoj Sinha on December 14, stating that the administration “has been shockingly complacent and quite insensitive about [the] wellbeing and essential basic needs” of security personnel deployed with her mother amid subzero conditions prevailing in Kashmir.
Iltija Mufti accused the administration of forcing the security personnel into “undignified living conditions”.
“I have previously communicated the same concerns to the security department. Sadly my plea to ensure their safety fell on deaf ears,” the letter states.
Speaking with The Wire, she claimed that the security agencies were not keen to find flaws with the Khimber residence before her mother moved there and that it was only after the move was complete that they came up with the reports.
“The agencies have now termed the area a militant track, which vindicates my apprehensions that all this is a part of a larger conspiracy to deliberately put Ms Mufti in harm’s way. I fear there is a threat to her life and these reports were deliberately discarded and relegated to the dustbin,” Iltija said.
Additional Director General of Police, S.D. Jamwal, told The Wire that the security agencies have taken “several measures” to secure the house, but did not elaborate. “The district police and security wing as well as the local police station have done whatever is possible to secure the house,” he said.
Security has increasingly been a challenge for the government in Jammu and Kashmir, with a slow but worrying uptick in attacks. Already, in 2023, six persons, including two children, have been killed.