Srinagar: Does the separatist Hurriyat Conference really matter to the common Kashmiri today?
On 26 February, the National Investigation Agency conducted raids at the homes of separatist leaders across the Kashmir Valley. As word about the raids spread, shopkeepers in Nowhatta, where the Jama Masjid is located, and parts of Lal Chowk, Srinagar’s main commercial hub, downed their shutters in solidarity.
Over the next two days, the entire Valley remained shut after a bandh call by the Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL) to protest the crackdown. The JRL includes leaders of both factions of the Hurriyat Conference — Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq —besides Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front leader Yasin Malik. Currently, all three of them are under detention.
There was total compliance to the JRL bandh call, once again bringing the spotlight back on the Hurriyat, a platform of over two dozen political, social and religious organisations, which claims to represent the political face of separatism. The Hurriyat argues that Kashmir is a disputed territory, and any resolution can happen only if this fact is acknowledged by the government.
“The Hurriyat represents our aspirations, unlike mainstream parties interested only in their self-interest. But they have been denied the space in the political discourse,” said Shaukat Ahmed, who runs Kashmir Wattan Publications, a book shop in Srinagar’s Hyderpora.
Ahmed cited the alliance between Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which formed the government in 2014. “Mehbooba Mufti had said she would never ally with the BJP, and then went ahead to join hands with it for power. It’s not only her. So many governments have come and gone. If these parties were really serious about resolving the Kashmir issue, why have we continued to suffer for the last 30 years?” the 40-year-old Ahmed asked.
Mirwaiz, leader of the Hurriyat’s moderate faction, is currently under house arrest following the NIA raids. But speaking to ThePrint over the phone, he rubbished the notion that the Hurriyat is losing relevance.
“It is foolish to say Hurriyat has lost its relevance. We are a recognised forum not only in India but internationally too. We are recognised by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. We have gone to international conferences and talked about the need to resolve the Kashmir problem politically,” he said.
Sajad Gani Lone, president of the mainstream political party People’s Conference and son of slain Hurriyat leader Abdul Gani Lone, said the temptation to write off the Hurriyat might be very high, but its brand is as relevant today as it was earlier.
“There were many attempts to render the Hurriyat irrelevant but it did not happen. Some youngsters may be taking to the gun, but the long-term separatist destination is still the Hurriyat. I might not like it, but that is how it is,” Lone said.
Political analysts concede that factionalism and the non-resolution of the Kashmir issue for so long might have dimmed the Hurriyat’s popularity, but not its relevance to the common Kashmiri.
“The Hurriyat does not represent everybody. But it reflects the sentiment of the people here and gives an alternate voice. It is not driving the situation, just giving direction to the people’s sentiment by calling protests and bandhs,” said Prof. Noor Ahmad Baba of the Department of Politics and Governance, Central University of Kashmir.
“There is a deep sentiment for azadi here, and the Hurriyat, by and large, is supposed to be representing that sentiment.”
Columnist Gowhar Geelani concurs: “They would not have been around if they were not relevant. Even the government know this. They have engaged with the Hurriyat in the past. It’s only in the last four-five years that they have been completely sidelined by the Centre.”
Youth fed up
Experts admit that in recent years, the degree of alienation among the younger generation has gone up. “They are much unhappier about the situation. While the frustration has forced some to take up guns, others are completely disinterested in the system, be it the Hurriyat or mainstream politics,” said Prof. Baba.
Nasir Kuehami, spokesman of the J&K Students Organisation, said youngsters were fed up of the violence. “Our parents suffered and now we are suffering. Nobody, including Hurriyat or the the political parties have been able to end it. We just want to have a decent education, a stable career, and live peacefully. Is it too much to ask for?”
Hameeda Nayeem, chairperson, Kashmir Centre for Social and Developmental Studies, said: “There is one section that wants to just move on with their lives. There is the other side also where 19 or 20-year-olds don’t think twice before ending up as suicide bombers. What could be more unfortunate?”
Engaging Hurriyat is key
It’s not as if the government has not engaged in dialogue with the Hurriyat in the past. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA government had invited a Kashmiri delegation led by Mirwaiz way back in 2004.
Experts across the board agree that if the Kashmir issue has to be resolved, the government will have to open its channels to the Hurriyat.
“You have to bring them to the table. The solution will come only through dialogue and negotiation, not the muscular policy adopted by the government,” said Prof. Baba.
Geelani added: “What is the problem in resolving the Kashmir issue through a tripartite agreement like what happened in Ireland? Ignoring the Hurriyat won’t help.”
Lone, the separatist-turned-mainstream politician, said: “People who do not accept the political system will not be satisfied by me. They will be satisfied by them (Hurriyat). That is the reality. So, you have to take them along in any political discourse that you have on Kashmir.”
Security establishment’s view
The security establishment in the state, meanwhile, puts the onus on the Hurriyat to try and be part of the mainstream discourse. Ravideep Sahi, inspector-general of the CRPF in Srinagar, said the Hurriyat needs to accept the present-day reality that its popularity has dulled.
“There is a question on their credibility. One of the main reasons for this is the fact that they do not have a roadmap on where they want to take the resistance movement, what is the ultimate goal,” he said.