For the first time since the outbreak of militancy, seven Hurriyat leaders including son-in-law of the top Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Geelani were arrested for their alleged role in funding “militancy and subversive activities” in Kashmir. The arrests followed the investigation carried out by the National Investigation Agency after some separatist leaders admitted during a sting operation carried out by a news channel that they received money from Pakistan to finance unrest in the state. The arrested leaders include Altaf Ahmad Shah Funtoosh Geelani (son-in-law of Syed Ali Geelani), Ayaz Akbar, Raja Merajuddin Kalwal, Peer Saifullah, Aftab Hilali Shah alias Shahid-ul-Islam, Nayeem Khan and Farooq Ahmad Dar alias Bitta Karate.
With the arrests, centre has gone back on its pledge to its coalition partner the PDP that it would hold talks with Hurriyat to resolve issues in the state. In their Agenda of Alliance, the BJP had specifically agreed that “the coalition government will facilitate and help initiate a sustained and meaningful dialogue with all internal stakeholders to build a broad based consensus on the resolution of all outstanding issues of J&K”. But not only has the BJP refused to talk to Hurriyat but it has also acted against its leaders and filed cases against them something that no government has done since the eruption of the separatist militancy in the state in 1989.
However, there have been raids on the separatists and their sympathisers earlier also. In December 2002, Jammu and Kashmir Police had arrested 16 persons — most of them businessmen — on charges of channelling hawala funds to the militant organisations through the cover of their businesses. Among those raided were the premises of the prominent Kashmiri businessman Iqbal Bukhari, the father of the J&K education minister Altaf Bukhari. But subsequently, the case collapsed for lack of evidence.
In 2002 again, the police arrested JKLF supremo Yasin Malik for being the alleged beneficiary of one lakh dollars recovered from a man and a woman when the vehicle they were travelling in was stopped and searched on Srinagar-Jammu highway. In 2006, Nasir Shafi Mir, a Dubai-based Kashmiri businessman close to Hurriyat Chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was slapped with charges of funding militants. And in 2011, J&K Police arrested Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, a close associate of Geelani and claimed to have seized Rs 21 lakh from him.
The cases have since dragged on with no conviction in any of them. The current cases, however, are of a far bigger scale. This time separatists as a whole are the direct target of the NIA investigations. Government has, however, picked up only the second rung leaders, leaving the top leaders like Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Yasin Malik, etc untouched. Shabir Shah has, however, been also arrested but he has not been brought to New Delhi. But the message is clear: Government wants to go the whole hog against separatist leaders with an ostensible aim to get a grip on the runaway situation in Valley. And in the process also delegitimize the Hurriyat in the eyes of the people in Kashmir.
Though on its face it appears a rational strategy for the government to deal with Kashmir, it actually is not so. The government has got hold of the wrong end of the stick. Truth is while Hurriyat is easily identifiable as the Valley’s separatist vanguard, in reality its role has reduced to a symbolic representation of the separatist sentiment. It is no longer directly involved in organising protests, nor is it an inspiration for them.
The past some years have seen the disconnect between Hurriyat and the Valley’s turbulent street grow. The grouping has acquired more of an abstract, symbolic value than the hands-on organisation it once was and which not long ago mobilized the large public rallies and protests. One reason for this is Government’s stringent curbs on the movement of the Hurriyat leadership. Since 2010, Geelani has been largely under house arrest. Similarly, other leaders too have not been allowed to hold public rallies. While this has curtailed Hurriyat activities, it has by no means calmed the street. On the contrary, the leadership has automatically passed on to the street, to the protesters themselves. And they are largely driven by the sentiment than the rational thought.
Now Hurriyat has become more or less peripheral to the situation. Its sole role as of now is calling for hartal and boycott of the polls. The grouping has little role in the organisational management and the ideological direction of the situation on the ground. The protests are completely self-driven. Rather than leading the street, Hurriyat is content to be led by it. As far as the arrests of its leaders are concerned, the people haven’t been much perturbed over the development. A sign of this was the Hurriyat call for hartal over the arrests which largely went unobserved. But at the same time, people don’t also take the arrests on their face value seeing them more political than investigative in nature. More so, considering the arrests are a culmination of an investigation that followed a sting operation carried out by a news channel.
Few news channels operating from New Delhi command respect in Valley. Their largely partial, jingoistic coverage of the situation has made them inherently suspect in the state. People also attribute a motive to their Kashmir reportage. Similar motives are imputed to NIA’s action against the Hurriyat leaders. It is generally believed that the arrests are designed to delegitimize the Hurriyat by exposing them as people who have amassed massive wealth by exploiting the suffering in Kashmir. As a result, fewer people are ready to blame Hurriyat for any wrong doing.
Hurriyat’s problem is thus not the arrests which on the contrary will temporarily bestow respect on its leaders but its growing marginalization as the sole arbiter of the separatism in Valley. And this is a loss for New Delhi too. By reducing Hurriyat to a non-entity, New Delhi is only helping outsource the separatist leadership to not only protesters but also to the militants some of whom espouse an extreme ideological position about the means and the objective of Kashmir struggle.
As for alleged funding to the militancy, Hurriyat’s role may be more imagined than real. In fact, this view itself that the funding stokes the militancy and the unrest in Valley is inherently flawed in nature. Truth is that the funding is only peripheral to the factors that drive the current troubled situation in Valley and keep the militancy and the public unrest going despite the killings and blindings. And one such overriding factor is the deep alienation and the seething anger against New Delhi and the alleged excesses of the forces in the state.
For Kashmir observers, the arrests also mean that the centre has given up on the engagement with the dissident groups in the state and has resolved to exclusively use force to sort out the issues in the state. But as the current situation in Valley reveals, this policy has changed nothing on the ground. “This policy has been in force over the last three years of this government. But far from making a redeeming difference, it has only worsened the situation in Kashmir,” says political commentator Gowhar Geelani. “By arresting Hurriyat leaders on trumped up charges, centre has also killed the option of an outreach to a separatist political organisation. Force was and remains the preferred tool of this government to deal with Kashmir”.