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Soft separatist battles to stay relevant in Valley of violence

In downtown Srinagar’s Mazar-e-Shuhada, or the martyrs’ graveyard, assassinated Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Farooq Shah lies buried close to Hizbul Mujahideen’s Abdullah Bangroo.

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Mirwaiz Farooq Shah lies in downtown Srinagar’s Mazar-e-Shuhada, the graveyard reserved for those who gave their lives for the long jihad in Kashmir. The cleric, a leading figure in the anti-India movement, was assassinated in 1990, after hardliners suspected he was working to secure a peace deal with the Government. Buried nearby is the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen’s Abdullah Bangroo, the man believed to have plotted his murder. The killing of Shah at the hands of his own is an open secret most in the Valley dare not talk about—not even his son and the current Mirwaiz, Umar Farooq, who inherited his father’s title as well as his politics. In their death, both killer and killed are remembered as martyrs—martyrs, moreover, for the same cause.

All of 17 when his father was killed, Farooq, was mature enough to bring together disparate separatist leaders under the banner of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference in 1993 and was elected its first chairperson. He was 19 and the new hope of the separatist movement. Ten years ago, he was central to the dialogue between India and Pakistan. Former Indian spy chief and a Kashmir expert Amarjit Singh Dulat, in his book Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, says the Mirwaiz was “rated very high by everybody—the Pakistanis, the Americans, the British, other foreigners, and by us.”

Cut to 2019, a lot has changed for the Hurriyat as well as the Mirwaiz, who turns 46 on March 23. The Mirwaiz’s bastion in old-city Srinagar is besieged by a new generation of Islamists who threaten not just his political future, but his life.

The soft separatist
Late last year, young Islamists stormed Srinagar’s Jamia Masjid, the Mirwaiz’s ancestral mosque, and waved Islamic State flags—a direct challenge both to his politics, and the ethnic-nationalist strain of religion he represents. It wasn’t a black-swan event. The global jihadist narrative has struck roots among the young, stone-throwing protesters of downtown Srinagar, who have repeatedly denounced the Hurriyat in the Mirwaiz’s bastion. He has been unable to do much, other than urge the youth to come forward with their grievances instead of playing into the hands of “the enemy.”

 Soft separatist battles to stay relevant in Valley of violence

File image of Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. Reuters

Since its inception, the Hurriyat has battled internal rifts over the methods and direction the separatist movement should take. In 2006, he dramatically announced that “our fight on the political, diplomatic and military fronts [… has] not achieved anything other than creating more graveyards.”

As former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then-Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf engaged in a secret dialogue on Kashmir, the Mirwaiz positioned himself at its fulcrum. He often faced criticism from hardliners led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani. In 2007, Masarat Alam, a leading member of the Geelani faction, described the Mirwaiz as a political novice backed by India and the “innocent and ignorant rulers” of Pakistan. For a while, it looked like the Mirwaiz’s plan might pay off. In early 2007, he told an interviewer that the “agenda is pretty much set.” “It is in Septemer, 2007,” he confidently announced, “that India and Pakistan are looking at in terms of announcing something on Kashmir.”

That deal never went through, but the Hurriyat’s representative character helped it tide over the crisis and stay relevant. The following year when Kashmir erupted over an order to transfer forestland to the Amarnath Shrine Board, New Delhi’s only hope was the Hurriyat. Chants of “Kaun karega tarjumani? Syed Ali Shah Geelani. (Who will plead our case? Syed Ali Shah Geelani)” were met with: “Choice! Choice! Mirwaiz!”

Behind the scenes, they again began talking to New Delhi. In 2009, The Hindu revealed that the Hurriyat and former Home Minister P Chidambaram were holding secret meetings. The backlash was swift. A member of the moderate Hurriyat was injured in an attack and the talks derailed. Today, the Hurriyat makes careful calls for dialogue terming Pakistan an important party to the conflict. But the hardliners have kept at it. In April 2014, Geelani alleged that the Mirwaiz had met “emissaries” of Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate accused of inaction in the Gujarat riots. The Mirwaiz called out Geelani’s supporters for their “holier than thou approach”.

In free fall
Shifting goalposts and acrimony among its constituents, compounded by the Hurriyat’s failure to come up with a concrete roadmap or secure any concessions from New Delhi, or even Islamabad, has disillusioned many. Six years after the 2010 unrest, the Hurriyat was nowhere in the picture when the streets were again taken over by angry youths. Not just the boys on the streets but also those wielding guns were moving away—from both the United Jihad Council (UJC) and the Hurriyat.

The reality hit home hard when in 2015 a north Kashmir module of the Hizb led by Abdul Qayoom Najar rebelled against the leadership. The group rechristened itself the Lashkar-e-Islam and targeted cell phone towers and service providers, killing at least six people, including Hurriyat activists. The Hurriyat took the easy way out and blamed intelligence services. The UJC claimed Najar was expelled from the Hizb and in 2017, the Hurriyat paid tributes after he was killed in a gunfight. Najar was claimed by a self-avowed al-Qaeda affiliate headed by another Hizb rebel Zakir Musa. Najar was also claimed by a self-styled Islamic State chapter. The police believe these are largely modules of outfits such as the Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen. Others see it as an intelligence ploy to further fracture the separatist movement.

The Hurriyat’s track record, however, indicates it is “repulsive to the idea of accommodation,” says Aijaz Ashraf Wani, associate professor, Kashmir University. “They seem to go with the flow rather than being able to create and direct the flow decisively.” At a 2010 memorial for a colleague, moderate Hurriyat leader Abdul Ghani Butt accepted that prominent separatists were killed by “our own people”. “If you want to free the people of Kashmir from sentimentalism bordering on insanity, you have to speak the truth,” he said. But the Mirwaiz, who was at the event, again chose silence.​

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