Q&A: Syed Salahuddin, Hizbul Mujahideen Supremo
PAKISTAN-BASED Hizbul Mujahideen supremo Syed Salahuddin says Hindu pilgrims going to the Amarnath shrine have nothing to fear. He also says that the Valley has been relatively peaceful because the militants are lying low deliberately, but, he warns, terror will strike again at an opportune time. In an interview to Riyaz Wani, the separatist leader denounces the Indo-Pak trade dialogue and asserts his commitment to the struggle for azadi in Kashmir.
EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
Controversy over the Amarnath Yatra has flared up again with Hurriyat(G) Chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani threatening agitation against the construction of a road to the holy cave shrine. He alleges the yatra is an attempt to alter the demography of Kashmir, while the civil society in Kashmir is worried about the fallout on the environment.
First, let me make it clear that we are not against the pilgrimage. To paint us as such is itself part of the politics of the yatra. And this is primarily responsible for vitiating the atmosphere. What we want is for the pilgrimage to remain limited to the pilgrimage alone. We don’t want execution of a political agenda in its garb. We don’t want a motorway through an ecologically sensitive area. We don’t want infrastructure along the road. We don’t want residential quarters. We don’t want conversion of the scenic spot of Pahalgam into Amarnath city, which will be a no-go area for Muslims.
We will resist it. Besides, look at who is organising the yatra; a non-state board (Shri Amarnath Shrine Board). This board is under the control of New Delhi and works independent of the state government. It forces the state government to do its bidding. By all means go for the pilgrimage. But if you carry forward an agenda through it, it will engender trouble in Kashmir.
But the argument for the construction of infrastructure and the road is that the yatris have to face a tough terrain on their way to the shrine. Last year, more than 100 people lost their lives while performing the pilgrimage.
We need to put the whole issue into perspective. Why was there loss of lives in the first place? Firstly, most of the people who died had serious health issues. Even the Shrine Board said that many elderly pilgrims who died hadn’t given a correct account of their health problems, and the medical certificates they produced were fake. Secondly, the harsh weather and freak accidents, too, have caused deaths. Now, right-wing parties have made this an excuse to approach the Supreme Court of India. They want the court to order concrete infrastructure along the yatra route. But we think the prevailing messy state of affairs can be overcome with more efficient management of the yatra, with rigorous health check-ups, by sending up less number of yatris to the shrine every day, and by curtailing the duration of the yatra.
Where is the need for creating a large-scale infrastructure, hospitals, residential quarters, roads and possibly a separate city? This only shows a long-term plan to undermine the Muslim-majority character of the Valley and an aggressive bid to revive the Hindu past.
But Hindus see this as the denial of their religious rights.
I have said we are not against pilgrimage. And we understand that ordinary Hindus have nothing to do with New Delhi’s political designs. They only want to perform their pilgrimage and nobody will stop them from doing that.
What is Hizbul Mujahideen’s position on panchayat institutions in Kashmir? Don’t you think they are apolitical institutions meant exclusively for grassroots development, rather than extensions of pro-India politics in the state, as you see it?
Panchayat institutions are meant to take care of local affairs. But this is not their role in Kashmir, where they are exploited to serve pro-India political parties and build votebanks.
‘Panchayats in the state are being projected by India as a referendum on Kashmir’
What is of real concern for us is that panchayats are projected as a referendum on Kashmir. New Delhi advertises the participation in panchayat polls as yet another instance of Kashmiris reposing their faith in India. What should open the eyes of pro-India politicians in the state is how in response to Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari’s speech in the UN, India’s former foreign minister SM Krishna talked about elections in the state as a substitute for plebiscite. India exploits the panchayat polls both at the national and international level as a sign of peace and a sign of Kashmiris embracing India, which is not true. We didn’t sacrifice one lakh people over the past two decades for New Delhi to declare things normal in Kashmir by holding panchayat polls in the state. By no means does all this show that panchayats in Kashmir are apolitical institutions to exclusively look after grassroots development issues.
Many panchayat members have been killed in Kashmir since the polls were held?
Panches and sarpanches are exploited by India to project Kashmir as pro-India, and as such, they will continue to be targeted. No matter how much the government tries to secure them, they will still be attacked. This is why we call on them to resign from their posts and not allow themselves to be used to undermine the liberation movement in Kashmir. Moreover, we also call for the boycott of the Block Development Council polls.
What do you make of the current Indo-Pak dialogue?
It is more a trade and travel process rather than a dialogue to address political issues, primarily Kashmir. In that sense, this process is more to the advantage of India. New Delhi has succeeded in getting Pakistan to put Kashmir on the backburner. Kashmir has become a peripheral subject.
Militancy in the Valley is at an all-time low. Or are the militants lying low on purpose?
Militancy is not over. It is there to stay. Mujahideen are on the ground offering their sacrifices. Only our strategy has changed. Through the peaceful protests of 2008-10, we as a strategy moved our operations to border areas. We wanted to give people a chance to express their anger against New Delhi freely. We didn’t want to let the troops use militancy as an excuse to fire at the protesters. But they still did. As you can see, the mujahideen are carrying out their operations in the border areas of Uri, Machil, Sambha etc. Frequently, you hear stories of encounters between troops and the mujahideen. And when we will feel that there is a need for the mujahideen to return to urban areas, we won’t take long to do so.
About 117 former militants have returned to the Valley from Pakistan Administered Kashmir under the J&K government’s rehabilitation policy. What do you make of their return?
I don’t think their return to the Valley will change anything. Our struggle will go on. These things happen in the course of long struggles. People tire, people give up, people fall on the wayside. These people returned to Kashmir for a variety of reasons. Many wanted to help their elderly parents. But from media reports we learn that they are repenting their disgraceful return. The government has not lived up to its promise of rehabilitating them. Instead, their spouses are treated as non-state subjects, their children are not admitted to schools, and they have not received any government employment.
Riyaz Wani is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.