Photo: Kashmir Ink
If we suggest alternative forms of protest, people will have to reciprocate’
The APHC (M) chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq says the resistance leadership is concerned over the loss of human lives in Kashmir and the trend of Kashmiri youth joining the ranks of armed rebels due to “choking of all democratic spaces”. Mirwaiz also talked about the united leadership’s possible alternative strategy and creative forms of resistance to replace the prolonged protest calendar. Here are the excerpts of an exclusive interview with Gowhar Geelani for Kashmir Ink at his Nigeen residence.
Kashmir Ink: Many people are of the view that Hurriyat leaders should have met the visiting members of the All Party Delegation which visited Kashmir during unrest.
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq: Laughs…! Well, the Indian Home Minister Mr. Rajnath Singh distanced himself from members of the APD. The Government of India did not own the APD members who came to meet us in Srinagar. See, we (the pro-freedom leadership) were never against dialogue. The Hurriyat Conference is always ready to engage once there is a meaningful and transparent mechanism put in place. Mind you, it has to be a two-pronged approach: one, Delhi talking to Pakistan; and two, holding dialogue with the APHC. Even those erroneously perceived as ‘hardliners’ in our camp are not averse to dialogue. New Delhi has to shed stubbornness and accept the ground reality that Hurriyat is the main stakeholder of the dominant sentiment on the ground. Kashmir is not a law-and-order problem or security issue. It is a political dispute.
KI: After the APD’s visit, another delegation led by a very senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Mr Yashwant Sinha arrived in Srinagar. The delegation also met the veteran Hurriyat leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Later, a detailed report on Kashmir was published. What is your take on their report?
MUF: One thing is good in their report that they have acknowledged that the movement in Kashmir is indigenous and also the fact that Kashmir is a political problem which needs a political solution. Dialogue at all levels is welcome, whether Track-II, backchannel, or whatever. The problem is that Government of India is wrongly trying to create an impression that there are external powers, especially Pakistan, behind Kashmir’s indigenous civilian uprising. Unfortunately, the common people in India buy this bogus narrative. This discourse has to be challenged at all levels.
KI: Some of your critics argue that Hurriyat Conference has become an amalgam which focuses more on human rights excesses than realpolitik. Would you like to respond to this criticism?
MUF: Essentially, Hurriyat is a political amalgam but it can’t distance itself from the human rights angle. Kashmir is a human problem, too. Families are divided by a bloody line (Line of Control). Apart from being a political dispute, Kashmir has a huge human dimension. We are facing a colossal humanitarian crisis.
KI: Is Hurriyat planning to reach out to the student unions in Indian universities or engage directly with the Indian civil society to garner more support for Kashmir’s political struggle?
MUF: What we would like to see is that Kashmiri students, on their own, should directly engage with other students in India. Let it be their initiative. We don’t want to hijack anything or politicise this space. India has a vibrant and educated youth which is challenging the Hindutva narrative. They are protesting for equality, justice and freedom. We have seen strong protests in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Jadavpur University and other educational institutions in India. It is a healthy sign. It is only through education and insightful interactions that more and more Indians can be made aware of the ground realities of Kashmir. Sadly, there is also violent ideology espoused by the radical Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). Five years ago, we tried to engage with the Indian civil society. We travelled to Delhi, Kolkata, Chandigarh and other places. Unfortunately, we were attacked by the vocal fringe elements there.
Anyway, debates and discussions inside universities is a great thing to happen. There has to be space for discourse and dissent in educational institutions. If seminars on politics can be held in JNU and Jadavpur universities, why not in Kashmir?
Photo: Kashmir Ink
KI: Are you concerned about what you describe as “choking of all democratic spaces for dissent” in Kashmir?
MUF: We say we want to engage with India and the world while adopting non-violent methods to continue our struggle; but sadly we have no space for non-violent movement here. There is only violence perpetrated and perpetuated by the state. And the response to the state violence from our youth is also violent in some sense. Had New Delhi given the space to the Hurriyat to reach out to people, allowed pro-freedom rallies and programmes without using brute force, heavens would not have fallen. As we speak, fifty thousand people have assembled in Tral to perform the last rites of the militant killed in south Kashmir yesterday (5 March). The fact is that peoples’ emotions are involved with this movement. More the GoI tries to curb it or suppress it, the more the reaction would be harder from the ground. So, we believe that GoI is pushing our youth to the wall. That is why, in response to that, the anger is so high that some are picking the guns and joining militancy, which is also a concern for us. We believe that GoI justifies more aggression, repression, cruelty when they deal with this problem and try to project Kashmir as a problem of violence and militancy, which it is not. It is primarily a political problem. I remember several statements of commanders like Syed Sallahuddin (Hizb chief) and others in which they have repeatedly said that “if India is ready to address the problem politically, we will not fight militarily”. I think it is because of the fact that the spaces are choked our educated lot, youth, is joining militancy.
KI: In this context, let me bring your attention to the statement made by India’s Army Chief General Bipin Rawat recently. He strongly warned protesters assembling near the encounter sites and those disrupting government forces during encounters with the armed rebels, saying they will be treated as Over Ground Workers (OGWs) of militants. What’s your response?
MUF: I think it is the most absurd statement made by Indian Army Chief. It basically tells you about what the thinking is in New Delhi and how the government wants to control the whole narrative in Kashmir. The fact is that the way in which people of Kashmir have associated themselves with the sentiment of Aazadi and freedom, and they feel the boys who are sacrificing their lives, the most precious thing they have is their lives, people value that and feel they are part of the collective struggle. That’s why you are seeing more and more people in south Kashmir coming out and being part of the protests for they feel this is the least they can do to resist and may be save those boys from getting killed. Given the Indian Army Chief’s approach, we fear that we will have large scale civilian massacres in Kashmir. We already know what happened in the 1990s when government forces fired on the funeral procession of my own father (at Hawal, Srinagar), 67 people were killed; we had civilian massacres in Zakura, Gowkadal, Bijbehara, Sopore, Handwara, Kupwara, and dozens of other massacres across Kashmir. Probably they are trying to give an impression that in case there is a repeat of civilian massacres they would say they had already given a warning to Kashmiris. This statement is against international law. You can’t treat non-combatants as combatants and argue that you will take military action against civilians. It speaks volumes about New Delhi’s militaristic approach on Kashmir!
KI: As you are continuously alluding to spaces for debates and discussions being stifled, I am sure you are also aware of the recently leaked MHA report which has suggested “control” of the mosque, madrassa, print and TV media, changes in political atmosphere, strengthening of intelligence set-up nad reaching out to the moderate Hurriyat leadership. Would you like to respond to this?
MUF: There is nothing new in it. India has always invested in this divide and rule policy. They are working on this since last four-five years. First they tried to give an impression that Kashmiri struggle is basically a Sunni Muslim discourse.We are fully aware that Indian Home Ministry funded some retired bureaucrats to construct this narrative. They also tried Sadbhavna (Indian army’s goodwill operations). Then they also tried to fragmentise our society into Barelvis and Devbandis, Jama’atis and Ahl-e-Hadith, Sufi Islam versus puritanical Islam, and Kashmiriyat, etc. As if Islam has many branches and Kashmiriyat is one of them. Laughs…. Thankfully, they have miserably failed in all their divisive tactics. People of Kashmir are united against all divisions based on sectarian lines or otherwise. Public rallies during the civilian uprising of 2016 were being organised by the United Ullema Committee. All schools of thought are united in their demand for Kashmir’s solution. We exhibited our unity and strength under the spirit and banner of Ittehad-e-Millat. Our unity was a tight slap on the face of our enemy.
KI: Jammu and Kashmir’s former Chief Minister Dr. Farooq Abdullah recently made a statement that “Kashmiri youth are not sacrificing their lives to become ministers, but for Aazadi”. Your views.
MUF: We all know how the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) and National Conference (NC) have been behaving in opposition and in power. Their leaders make statements with a sole aim to be in power. Today Dr. Farooq Abdullah or Omar Abdullah taking a stand doesn’t mean much. Had they shown their dissent by resigning from the J&K Legislative Assembly, in protest against the civilian killings, their words today would have carried a lot of weight. It is all plain doublespeak. Lust for power. But there is also another way of looking at it, and that is the fact that even pro-India leadership politics in Kashmir relies heavily on the freedom sentiment, not ‘Bijli, Sarak, and Pani’ (electricity, roads and water)!
KI: Anyway, there is also some fair criticism of the Hurriyat’s prolonged strike calendar, especially from the youth and up-and-coming entrepreneurs who had invested blood and sweat for their Start-ups after the devastating floods of 2014. Is the Hurriyat ready to review its protest calendar and adopt creative ways of resistance and novel means of protest? Will we finally see a change?
MUF: Yes, we understand that hartal (strike) should be the last option we should have in terms of propagating our point of view. The sad part is that there is no other alternative available when, as we discussed earlier, all spaces for democratic dissent are stifled. The government does not give us any space for holding public rallies, seminars, a dharnaor a sit-in. The space is so limited. Having said that, we understand that people are already under a lot of economic distress, and therefore you saw how the joint leadership gradually decided upon cutting down on hartal. And very soon, we will have no hartal in our calendar. Currently, we have one day of strike in a 15-day calendar. I believe in the next calendar we will take that off as well. Only on need basis we will call for a strike. God forbid if something terrible happens, only then we will give a call for a strike. Yes, we want to curtail hartal as much as we can.
Secondly, the fact is that in terms of resistance and protest there are means and ways which we are trying to adopt by talking to the lawyers’ fraternity, business community and students. But that requires space to be given. We believe we can have token and symbolic sit-ins, hourly waving of black flags, an hour of protest instead of a full day, an hour of shutdown, etc. We are looking at various alternatives by talking to different organisations. Hopefully, we will be able to devise a mechanism. But at the same time, I would like to urge upon the people to support the new and alternate means of resistance. People need to reciprocate. Hartal has become a very easy option for people. If we give a call for alternative ways of protest, people will have to reciprocate to make it successful.
KI: Is the Hurriyat prepared to think out of the box, take an initiative for a dialogue with New Delhi without waiting for Delhi to make an offer first?
MUF: The situation is such that both the people of Jammu and Kashmir and the Hurriyat Conference have been pushed to the wall. There is no space. Government of India is not even ready to acknowledge the Hurriyat’s point of view; this makes it difficult for us to offer anything. If the other party (New Delhi) is willing to listen and shows some positive gestures in this regard, and also shows some concern, the Hurriyat leadership will respond accordingly. Currently, the mindset in Delhi is that they are sending 4949 more pellet guns and six lakh cartridges to Kashmir, which depicts their militaristic mindset. Once this mindset changes, the Hurriyat will definitely respond.
KI: Let’s now talk about the much talked about China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), a multinational professional services network headquartered in London, suggests that Pakistan could become the world’s 16th largest economy by 2050 and possibly overtake countries like Canada and Italy by then. How do you see the CPEC, given India’s concerns and objections in relation to ‘violation of its sovereignty’?
MUF: Well, it (CPEC) is a major development in the region. China has announced itself in South Asian region. Though there is a rift between China and India, I believe all countries of the region will benefit out of the CPEC in the longer run. India should not stay out of it. There is also an opportunity for India to assess the economic advantages it can have by being part of it. Kashmir can in fact become a gateway for India to be part of the CPEC, provided there is a settlement of the dispute first. There are two key aspects. If all goes well, four nuclear powers China, Pakistan, India and Russia are going to be part of this economic project. The safety and stability of CPEC is also linked to peace and conflict resolution in the region. Stronger the CPEC becomes, more the need to resolve disputes in the region. The CPEC in a way highlights the need to resolve the Kashmir dispute. In that context, we might see China’s greater involvement in playing a role in resolving the dispute. You might also see Russia’s interest in Kashmir resolution. And if that happens, that can be a major boost at least from our point of view. From economic point of view, Kashmiris can also benefit from CPEC if we are made a part of it. Entire region can actually benefit from it.